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dr phil on writing

dr phil on writing

advice for new writers · a first draft...

Why should you listen to a new writer with only a couple of publications?
Because I may be further along the long road than you are.  So maybe what I
know may be of some help.  You are, of course, free to reject and ignore
some or all of said advice. (grin)

Now I am interested mainly in writing Science Fiction, with a little Fantasy.
Even if you aren't a "sciffy/genre" SF/F/H writer, there are still some basics.

(1) write

Many who say they are writers or are going to be writers or have a great book
idea -- haven't yet sat down and started writing.  You can delay and procrastinate
forever in terms of getting the "right" setup, the "right" time, the "right"
comforts, but some of that is just cat-waxing -- things you do to put off doing
what you need to do.

And if you want to write, you have to write.  Preferably every day.

Writing something every day doesn't necessarily mean advancing your Great
Novel by huge chunks each and every day.  Which is why, I suspect, a lot of
writers these days are also bloggers.  Writing an essay or story or comment
every day for your own blog, even if no one reads it, keeps the habit of 
writing alive.

(2) reveal

It is amazingly common for new writers to be very secrative with their writing.
I wrote notes and plots and sketches for ten years before I started seriously
typing up stories.  Things picked up faster once I had my own PC and composed
on the computer, but it was another fifteen years before anyone really got a 
chance to read my stories.

You don't have to ever let anyone read your work.  But if your goal is to
become a published author, then one day, you will have to let your work out.

It helps to find a First Reader, someone who can read a story and tell you 
straight off if it sucks or not.  Whether it is something they would've paid
money for.  Because in some sense that is the first hurdle.  You may feel that
you can "write better than X" or that your stories are just as good as the
ones you read in Y, but ultimately, while you can always be pleased and fulfilled
by your own writing, you really can't judge your writing until Z says "wow,
that's great".  And Z can only read your work if you give it to Z.

Most friends and relatives don't count.  My mommy loves my stories.  So does
my daddy.  And they read lots of SF.  My mother-in-law loves my stories, too.
She's not that into SF, but since I write a lot of hard military SF and she's 
a big fan of war movies, she understands the relationships, objectives and 
command structures.  It's fun to send them all my stories, but it doesn't count.
Mrs. Dr. Phil?  She's an excellent proofreader

(3) release

So how do you buck up the courage to send out your stories and wait for your
first Rejections?  Because, in all likelihood, the odds are you're going to 
get rejected.

But here's the thing about numbers and statistics -- if you never submit, you
will never sell anything.  Period.

Rejection is NOT personal.  At least not usually.  All rejection means is that
your story: doesn't meet the criteria they are looking for, is too similar to 
other stories (especially ones they have just or previously selected), doesn't
fit their taste or isn't written well enough or clean enough to give them 
something to work with.  An awful lot of contests and markets do NOT do a lot
of editing.  And a first story from an unknown (to them) author is going to 
have to be really brilliant to get noticed.

This is why you don't write just one story.  And you don't send it to just one
place.  It doesn't matter if you are writing short stories or novels.  I started
with novels, but have concentrated primarily on short stories since 2002, since 
it is easier for me to control and edit a shorter work while I learn my craft.

If you are writing SF/F/H short stories, there are both print and electronic 
markets -- magazines and websites -- you can submit to.  There you are at the
mercy of editors and slush readers.  Slush is the generic name given to all
the unsolicited submissions from anyone but the Big Name Authors and people 
they've published before.  At the larger markets you have to get through one or
more slush readers before you actually make it up to an editor.  It can be a 
daunting task to sent your story to market.  In my case, I didn't send to any
SF magazines until my 10th submission.  Submissions 1-9 all went to SF writing

Contests?  Isn't that lower class?  Aren't some of them scams?  Well, yes and 
yes.  Some contests are scams -- as are some publishers.  They just want your
money and will tell you that your writing is wonderful in order to separate 
you from your money.  Here's the thing:

In the writing business, money goes TO THE WRITER.

