Everything I Know About Writing Fiction, Kinda

Want to work all the time for almost no financial reward? Want to have some people refuse to take what you do seriously while other people seem compelled to tear you down every chance they get? Try being a speculative fiction author! (Everyone likes to complain about their jobs, including authors.)

I’ve only been a professional author for a couple years, though I wrote fiction seriously for a decade before that. I’ve also been an editor and a publisher and all that other nonsense. Wiser and more experienced minds than mine have put writing advice to paper before me, but I get asked about this shit often enough that I’ll go ahead and take a shot at it.

I’ve broken this down into three sections: how to write words, how to write stories, and how to be an author.

Very little of this is original, but of all the writing advice I’ve gathered over the years, this is stuff that works well for me. It’s geared towards genre fiction because that’s what I write. It’s geared towards trying to be commercially viable, because I like getting paid for my work.

Before You Get Started

For fuck’s sake, don’t start with novels: You wouldn’t believe the number of full-length manuscripts that, frankly, are written by people who don’t know how to write. It breaks my heart, every time I see one of these things. It doesn’t break my heart that the writing is bad — we all start somewhere — but because the author wrote 80,000 words before they learned how to write 3,000.

Your goal as a beginning writer is to fail harder and faster. You can get these failures out of the way a hell of a lot faster by practicing with terrible short stories before you write a terrible novel.

Writing novels is goddam hard. Sometimes I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If you want to succeed at it, you’ll want to focus on the problems that are unique to longer fiction — character development, subplots, holding the reader’s attention over greater lengths of time, etc. You don’t want to still be learning how to vary your sentence structure, describe environments, or write passable dialogue.

You can learn more per word if you write shorter pieces first because it’s only once you’ve finished a piece and had time to reflect upon it that criticism and editing are valuable. Learning to write isn’t just a matter of writing your first 100,000 words, it’s a matter of learning to overcome problems and then reflect on how you overcame those problems and how you might solve them better in the future.

So please, write short stories that suck before you write a novel that sucks.

How to Write Words

There isn’t technically a “proper” English: English is not a formally codified language. There are no rules. There are only guidelines. That said, following the generally-agreed-upon guidelines is a great starting point to writing fiction that readers can actually understand.

Orwell’s advice:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Miscellaneous Style Bullshit: Try not to start sentences with “and” or “but.” Don’t write “and then,” pick one of the two words. Vary your sentence lengths — learn to find rhythm. Attribute dialogue by saying “he said” or “she said” or “they said” or whatever, instead of bothering with fancy words like “she claimed” or “he whimpered” whenever possible. Attribute as little dialogue as you can get away with. Every time you want to use an adverb, think long and hard about whether or not the sentence would work without it. Avoid “thought” verbs like “remembered,” “thought,” and “wants,” because you want the reader to understand the character’s thoughts by seeing what made them reach those conclusions. Ignore all this word choice shit and write whatever you want.

Don’t italicize foreign words: If a publisher’s style guide insists on it, they’ll do so. But public opinion is swinging away from italicizing foreign words, and that’s chill.

How to Write Stories

Writing length: Start thinking about length in words, not pages. (Except in some countries, where you should think about length in characters.) “Flash fiction” is usually less than 1,000 words. “Short stories” are usually between 2,000-6,000 words, with a sweet spot, for the sake of getting published, at around 3,000-4,000 words. Next are novelettes, roughly 8,000-18000 words, which almost no one writes and even fewer people publish. As far as I can tell the reason people write novelettes is because they have their own award category and it’s the category with the least competition. Then there are novellas, 18,000-40,000 words, which are more popular these days, especially for self-publishers, because you’re allowed to sell them as books to customers but they’re short so they can be written and published quickly. Theoretically, everything longer than 40,000 words is a novel, but that’s not really true. There are definitely 50,000-word novellas out there. 65,000 words is a very short novel. 80,000 words is more of a typical novel length, though different genres have different expectations of length.

