Patricia C. Wrede has been a stalwart of the sci-fi/fantasy world for decades, publishing dozens of books across multiple series, storming bestseller lists and corralling accolades from critics and fans alike. Now, with brilliant insight and a sparkling wit, Wrede shows beginning writers the ropes in Wrede on Writing.
Wrede tackles all issues for writers, from the basic how-to’s to the more advanced topics on character development and worldbuilding. In her conversational tone, she gives writers the tips and tricks her experience has brought. After Wrede on Writing, authors will have the knowledge to put their tools to better use. Thinking of starting a book? Trying to finish one? Wrede on Writing will guide you towards that superior draft to send to agents, to publishers, and to readers.
Before she became a successful full-time writer, Patricia C. Wrede worked in finance, and she also provides for authors an extensive look at how to manage the money—from royalties to determining the financial potential of your next project, Wrede provides authors with deep insight into the business of writing.
A brilliant guide from a literary stalwart, Wrede on Writing is the book everyone with a novel under their beds or inside their heads should read.
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* * *
What writers need to know before they start writing: questions of story creation (where do you get your ideas?), story development (getting an idea ready to start writing), and process (how the heck do I do this?!).
How to Be a Writer
* * *
No, really, that's it. It's kind of a definitional thing. In order to be a writer, you have to be someone who writes. Period. You don't have to follow a bunch of rules; you don't have to be educated; you don't have to be nice; you don't even have to be particularly professional in your attitudes (though if you aren't, you can expect to have a much harder time selling your stuff to an editor). You certainly don't have to be worthy. All you have to do is write.
On the flip side, if you aren't writing, you aren't a writer. Talking about writing is not writing. Reading how-to-write books is not writing. Research is not writing. Telling stories is not writing. Writers write. That's the definition.
Writers write. Which is plenty enough, believe me.
So You Want to Write a Book
* * *
It being the new year — and the first year of a new decade — I went poking around the web and noticed a bunch of websites for people's New Year's Resolutions. A little further investigation revealed that "write a book" is, in some form or another, on an awful lot of people's lists (it was one of the twenty most popular goals on one website I found).
Speaking as someone for whom "write a book" is more a necessity than anything else, I have to wonder whether any of those people really know what they're getting into. In my experience, most people don't actually want to write a book; what they want is to have written a book (preferably without spending much in the way of time or effort). Even the ones who really do want to write a book are probably underestimating just how long it's going to take and how sick of it they're going to get before they finish.
Be that as it may, a lot of folks are apparently going to take a crack at writing a book this year. I have not been asked for my advice on this, but I'm going to give it anyway. (What can I say? It's what I do.)
The first piece of advice is: Take each and every piece of writing advice you get with a large boulder of salt. This is especially true of those things that "everybody knows" you have to do to write, write well, get published, or be successful in whatever way you define it.
Because most writing advice isn't true for everyone, and a lot of it is extremely likely to be untrue for you.
For instance, the first thing nearly everybody looks for when they want to sit down and write a book is an idea. OK, yes, you do need an idea or two at some point in the process, and this is not an unreasonable place to begin. But not every writer starts with an idea, except in the broadest sense. Some start with a place they want to write about, or a character, or a story they want to tell, or a theme, or even a purpose like "I want to write a book that will inspire people!" Other people start by methodically trying to acquire the skills they are going to need in order to write — they take typing or creative writing classes, keep a practice journal, or read mountains of how- to-write books.
All these things work — for somebody. All these things also don't work — for other somebodies. The real trick is to figure out what works for you.
And while a certain amount of thought and introspection up front seems to help, ultimately the only way to find what works for you is to try out a bunch of different things and see what happens. It does make sense to start by trying the more commonly useful methods first, like outlining or keeping an ideas journal or doing daily practice writing.
Some things will work for you from the get-go. Some things will work for a while then stop, and when they do, it's OK to abandon them. (I kept an ideas file for about fifteen years, full of notes, brief descriptions, pictures or poetry that make my backbrain go ping, and a bunch of other stuff. I quit keeping it when I realized I hadn't looked at it for over five years.) Some things will work for you, but not the way you think they're supposed to. (I always outline. Always. And then I don't follow the outline. Always. I have to have it in order to see where I'm not going. Or something.) Some things won't work at all. (I've tried doing practice writing, and I just can't stick to it. My "practice writing" is my actual pages for the day.)
