Latest posts filed under 'On Writing'
Back in 2001, I was invited to give the keynote speech at the opening of the annual Surrey International Writers Conference. I thought I would bring it out of mothballs because it offers some inspiration to beginner writers.
I thought I would tell you the story of my life as a writer. It’s meant to be inspiring, though for emerging writers, parts of it may be terrifying.
I was born in a council house in Liverpool. My father was a laborer and sometimes salesman from Yorkshire. My mother was the daughter of a Liverpool Irish taxi driver.
We came to Canada but we didn’t strike it rich. We were what is politely called the working poor.
But that was only a partially accurate description. We were always poor, but sometimes there was no work.
We moved around a lot, which is a natural consequence of not being able to pay the rent. Sometimes we landed in neighborhoods that were full of people like us.
So at a rather tender age I learned to fight. I didn’t have much natural advantage when it came to fighting. I was only averagely coordinated but I was not large, and after I skipped a grade I was usually the smallest kid in the class.
But, except for the time one of my brothers knocked me unconscious, I never lost a fight.
The reason was simple: I wouldn’t quit. No matter how many times I got knocked down, I would get up and go in again. Sometimes I would prevail.
Other times I would make no real impact but the other kid would get scared of this little monster who wouldn’t say uncle and wouldn’t stay down. And the fight would just stop.
So I didn’t always win. But the way I saw it, as long as I was on my feet and still punching, I hadn’t lost.
This was a philosophy that came in handy when I became a writer.
Actually, in one very important sense, as a writer, I have been a winner. I have made my living by writing, sometimes a good living, sometimes well…
But for the past twenty-two years, I haven’t had to call anybody boss or work for wages.
I’ve written speeches, well over a thousand of them, for corporate executives and cabinet ministers.
But I never wanted to write speeches. I wanted to write creatively.
In my mid-twenties, before I was a speechwriter, I wrote a fantasy novel. A truly awful fantasy novel. Which has not been out of its box since 1976.
But that didn’t stop me.
In my late twenties, I sent some unsolicited sketches to the producer of the Dr. Bundolo comedy show on CBC Radio. He liked my stuff so much he gave me an unheard of deal — instead of paying me for what they broadcast, he paid me for every line I wrote.
Then the next year show went to television, with an all new staff, and died there. So I went back to writing speeches.
In my mid thirties, I was commissioned by a Canadian pay-tv service two write a feature film screenplay. I got paid ten thousand dollars.
But the producer who was supposed to make the movie couldn’t put the budget together. The project died, and I went back to writing speeches.
A couple of years later I finished another fantasy novel. A major New York literary agent loved the book, sent it around to every possible publisher. Editors loved the book — they sent letters that said so — but they declined to publish it because it was not “a typical fantasy novel.”
So I kept writing speeches.
I was also involved with a group of partners in developing an idea for a game based on male and female stereotypes.
We entered into a product management agreement with the creators of Trivial Pursuit who licensed our game to the company that made Pictionary. We were their next big game.
We launched it at the 1989 New York Toy Fair and that year we sold 115,000 units. In 1990, along came Nintendo and I went back to writing speeches.
At the age of forty-five I sold my not-typical fantasy novel to a Canadian publisher.
But the week it came out the publisher was taken over by a conglomerate and dissolved.
Two years later, I sold a thriller to Doubleday Canada. But the editor who signed me did so only after a five-month argument with the marketing department, which didn’t want another genre author.
A few months before the book came out, the editor went to another publishing house. I got to find out what it’s like to be an orphan in a Charles Dickens story.
That experience coincided with the collapse of the Asian economies, so there weren’t even that many speeches around.
But then a couple more years went by and I was standing at a magazine rack looking at a copy of Writers Digest, thinking it might be useful for some of the students I was teaching how to write at North Island College.
And there was an interview with Betsy Mitchell, of Time Warner books, saying how she was sick and tired of reading typical fantasy novels.
I sent her my strange little book. She bought it and commissioned a sequel.
Now they’re both out and the reviews have been very good, though I don’t know what the sales numbers are like. I do know they haven’t asked for a third book… yet.
Now, you might see a pattern in my experiences: along come these wonderful, career-making opportunities — radio, movies, games, novels — which, when I reach to seize them, fall to pieces in my hands.
I told you some of this might be terrifying.
But I see another pattern, and it’s one I’m familiar with. Each time I get knocked down, I get up and I get back in there.
Now, those of you who have heard Don McQuinn talk about what it takes to make it as a writer know that the one quality he recommends above all is persistence.
Well I’m here to confirm that recommendation. You’ve got to keep on punching.