Structure and formula are your friends: People talk shit on formula and plot structure, but those people rarely know what the fuck they’re talking about. You can build a house with timber-framed walls and it works; it’s been proven to work. That doesn’t mean all timber-framed houses are the same. It doesn’t mean that timber framing is the best option for building houses in all climates and for all purposes. It just means that it’s a good way to build a house. Sometimes to tell a fantastic story that is engaging to readers, it’s best to just use a traditional structure. It also helps you sell stories, and that’s okay too.

The Three Act Structure: As far as I can tell, no one actually writes fiction with this structure, it’s just some lies your English teacher told you. If you try really hard and squint just right, you can sort of superimpose the three act structure onto good fiction.

The Hero’s Journey: The hero’s journey is a good structure. It’s kinda hard to use well in short fiction, and it’s over done, and it has strange cultural assumptions baked into it.

Save the Cat: Save the Cat is a Hollywood scriptwriting structure. I’ve never used it, but I’ve read you can adapt it to fiction well.

The Try/Fail Sequence: Maybe the most common structure in western storytelling is the try/fail sequence.

The character has a problem. She attempts to solve that problem, in an intelligent fashion, and fails. Her attempt makes the problem worse. So she comes up with a new plan, tries it, and fails. Once again, her actions make the problem worse. Finally, she comes up with a new plan (possibly after overcoming some internal issue that was preventing her from being her best self), tries it, and either succeeds or fails.

Wants/Needs: figure out what your protagonist wants and what she needs. Have those be different things. If she succeeds at getting what she wants, but not what she needs, it’s a tragedy.

Protagonist Agency: It’s generally preferable to have the protagonist (or protagonists) be the ones acting with agency in the story. Whether they succeed or not, it’s the protagonist trying to solve problems that draws the reader into the story, rather than just having your protagonist knocked around like a pinball by the cruelty of the world or whatever.

You Can Outline if You Want To: It’s chill to outline, chill not to outline, whatever. Currently, I outline most of my stories and all of my longer works. I write an outline, start writing, then alter the outline to fit the story instead of vice-versa. Sometimes I start by writing a couple thousand pages in a burst of inspiration and then stop, write an outline, and alter what I’ve already written. You can do whatever you want, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Writer’s Block Is Garbage: If I’m gonna get snarky, let me point out that you never see a carpenter complaining about carpenter’s block. Just fucking write the fucking thing. If you can’t write the one thing, write a different thing.

Whenever I have writer’s block, personally, it’s because my outline is wrong or the story is going the wrong direction. Writer’s block means it’s time to take a step back, look at the work, figure out where you went wrong and fix it, even if you have to delete a ton of words to do so. If you’re not good enough yet to figure out where you went wrong, then you can make yourself finish the imperfect piece as a learning exercise or just drop the whole story and write something new.

Sometimes, writing is like ripping out an infected splinter with nothing but your fingernails, and it hurts and you don’t want to do it and obviously it isn’t working so why don’t you give up and get drunk instead? But you shouldn’t do those things. Well, maybe you should get drunk, I don’t know, you do you. But one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes writing is super hard and sometimes it’s super easy and when I go back and edit later, I can’t tell which stuff was hard to write and which stuff was easy.

Kill Your Darlings: Sometimes you write sentences or ideas so beautiful that they astound you. That’s fine. That’s good, even. If you write a sentence like that, savor it. Maybe write it down on a scrap or paper or in a different file. Because when it comes time to edit your draft, you’ll likely end up deleting it.

As I become a more experienced writer, I thankfully have to do this less and less.

You murder your precious darling sentences because when it comes time to edit, you’re going to work the story around the sentence instead of the other way around. Imagine an illustrator who, one day, draws a really good hand. Drawing hands is hard, and this person just totally nailed it. That hand is phenomenal. But then they end up working the rest of the picture around that hand. It comes time to edit the illustration, and they just erase everything else over and over trying to make it work with the hand.

The thing is, a good illustrator can draw another good hand. And a good writer can write another good sentence.

