Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#01: You're Going To Suck.

by Seanan McGuire


Aren't we kind around these parts? The original thought:

You're going to suck when you start. Sucking when you start is okay. Every new project, no matter how brilliant the idea at the heart of it happens to be, is going to start by sucking. Just deal with it, and soldier through. Every sentence is a learning experience.

Ready?

Let's begin.

My Spelling Sucks.

No one is born knowing how to spell. Some people pick up on it faster than others, which is how we get the scary first-grade spelling bee champions, but even they weren't born with the intrinsic knowledge of how spelling works. What's more, English is one of the most confusing languages there is, spelling-wise. Words that sound the same aren't spelled the same. Words that are spelled the same don't sound the same. Stealthy little silent letters lurk everywhere, waiting to trip us up. (I swear, the letter 'e' is totally a ninja in its spare time.) The letter 'u' is either under-used or inserted in absolutely everything, depending on where you learned to spell what is supposedly the exact same word.

Oh, and in case all of the above wasn't enough? We periodically change the way that words are spelled. Which means that if you've learned your spelling through osmosis, you may have archaic or outdated word-forms lurking in your hind-brain, just waiting to sneak out and make you look like an idiot. You're trucking merrily along, and then WHAM, that word doesn't actually have a 'z' in it anymore. Ha ha, fooled you.

I am here to tell you that your suspicions are correct. The English language is out to get you.

It starts innocently enough, with words like 'cat' and 'truck,' but the evil is already lurking. Look at 'ball.' Why the hell does it need two 'l's? For that matter, why does 'hell' need two 'l's? You can make the point just as efficiently with one. The word 'efficiently' is a nightmare of spelling hazards waiting to happen. Face it: any language where we need mnemonics like 'i before e, except after c, or when sounding like a, as in neighborhood or weigh' is not playing fair. English wants you to suffer. I don't know why, but there it is.

This does not, sadly, absolve you from the need to at least pretend to know what you're doing. If you spell words too bizarrely, your proofreaders won't be able to figure out what you mean, and will consequentially never be able to tell you what the correct spelling actually is. Reading a lot will help with this. So will possession of a spellcheck, although the more you rely on computerized tools, the more likely it is that you're going to wind up using the wrong (but correctly spelled) word. The adage about the spellcheck not caring what you mean, just how it's spelled is entirely accurate.

How important is spelling? Very. Before you send a manuscript anywhere, you should first go through and make sure that all your spelling is correct, or as correct as you can possibly make it (your spellcheck may not catch all those extra 'u's or antique 'z's, after all). I find that running things through a spellchecker and looking for those little red lines is a great way to start. Some words will still be red -- 'improper' contractions used for dialog, character names, onomatopoetic sounds -- but intentional misspelling is totally different.

Note the stress on the word 'anywhere' in the previous paragraph. I don't care whether you're sending your manuscript to your agent, publishing house, best friend, or cat: you should try to fix your spelling before you send that piece of paper out into the world. We judge people by their spelling, whether we mean to or not. If something is heavily misspelled, we're more likely to get confused, and we're also more likely to dismiss the work as being inadequate. Let's not get our darling textual babies dismissed just because that ninja 'e' keeps kicking our asses.

A handy tip: everyone has words they just can't seem to master. I have serious issues with 'adrenaline' and 'consciousness,' to name a few. (I used to have issues with 'cemetery' and 'calendar,' but I've managed to get over those.) Try writing the words you know you have trouble with on a post-it or piece of scratch paper and sticking it up near your primary writing spot. It won't fix things completely, but it's likely to reduce the frustration of typing a word over and over and seeing it turn red every time.

My Vocabulary Sucks.

Here's another thing no one is born knowing: how to say what they mean. We basically start off with a set of weird cooing noises and an ear-piercing scream, and we evolve communication from there. What words and meanings we learn will be determined by our environment. Those of us who started our reading careers early are likely to have larger written vocabularies than spoken, just because we may not be certain how things are actually pronounced. Those of us who learn purely through osmosis may have matching vocabularies, and dammit, we know how to say everything correctly. And those of us who are just starting out as writers may have a spoken vocabulary in the thousands, but only use a hundred words when we write. And that's okay.

Dr. Seuss did awesome things with a really limited number of words. Shakespeare was so busy trying to make himself understood that he invented words. The man was the Thomas Edison of language -- if there wasn't a word that meant what he wanted to say, he would by-God come up with one. Most of us are going to fall somewhere in the middle. The urge to measure your vocabulary against the vocabularies of others is always going to be there, because hey, we're all only human. Try to resist it. Seriously.

