I started out as a short story writer, and I suppose that field is still my first love. I did that because I like to work with the oblique and the sleight of hand, and because when I started it was the norm that if you wanted to sell a major book, then you needed to become an award finalist in short fiction. That’s how people I met did it, and I followed suit.
But I lacked certain basics: (a) any knowledge whatsoever of the fields in which I decided to write (listed in the order they occurred)— science fiction, western, fantasy, horror, and creative nonfiction; and (b) talent.
Also, I wanted only to write for the top markets, and I knew that a periodical such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction received over 1000 manuscripts per month. Out of that the editor usually chose one from a newcomer.
|Bram Stoker Award Winner|
CHILDREN OF THE DUSK
And yet I was almost immediately a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo, the top awards in science fiction. Then again for the Nebula, for fantasy. Then a co-author, Janet Berliner, and I won the Bram Stoker of the Year’s Best Horror Novel. I also sold a western and was one of three national finalists in creative nonfiction, for the year’s best book about education. (I also wrote porn, but didn’t sell any: I not only didn’t have the background, I didn’t have anyone to help me research.)
What I did was fairly simple: I tried consciously not to write plots like anyone else’s. As someone said at the AKRWA retreat a couple weekends ago: it’s better to be different than good. That could have been branded on my forehead.
At first, trying to be different created enormous headaches, because I set my stories on other worlds and therefore had to construct the little suckers. But then two things occurred to me: (a) there are worlds aplenty right here on earth that are as alien as anything I could invent (National Geographic and I became very good friends), and (b) all fiction has elements in common: plot, character, style, setting, less tangible attributes such as mood and atmosphere – and, most importantly for me, nonfiction.
I attacked fiction from its nonfiction angle, in a series of steps:
1.) Identify all the nonfiction tidbits in an article. “Tidbit” are things you can talk about without ever telling a story. For example, the neck rings on Shaw Karin women in northern Thailand do not stretch the neck. They suppress the clavicle. (If you are fairly shy, as I am, such tidbits come in handy at cocktail parties. If you can’t name-drop, you drop tidbits.)
2.) Discard all tidbits that are head-based rather than heart-based. That Poe almost certainly died from rabies is head-based. That every female above puberty was killed as witches in some medieval cities in Germany is heart-based. Those latter are the stuff of drama.
3.) Brainstorm numerous emotional problems to be solved based in some way on a heart-based tidbit.
4.) Grade the ideas according to the following:
A= not similar + lends itself to structural/stylistic considerations that will help it get noticed
B = not similar
C = similar to what other people are doing/have done
5.) Prioritize the A ideas according to the following criteria, which can be set up as a chart:
Which is the easiest to research?
Which is most likely to interest readers in the field?
Which is most likely to interest the editor(s) to whom you are trying to sell?
6.) Brainstorm numerous main characters based on the emotional problem. A twelve-year-old whose mother was burned alive and really was a witch is a far different character than a twelve-year old whose mother was burned alive and who was not a witch. So is the twelve-year-old who knows that her mother was innocent versus the girl who knows her mother was not. And so on. Cull, cull, cull until you have a character most likely to rip the heart out of the reader.
7.) Never give the reader an even break. Figure out what you think the reader expects you will do. Do the opposite.
8.) Develop a story structure that will best help tell the story AND help it get noticed by other writers in case it gets published. (A note about this last point: In science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the professional writers vote for the awards, so it’s important to show off a little, albeit without being flashy. For example, I once wrote a novelette whose halves were mirror images – an homage to the old Ace Doubles from back in the ‘50s. It was extremely difficult to pull off. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell people about the homage. It probably cost me the Nebula.)
I once gave a talk, similar to this discussion, to MFA students at Arizona State. Two women who knew everything about fiction writing almost burst out laughing. Fiction writing, of course, cannot be reduced to a process that is nearly algorithmic. It’s an Art, right? Yeah, right. Then the professor asked me to read part of my latest story. The blood left their faces.
Anyway, I hope you see that what I was doing was to make conscious decisions about my fiction instead of just forging ahead. I’ve been a judge on a couple dozen writing contests, and I see the same problem over and over again. Too many writers rely on style. That’s important, but for me it’s not the essence of fiction. If I said, “Hey, I read a really good book last night, called The Book, by Jackie Ivie” (whose writing I just discovered and greatly admire) would your first question be, “What was its style?” I don’t think so. Or if I said, “I just saw a great video entitled, The Movie, staring Al Pacino,” would your first question be, “What was its cinematography like?” Again, I doubt it.
THE KIDS FROM NOWHERE
Now I have switched gears again, this time into romance writing. I have no idea if I will be published. I do know I am loving it. First, I am more fully able to explore emotional landscapes than I could in other genres. Second, my wife – who is Thai and reads romances in two languages – helps me plot; and my granddaughter, under whose name I am writing, critiques the result. What could be better?
--George Guthridge/Amani D’Shan