That doesn't mean that a contest can't charge an entry or reading fee.  For a 
lot of small contests, the pooled fees are where the prize money comes from.
Most are small amounts, $5-$15.  Above $25 and you really have to wonder.

But for any Science Fiction or Fantasy author, the best place to start is:  

(a) writers of the future

The Writers of the Future ** is the 800-lb. gorilla of contests.  There is no 
entry fee.  You can write up to 17,000 words -- which in the short story business
is a LOT of words.  The contest closes four times a year, at the end of each quarter
(31 March, 30 June, 30 September, 31 December), which means you can enter four times
a year.  And it pays serious prize money.  $1000 for First Prize.  And the four
First Prize winners are then re-graded for a $5000 Grand Prize.  I personally 
know some Grand Prize winners -- they do really exist.

But there's more.  Now in its 25th year, WOTF is funded by the estate of the late
L. Ron Hubbard.  Yes, there is that whole religion thing which has nothing to do
with WOTF or Galaxy Press.  Hubbard was a major SF writer in his day and wrote a
lot about HOW to write and his legacy is to continue to encourage new writers.
So besides the prize money, there's the printed anthology -- I have a story that
will be in the 24th anthology in Summer 2008 -- and the first 23 anthologies are 
all still in print.  And still paying royalties to the authors.  Plus the winners
are flown in to a weeklong writers workshop, culminating in a black tie awards
ceremony and book launch.  It's a lot of visability and it's a big deal.

They don't release the actual numbers, but WOTF gets over a thousand submissions
each quarter.  Even if you just earn an Honorable Mention (what they used to call
a Quarter-Finalist), you're in the top percentages of the whole story pile.

In thirty-one WOTF entries I have had 3 Finalists (1 to be published in 
the 24th WOTF Anthology), 2 Semi-Finalists and 10 Quarter-Finalists/10 Honorable 
Mention, plus 5 plain old Rejections and 1 Lost-in-Mail (No Decision).  Semi-Finalist 
and unpublished Finalist stories get Crits written by the chief judge, K.D. Wentworth.

** NOTE: The WOTF website is pretty bombastic, for my tastes in webpage design.
But stick with it. The contest rules are here.

(4) workshops

One part of becoming a writer is learning about criticism or crits.  And not just
getting crits from others, but learning how to crit.  Some people find it useful 
to join a writers workshop, either in person or online.  Some people find it less
than helpful or "outgrow" the group they're with after a while.  The key thing is
that you aren't asking people to either validate or re-write your story -- you're
looking for the rough spots.  The ones you can never spot in your own work because
your mind "knows" what the words are supposed to be, you know the story too well 
and you know all the background stuff which isn't in your story.

(a) con workshops

There are lots of large and small SF/F/H conventions around.  Some of them offer
lots of panels with writers (and editors and publishers) and some offer small one-day
or half-day workshops.  These can be very useful to talk to other writers and get
some experience letting other writers, including established writers, look at and
crit your work.

(b) day/weekend/week workshops

Many colleges offer longer writing workshops, as do some established writers.
This section will be updated in the future...

(c) clarion

And then there are the Clarion workshops.  Right now there are three Clarions:
         Clarion (San Diego CA, formerly in East Lansing MI for many years)
         Clarion West (Seattle WA)
         Clarion South (Brisbane Queensland AUSTRALIA)

         Note: Clarion and Clarion West deadlines for this year's applications
               are both 1 March 2008.  The deadline for the 2009 Clarion South
               workshop is 30 June 2008.

         Also two similar workshops:
         Odyssey (Manchester NH)
         Milford (U.K.)  

A Clarion-style workshop is one where a group of writers exchange stories and
write up crits for each one and discuss them in the Crit Circle.  Established
authors moderate and talk about writing and the business of writing.  The three
Clarions mentioned above are sometimes described as a six-week boot camp for
writers.  Yeah.  Six weeks.  With 10-20 writers.  It's living breathing writing
for a month-and-a-half.  It is... amazing.

I was fortunate to have the time and money to attend the 2004 Clarion Science
Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop in East Lansing MI. 

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Last Update: 15 May 2010 Saturday