The most important thing, though, is to figure out how you write — whether you're a page-a-day-at-nine-a.m. slogger or a burst writer who can crank out ten thousand words in one marathon session at the computer but then has to sit around doing nothing for a week or two in order to recharge. Or there's the sort who sort of graze constantly, producing a paragraph here and a sentence there all through the day or week, feeling as if you aren't getting anything done until you get to Friday and notice that you have written an entire chapter when you "weren't working."
Where Do You Get Your Ideas
* * *
The single most common question people ask writers — especially science fiction/fantasy writers — is "Where do you get your ideas?" The assumption always seems to be that ideas are hard to come by.
But it's not really coming up with ideas that is hard. For instance, anyone can sit down and come up with a grocery list. The trouble is that "broccoli, milk, hamburger buns, toilet paper" is not normally perceived as story material. But as soon as you ditch that perception and start looking at the possibilities, it changes. So a normal grocery list doesn't seem much like story material. What sort of list could be story material? "Broccoli, vardun swela, skim milk, flies-in-amber, eggs." OK — what's vardun swela? Why are flies-in-amber on the list — is that some new weird food, or does it really mean amber with flies in it? Who (or what) is eating that amber and vardun-whatever-it-is: Is it company (long-term house guests, or dinner party?), or does this person have a housemate/significant other/family member/pet who isn't human, or is the list-writer the one who's not human and it's the company/SO/pet who needs the "special" (normal) food? How did the list-writer get into whatever situation requires buying this odd mix of foods? How important is it? Is he going to have a hard time finding vardun swela, or is it carried everywhere now? Is it an expensive import or the equivalent of cat food? Why does she want it? Who did this list, anyway?
And the next thing you know, you've got a story about a college boy at Roswell University whose dorm room is haunted by the ghost of an alien that won't leave until it gets a proper meal, or a harried woman planning her first dinner party with her daughter's prospective in-laws, who happen to be elves, or a future diplomat engaged in touchy negotiations with some aliens, who is trying to get his stomach used to their food (which tastes and smells like rotten eggs) before the big banquet tomorrow night, or whatever else strikes your fancy. From contemplating a grocery list.
The trick is teaching yourself to look at everyday things this way (it doesn't come naturally to everyone, not even to all writers). Creative brainstorming is one way of training it, and it's the most fun if you get a group together, though you can do it alone. You can pick a topic, or you can simply open a dictionary and pick two random words, or you can just have everyone in the room write down a one-sentence character description, a one- sentence description of an object, and an action on separate pieces of paper. Mix the words or sentences or topics in a bowl and draw two or three; then set a timer for ten minutes and begin writing a list of ideas and associations and possible plots.
What you're trying to do here is stir things up. If you focus too hard on "getting an idea," you probably won't come up with anything — like those times when somebody says "Where shall we go for dinner?" and you suddenly cannot for the life of you think of the name of a single restaurant, not even McDonald's. If you just look slantwise at normal, everyday things, it becomes a habit after a while, and pretty soon you have more ideas than you know what to do with.
Anything can be the start of a story if you look at it right — but you have to be looking at it, not at "I want a story."
* * *
Nearly every writer has what I call a "default setting" for most of the basic pieces of writing. They tend, for instance, to automatically write in first- or third-person, or from multiple viewpoints. When they're thinking up stories or developing ideas, they gravitate toward the action/adventure plot, or toward one focusing on relationships, or toward something more character-centered where the main point is someone learning a lesson. They are inclined toward the same kinds of characters, settings, or genres.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Every writer has strengths and weaknesses, and there's a lot to be said for playing to your strengths.
After a while, though, doing the same thing over and over can get boring. Also, once you've polished those particular aspects of your writing to a high gleam, it can be more difficult to improve the things you aren't as good at doing, because you never give yourself the chance to practice them. So when you finally do try them out, your skill levels are so far behind your strengths that they make everything new you try look terrible compared to whatever you're used to doing.
Which is why I'm a big fan of knowing what your defaults are. If you know them, you can change your automatic choices, consciously and deliberately. This means that if you don't like writing exercises (which I mostly don't), you can learn how to do new things while you're also writing pay copy. (This doesn't work for everyone; some people learn better and faster from exercises. They should use them. This is a big part of figuring out your process and your defaults — figuring out whether you get the most out of learning specific pieces and then putting them together later, or from just jumping into the deep end and trying to not drown.)
