Sam Hawken Posts

NoThis doesn’t apply to the hobby writer, but if you are professional, or aspiring to be one, I have some advice you may find useful.  It has to do with when people say no.

Be they editors or agents or what have you, at some point someone’s going to say no to something you’ve written.  Maybe it doesn’t fit what they consider your personal brand.  Maybe it’s “not quite right for us.”  Maybe it’s that, but you could make some changes and then it’ll be right for them.  Maybe it’s not what people are reading right now.  Or at least what they think no one’s reading right now.  Maybe it’s not enough like something you wrote before.  Heck, maybe it’s too much like something you wrote before!

When someone says no, you need to have a good think about what happens next.  Sure, you could ditch your writing and go along with whatever they say.  Or you could dig your heels in and refuse to compromise even a little bit.  But in the publishing business it’s often a straight yes or no, so if you’re going to take the latter option without thinking about it, you’re probably going to lose.

Discouraging, sure, but here’s the thing: what happens is up to you, not to them, whoever “they” are in the situation.  The question becomes whether you truly believe in your work.  Did you do it because of you, or did you do it because you wanted money, or approval, or whatever else?  Is this something you told your way, and can’t be told any way else?

If the story is true to your intentions and your abilities, then you should say no to that no.  Don’t change it to change it, because that will never be right and you will never be happy.  But don’t be difficult about it, either.  Sometimes what works perfectly for you may not fly with others, and no amount of complaining will change that.  In those cases, find another way.  The publishing world is full of opportunities.  Pursue those.  Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

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Writing

A plate, fork and spoon.Famously quoted on the original, Japanese Iron Chef, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”  I guess I believe that, because food is a thing with me in my writing.

Granted, food is a thing for me in general.  I spent a few years in my early twenties with so little money that eating every day wasn’t always an option.  I never miss a meal now (if you know what I mean).  And my characters rarely miss meals, either.  Also, you may notice when they eat I tend to tell you what’s in those meals, occasionally in detail.

Once I was told by a beta-reader that I had a seeming obsession with chairs.  That’s more of a hangover from a weird piece of advice I got as a young writer.  By contrast, writing about food is a way of making character and situation come to life, and it’s such a simple technique.  Ian Fleming used it in the James Bond novels to show how Bond is particular about what he puts in his body.  Tolkien used it to make a cultural point about how hobbits live.  George RR Martin writes extensively about food because apparently he really likes food.

That’s not a fat joke, by the way.  There’s a Game of Thrones cookbook (link), so clearly he’s a food fan.

Are characters eating a fancy meal?  A plain one?  Is it junk food or something healthy?  A particular ethnic variety?  All of these questions and more reveal things about situation and character.  In Walk Away (link), Camaro Espinoza‘s sister makes a complicated dish in one scene because she has become highly domestic after a lifetime of doing things halfway.  You know that now, and all I had to do was show you how she cooks.

I’m not saying everyone uses food in this way, but the next time a character in a book you’re reading eats, pay attention.

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Writing

TypewriterSince I talked about perspective earlier this week on the occasion of my birthday, I’ll share one bit of insight I’ve gotten over the years.  Writers, this one’s for you.

There are no hard and fast rules for storytelling.  Anyone who gives you an absolute is absolutely wrong.  No, that’s not the perspective I’m going to offer, but it’s good to remember regardless.  People have been telling people how to write well since the invention of the sentence, and pretty much all those people have been full of it.  Write the way the piece has to be written in order to tell the story the way it is best told.

I used to think I had to retain all this advice and cling to it like a rock climber.  One thing I heard over and over again: show, don’t tell.  Depending on who said it, this could be taken more literally than from others, but the implication has always been that explaining things is bad and everything should be played out in front of the camera of the reader’s imagination.

It’s possible to get so tangled up in this piece of sage wisdom that your writing will collapse in on itself.  I know mine did.  I was so obsessed with avoiding the “telling” trap that I began to show everything, regardless of whether it was critically important to the story.  And that is not how it’s done, folks.

What’s immediate and brings drama or tension or sadness or any other emotion effective in driving the narrative is what you should show.  If something doesn’t do that, feel free to tell.  Move on to the interesting stuff.

But don’t take my word for it.  What did I say before?  Write your story the way it should be written.  Listen to advice if you want, but always be true to your writing, because that belongs to you.

Writing