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Brilliance and Dreck: Using Good and Bad Writers to Self-Motivate


I’m not sure when I first began wanting to become a professional writer, only that by third grade I had that idea firmly in my head. It wasn’t until a few years later that I got a particularly awful SF book from a bookstore–I think it had a robot on the cover, one of those jobs with the dryer-vent-hose arms and the antennae on the head–and really got fired up for the job. I thought (and this may sound familiar) “God, if a lousy book like this can get published, I’m going to be rich!”

Let’s skip over the many misconceptions and sad bits of naïvete lurking in that sentence, if you don’t mind.

Good writers had at least as much influence on me as bad ones, of course: reading Tolkien and LeGuin as a kid, especially, gave me something to shoot for. Here are some accounts from writers I know who talk about authors who drove them to write in the first place, either in admiration or disgust:

Donald Mead, whose work can be found in venues like Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writers of the Future XXV, said

I suppose it was 20 years ago or more that I read Brooks’ Sword of Shannara. I found it to be an unrepentant rip-off of Lord of the Rings. I had no writing aspirations at the time, but after reading that disaster, I thought “Well, anyone can write a book.” And then it was a short step to “I can write a book.”

Funny, many years later I was on a panel at Capricon with Peter Beagle and he mentioned that he was the first reader for Sword of Shannara. He told the editor it was a rip off of LotR. The editor said “That’s great! That’s what it’s meant to be.” It was for the reader who’d read LotR eight times and just couldn’t pick it up for the ninth time.

Please note, I have nothing against Brooks. From all I’ve heard, he’s a great guy. I’m just saying if I ever make it big, it’s because of Sword of Shannara.

Incidentally, I found out it wasn’t true that “anyone can write a book.” I quickly found out I had no idea how to write; it was a lot harder than I ever imagined. I have a lot more respect for Brooks now.

SJ Driscoll’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sEllery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere, and her successful works include plays, many articles, and poems. Her inspiration was

Poe. I started reading him when I was seven, while those moronic learn-to-read first-grade textbooks were being stuffed down my throat. Death from boredom…. I never wanted to learn to read–I wanted to be outside doing things. My dad tried to teach me starting at age four, and I despised it. Then elementary school almost murdered me with dreariness. Squash, crush, stifle. Man, did Poe revive me. The way he used language! By the time I was ten, I’d read all the fiction and poetry he ever wrote. I used to think the word, “poetry,” came from his name. He taught me to use words to give the world hard edges. He started me writing stories because stories gave my strapped-down childhood a shape I could control. I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to do real things, I wasn’t free, so I wrote. I still write to give the world hard edges, to be free. Poe was the first writer to save my life. I honor him.

S Hutson Blount (Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight MagazineEscape PodBlack Gate, etc.), said

Most of my formative examples were negative. There was once a section in bookstores called “Men’s Adventure.” Mack Bolan lived there, along with Remo Williams, Dirk Pitt, Casca, and a bunch of hypothetical Third World Wars. This was where I went when I needed to reassure myself that if these guys could get published, I could too.

Melissa Mead (Sword & Sorceress and others–no relation to Donald), on the other hand, said

I first tried writing for publication after reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress series. I commented to my husband that it would be such fun to write for something like that, and he encouraged me to give it a try. S&S was invitation-only by then, and shortly thereafter MZB died and the series ended. By then, though, I’d had a story accepted by The First Line, and I was hooked.

Years and years later, when Norilana revived S&S, I sold a story for the 23rd volume, and the inspiration came full circle.

Yep, it was as much fun as I’d imagined. 🙂

The takeaway here, if you’ll indulge me for a second, is that if at any point we want to be more enthusiastic about some kind of work we might do, one option is to immerse ourselves for a little while in the work of someone who is either very good or very bad at whatever it is. While this may not work for anyone who has evolved beyond all feelings of indignation, superiority, or envy, for the rest of us it can provide a damn good shot in the arm.

This piece is reprinted (with improvements) from my “Brain Hacks for Writers” column at Futurismic.

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Writing and Martial Arts 3: On Mushin and Ignoring the Footwork


This is guest post by Donald Mead is part of the “Writing and the Martial Arts” series, in which other writer/martial artists talk about parallels between these two seemingly very different disciplines.

Donald Mead is a Writers of the Future winner, and his work has also appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Strange Horizons.

