Writing Advice, and a Little Bit of Hero Worship

This evening, I joined about 2,000 fellow geeks at Town Hall in Seattle to see Neil Gaiman do a reading and be interviewed by Maria Headley. I’ve been attending a lot of author signings recently, but this one was particularly special, because if there’s any author working today whom I actually idolize, it’s Neil Gaiman. (I wouldn’t just dress up as any author for Halloween, after all.) On top of that, he’s not just an excellent writer, he’s also a great public speaker and oral storyteller. For many authors, skill with the written word does not go hand-in-hand with public speaking (I suspect I’m one of them), but Neil Gaiman is superb in both arenas, and if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, I definitely recommend it.

Over the course of the ensuing discussion and Q&A session, he gave several tidbits of advice for writers, but one in particular stood out for me. Paraphrased, it was basically this:

There will always be better writers out there than you. But, there is no one else who can tell your stories. So the sooner you stop trying to tell other people’s stories, and start telling your own, the better off you’ll be.

And he’s right. New writers, myself included, do start out by trying (often unconsciously) to emulate our favorite authors. But with enough practice, you eventually find your own voice, and that’s when you really start writing stories that are truly your own. It’s good to remember, because as a new writer, it’s easy to read stuff by great authors (like Gaiman) and think, Oh, geez, he’s such a better writer than I am! I’ll never be able to write the kind of awesome stuff what he does! I’m doomed to failure! And it’s true. You’ll never be able to write like Neil Gaiman. But if you’re true to your own voice, if you write your own stories, and bring to them your own unique set of experiences and passions, then Neil Gaiman won’t be able to write like you, either. The thought made me smile– it’s not about being better, or best. It’s about being you.

So with that in mind, I took my newly acquired signed copies of Neverwhere and American Gods (pre-signed, because an author signing with 2,000 people would just be painful), and headed home to write.

Rumor has it Neil may be back in town in November with his wife, Amanda Palmer, for something involving both reading and music. If so, I’ll definitely be there.

Dances with Pocahontas in Space, Revisited

A few months ago I wrote a post criticizing the movie Avatar, which has become the most read (and most contentious) post in my otherwise quiet corner of the Interwebs. I didn’t even think of it as particularly critical; I liked the movie, I just wished it had stretched further with the story.

A couple weeks ago, I was reminded of this when Writing Excuses (a podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells) did an episode titled How to Steal for Fun and Profit, in which they elucidated many of the same points I had been trying to make, but better and much more thoroughly.

Basically, the point of the podcast was this: All writers (as well as all types of creative folk) are influenced and inspired by the works of people who have come before them. Where’s the line between influence and copying? What do you need to do to make an idea truly your own?

Several different works were mentioned, including Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”, which is an homage to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Avatar was also brought up. Here’s what the podcast had to say about it (the transcription is from A Word in Your Eye, which transcribes all the Writing Excuses podcasts):

[Brandon] Do you think that he was too close to other films, yes or no?
[Howard] I think that they took stories that they knew were safe, they took story elements that they knew were safe, because everything else they were doing with that film was so bleeding edge that they wanted to not take a risk on the story. I reviewed it as the best Fern Gulley remake ever.
[Dan] Avatar is a case where I think I may be more forgiving than a lot of the reviews and comments that I’ve read. Yes, it was a story we’d seen before, but it was the best version of that story that I think I’ve ever seen. So that’s a case where for me, he did enough to make it his own.
[Brandon] I saw the film and I really deeply enjoyed the film. And still walked out of it saying, “Gee, I wish there had been a really great different story, too.” It was a great film that felt… that left a little tiny hole in me that kept me from saying that was a fantastic film. But it’s hard to fault someone for making a really good film that works on so many levels and has made so much money.

I agree pretty much word-for-word with Brandon (or he agrees with me, either way). I really enjoyed the movie, but the lackluster story, particularly compared to everything else, nagged at me. And of course, I can’t help but be happy that some of my favorite authors covered the same themes I did a post about. I feel vindicated. Smart, even.

But seriously, if you fancy yourself a writer, particularly a sci-fi/fantasy writer, check out Writing Excuses. Short, funny podcasts, all with great writing advice, and all from authors who are succeeding professionally (and who made it there in different ways).

Making Sense of the World, One Story at a Time

I haven’t blogged much lately, because I’ve been too busy following Neil Gaiman’s advice, particularly the first 27 seconds:

The stories that I’ve been writing over the past two weeks aren’t the kind that get edited, proofread and sold to a magazine. No, I’ve been writing the messy kind, the stories that I can’t write about on here, because they’re true, and I still like the people involved.

Instead, these are the stories that will get mixed up in my head, whirled around in the creative machinery of my imagination, and as I mull them over trying to figure out why things happened the way they did, maybe I’ll gain a little bit of insight into what makes people tick.

And maybe, in a few years, my mind will spit out a story idea, and I’ll recognize traces of the past two weeks in it. Then again, maybe not.

.

In unrelated news, I’ve been feeling motivated to pick up the novel again, which has lain pretty much untouched since the end of NaNoWriMo. The ending is still firmly embedded in my head, and I desperately want to tell it, so slowly but surely, I’m learning to look past all the flaws in the rough draft, and see the important part: the story that still needs to be told.

It’s sitting there, like a diamond in the rough, waiting to be unearthed, and even if it’s a little dirty and unpolished when I first pull it out of the ground, there’s still a diamond in there. It’s time to get back to work excavating it.

Or, in other words, it’s time to follow not just the first 27 seconds of Neil Gaiman’s advice, but the rest of it too.

Halloween!

Because I’m a total geek, and also because it was an easy costume, for Halloween I went as my favorite author:

Anyone got it? Anyone?

….

Okay, it’s Neil Gaiman. The most amusing incorrect guesses were “John Travolta” and “The Fonz.” (In their defense, particularly the guy who guessed The Fonz, it was a very dark room, and I wasn’t wearing sunglasses in there. Also everybody was drunk.)