Career writers are constantly torn between playing to their strengths (which often means writing the same kind of story over and over) and developing their weak points so as to have a broader range of possibilities available. Different writers make different choices about how to deal with this. Some are perfectly happy to never stretch too far beyond their current basic strengths, and sometimes that works really well for them, especially if they've developed a large fan base that is perfectly happy to have the same thing over and over. Others start off that way, polishing their strong points for their first few books, and only then begin pushing themselves. Still others begin pushing all their limits as hard as possible right from the get-go, striving to get their skills up to some arbitrary level before they allow themselves to relax, and others only push in one area at a time.
Me, I'm a slogger, and I don't mean just the day-to-day grind. I don't normally tend to push every one of my limits to the absolute max all at once, but I do try to stretch in a new direction with every book.
My first novel defaulted to an awkward (in retrospect) multiple- viewpoint /omniscient format; for my second, I deliberately chose to write single viewpoint, tight third-person. My current default values are for plot- centered, tight third-person, single-viewpoint, stand-alone stories that take place over a relatively limited time period, usually a few days to a couple of months. So my most recent books were a character-centered, first-person, memoir-style trilogy that takes place over the course of years — thirteen years for book one, two more years for book two, and two to three years for book three.
That's an unusually large number of defaults for me to upset all at once, but the main default that I'm currently upsetting is my habit of only making one stretchy writing-technique change per book. I don't recommend swapping absolutely everything around the first time you decide to shake things up, unless you already know that you need to do that kind of thing. But for me, it was time for a major shake-up, and while I deliberately switched a lot of my defaults, not all of them were terribly stretchy, one at a time. I've done first-person before, in a couple of different flavors (letters, over-the-shoulder narrative), and I've written things that were longer and more character-focused. It's certainly been stretchy trying them all at once, which was part of the idea (the other part being that once I got the story idea for the trilogy, particularly the narrator's voice, I wouldn't have been happy telling it any other way.)
The Jigsaw Puzzle Analogy
* * *
I keep running across people who think that there is One Right Way to write a story and who tie themselves in knots trying to force themselves to write "the right way" when it doesn't suit their particular mental processes. Somewhere, somehow, they've gotten convinced (usually because some authority figure like an editor or author or teacher told them) that the only way to come up with a really good book or short story is to do X.
Usually, X is something like "start with your characters," or "do a scene- by-scene plot outline before you do anything else," or "lay out the entire background in grim detail before you even start thinking about plot or characters," but it can be just about anything so long as the author is convinced that it's necessary to do whatever-it-is in order to produce a "good book."
The effect can be an awful lot like tying both hands behind your back and then trying to swim the English Channel, especially if the particular X happens to be contrary to the author's way of working. Even if X is something that works for a particular writer most of the time, it can cause problems if the writer is suddenly faced with a story that needs some other process, because when people think that they must work in a particular way, they're likely to find themselves in a mental straightjacket that can be very difficult to get out of.
Writing a story is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Some people start by doing all the edges. Some people look for easy bits and pieces throughout. One of my sisters used to drive everybody else in the family crazy because she'd start at one edge of the puzzle and work her way methodically across to the other edge, and nobody does a jigsaw puzzle like that!
But it doesn't matter what order you put the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together in. What matters is that they are all in the right places when you are finished. And it doesn't matter whether you start at the end of the story or the beginning, with the plot or the characters or the setting, whether you skip around and write scenes out of order or whether you begin at the beginning and work straight through to the end.
What matters is that when you are finished, you have a good story, however you managed to get there.
Cinderella at the Rock Concert
* * *
Writing a short story is not the same as writing a novel. Oh, you need similar skills — knowing how to write dialogue, for instance — but there are fundamental differences that blindside an awful lot of writers who think that because they've learned how to write one, writing the other will just be more of the same.
Basically, short stories require a tight focus and a single, central plot thread; in a novel, there is more room for digression and development of more than one thing. The same basic idea can often be developed as a short story by keeping the plot/focus tight or as a novel by letting it hang loose.
