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11:27 am: Wright's Writing Corner: John C. Wright's Insights On Writing

For my first ever Wright's Writing Corner entry (I realize it should be Lamplighter's Writing Corner, but that doesn't sound as good), I have a guest blog by my husband, John C. Wright, in which he shares his insights on becoming a writer.

Most of you probably know, but John is the author of nine books and many short stories. More about his work can be found here.

Without further ado:

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Since becoming an author, from time to time interested fans (or else people willing to make me feel better by playing along with the idea that I am real writer by pretending to be fans) will ask me to pass on my writing tips. This is one question I find easy to answer, because my advice is the same for any new writer, no matter his age or level of skill.

 

Here are John C. Wright's patented and guaranteed Ten Commandments for How to be a Writer.

 

1. In order to be a writer, you must write.

 

 

2. In order to write, you must use proper spelling, punctuation, grammar; or, if you violate these rules, the violation must be deliberate, to create an artistic effect. Avoid politically correct jargon at all costs. Do not use ugly constructions like "he or she"; it will date your work, and the cool people will laugh at you.

 

3. In order to be a writer, you must sell what you write. No manuscript should spend a single night on your desk; the same day you get a rejection, put the manuscript in the mail to the next editor. Let the manuscripts spend their nights on the editor's desk.

 

4. In order to sell what you write, read the editor's guidelines for his magazine or publishing house and follow them. These guidelines are available in a reference book called Writer's Market. Get the reference book for the current year. If the guidelines say double-spaced white paper single sided, and no samurai vampire stories, do not send him "Lightning Swords of the Nosferatu of Kyoto" printed on blood-red paper, single-spaced, double sided. Failure to follow the guidelines shows you are a dude, a tenderfoot, a punk, a novice, not someone meant to be treated with professional courtesy. Your story is your child: no mother would send her child out to look for a job without fixing his tie and shining his shoes.

 

5. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope with proper postage affixed, if you want the manuscript back.

 

6. You will receive on average ONE HUNDRED rejection slips before you make your first sale. This is an average. This means that if someone, say, Lester del Rey, makes his first sale on his first attempt without getting a rejection, that someone else, say, Ray Bradbury, will get two hundred rejection slips.

 

7. If your manuscript is good or bad, send out your manuscript again. Genius does not count. Only persistence counts. The world will not recognize your genius until after you are dead. But the world can recognize your persistence now.

 

8. If the manuscript is good, send out your manuscript again. The editor who rejected it last month or last year may have different needs or a different budget this month or this year.

 

9. If the manuscript is bad, send out your manuscript again. The worst thing you ever wrote will someday, somehow, be some schoolboy's favorite story ever. Your readers are your employers. Respect and fear them. Do not approach this work with pride or selfishness or any of the other emotions to which men of fragile artistic spirits are inclined. It is a profession. Act professionally.

 

10. Selling writing means your manuscripts go out, and money comes back in. Money always goes toward the writer. Money never goes away from the writer. This means you do not hire a manuscript doctor, you do not pay a reading fee, you do not enter a contest which charges an entry fee. Those are scams. Agents are paid on commission, paid when and only when they sell your wares, whereupon the money comes from the publisher and goes toward you; You do not pay the agent a retainer.

 

To sum up: To be a writer, you write. You write by writing grammatically correct English, not Politically Correct Newspeak. You sell what you write. You sell what you write by following the editor's submission guidelines. You include a self-addressed stamped envelope. You continue to submit stories whether they are good, bad or mediocre. You treat it like a job.

 

Do not wait to be inspired. So-called inspiration consists of sitting down at scheduled times for scheduled amounts of time and actually doing the work of writing. It is the same inspiration used by a cobbler to make a shoe, or a carpenter to make a chair.

 

Writing is not accomplished by inspiration. It is accomplished by not making excuses to not accomplish it.

 

Let me add one more rule to my list of ten rules. This is the Eleventh Commandment, the unwritten rule:

 

11. When you get a rejection slip, be thankful.

 

Yes, you heard me. Not only are you NOT to take it personally, you are to have thanks and gratitude in your heart for getting rejected.

