Stop What You're Doing and Write! Yes, You; Write! Most writing guides implyor outright statethat there's a fixed, specific formula or list of rules you must follow to achieve writing and publishing success. And all of them are phonies. Well, not completely. There are real, applicable techniques and strategies in any writing reference to help you. But the idea that there's only one way of writing? Nuts! With unconventional approaches to the craft, fresh angles on novel writing and selling, a healthy dose of humor, and no promise of refunds, Writing Without Rules is for those writers who have tried and tried againand are ready to success on their own terms. In these pages, accomplished author Jeff Somers will show you:
- The key to a successful writing career is doing the actual writing, no matter the circumstances.
- Fantastic ideas are available everywhereyou just need to know how to tap into sources through a variety of approaches.
- Important craft aspects that you should focus on, such as characters and dialogue, while spending less time on others, like setting.
- Effective ways to get publishedwhether it's traditional or self-publishingand how to supplement your income.
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WHAT YOU NEED
My childhood predates most of the things Americans consider to be the bedrock of modern society: smartphones, cable television, easy access to burritos. Back in my day we didn't have fancy things for entertainment — or fancy burritos driven right to your front door by some guy responding to an order you transmitted via app — and so I spent a lot of my time pretending. My brother, Yan, and I entertained ourselves with world-building, usually with a liberal mix of Legos, plastic army men, and aluminum foil shaped into horrific metallic Godzillas. We invaded every room of the house, spinning an infinite yarn of galactic wars, monster-plagued cities, and the brave, doomed paratroopers caught in the branches of the dying Christmas tree and abandoned by their squad.
When my brother was otherwise occupied, I entertained myself with some more good old-fashioned pretending. I would be a drug-addled rock star, using an old tennis racket as a guitar and telling imaginary band mates on stage that I was breaking up the band and going solo. Or I'd be a world-famous brain surgeon, about to operate on the president just as I notice a twitch in my right hand. In between marathon sessions playing Donkey Kong and reading, I was a lot of things in the privacy of my room. When I got bored with pretending to be a glamorous, highly paid professional, one day I decided to slum it a little and pretend to be a famous writer. So I stole my mother's typewriter.
T.S. Eliot once said that "good writers borrow, but great writers steal." While it's usually understood that Eliot meant "steal" in terms of creativity, trust me when I tell you that when most writers realize how much money they can actually earn from their writing, other definitions of the word steal come to mind.
I didn't intend to steal my mother's typewriter. I was pretending to be an alcoholic, unhappy novelist, and I needed a prop, so I borrowed it — and then I just never gave it back. Here we are forty years later, and I still have it, so I can only assume my mother didn't need to type anything aft er 1981 or so, which explains a great many things regarding the fact that I don't recall going to school in the 1980s. Or to the doctor.
But I digress. I can't pinpoint the precise moment when I segued from pretending to be a writer to actually writing, but that decision can be laid at the feet of several people, including my old pals C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, because I very much wished there were more Narnia and Lord of the Rings novels (so why not write my own!), and Piers Anthony, whose generous Author's Notes at the end of his books demystified novel writing to the point where a snotty ten-year-old kid like me imagined it was easy peasy. And it was, kinda; I wrote my first novel in a few weeks on that typewriter. It was thirty pages long; it was essentially The Fellowship of the Ring, if that novel had been thirty pages long and written in a form of English that didn't require any sort of punctuation.
My only point is simple: At the age of ten, having committed some slight slow-motion larceny in the acquisition of a typewriter, I had the only two things you will ever need to write a novel: a functioning brain and something to write with.
OR, IN MY CASE, A HALF-FUNCTIONING BRAIN
The fact is, writing is one of those creative endeavors that requires almost nothing beyond your creative energy — you don't need collaborators, special equipment, specific training, or special access to anything in order to write a novel. Or, frankly, to publish one. Other creative vocations make it impossible to engage professionally without at least some of those things. Look at the music business: You need years of training (even if you are self-taught), an instrument (oft en expensive), and equipment, even if we're just talking about a computer with recording soft ware on it and a Bandcamp (https://bandcamp.com) account. You can whittle those requirements down to the bare bones, but it's still more complicated than writing a novel, which really does require nothing more than your imagination and something to write with, even if just a pencil and paper.
