I have sinned. It has been 23 days since my last blog post.
In that time, I’ve been to two conventions, written a review or two, threw a birthday party for a housemate, took my boyfriend on a whale watch, cleaned up the sort of paperwork and dust that piles up when you are away from home for five weeks, done more traveling than I want to think about, started my story for the Hieroglyph Project, started work on the copy edited manuscript of Steles of the Sky, and coped with Southern New England whipsawing from 101 degrees to 51 degrees in the space of a week.Which I provoked by clipping down my poor dog, by the way.
Here he is, half-clipped, cosplaying his favorite Batman villain:
I’ve even been pretty good about exercising. Including an 11-mile run before the heat broke, which was just sodding miserable and I got nailed by a black fly on my ankle. But I did see an Eastern bluebird and a pair of goldfinches and a whole lot of tiny frogs, so there’s that.
I still have a bunch more writing and paperwork to do–”Dark Leader” still hasn’t written itself, more’s the pity, and I’m still trying to work my jaws around it like a python with a too-big rat–while also working on these other projects.
So of course my head is full of blog post. Which means its time for tea.
(It’s even cool enough for tea again. I’d forgotten what that was like.)
A friends asked me recently for some strategies for dealing with the rave rejection–that frustrating stage in a writer’s career when you’re getting the very, very encouraging “no”s. And it struck me that that would be a good topic to blog about, because let’s face it–as nice as it is to be loved a little, a check is nicer, and a steady diet of “there’s nothing wrong with this story but–” is about as much fun as scrubbing out a peanut butter jar for recycling.
So. In general, what those kind of rejections mean is that a writer might not be doing anything wrong–but they’re also probably not doing enough right. The writer in that case has achieved basic competency; they’ve managed to learn four chords and they can grimace musically. But they haven’t yet achieved the strength of voice, the narrative drive that makes a story not just tolerable but gripping.
There are, fortunately, some pretty good techniques that, once learned, help get over that hurdle of not just making a particular story salable–but being able to write a good story every time. (Plenty of salable stories aren’t actually really good–but without the push of an established name, a new writer’s will probably have to be. Sorry about that, in the immortal words of Rowlf the Dog.)
So if you’re stuck in that limbo, how do you grow?
The more time I spend as a working writer, the more convinced I become that the single most important aspect of a writer’s craft, what wins us an audience and keeps the audience coming back for more, is voice. It’s the ability to make the reader want to listen to us tell them a story. How does one develop a voice?
Well, one writes. A lot. To extend the metaphor above, apprentice writers are a lot like garage-band guitarists. They all sound pretty much alike, or at best they sound like pastiches of more experienced acts.
This is easier to illustrate than explain. Here’s David Bowie in 1967, desperately trying to be Mick Jagger:
The good news is, he grew out of it*. And so will you.
The bad news is, it takes practice. Years and years of practice. John Gardner used to tell his graduated students that they had done well, and now they should go write for ten years.
There are, however, some ways to hothouse that voice.
Write a lot. Work at identifying and expunging cliches and lazy word choice from your prose. Find sharp verbs and strong, observed details. Read things out loud and if you don’t like how they sound, change them. Embrace whimsy and quirkiness, but only inasmuch as it is natural to you: otherwise you run the risk of becoming twee. Play with pastiche. If you have a natural wit, let it shine through. Be playful.
2) Narrative drive.
It’s pretty well-established what makes a story gripping to a Western audience: make your character want something, even–as Kurt Vonnegut said–if it is only a glass of water. Then make her do something to get that glass of water. Make her engaging; make us care about her.
How do we come to care about a character? Well, the common wisdom is that we care about characters we identify with, and they should therefor be as generic as possible for a mass audience. I don’t buy that for a second.
We engage with and care about a character because she is charming (she has opinions and she expressed them in witty, sarcastic, or clever ways), or because she in her turn cares about something or someone. A character who loves something, or who holds fast to an ideal, is humanized and becomes approachable. A character who takes action lures us unto caring about what she cares about.
Look at Ellen Ripley, for example: one of the great, beloved heroines of science fiction. In the most successful of the Alien films, Ripley is fighting for something besides her own survival–both a personal ideal of sorts (against the callous economic fascism of the company) and for another living creature–Jonesy, Newt. But Jonesy and Newt are both resourceful fighters in their own right–they don’t just hang around waiting to be rescued.
We love people who fight.
Anyway, that’s not a comprehensive answer–but it is, I hope, a manageable bite-sized helpful chunk.
In other news, the sunsets are bloody marvelous.
*Oh, David. Those flat-fronted trousers. Sweetie.