So if you’re reworking a section of your book, and something just isn’t working quite right, identify your favorite line or two. Most often, you’ll have found your problem.

Point of View and Tense and Shit Like That: You can write in first person or third person, whatever. Past tense or present tense. There are all kinds of different reasons to write in different tenses and points of view.

One thing though, in modern storytelling, is that “tight” or “limited” points of view are in style and I am not alone in preferring them as a reader. Whatever character the story (or chapter) is following, the story doesn’t leave her point of view. After the protagonist walks down the street and has rounded the corner, the story doesn’t linger and describe the assassin who steps out from the shadows where our protagonist can’t see.

Don’t write in second person. Second person is for artsy nonsense and/or game books. On the other hand, it’s fun to write artsy nonsense and game books. So maybe write in second person.

Revising: Read the story aloud to yourself. Read it aloud to someone else. Let someone else read it. Read it over someone else’s shoulder while they read it. (I don’t do all of those things, but I try to do at least one of them.) Let the story sit for awhile while you write something else, then return to it.

Personally, I “version” my stories like I was writing software. Version 0.1, 0.2, and so on. I keep them in the same folder in Scrivener so that I don’t lose track of which version is the newest version. The first version I submit is 1.0.

I also have a small collection of friends (mostly writer friends) I trust to be first readers. They read drafts of my story and offer critical feedback. Develop friendships with people who can first read for you. This is where a writer’s group can come in handy. Make sure not to flake on first reading for them in return like I do constantly (sorry Tegan!).

For fuck’s sake, don’t get stuck in a revision hole where you spend forever twiddling around with semicolons and bullshit like that. Perfect is the enemy of good. Write a fucking story, revise it a couple times, then write another fucking story.

Write the Other Carefully: “Writing the other” means writing a character who belongs to a real-world-existing category of people that you don’t belong to (like people of different races, creeds, abilities, professions, or subcultures). You will almost certainly have to do this when you write fiction. Learn what the cliches and stereotypes are and avoid them. This is particularly true of marginalized identities. If you write it wrong you can cause or perpetuate harm: the act continuing cultural stereotypes has negative effects on our society, and of course reading offensive work about yourself is destructive. (Constant bombardment with negative portrayals of transwomen kept me from coming out even to myself for decades.) As an author, your goal should be to be accurate in as many ways as possible. A realistically-written queer character makes for a better story than some naive cliche.

I cringe pretty much every time I see anarchists represented by non-anarchist authors (shoutout to Kim Stanley Robinson and Cory Doctorow for not fucking up, though). I bet you have some similar experience yourself, some element of your identity that is mishandled by clumsy authors and scriptwriters on a regular basis. So, well, don’t be that clumsy author.

Check with people about their experiences. Ask if you can run your work past them, either the most relevant bits or the entire story, for sensitivity and accuracy.

Don’t kill the transwoman, who only existed to be tragic or to lend authenticity to some social scene. Don’t have the black man sacrifice himself for the white protagonist. Don’t use punks as some less-racist stand-in for dangerous inner city culture. Don’t give your disabled character superpowers. Don’t give your sex worker a tragic backstory. Don’t have your woman character think about their breasts constantly. Shit like that. Don’t do it.

If you can’t find someone to help you write realistically about a subject or culture, consider writing something else.

Two essays to start with are Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl and Fundamentals of Writing the Other by Daniel José Older.

Marking Characters: If your character isn’t marked otherwise, they’ll probably be read as white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, and male. Basically, if you don’t mention a character’s identity, the reader will likely project the most common cultural assumption of “normal” onto them. You can know in your head that your character is gay, but unless you tell the reader that they’re gay, it doesn’t count as inclusion. Gay kids won’t read your book and see themselves.

There’s a corollary here too. If you only mark the non-white characters, then you’re reinforcing the idea that whiteness is the default. So mark some characters as white too.

