May 1, 2013
Monday, I posted about my copious collection of rejection slips. How did I get out of the rejection grind and start selling stories? I can pinpoint three things. And they’re not about networking, building an author platform (that concept didn’t even exist 15 years ago), changing the way I submitted, having an inside track, or anything. They’re all about craft.
In 1998 I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop and I give it and its director Jeanne Cavelos a lot of credit for kicking my ass and helping me get my first sales. The two most important things I learned at Odyssey:
This isn’t so much what the story is about. This is about how the story is structured to pull the reader through it. To make sure that there’s something in the story — a question raised, suspense created — that means readers won’t stop once they start. This is also about the “so what” factor. What’s important about this story, why am I writing it, and how can I get that across? Why should the reader care? Turns out, this is one of the things that separates good stories from “meh” stories, and great stories from the merely good. At Odyssey, Jeanne made me analyze some Ray Bradbury stories for plot. It turns out, even stories where nothing much happens can have plot. This was a revelation.
I write shitty first drafts. Turns out, I’d been submitting shitty first drafts for ten years. Now, I know there are some vocal proponents out there of the “don’t rewrite” philosophy. People who feel that revising kills stories, or who cling to that step in Heinlein’s Rules — “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.” Well, you have to actually catch an editor’s attention before you’ll ever get an editorial order, and you’re not going to do that with a shitty first draft. Odyssey prompted me to revise stories for the first time — really revise, take them apart, rewrite them from scratch. My last week at the workshop, Jeanne said these magic words: “Your revisions are so much better.” And they are.
For me, learning to revise involved looking at my stories from the reader’s point of view, and realizing that what I had on the page, or what I thought I had on the page, was not what my readers were getting. I wasn’t making myself clear. I wasn’t getting across the story in the best way possible. The first draft is the brain dump, getting down the ideas and scenes and structure and heart. The second draft is making sure it all makes sense to the reader. The good news is, over time I’ve internalized a lot of revision techniques. I no longer have to cut the first five pages of every story because I’ve learned to just start writing later instead of messing around with unnecessary early stuff. Experience has taught me how to get a lot of this right on the first draft. But I still ask a lot of questions of my writing and I still work hard at looking at it fresh, as a new reader.
Most editors have a choice — publish the story that’s already great, rather than try to work with a story that’s only kinda good but has potential. In close to 70 short story sales, I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve gotten “editorial orders.” Might as well make that story great before sending it out, yeah?
I made my first pro sale less than a year after attending Odyssey. But I wasn’t finished learning. Here’s the big one, I think. The one that took years to learn. The one I have no idea how to explain.
Voice is confidence. It’s personality. Voice convinces the reader you know what the hell you’re talking about. Voice makes it real. Perfectly clear, yeah?
Voice is also a matter of taste. To me, writers like Toni Morrison and Peter Beagle just sing. But I know they don’t do that for everyone. You are never going to appeal to absolutely everyone with your writing. You will drive yourself mad trying. This is why we talk about finding your voice. Because that’s what you have that no other writer has, and you’re not going to make anyone happy, least of all yourself, if you’re writing to fill some external mold.
Kitty taught me a lot about voice. That character is so well defined, so chatty, so vivid — I have to be confident when I’m writing her. I have to be absolutely sure what’s going on with her, all the time, and then get that across. In the course of writing about her, I’ve been able to bring that confidence to a lot of my other stories. It’s kind of like jumping into the deep end and just knowing I can swim.
My stories don’t all have the same specific “voice,” I think. My World War II stories necessarily sound different from my stories set in the Renaissance, or the contemporary urban fantasy stories. But I also think they’re all identifiably mine. There’s a quality to the language and characters that comes out of experience, practice, my own philosophies, and over time has turned into a spine that goes through all my writing.
“Voice” was never something I worked on or practiced. It happened over time. I’m still learning, still getting better, and recently my writing seems to have taken another major step forward — some of the best short stories I’ve ever written I’ve done in the last couple of years (and this is after getting the Hugo nomination). (Seriously — I’ve got some great stuff coming up, I can’t wait to show you all.) I was thinking about why that’s happened, and I think a lot of it has to do with voice. Having something to say, and being able to nail that down in a story with confidence. And really, that’s only come after twenty years of working hard, and working hard at getting better.
I’m trying to put together a workshop/lecture about voice. But I also wonder if it’s one of those things that has to come with time and experience. However it happens, I think it’s important, because it separates the stories you remember and the authors you go back to over and over again, from the ones you don’t.