You may remember I said at the beginning that I’m a mixed breed of English and Irish. That means that at all the great battles and risings and massacres that have scourged Ireland for centuries, I had ancestors on both sides.
So I figure that entitles me to take, without prejudice, the motto from one side. I don’t care for bigots and fanatics, but I have to tell you that the Protestants in Northern Ireland have a great battle cry for writers.
Isn’t that a great motto for writers? Try it out. Let me hear you say it.
I want you to write that down, print it out, big letters. Put it on the wall over your typewriter or on the top rim of your monitor.
And when you’re sitting there and you get the letter from the agent and it says, “Your work just didn’t get us excited…” I want you to look up at that piece of paper and say, “No surrender.”
And when you get the letter from the editor that says, “Unfortunately, we’ve just published a story similar to yours,” then you look up and you say, “No surrender.”
And when people ask you what you do and you say, “I’m a writer,” and they say, “No, I mean what do for a living?” you look them in the eye and what do you say?
And when the love of your life says, “Are you going to spend the whole damn day at that fucking keyboard?” you grit your teeth and say it under your breath. No surrender.
Because that’s what it means to be a writer in this world. It means they’re going to knock us down, and the only thing we can do is get back up and get back in there.
That’s why you’re here today. So you can throw a better punch — by learning more about how to write it, how to sell it.
That’s good. This is training camp. This is where you spar with the pros. So I want you to grab hold of this conference. Make it work for you.
Listen hard, don’t be afraid to ask questions, get into those one-on-ones with the editors and agents and pitch as hard as you can.
And for god’s sake, schmooze with everybody, at lunch, in the corridors, in the bar — make those contacts, and use them.
Do whatever the hell you can to move yourself towards that day when you hold in your hand the book you wrote.
Yeah, you’re going to get knocked down. And yeah, it’s going to hurt. But you get back up and you throw another punch.
When they say, “Had enough?” you tell them, “We’re just getting started.”
When they say, “What makes you think you can make it?” you tell them, “Because I won’t quit.”
It doesn’t matter what they throw at us. This is what it means to be writers. We will not give up. We will not stay down. We will not say uncle.
We’ll get back up on our feet, we’ll look the world in the eye, and we’ll tell them, “No surrender.”
(And then I had them yell it and keep yelling it, as I left the podium.)
Last month I went down to Victoria to be part of a panel at the Gottacon gaming convention. The theme was “So You Want to Become a Published Author” and my fellow panelists were Alyx Dellamonica (who’s very good), Dave Duncan (one of Canada’s top-selling fantasy authors) and T.J. Silver, who was just in the process of making a seven-book deal with Random House.
Karl Johanson, editor of Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, video-recorded most of the panel. He synched his video with an audio recording made by Jules Sherred, the moderator, and has now posted it on YouTube.
There’s some pretty good information there.
A few years back, we were having a discussion on the SF Canada listserver about what advice we would give to young folks setting out to write SF. I offered some succinct summaries of what I always told student when I teach this stuff. Karl Johanson, editor of the award-winning Canadian SF magazine, Neo-Opsis, picked up my spilled pearls and put them in Issue 15.
Today they were mentioned in another listserver discussion, so I thought I’d dig them out of the email archive and put them here:
1. You think it’s your story because you’re writing it; in fact, it’s the characters’ story, and you’re just writing it for them. In other words, start with the characters’ situations and needs, and your story will stay centred.
2. If you know what your story’s _about_, at the thematic level, well below plot, you’ll know how it has to end, and you won’t get lost in the plotting. Forex, a love story ends with the lovers united forever or tragicallly separated, a revenge story ends with the hero taking or forsaking revenge, a quest adventure ends with the hero reaching the goal or discovering, through the life-changing events of the journey, that the goal is not the true grail.
3. Conflict is the universal tool of fiction writing. Every story is built around a conflict, posed as a dramatic question and ultimately answered by the climax; every scene is built around a lesser conflict, the answer to which is yes, no, or not yet. Infodumps and lengthy scenic descriptions, as perpetrated by people who think the attraction of a story is its setting or world-building, are just travel writing. Conflict — character vs character, character vs environment, character vs him/herself — is what makes story.
4. Every story begins with an initiating incident. Something happens that is out of the ordinary for the character’s normal situation, no matter how extraordinary that situation might seem to us. From then on, the story is about how the character deals with the conflict that started with that plot point. Smart writers, especially those trying to interest agents and editors in their first saleable work, put that incident on page one and work in the setting and the backstory as the action continually moves forward. In other words, start your story where the story starts. Or in the words of Louis Lamour: have your hero in trouble on page one.
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