You can improve your vocabulary in a lot of different ways. Reading is good, although you should be careful to verify the meanings of the words you learn that way; One For the Morning Glory, for example, is an excellent book that will happily teach you that a 'gazebo' is a type of game animal, and quite tasty. (This is not, sadly, the case. Unless you're a termite.) They make awesome word-a-day calendars. And there's always the glory of wandering around and just listening to people.

I recommend trying out a word in conversation a few times before you try to really make use of it, and being aware of the cultural context that you learned that word from. Slang is a part of vocabulary, after all, and there are some common slang terms that border on affectionate in their original cultural contexts but would get me decked if I tried making use of them in daily life.

I know words today that I didn't know a year ago. I'll know words in a year that I don't know today. Keep in mind that your vocabulary is utterly and only yours; as long as you're making your meaning clear, you're doing fine. (Mind, this doesn't address the issue of purple prose or using too many modifiers -- that comes later, once we've come to terms with our sucking.) Embrace your vocabulary. Feed it, water it, and watch it grow.

Also, if everyone is telling you that you're using a word wrong, listen.

My Grammar Sucks.

Yes. Yes, it does. So does mine. So does everyone's. The world is rife with run-on sentences, sentence fragments, split infinitives, sentences without verbs, and a thousand other violations of grammatical law, some of which I don't even have names for. If there were grammar police, we'd all owe millions of dollars by the time we turned twenty-five...and that's assuming that all violations before the age of eighteen are forgiven, wiped clean when we outgrow our juvenile records. No one in the world, regardless of the language that they're working in, is completely free of grammatical sin.

That being said, there's a difference between 'everybody makes mistakes' and 'flagrant disregard of the rules.' Learn the basic rules of English grammar. Learn how to produce sentences that aren't made of spaghetti. Learn what the basic parts of a sentence are, and why they're important. There are a lot of books and a lot of websites that will help you with this, and the websites tend to have a refreshingly low bullshit quotient. They're telling you what a verb is. Full stop. Everything else is for someone else to take care of.

You'll learn some of the more complicated rules as much through osmosis as anything else, much like spelling and vocabulary. Anyone who's done enough reading to want to start writing is going to know basically what a sentence should look like, at least in the vaguest of terms. If you actually compare a sample of competently-done writing to a book of rules on grammar, you'll find that you're following as many rules as you're breaking. Which is another thing to keep in mind: most of the rules on grammar were devised for formal writing. Something like this -- a rambling, informal essay -- breaks a lot of grammatical rules because frankly, following them all would make it dry and dull. The goal is to produce something interesting and comprehensible, not to be a model of grammatical perfection.

The idea is basically this: learn the rules, because then, when you break them, you'll be breaking them with full knowledge and understanding of what you're doing. Understand that you're never going to be pefect. No matter how hard I hammer on my text, I always get someone sending me a note that reads 'this sentence no verb' or 'I don't understand what you're trying to say here.' My biggest sin is probably run-on sentences. I do love a run-on sentence. But since I'm aware of that flaw, and aware that it is a flaw, I can watch for it. Knowing the rules is what makes it possible to break them with impunity.

My Punctuation Sucks.

Punctuation is exciting in the same way that spelling is exciting: the way that makes me want to hit it repeatedly with a machete. You want an example? Go into a room full of writers. Express an opinion, either positive or negative, about the Oxford comma. Step back before you get yourself hurt. The rules of punctuation are finicky and strange, and because of that, almost everyone is willing to defend their personal set of rules to the death. How much you care about punctuation is entirely up to you. Here, however, are a few quick tips:

1. Oxford comma or no Oxford comma, pick one and stick with it.
2. Quotes go outside punctuation in almost all cases. Cases where they go inside the punctuation are fairly rare, and you're likely to make fewer mistakes if you just assume 'outside unless told otherwise.'
3. The ellipse and the dash are powerful tools. Use them sparingly.
4. Try to minimize the use of colons and semi-colons on the same page.
5. Not everything is said at the top of your lungs, unless you're unhinged! Minimize exclamation points! That helps them stay effective!

I'd try to offer more help, but frankly, my punctuation sucks, too. Find someone with better punctuation, bribe them with cookies to read your stuff, and learn everything you can from the red ink that they splash liberally on your text.

My Characters Suck.

In the beginning, yes, probably. I doubt there's anyone who's ever waved their hand and had their very first character appear as a perfect, totally nuanced human being, ready and raring to go. Try cruising around and looking at the various Mary Sue Litmus Tests peppering the Internet...but don't take them too seriously unless you're writing fanfiction. Keep in mind that almost all original characters who are focal in their original universes would score as Mary Sues on the majority of these tests. It's vital, after all, that your protagonist be interesting, skilled, and capable of surviving your story. That said, if you make every character a gorgeous purple-eyed redhead with super magical powers, you may want to consider working on your people skills.