Starting with a simple idea — "I'll do Cinderella set at a rock concert!" — a short story writer might lay out one scene to establish Cindy, her rotten roommates, and the coming concert; another showing Cindy's godmother arriving with tickets; the concert scene itself; and, of course, the stunning conclusion when the rock star shows up at the dorm to ask Cindy out. Four scenes, four to five major characters, fairly straightforward progression from setup through finish. Tight focus on Cindy and her starstruck eagerness to go to the concert and the happy ending. Most of the plot-work is already done; it's the specific details that have to be worked out — the lightly sketched-in personalities of the roommates, the encounter with the rock star at the concert when the power cable goes out and Cindy is in the right place (and has the right knowledge) to help fix the problem, just how to work in that lost sneaker, and so on.
A novelist, with the same idea, elaborates on just about every piece. "OK, I need to start with Cindy and her rotten roommates ... why are they rotten? Why don't they like her? I know! I'll give one of the roommates a jealous boyfriend ... and I can do a whole mix-up where she dislikes Cindy because she thinks Cindy is trying to steal the boyfriend, when Cindy is just trying to convince him that he has no reason to be jealous. And I'll make the other roommate be into drugs ... yeah, and so is one of the band members! Hey, I can put an undercover cop in with the roadies; that'll give me an excuse to show how you set up for a rock concert. And the real pusher can be the assistant science professor, who's supplementing his salary by mixing stuff in the science lab, and Cindy finds out when she and her godmother raid the lab for the mice on the night of the concert, only the cop thinks it's really Cindy, so she has to hide from him and the pusher, and that's why the rock star can't find her. And the jealous boyfriend and the other roommate can help the rock star uncover clues in order to make up for causing Cindy so much trouble ..."
Characters and subplots and complications proliferate quickly, and they just won't all fit into five or ten thousand words, not if they're done right. And the minute the writer actually starts in on the first scene, the senior down the hall shows up, bringing in even more possibilities, and of course there's the suspicious science professor, who was the one who called in the cops in the first place (though of course she didn't know it was her assistant who was making the drugs — she thought it was a student ... maybe she can end up paired off with the undercover roadie cop ...), and Cindy's slightly dotty godmother, who breezes through on her way to Jamaica, and ...
The focus in the novel is still on Cindy and her romance and/or development from shy, put-upon roommate to rock-star date, but all of the characters are more complex. Each character still feeds directly into the main plot thread — Cindy going to the rock concert unexpectedly, meeting the star, and disappearing so he has to hunt for her — but they each have their own more developed sub-story. It's not just a matter of padding or adding subplots — if you added the subplot about the druggie roomie and the pusher science assistant as an afterthought, you'd probably already have some other reason why Cindy disappeared after the rock concert, and the subplot would just be a sort of overlay instead of integral to the main story.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wrede on Writing"
Copyright © 2013 Patricia C. Wrede.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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
How to Be a Writer,
So You Want to Write a Book,
Where Do You Get Your Ideas,
The Jigsaw Puzzle Analogy,
Cinderella at the Rock Concert,
The Big Three,
Before the Beginning,
Useful and Unuseful Lists,
Old Ways of Looking at Plot,
The Hat Lecture,
Where Do I Begin ...,
So the Next Thing that Happens Is ...,
The Most Basic of Basics,
No Battle Plan,
Plotting and Planning,
Where One Writes,
Working at What Isn't Working,
Point of View,
The LEGO Theory Of Writing,
A Line Around the Outer Edge,
Lights, Camera ... What?,
Say That Again, Would You?,
But What Does It Look Like?,
Where Are We?,
Three Kinds of Research,
All Together at Once,
Building a World,
From the Mailbag,
Hooking the Reader,
When Is It Over,
The Devil's In the Details,
Fantasy vs. Reality,
Looking Backward I,
Looking Backward II (or Some Tenses and How to Use Them),
Meeting the Cast,
Information and How to Dump It,
The Skeleton in the Closet,
A Few Words on Pacing and Structure,
The Escalation Problem,
From the Mailbag: Whose Turn Is It?,
The Big Finish,
The Structure of the End,
In Praise of Editors,
The Business of Writing,
Query Letter Principles,
On Agents, part the second,
Hurry Up and Wait,
Keeping the Pipeline Full,
A Few Things Not to Do,
Long Range Thinking,
In Summary: There is No One True Way,