And yet, based on the questions I get all the time, people seem to think that writing a novel is a complicated, arduous task that requires not only the right implements, but also the right work space, training, relationships, and lifestyle. Part of this is the fault of film and television that have fetishized writing, in a way; they present writers working like Colin Firth in Love Actually, jetting off to an idyllic cottage in France to wear ridiculous sweaters and sit by a gorgeous pond, writing on a manual typewriter while sipping delicious teas, his attractive domestic silently falling in love with him.
Part of it is the fault of aspiring writers themselves. You might have heard F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous line about how all Americans imagine they are temporarily embarrassed millionaires; well, all writers imagine they are temporarily embarrassed bestsellers, and we're all vaguely embarrassed at how not arduous writing actually is. I mean, we sit behind a desk and make things up. Sometimes we have to get up before noon and go to the library or ask someone a few questions. It's not literally difficult to write a book, not in the physical sense. So we like to dress it up a little, pretending that writer's block is a thing (a kind of illness that usually implies a very serious headache and possibly death via existential crisis), that we drink too much because of the mental stress of writing (ridiculous; like all sane people, we drink because booze is delicious and transports us to a different state of mind), and that we would be much happier doing anything else because writing is the equivalent of suffering. Bosh, all of it. A lot of very lazy and very disorganized people have written and sold novels. A lot of famous novels have been written in mere days, oft en solely for the promise of filthy lucre. People have written novels as a response to dares, for spite, and with open disdain for their own creative efforts. Novels have been written in notebooks, on laptops, and even on index cards.
And yet, people will tell you writing is hard to do. A lot of writers offering advice violate my former teacher's axiom about the rain and getting wet, and assume that because they had to do X, Y, and Z to write and publish a novel, then you have to do the same — and they oft en don't even consider seriously whether X, Y, and Z were really necessary for them, as opposed to being coincidental. The end result is what appears to be a lengthy and ever-growing list of things you absolutely must have to be a writer — a real writer. So, let's do something a bit different and break this down from the other end. Let's make a list of all the things you don't need to write a book.
Of course, not needing something doesn't mean you can't use it or benefit from it. Your mileage may vary. But anytime someone says something is required in order to write and sell a novel, they are flat out wrong. You can make your own decisions regarding the necessity of anything listed here — that's fine. Really, it is, but if you show up at one of my readings to drunkenly heckle me about it, that will not be cool.
So, what don't you need?
A Degree. At St. Peter's There but for the Grace of God Academy, everyone was more or less presumed to be college bound. I half-assed my way through high school like everything else, and in my senior year I wasn't sure if college was for me. The alternative, however, seemed like a lot of work, so I eventually relented and enrolled.
I was an English major for a few reasons. One, I had already read all the books on the required reading list. Two, it was literally the major with the fewest number of required credits. I made it my mission in life to attend as few lectures as possible while still graduating, because I was an incredibly awful person at that age and had not yet been introduced to the concept of privilege.
I am not proud.
Suffice it to say my bachelor's degree is of dubious value, at best. As part of my heroic effort at doing absolutely nothing, I took as many creative writing courses as I could for reasons both obvious and obscure. On the one hand, I was already writing fiction, so this was a logical move — and the classes were also extremely easy in terms of grades, so it was almost impossible to fail one. But I also took them because I had never experienced feedback from disinterested fellow writers, and I wanted to see what that was like. I learned two very important things. One, if you challenge people to offer criticism, then no matter how much they love your work or find themselves totally neutral toward it, they will find something to criticize, even if it kills them. And two, this means there will always be something wrong with your manuscript.
I had fun in those classes, writing stories and hearing feedback. I still have all the notes one teacher made on my submissions, in fact. But once I managed to squeak out of college with my aforementioned dubious English degree, I had only one definitive plan: I wanted to be as far away from a campus as humanly possible for the rest of my life. I have never had any desire to pursue an MFA; frankly, the thought never even occurred to me. I'm not sure I even knew MFA programs existed, but it doesn't matter. I can confidently say that I wouldn't have gone into one even if I had known. And I can confidently say I don't regret it.