There are more wrong ways to indicate a character’s sexuality, gender assignment, race, skin tone, cultural heritage, subculture, etc. than there are right ones, unfortunately. For example, it’s generally frowned upon to compare skin color to food. You just have to be careful. Do some reading on the subject. Expect to mess it up sometimes, and learn to take criticism (polite or otherwise) in stride.

Don’t complain about all this shit being hard. Writing is hard. This is what you signed up for when you decided to create entire worlds and populate them.

Miscellaneous: Show a character doing something instead of just saying they do it. Have your character interact with all the scenery and fantasy and sci-fi elements instead of having those elements stay in the background.

How to Be An Author

Heinlein’s Rules: Heinlein, for all his… let’s go with complexity… was one hell of an author. His rules for writing are simple and useful for any professional writer.

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

It’s rule #3 that throws most people. Revision is an important part of the process. But it’s telling that this rule comes after “you must finish what you write.” Revision is part of finishing a story. Once a story is finished, then stop mucking around with it. Did something wrong? Do it better next time, with the next story. Except when an editor writes you to say “hey I want to buy this story but the ending needs work,” or whatever.

Don’t Be a Fucking Pedant: Congrats, you are one of the select few who knows the difference between “hanged” and “hung.” Write it correctly. If you’re hired to copyedit something, correct it. Otherwise? Shut the fuck up. It doesn’t actually matter. Communication is about being understood, not about memorizing bullshit.

Read More: Read more books. Deconstruct them. Keep up with the emerging trends in your field and other fields. Or don’t, I guess.

Read About Writing: There are a bunch of excellent books about how to write that were written by some of the masters of the field. Stephen King’s On Writing is half memoir, half style guide, and is entirely readable and educational. Samuel Delany’s About Writing is one of the hardest, densest books I’ve ever read, but it gets at the philosophical shit better than anything else. Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook covers structure in glorious full color. Ursula le Guin’s Steering the Craft handles style better than anything I’ve read.

Don’t read too much about writing, though. There’s a whole cottage industry of writing and selling garbage “how to write” books to wannabe authors.

Writing Workshops: Hey, I can’t talk shit on writing workshops. Clarion West, a 6-week live-in workshop in Seattle, changed my life and I learned as much about writing in those six weeks as I had the six years prior studying and working on my own. I can’t really speak to other workshops, but I’ve heard good things about some of them. Others are basically, once again, part of a cottage industry of peddling garbage to wannabe authors.

Writer’s Groups: This isn’t really my style, but it works for some people. One piece of advice that sounds kind of harsh but makes sense to me is: don’t waste your time in a peer group of people who are not your peers. You want people who are on the same page as you to be reading and critiquing your work.

MFA Programs: Don’t ask me, I don’t even have a college degree.

Software: The software you use doesn’t really matter obviously. Don’t become one of those people who is obsessed with finding the right tool. Personally, I use and recommend Scrivener for writing. It has a ton of great features I use every day and a ton of great features that I’ll never use as long as I live. It’s probably the closest there is to an industry standard.

When you’re trying to figure out where to submit your work, and when you’re trying to track your submissions, I can’t recommend The (Submission) Grinder enough. It’s free and it’s perfect.

What Music to Listen to When You Write: Jesus Christ stop fucking obsessing about this nitpicky bullshit and just write something.

Daily Word Counts: One thing people always go on about is how you have to write X number of words in order to make it as a writer. This is garbage. I don’t write every day. Tons of people I know don’t write every day. Some people only write a couple things a year, whatever. It’s not a goddammed race. Some people need structure like daily word counts. Some people don’t.

There’s a specific and tangible advantage to writing every day. By writing some number of words every day, you keep the story fresh in your head. Which means that when you’re not writing, your brain is likely sorting through all the problems in your story and offering solutions. Brains are awesome like that.

Currently, when I’m working on a longer piece of fiction, I give myself a word count goal of 250 words a day. This is very low. I keep it low on purpose: I can theoretically knock that out in 15 minutes. But after those first 250 words, I’m over the inertia of not-writing and usually keep going. But if I don’t bother writing my 250 words that day, it doesn’t feel like a big loss because hey, it’s only 250 words so I don’t beat myself up about it.