 

Rejection slips come in three grades: (1) impersonal form letters (2) form letters with specific reasons for rejection (3) personal notes from the editor explaining the rejection.

 

You are to be thankful for getting an impersonal form letter because it means one more rejection slip of the one hundred or two hundred you must collect before you make your first sale has been checked off. This means that your manuscript, which has been sitting on his desk for seven months, is now free to be submitted to another editor, perhaps even to that one special editor which God or Fate or Blind Chance or the Seldon Plan of History (take your pick) had intended from the first to be the place where your manuscript would find its home. It means a fresh chance, another turn of the Wheel of Fortune. 

 

You are to be thankful for getting form letters with specific rejection reasons because you can use this information to improve the story or improve your sales pitch, and because there is no other place in the universe you can get this information.

 

You are to be thankful for personal notes from the editor explaining the rejection, because this means you have graduated to the rank of being a real writer, even if you have yet to sell a single word of your art, because editors do not take the time to explain themselves to rank amateurs. It means you are good enough to make the sale, and you just so happen not to have made it this time. It is encouragement.

 

The main reason why you are to be thankful and grateful for rejection slips rather than bitter and insulted is that professionals are thankful. Above all, you are thankful Fate has allowed you even a slender chance at entering a profession made of wonder. You get to write down daydreams and people pay you money for it. A few blows to the ego are a small price to pay, and are probably good for improving your character anyway.

 

If you take things personally, your professional life will be purgatory. 

 

Writers know writing is the best profession in the world, and they are grateful for all it, good and bad alike, rejections and sales alike. That is what makes them professionals.



Comments

[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:July 15th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for the push. I now feel impelled to get a query out for a non-fiction teen book related to the book I sold earlier.

Or, in words drawn from my milieu, you can't win a race if you don't make it to the starting gate.

But I am happier when it's pre-sold.
From:ext_198856
Date:July 15th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)

number 1

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I've been on a writing break for too long! I must go back to rule number 1 and write!
Good advice!
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From:davidbcoe
Date:July 15th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
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Good tips, aside from number 2, which, in my opinion, should be specific to fiction writing. Sometimes the he/she thing is absolutely necessary in nonfiction. It's not "Politically Correct Newspeak", it's common courtesy. You don't write in such a way as to exclude half the world's population. Everything else, though, is spot on. I particularly like what you say here about rejections.
From:necoras
Date:July 15th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
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I would argue that using he or she interspersed throughout an article (or whatever you're writing) works better than he/she. Unless you're talking about hermaphrodites, pick a gender and stick to it. Use a different gender for your next example.
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From:m_francis
Date:July 15th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
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Or, if your readership really is so challenged as to mistake grammatical gender for human sexuality, find a way to rephrase the statement in the plural. "Every good writer knows that he should...." becomes "Good writers know that they should...." Granted, it is silly, but if that's what your customers demand....
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From:davidbcoe
Date:July 15th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
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My first choice is to find a different construction so that I don't have to deal at all with a gender specific pronoun. Failing that, your approach works well. He/she was short hand I used in my comment. I would usually use "He or she..." if I couldn't write around the issue. My point was simply that this concern is more than mere politically correct tripe. It's a legitimate issue; at least it is to me.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 15th, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
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Wow...two published writers debating grammer on my blog. How cool!

Er...um...I meant: welcome and yes, how interesting.
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From:davidbcoe
Date:July 15th, 2009 06:40 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, not bad for the first day.... Good luck with the blog, Jagi. Hope it draws lots of people to your work.
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From:carbonelle
Date:July 16th, 2009 04:03 am (UTC)

Just to be safe, Jagi

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I'm going to bury this one deep in a comment thread

"In order to write, you must use proper spelling, punctuation, grammar"

***falls about laughing hysterically***

John's rules you say?

Not that this isn't the pot calling the kettle black when it comes to self-editing :-)
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 16th, 2009 12:05 pm (UTC)

Re: Just to be safe, Jagi

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John is a tech-writer these days. He spends all his time fixing grammar issues and arguing about what the standard should be for the company bibles.