MFAs aren't for everyone. Maybe they're for you, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. People have grown artistically in such programs, made great networking connections, signed with agents, and sold books through MFA programs. Then again, plenty of people have simply accumulated a lot of debt. The point here is that you don't need an MFA to be published, or to be great. MFA programs have existed since the 1930s, and while the number of such programs (and the number of people applying to and attending them) has exploded in recent years, they're nothing new, and many incredible writers have sprung from them. Of course, many incredible writers didn't get MFAs: Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, Norman Mailer, me, to name a few. The lesson here is simple: MFAs don't guarantee creative joy, artistic growth, professional success, or better cocktail conversation — and not having an MFA doesn't guarantee anything, either. If you think it'll help, send out those applications. If not, don't sweat it; there are hundreds of paths to publication.
Implements. I'm a pretty simple guy. I like my whiskey neat, my transmissions automatic, and my wardrobe composed of various shades of gray and blue so everything matches. When it comes to writing, I like to keep it as simple as possible: Words going onto a page. I work in two distinct ways: I write short stories longhand in a regular college-ruled notebook, and I type in a vanilla word processor (LibreOffice, if you must know). That's it. Aside from spell-check and a few basic styles, I don't use anything to augment my writing.
Other writers do. I know this because people ask me about hardware and soft ware a lot. There are special dedicated word processing devices so you can type without the Internet to distract you (apparently people are unaware that the Internet is a thing that can, you know, be turned off at your discretion). There are soft ware packages like Scrivener, which is like a word processor designed by Tony Stark, allowing you to not just type, but to manage metadata, supporting documents, outlines, and a host of other powerful tools to make organizing and writing your novel ... I dunno, easier? Or more complicated. Some writers swear by Scrivener and other soft ware packages like Tinderbox or Evernote as ways to keep track of random notes, their plot outlines, the relationships between their characters, the unwritten backstory, or dozens of other aspects of the creative process. Some writers replicate this in spreadsheets or other tools, and of course, a lot of writers do all this work the old-fashioned way using pieces of paper, Post-it notes, or handwritten journals. And a lot of these writers are very successful, and that makes a lot of other writers think all of this stuff is necessary.
It isn't. In fact, I think all this stuff makes writing more difficult and less fun. I mean, have you ever downloaded the free trial of Scrivener? It's like trying to learn how to pilot a space shuttle. I didn't become an author so I could teach myself literary calculus. I became an author to write books and look cool, like everyone else.
The inherent assumption that all published authors use NASA-level soft ware and complex organizational systems in order to world-build and write their novels comes, I think, from the desire to make writing a profession instead of an artistic calling. There's a tendency to approach writing like any other career, which means there must be a science to it: a degree you can get, tools you can buy, systems you can study. But it isn't like any other career. And I am a simple, lazy, lazy man, so I never bothered to do anything more advanced than make up a story, jot a few notes along the way, and then revise out the mistakes and inconsistencies until I'm sick of reading the damn thing. And it's worked for me, so far. Which means it could work just as well for you: Go get something to write with, and start writing. Don't waste time installing soft ware and taking classes to learn that soft ware, only to discover that by the time you get certified in it a whole new paradigm has taken hold and your certifications are useless.
Agents. I sold my first two novels without an agent, actually: I sold Lifers to a small publisher in 1999 for what amounted to a pat on the head and kick in the ass (or, in less technical terms, a $1,000 advance they never quite paid me and a steadily declining rate of correspondence). The Electric Church deal came about from a complex chain of events I wish I'd been brilliant enough to set in motion on purpose. My agent negotiated this deal, and she sold the other four books in that series and four other books for me, so as you read this, Janet, please don't think I am minimizing the incredible benefits that a literary agent of your caliber brings to the pallid, gray life of a humble author.
Readers, if the style of this book changes abruptly, please investigate whether I have been assassinated and replaced by a good-looking middle-aged man with a vague resemblance to me. My agent's powers are dark.
