So you still want to be a writer. Normally I’d wonder why the person who’s supposed to shake you out of making bad life decisions is apparently asleep at the wheel, but I suppose there are a few of us who have to write or we’ll surely go insane. I’ve gone into this before, but there are a few additional things I’ve learned over the years that I feel like putting out there. This is all based on experience, so please have a complimentary pound of salt to take it with.
1. Don’t Be Afraid of Your Comfort Zone
Ah, the Comfort Zone. When I was in grad school, for the most part the Comfort Zone was something that I was taught would likely burn my flesh should I ever approach it. It’s the idea that left to your own devices, you’ll only watch TV and read Cracked articles and never write anything that’s “of worth”. It’s mostly a question of Quality, and I use the capital Q there because trying to define it is an impossible task and actually drove a guy insane. Most of us read literary fiction because there’s a grade in it for us, or because it’s handed to us by teachers who hope they can keep slapping on the hallowed pages of vaunted masters of their craft, and eventually we’ll emerge from the chrysalis ready to pen The Great American Novel.
Most of the time we just go for the grade, because required reading will make any text boring as hell.
The thing is that I’d been reading nothing but LitFic since junior high and when I did read genre fiction it was usually in my free-time to convince myself that reading and firing up the imagination could actually be fun. I had all these ideas about the structure and mechanics that made the “fun” books work to the point where I could call the plot twists three or four chapters in advance, but when I got to grad school, and actually had the opportunity to research it in earnest, I generally got shot down because “I needed to move outside my Comfort Zone”. Granted, this changed once I got a better advisor, but until that point, I kept being told that my Comfort Zone was the last place I wanted to be, even though it was what I wanted to write and study.
So this is my advice: If you write bisexual vampire stories and you love bisexual vampire stories, then by God read bisexual vampire stories, watch the movies, check out the comics, listen to music that was used in the soundtracks, because if you’re reading Proust, you’re going to miss the unspoken rules. And trust me, if you break those rules your readers (and the reviewers) will let you know. The rules of the genre you write in are set by countless authors, screenwriters, graphic artists, and readers, and you’ve got to keep up on those rules because they vary. Don’t expect to be the writer who shatters all conventions and rewrites the rulebook. You’ll be allowed a little leeway, but you’ll know when you abuse it. Trust me. High School is over. College is over. No more term papers to write. The Comfort Zone is your friend now.
2. Give In to the Shippers
One of the things that gets readers going is a little bit of genre-blending, it’s how you get new readers in and keep current readers on their toes. One of the unspoken rules of genre fiction is that if you’re writing a series, there has to be an Inevitable Couple. Shippers are out there, and even if you’re not writing romance, you have to be prepared not only for the subplot writing, but also making sure you follow the unspoken rules of that genre, which is knowing how to stall the romance while not frustrating the reader. I’ve received e-mails from readers about Community Service that want to hate Ozzie, because he’s standing between the James and Spence pairing, but at the same time feel they can’t hate him because he’s a nice guy and treats James right. I learned that trope from watching Rom-Coms like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and more often than not it doesn’t end well for the Nice Guy/Girl. Sitcoms can stretch an Inevitable Couple for a few seasons, always delaying with the On Again/Off Again, Right People/Wrong Time, and countless other tropes and tricks to make it seem soooooo close to possible. Look how long Harry and Karin have been stretched in The Dresden Files. Even Joss Whedon lets characters be in a happy relationship for five minutes every now and then (usually right before he kills them, but still!).
The point is, if you have have a main character, and have any sort of character of the protagonist’s preferred gender, people are going to start matchmaking, and you have to be aware of that, and be willing to play along no matter what genre you’re working in.
3. You Will Trip Up When Trying to Describe Your Book
I call it “The Basicallies”. Go to any social gathering, and if it comes out that you’re a writer, after being asked the inevitable “Have you written anything I’d have heard of?” (Because yeah, unless you’re an NYT bestseller, the answer will always be no, and sometimes even when you’re an NYT bestseller), you’ll be asked, “What’s it about?”
God, I always dread that question, and if you write genre fiction? So will you. It’s especially bad if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy writer, because eventually you’re going to reach the point where you have to bring out the weird, and to keep from embarrassing yourself, you’ll do anything to avoid the weird. So, “the basicallies” come out in full force. Seriously, try to explain your book to someone not familiar with the genre, in an actual face-to-face conversation and see how many times you use “basically”, “essentially”, “at its core”, and any other number of boil-it-down terms as you stumble your way to revealing the dreaded “protagonist is an IRS auditor that’s a werewolf dating a witch that does her rituals to KMFDM” detail that will bring the dreaded, “Oh.” (And now I’ll bet there’s someone out there that’ll be like, “Damn, I want to write that now.” I want credit in your acknowledgements.)
There’s no real way around it, but at least you know now that you’re not alone. 🙂
4. Distraction Is Your Necessary Frenemy
Daily wordcount’s funny thing. It’s supposed to be the measure of how committed you are as a writer, how much you’re producing compared to those people who aren’t measuring up and putting out at least one novel per year, usually two. When you’re writing, you’ll find that distraction is the enemy, the biggest offender being the social media that we consider a necessary evil. With movies on demand and god knows how many sites to dunk your head in to catch up on serialized dramatic TV, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all. The thing is that we need it, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I won’t go into how many times I’ve watched Ugly Betty or booted up The Sims or gone through yet another full playthrough of the Mass Effect Trilogy because I’m stuck and need to soak my head in some media to rejuvenate my mind. The trick is knowing when your brain needs the rest and when you’re just stalling. Case in point, this blog entry is over 1500 words in total, and some would say that’s 1500 words that could easily have gone into the next book and get me that much closer to completion. But would it really? When I sit down I have no idea how much writing is going to come out of me that day, no matter how much caffeine I’ve ingested or how much Oceanlab and BT is playing in the background or how many Skittles are in easy reach. Mostly I sit down with a plan to finish a scene, or get a chapter started, and if more comes out, great. Some days I write 500 words, sometimes it’s 2500, and some days it’s nothing. (This is usually when I’m grading papers or working on lesson plans. I’ll do a blog entry on teaching and writing at some other point that isn’t the usual lamenting you see so often.)
Distraction is a necessary evil, because sometimes when you’re stuck stressing about being stuck is only going to make you more stuck. I’m not a fan of the idea of “waiting for the muse”, but guys, sometimes the muse wants to just kick back and catch up on Arrow and wonder if Olicity is ever going to really happen or if their current theory on the ending of How I Met Your Mother is the right one and praying that they’re wrong. Sometimes it can’t be helped, and stressing about it will only make you want to strangle yourself, and as Jim Butcher said, “Don’t strangle yourself.”