Oddly enough, his grammar and spelling have improved enormously over the last 15 years, while mine remains as it was.
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From:carbonelle
Date:July 18th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Just to be safe, Jagi

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This is true--one only has to compare his LJ posts now with those of several years ago to see it.

I did bury it for a reason, yet it made me laugh: Fair or not I still think of John as the O. Henry of SF&F
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 19th, 2009 03:44 am (UTC)

Re: Just to be safe, Jagi

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Oh, the humor is present. ;-)
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From:johncwright
Date:July 17th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Just to be safe, Jagi

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Would you prefer I ask would-be writers to make the same mistakes I make? Sometimes a drunk can tell you better than a sober man what the evils of strong drink do to your life.
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From:carbonelle
Date:July 18th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Just to be safe, Jagi

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Your point, sir!

(it still made me giggle, though)
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From:baduin
Date:July 15th, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
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The whole problem of "he/she" is a classic example of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, cultural insensitivity, Americanocentrism, and elitism. All other languages must use pronouns in agreement with the nouns. Eg in German girl is "das Maedel", and the pronoun is "es" - it. This does not mean that German girls are neuters; this is simply the grammar gender of the word.

As it happens, the English is the only one European language in which words have no grammar gender. The perfidious Anglo-Saxons used this opportunity to once again hypocritically claim moral superiority; as usually, they did nothing for them. They simply played a bit with words and said that this proves that they are, again, morally superior. Perhaps we should be thankful that they do not say still "Cleanliness is next to godliness" and only seldom suggest that all foreigners are unwashed illiterates.

If they at least really did something for women and minorities! But no - they still have the disgusting custom of putting women and other minorities in command of failing enterprises, and they smugly saying NOTHING, when the things go to hell under woman CEO or minority president.

And when the foreigners try to use this "she/he" rigmarole, their languages fall apart. Undoubtly, Anglo-Saxons again are laughing at dumb foreigners and their morally inferior languages.

What to say... only that perfidious Albion seems to have been joined by the perfidious Atlantis.
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From:m_francis
Date:July 16th, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)
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I've always liked it that the German word for manliness (die Maennlichkeit) is grammatically feminine.
From:automatthew
Date:July 17th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)
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Isn't the Greek equivalent arete feminine? I think Italian virtu is, as well.
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From:johncwright
Date:July 18th, 2009 09:14 am (UTC)

English has a word for the indeterminate case --- he

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"I would argue that using he or she interspersed throughout an article..."

Except that this would be grammatically incorrect, as well as misleading. The word "he" (look in any good dictionary) is the pronoun for the indeterminate case. When the sex of the antecedent is indeterminate, you use "he." The word "she" does not take that meaning.

While this admits of some ambiguity, so do words like "fox" and "dog." We use fox at times to mean either fox or vixen; we use dog at times to mean either dog or bitch. (Unlike "cat", which has a specific male-only word "Tom".)

The one and only one time I saw someone deliberately using the female pronoun in the indeterminate case was, oddly enough, a set of rules for a roleplaying game.

The player (regardless) was always called "he" and the umpire (regardless) was always called "she": this allowed the writer to write sentences like "For spot checks, she rolls the dice but does not show him the result" -- and the reader knew exactly who was doing what without having to spell it out.

I thought it was a great idea, because it helped rather than hindered communication.

I liked it, because it was, for once, not a case of politicizing or polluting the language.

In all other cases, you have the problem that using the word "she" to mean "he or she" jars the reader out of the flow of words.

It is jarring because only partisans of political correctness embrace this error, and only within the last few years. So it has the following strikes against it:

1. It is a faddish. Whether it lasts or not, it will date your writing.

2. It is partisan. It will offend those who are not devoted to a Progressive political party. It certainly offends me. If you are using bad grammar to avoid offending feminists, keep in mind you might offend grammarians.

3. It is incorrect, or, at least, nonstandard. It will make educated people think you ain't got no good English. It sounds bad to a properly-trained ear.

4. It is controversial. I often put aside books that use PC phrases because such use signals that the writer is not willing to be polite, honest, and neutral: he is taking a sides, and, in my case, he takes the opposing side.