The thing is, you certainly don't need an agent to write a book and probably will have some trouble convincing one to represent you if you haven't actually written one, so my first piece of advice to new writers is not to worry about getting an agent until you have written a book that you think people will clamor to read. Agents sell the books you write, and while their writing advice in the form of revision notes and feedback and general marketing savvy can be priceless, they aren't necessary to the process of writing.
Once you have a book? Well, the thing is, these days you don't need an agent to just sell the damn thing. Self-publishing has become so easy and refined — though it is not in any way new, it just has a new hat in the form of digital marketplaces and print-on-demand magic — that you can absolutely, 100 percent sell that book to everyone who loves you or owes you a favor without an agent. And if you have a real talent for self-publishing and self-promotion and marketing, you might even be the next Amanda Hocking or Hugh Howey.
I, however, have none of these things, as we'll get into later. Me, I need an agent to sell my work (and believe me, she knows it) — even though I did somehow manage to sell two novels without one. My agent got me much better terms on the latter deal than I would have gotten myself (and this is fact, not simply a belief), and she went on to leverage that into a career that continues to surprise the laziest man alive (that is, me). But you can write and sell a novel without an agent. Whether it's wise to do so will be discussed in more detail later.
Excerpted from "Writing Without Rules"
Copyright © 2018 Jeff Somers.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: Everything I Needed to Know About Writing and Publishing I Learned in High School, 1,
PART I: WRITING A NOVEL HOW TO DO IT WITHOUT BREAKING A SWEAT OR PUTTING ON PANTS,
1: What You Need, 9,
2: Butt-In-Chair, Sure, but It's Your Butt and Your Chair, 23,
3: Fantastic Ideas and Where to Find Them, 35,
4: Plotting, Pantsing, Plantsing, and Going Ham on Ending It All, 47,
5: Setting: No One Cares What the Room Smells Like, 61,
6: Characters: Love Means Never Having Your Protagonists Look at Themselves in the Mirror, 71,
7: Dialogue: Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83,
8: Revision: Naked Came the Stranger, 93,
9: Trunk Novels, Beautiful Failures, and the Strange Attractors: Making Novels Out of Nothing at All, 106,
10: Writer's Block: You're Fooling Yourself, You Don't Believe It, 114,
PART II: SELLING A NOVEL HOW TO MAKE A DIME (SADLY, PROBABLY LITERALLY),
11: What You Don't Need: Lawyers, Guns, and Copyright Forms, 124,
12: I'll Try the Whole Cause and Condemn You to Death: You Are the Worst Judge of Your Own Material, 137,
13: Before the Agent: If You Sell a Novel but You Don't Actually Get Paid for It, Did You Really Sell Anything?, 147,
14: After the Agent: Bringing Competence Into the Mix for the Novelty of It, 161,
15: Self-Publishing: Zines & Books; Lose Money, Make Enemies, Have a Blast, 173,
16: Supplementing Income & Promotion With Short Fiction: Guidelines Are for Suckers, A Short Story by Jeff Somers, 185,
17: Supplementing Income & Promotion With Freelance Pieces: How Many Words Do Eskimos Have for "Lube"?, 198,
18: Self-Promotion: The World Is a Vampire and Your Social Media Kung Fu Is Weak, 212,
19: The Recursive Chapter on Selling This Very Book Containing a Recursive on Selling This Very Book, 228,
20: Conclusion: Summation and Naked Plea to Buy My Novels or Possibly Loan Me $50, 239,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was intrigued by the idea of this book, after all a lot of books about writing say you "must" do certain things, and I like to do what works for me. Some of what the author said aligned with my own views, and it was nice to see someone standing up and declaring that certain, well-known "rules" are rubbish for a lot of people. In the end, this book just didn't click with me. The first issue was the footnotes. An occasional footnote is fine, and used properly, they are great. This book is full of them, with something like 27 in the first chapter alone. Most were unnecessary, and it was really disruptive to the flow of the book. The narrative feels messy, with frequent digressions (aided by the footnotes). It has a lot of autobiographical content, which is fine if you want to know about the writer, but much of what was in here had little to do with the business of writing, which is what most people would buy it for. The author admits to disliking using beta readers, and doing revisions. Unfortunately this book would have been a lot better if he'd utilised them more. I received my copy through NetGalley.