You may be interested in the two earlier posts in the series, both by black belt, professor of History and Philosophy, and fantasy novelist Steve Bein: “How Do You Like Your Chances?” and “Writing and Punching.”

In Japanese martial arts culture, the pen and sword exist together as equals. This contrasts with the Western adage: “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The historical roots of the Japanese view come from certain restrictions imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate and from Bushido, the philosophy of the warrior. Both of these topics are as dull as they sound.

I’ve found surprising similarities between martial arts and writing that are much more personal, in particular, the concept of mushin or empty mind.

Me? I have black belts in Shotokan karate, kendo, iaido and minor training in a variety of other arts. Thirty years of training in all, and I have to admit, I’m tired, but I’ve learned a few things.

One of those arts I mentioned is iaido, which is the Japanese sword art of drawing, cutting and returning the blade to its saya (scabbard). I’ve also had years of training in Shinkendo, which is an Americanized version of Japanese sword. Both of these arts make use of two-person exercises in which one person cuts at the defender, and the defender blocks. The number of cuts and blocks increases with the skill level of the students. Mind you, this isn’t kendo with its flexible bamboo swords and thick padding from head to toe. In this traditional art, the participants have no armor and use solid-wood bokken (wooden swords).

Once, we invited a Japanese instructor from California to lead a seminar. We learned a rather fast and dynamic two-person exercise–a series of cuts and blocks moving in a square. Step-cut, block, step-cut, block, cut and square up to your partner. Hard to describe–harder to do. There’s a lot to keep in mind in these types of exercises. The cut has to be aimed at the head or your partner has no reason to block. The block has to be at the correct height and angle or you’ll end up with a cracked noggin. And of course, there’s footwork. It’s a dance with consequences more serious than stepped-on toes.

After class, we treated Sensei to dinner and a couple of drinks. Someone asked about the footwork of the exercise and Sensei responded “Oh, there is no footwork in this art.”

This had all of us more than befuddled since Sensei had been pounding us about footwork for the past three hours. Here’s what he meant we eventually figured out. We learned a new exercise that required us to concentrate on technique: footwork, cutting angle, blocking, distancing and timing. We went slowly over the months, breaking down each move and smoothing out the bumps (figurative and literal). We celebrated small milestones like getting all the way through without tripping over ourselves. Later, we felt brave enough to speed up–not as fast as Sensei, but pretty good. Within a year, we were doing the exercise with no hesitation. There was no thought of our feet, or of getting

our fingers bashed or the effectiveness of the block. We were simply building and maintaining the energy of the exercise that flowed from one side to the other. That’s mushin–the mind doesn’t stop to think about technique or safety. That’s all built in now–instinctual. But you’re not empty-headed either. You have a partner, and you’re having a non-verbal conversation. To the participants the swords and footwork are gone, but the energy of the conversation is real and quite pleasant in most cases. That’s what Sensei meant when he said the art had no footwork. A student might begin with footwork, but at an advanced level, the footwork doesn’t matter at all.

I was a white belt when I started writing fiction. A beginner. I didn’t know that at the time; I thought I had all the tools I needed to write. I took one of my stories to a writers’ workshop at Chicon 2000 and had an eye-opening experience. I mean, what was this point of view thing the pros kept harping about? And what was wrong with my thirty adverbs per page? They didn’t even like my surprise ending where the main character wakes up, and it was all a dream. Yep, it was that bad.

I had to learn how to write step by step. Just like a martial arts student learning the cut, block and footwork, I had to learn the basics of prose, and that took concentration. My flabby verbiage had to go along with most of those adverbs and passive sentence structure. Then I had to think about my stilted

dialogue and how to smooth it out. Finally, I had to think of the story as a whole–the use of tension, the motivation of my characters, the believability of the fantasy element and a satisfying and logical ending.

You know that “million words” saying? I my case it applied; I wrote at least a million words before my writing noticeably improved and I started making sales. But by that millionth word, I wasn’t thinking about the prose anymore. All of those writing rules, the traditional ones and my personal ones, were all instinctive. I saw a picture of the story in my mind, and my hand moved over the paper. It wasn’t perfect mind you, a fact my critique group is quick to remind me, but the fundamentals were there now.

I bet you’ve been there–writing in the zone. When the story takes off and your hand can barely keep up. That’s mushin.

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