5. It is manipulative. PC is based on the theory that words control minds. The theory is false, but even if true, I resent the pious insincerity involved. I resent the propagandist agenda. The reason why it is called "politically correct" is because it is factually incorrect. It is language used for a political purpose rather than a communication purpose.

I would strongly recommend avoiding this neologism, unless you are writing only for a narrow audience, or unless you don't give a hoot whom you offend.
[User Picture]
From:damcphail
Date:July 16th, 2009 11:51 am (UTC)

gender trap

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See...that is why every non-fiction I've written (all about writing) are always written in first person and with an air of irreverance ;)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 15th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)

Grammar

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Are there any books out there that you can recommend for grammar improvement?
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 15th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Grammar

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Strunk and White's Elements of Style is a good place to start. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/020530902X/thewrighthouse

My favorite grammar books are the Transitive Vampire and other grammar books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. They made grammar fun: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679418601/thewrighthouse

Edited at 2009-07-15 07:38 pm (UTC)
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From:princejvstin
Date:July 15th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Grammar

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I haven't picked up any of the Gordon books, but many have recommended them to me.
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From:m_francis
Date:July 16th, 2009 03:39 am (UTC)

Re: Grammar

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I like the Underground Grammarian.
http://www.sourcetext.com/grammarian/

"However, while the abolition of television, athletics, and teenagers would, of course, bring many happy returns, none of them would be linguistic."
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 16th, 2009 12:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Grammar

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Oh, that is funny!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 15th, 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)

Cat

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Nice blog, but it needs cat pictures. Go look at Scalzi's blog. You can get away with anything if you toss in a few cute cat pics.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 15th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Cat

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This blog is definitely low on pictures...due mainly to the picture-posting incompetance of the blog owner.

But I'll think about the wisdom of adding a picture to the Wright's Writing Corner. (Probably not a cat picture...my cats, much as I love 'em, are not photogenic.)

I have some great photos of trees...not really the same, though.
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From:princejvstin
Date:July 15th, 2009 09:59 pm (UTC)
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If you take things personally, your professional life will be purgatory.


--Possibly the primary reason why I haven't dared to try and become a professional writer. I have a nasty tendency to take *everything* too hard.
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From:anastasis
Date:July 16th, 2009 01:57 am (UTC)
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The part on rejection slips was really encouraging. Thanks :)
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From:carbonelle
Date:July 16th, 2009 04:06 am (UTC)

Excellent stuff

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Do not wait to be inspired. So-called inspiration consists of sitting down at scheduled times for scheduled amounts of time and actually doing the work of writing. It is the same inspiration used by a cobbler to make a shoe, or a carpenter to make a chair

This is actually good advice for any creative endeavor.

Although that "scheduled time for scheduled amounts of time" doesn't explain how writers-who-are-also-moms manage to do it.

But maybe it's easier for writers than artists? Or I'm less competent than most? Or both?

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 16th, 2009 12:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Excellent stuff

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I think it's a matter of doing one's best. A schedule is desirable...but not always possible.
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From:johncwright
Date:July 17th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)

Re: Excellent stuff

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"Although that "scheduled time for scheduled amounts of time" doesn't explain how writers-who-are-also-moms manage to do it."

Perhaps soon-to-be-world-famous and beautiful authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter could have this be the subject of a future "Wright's Writing Corner". How do Writer Moms both raise kids and write novels?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 17th, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Excellent stuff

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I wrote an article on that for a writer's guide from Dragon Moon press: http://astore.amazon.com/wwwdragonmo0e00-20/detail/1896944353

I could certainly do an entry on it as well.

Edited at 2009-07-17 04:11 pm (UTC)
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From:bojojoti
Date:July 16th, 2009 06:17 am (UTC)
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I appreciated this compilation of "commandments."