Short Fiction Rates: Six cents a word is the going minimum professional rate for short fiction as of right now. You’re going to want to aim to be published by people who pay at least 6 cents a word. This is a terrible fucking rate. It can easily take a week of skilled labor to write a 5,000 word short story, for which you will get all of $300 if you’re lucky enough to sell it. So it goes.

Submitting Short Fiction: Read the submission guidelines for each magazine before you send it. Follow those guidelines to the letter. Maybe one place wants a .docx file, the other wants .rtf. They probably both want standard manuscript format. Give them what they want. Jumping through a few hoops shows that you actually paid attention to their guidelines.

The shorter your cover letter is, the better. Mine opens with a salutation, then says “Please consider the attached [wordcount] story, ‘[title],’ for publication by [magazine]. My short fiction has been published by [up to three recent professional markets].” If you haven’t sold stories, don’t include that line. If your work has only been published by tiny places, then don’t include that line.

Don’t write “dear sirs” as your salutation unless you’re goddammed certain that there is more than one editor and that all of them prefer “sir.” (Seriously, what the hell is wrong with people? The number of people who sent submissions to my magazine that started that way…)

The hierarchy of responses, from worst to best, is: form rejection, personal rejection, rewrite request, acceptance. As much as personal rejections can sting, it’s a good sign when you get to the point that your stories merit personal rejections.

You will get rejected. A lot. My habit is that whenever I get a rejection on a story, I log the rejection and submit the story to a new magazine immediately. Most professional magazines have acceptance rates well below one percent. Rejection is just a fact of life. Never respond to a rejection, period.

Aspire to Join SFWA, Then Join SFWA: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is the professional association for speculative fiction writers, at least in America. Thus the name. You have to pay dues, and there aren’t a lot of really specific tangible benefits to membership. You get access to the forums, you get to write “Active Member, SFWA” on the top of your manuscripts, and there’s a grievance committee that will help you out if a publisher tries to fuck you over. Also meetings you can go to if you like that sort of thing. None of those reasons are why you’re joining. You’re joining because SFWA is the primary (singular?) reason that speculative fiction is a better field for authors than literary fiction. SFWA isn’t a union, but it’s the closest thing we have to one, and without it, we’d all be fucked and getting paid like half a cent per word. Join SFWA. Getting in is good goal to set at the beginning of your professional career, because you need to make a certain number of professional sales to get in.

The Front Door to Publishing: The standard way to become a professional writer is to write short stories and send them to professional magazines, racking up those sweet, sweet rejection letters until one day you sell a story. In the meantime, write a novel. Send this to agents and rack up those rejections until one day an agent decides to represent you (possibly on your second or fourteenth novel). The agent then sends your manuscript to editors until someone publishes you. Then, I dunno, I guess the sun comes out from the behind the clouds and instead of riches and fame you get to tell people at parties that you’re a writer, have them stare at you with a smirk, then watch them eat that smirk when you explain that you are a published writer. Convince them to buy you your drinks, because this shit doesn’t pay too well.

I didn’t get in through the front door. I got in through DIY culture: I made zines and magazines and published them myself for like a decade before I got the idea to actually sell my fiction to other people. I already had professional contacts and DIY-published books long before I tried my hand at traditional publishing. I think that’s a pretty cool way to do it too.

Self-publishing is Financially Viable: A lot of the authors who make solid, middle-class incomes as writers do so by self-publishing their work through Amazon. They mostly sell ebooks, but also often do print editions. There are also a fantastically impressive number of self-published authors who don’t make shit for sales. A lot of people are “hybrid” authors and both self-publish and traditionally publish their work. If you do decide to self-publish for fame and fortune, my suggestions are: get good at writing; hire an editor, copyeditor, and designer; do an obsessive amount of market research; and watch your free time dwindle down to nothing. I haven’t really done this, all my self-publishing is in the realm of DIY culture or activist/anarchist fundraising, so I can’t speak to it.

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