Walk Your Own Path
Whenever somebody, no matter who, gives you writing advice, make sure your BS detector is turned on. No matter how friendly, well intentioned, or seemingly informed the person is. This includes me and any advice I give in this book or my blog. I’m a neo-pro—a new professional—so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt. Take what works, leave the rest.
A few reasons for this. One, in our modern electronic age it’s way too easy for anybody to create a blog or publish a book. Lots of noise out there, not all of it is good or even knowledgeable advice. And not all of it applies to you and your circumstances.
Which leads to the second reason: Every writer is different.
Let me repeat that in bold face: Every writer is different.
This is an important concept that I’ll be returning to frequently in this book. My chosen methods don’t work for many people. I won’t even be discussing my methods in any great detail, partially because I doubt most of you reading this will care to learn my dirty tricks. Also, in depth discussions about writing without an outline and dealing with writer’s block are outside the scope of this book.
What I hope to do is help you find your voice in fiction writing. Meaning, discover your own unique perspective, tone, and delivery in your writing. To find your creative voice, you must be an individual. Take into account your needs and passions, your limitations and experiences, and everything that makes you who you are.
All of this builds into your voice, which only you have.
Want to stand out from the crowd and sell stories? You’ll need to bring your voice. Otherwise you’re only mimicking what others have already done.
I don’t mean never learn from others. Always learn, no matter the source. In art museums around the globe, you’ll see novice painters and graphic arts students with sketch pads copying the paintings.
Will all those people copying Van Gogh become Van Gogh wannabes? No. They are trying to master the techniques of those who came before them. Then, when they are ready, they’ll make those skills their own.
But first, what do I mean by voice? Let me share a personal anecdote to illustrate this concept.
A Story About Finding Voice
During the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of hiring a bestselling author to copy-edit and critique some of my work. I went into this arrangement with the attitude that I wanted to learn how to be a better writer, instead of simply working to make the stories she read better. I learned a ton from this author, and am forever grateful for the experience.
One of the stories I had her read was The Silent Yearning of the Bijounonc, a Brin Callahan story about 7,000 words long. The Brin series takes place in the Andromeda galaxy and features oddities like a corporate empire managed by an artificial intelligence, a tax agency operated like the Mafia, and evil unicorns that can teleport through space-time. These stories are near always tongue-in-cheek and very “soft” on the science fiction elements.
Silent Yearning was of my early attempts at writing to Lester Dent’s “master plot formula” (a topic that deserves its own book). I wrote the tale quickly in the first half of 2014, only getting stuck around the one-third point, and in the editing phase I only fixed a few minor issues: clarity, typos, a Chekhov’s gun problem.
I thought the story was awful. I cranked that one out. I thought the plot device was silly, and ill described. The action, as I remembered it, was lame. And one of the characters rather conveniently disappears midway through, and reappears later with little to add.
That was all my critical voice talking. I’ll discuss this concept more in later chapters. For now, just understand critical voice is the little whiny voice in your head always telling you things like: you’re not good enough, this story is crap, why bother, etc.
I turned in the story anyway, knowing the bestselling author would tear it apart limb by limb.
She ended up loving Silent Yearning. Sure, she spotted things that could’ve been better, but overall she praised the story a lot. I know I got a fair critique from her, because another story I sent her—one I thought was technically superior—?got some serious thrashing. (And, looking back, rightfully so.) The difference? This is pure subjectivity, but I think I tried too hard on that dud… to make it perfect, to make it be exciting. With Silent Yearning, I simply told a story, consequences be damned. And I had way more fun doing so.
I could not see my own voice in those two stories. The one I thought was better (Cuts Both Ways, for anyone curious) turned out to be a dud when looked at by someone with a clear, objective eye. The one I honestly thought was a dud was the better story. Again, when looked at by someone other than me.
Recognizing my own voice hasn’t gotten any easier with more stories. The thing that has gotten easier (somewhat) is trusting the process. I say somewhat, because of critical voice and fear issues, which I’ll expand on in later chapters. For now, I’ll just say that when I’m having fun making up stories, I end up telling better stories. It’s a process, largely subconscious, of letting out my inner two-year old to have fun and play make-believe.
“Bling,” she said.
One more little bit to the anecdote about Silent Yearning.
The bestselling author did have quibbles with the story, including two instances where Cal Hemingr—an alien from the planet Xalcroft IV—?casually used human slang. Namely: “deal with the devil”, and “bling”.
I could’ve followed her advice and scrubbed those phrases from the story. But I published Silent Yearning “as is”, with only minor fixes and I left in the slang. Why?
Subconsciously, I built in a character reason for Cal to use slang. In the story, I mentioned her penny dreadful novel collection (among other odd collections), which is presumably where she picked up on human words. Admittedly, I didn’t make that connection strong, and I’ve made it a challenge to myself in the later stories to show that characteristic more clearly.
Cal has, essentially, become “the alien who uses anachronistic slang”, and I can use that as a character tag and a way to add tongue-in-cheek moments. I could also use her slang to add conflict. Perhaps she misuses a word, which causes confusion among the other characters. Or maybe she tries to explain something to another alien, uses slang, and ends up having to explain herself more clearly… but defines the slang word wrong, digging herself into a bigger problem.
I didn’t plan Cal this way. Some writers use character sheets or create short biographies when designing characters. I do none of that. I just throw a person into a tricky situation and see what happens, adding in their opinions and sensory experiences as I go. Cal using slang happened organically, only later did I look back and realize what I did. And only when someone (accidentally though) pointed it out.
Editing out the slang would’ve dulled the character, and maybe I wouldn’t still be writing stories that feature Cal. I chose to go my own way.
Which brings me back full circle to the topic of this chapter. Walk your own path.
No matter what your workshop group thinks, or your first reader’s reaction to your story, or what reviewers (real or imaginary) say. Writing fiction is about making choices only you can make. You bring your own tastes, values, and phrasing to your stories. And all this happens between your ears.
So kick out everybody else from your writing space. Only you can write in your unique creative voice. Value that voice, and give it room to play.
Easy to say, very very hard to do. I’m going to give you some techniques to get to that creative voice, and to shut out the negativity and destructive fears. But ultimately, you have to find the tools that work best for you.
Above all, have fun, and don’t worry about “getting it right”. There is no “right way”… only your own path.
Just go play.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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