I read in the comments that your post was lacking a cat:

Trophy
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 16th, 2009 12:08 pm (UTC)
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Oh, that was very sweet of you!
Woo. Look at that. my own cat picture!
From:robertjwizard
Date:July 16th, 2009 11:29 am (UTC)

Wright's Ten Commandments

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That was the best, no BS, writing guideline I've ever read. Almost gruff in tone. Sweet.
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From:cdenmier
Date:July 16th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)

Great Advice

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There are some great nuggets in here -- the one that sticks with me at the moment is #9: at once uplifting and also nagging. No matter how terrible your story may be, someone, sometime, somehow will LOVE it (even if you don't). Even a bad story is still a valid act of sub-creation. Of course, that means that my constant self-advice is no good ("Oh, me? I'm a bad writer. My stories are horrible, just horrible. Why write any more? I'll wait 'til I'm much older and magically better.").

The nudging that is in #9 is reflected later on when Wright explains that you must not "wait to be inspired." That is hard advice for a lazy one like me. Mr. Wright, there are just SO many excuses not to write. Why must you poke holes in them?

Anyway, a great article. Thank you for posting this and I hope you continue with the feature.
From:niallmor
Date:July 16th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)

Write It Right with Wright

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How's that for a catchy title? :) Solid, sensible advice. But ya mean, we actually gotta, ya know, write stuff? With words and everything? Bummer! :)
[User Picture]
From:joecool385
Date:July 16th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)

Wright Writes Right

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What wonderful, wonderful advice.

"Do not wait to be inspired. So-called inspiration consists of sitting down at scheduled times for scheduled amounts of time and actually doing the work of writing. It is the same inspiration used by a cobbler to make a shoe, or a carpenter to make a chair."

This is perhaps the most brilliant advice I can get from these 10 (11?) excellent suggestions. Too often I don't write because I'm not in the mood or I don't feel like writing or I'm waiting for inspiration to strike me. Sometimes I will sit, staring at my computer screen, waiting for the story to write itself. This advice is a good reminder that I need to treat it like I treat my day job: I need to do it because it needs to be done, and no one else can do it for me.
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 16th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)

Re: Wright Writes Right

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I had an experience when I was young that impressed me along these lines. I had a regular writing time, but just before hand, I had a big fight with my dad. I sat down, crying and got to work. Being--at the time--a person who believed in the power of emotion and the importance of happiness, I thought my writing would be much worse than usual.

But when I went back and looked at it...it was just the same as ever. My mood had not mattered a bit.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 16th, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Wright Writes Right

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Excellent tips! I especially like No. 7 - can I steal that quote? ~Monica
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From:arhyalon
Date:July 17th, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Wright Writes Right

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I'll ask John. ;-)
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From:madkestrel
Date:July 17th, 2009 03:14 pm (UTC)
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... printed on blood-red paper, single-spaced, double sided.

Oh my, just thinking of that makes my eyes ache.
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From:johncwright
Date:July 18th, 2009 08:39 am (UTC)

Follow up Question

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Just to clarify a point. Someone asked me how seriously to take 7 and 9. Should he send out a truly bad first draft manuscript where the plot makes no sense rather than rewrite it?

Like all rules, they apply only in certain cases. If your manuscript is truly bad or not finished it needs to be rewritten.

My rules did not say when and how often you should rewrite. That is because there is and can be no general rule about this: it is a judgment call. (Heinlein suggested never rewriting; but he had a knack for writing a good first draft, and an approach that lent itself to loose-jointed plots. A writer with no such knack should rewrite several drafts, until everything is clean and polished.)

I myself just lost about two years of writing time, since I had to throw away 500 pages of material I cannot use and had to reoutline my entire next trilogy.

Rule 7 and 9 boil down to saying 'don't be a perfectionist' --- but what I should have also said, and did not, is don't be a hack either.

Don't deliberately, or through lack of commitment, try to sell material that is not workmanlike. Be professional about it.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 19th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)

how to be a writer

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Writers about to commit to John's Ten Commandments might be interested in Narrative Magazine. It's an on-line literary magazine committed to publishing worthwhile writing. They publish fiction, non-fiction, memoir, essays, also comics and graphic stories, from established as well as new authors. But more to the point, they have frequent writing contests open to all--their "spring" story contest currently is underway with a July 31 submission deadline. Take a look. http://www.narrativemagazine.com/
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