Look at the characters in your favorite books. What makes them interesting? What makes them people? You don't want to copy them exactly -- that's sort of not the point here -- but what traits do they have in common? What do they do that's so enthralling? Real people don't have to make sense. We can have as many contradictory and unlikely hobbies, traits and obsessions as we want, because nobody's editing us. Fictional people are a bit more constrained. The most nuanced fictional people will still be a little more linear than your average real person, because sixty page digressions to explain why Jane is a Pepsi girl instead of drinking Coke just sort of kill the narrative. We don't want to kill the narrative. Dead narratives are bad.

You may find that characters start out as one thing and evolve into something else. That's okay. Actually, that's awesome, because that means you're figuring out who your characters are. It's entirely possible to be wrong about certain elements of your own characters. I know one person who wrote about two-thirds of a fairly substantial novel before realizing that oh, hell, their point-of-view character was the wrong gender. I wrote the better part of a book before realizing that my protagonist wasn't in love with the person that I originally thought she was in love with. In both cases, going back and revising to bring the early instances of the character into line with the later instances of the character made the books much, much stronger, and much more gripping reads.

We learn things about our friends by spending time with them, and they always seem to have the capacity to surprise us. Our characters, for all that they come out of us, are basically the same way. If you want your characters to stop sucking, spend as much time with them as you can. Put them into weird situations and see what they do. If you're lucky, they'll surprise you.

My Stories Suck.

We learn how to tell a basic story when we're about two. Of course, those stories often consist of dizzying leaps of illogic combined with a hearty tendency to blame absolutely everything on the cat, but they're still stories. As we get older, those stories mature, becoming (usually) more linear and easier to understand. Or not -- there's a reason that there's a surrealist movement. Still, sometimes we look at the stories that other people tell and go 'how the hell did he manage that?' The answer, of course, is practice.

Picture telling a story as something like juggling. Most of us can manage to toss one ball into the air and catch it as it comes down. "Dave went to the store, bought milk, came home." After a little practice, most of us can manage two balls at the same time. "Dave went to the store, bought milk, came home. Meanwhile, Katie was in the process of contacting her handlers at the KGB." But pretty much nobody picks up six balls and gets them going on the very first try. It takes practice, and it takes learning the fine art of keeping your balls from colliding mid-air. You have to find that delicate balance between 'moving them fast enough' and 'moving them so fast that they go out of control'...and if you're learning to juggle for an audience, you have to make sure that your balls don't go so fast that they become a blur.

There are lazy storytelling tricks that everyone uses when they get stuck. Sometimes we outgrow them. Other times, we learn enough about the rest of what we're doing to get away with those one or two lazy little habits. Much like breaking the laws of grammar, what matters is knowing that we're dropping one ball to keep the rest moving faster, or that we're rolling a ball behind our wrists to make it look like it's flying with the others. I have my lazy tricks. Everyone has their lazy tricks. It's just a matter of minimizing them, and outgrowing them when we can.

Pacing is a huge part of what makes our stories suck. Go too fast and the story is over before you've had time to fully invest in enjoying it. Go too slowly and you're going to wind up putting your readers to sleep. Sadly, pacing is one of those things that we generally have to learn by trial and error; more error than anything else. Brooke regularly marks up my manuscripts with 'I have fallen asleep during this section,' thus allowing me to improve my pacing by cutting the boring stuff. Diana points out the places where I'm going so quickly that I've forgotten to explain what I'm doing. And thus does my pacing improve. I've gotten better at it -- their notes have become rarer -- but I'm never going to be perfect. And that's okay, because I have embraced my suck, and learned to compensate.

So Basically, You're Saying I Just Suck.

Basically, I'm saying we all just suck...but that we all have the potential to improve. One of the most destructive things I see people do -- and I know it's destructive, because I've done it myself -- is compare themselves to people who've had a lot more practice, and go 'well, if I'm not as good as _____, there's no point.' There is every point. Practice doesn't make perfect, but practice makes a hell of a lot less sucktastic, and that's really what the goal is: not to suck.

We started out having no idea how to spell. Now, most of us can spell 'the cat and the dog had a fight' without trouble, and those of us with learning disorders or vendettas against the letter 'e' have had time to learn to compensate. We started out having no idea how to construct a sentence or use punctuation. Well, most of us can now make ourselves understood with words, and we're all pretty good at using the period. Everything can be learned, everything can be practiced, and the more you learn and the more you practice, the more balls you can keep in the air.

Everybody sucks at first. Every idea has its flaws at first.

The only way to improve is to practice.


© 2008 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. Her first studio album, Stars Fall Home was released last year, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in 2009.

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