Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, August 28, 2015

Reader Mailbag #2: Questions On Description, Motivation, and General Advice

Well, after my very first Reader Mailbag, would you believe would you believe that I've received even MOAR questions?  Admittedly, from the same studious young lady, but still, questions is questions, amirite?  And if you happen to have any for the K-Man, just send them my way and I'd be delighted to answer them.

 So after her initial barrage, Steph followed up with a few toughies.  Take a gander and make sure to let me know what you think in the comments if you disagree with me!

1) How does one draw out descriptions? For example, in my head, I'll see and beautiful and ornate building, but I don't quite exactly know how to put all of it into words.

One trick authors use is to consider the five senses.  So you should be writing in either first person or close third person (second person is so rare it's basically a gimmick and third person omniscient is very pass√© - but that' a whole other conversation.)  In any case, any given scene is going to have only one viewpoint character.  So you put yourself in the viewpoint character's head and describe what he's seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, and tasting.  Obviously, you're not going to use all five sense for everything you describe - that would get very tedious.  Just pick out the one or two most important sensations for everything your character comes across, and as you do so, gradually you'll fill in the whole scene, almost like a paint-by-number set.  Using the five senses give your scene a sense of immediacy and makes it more concrete.

The other "trick" is not really a trick at all - read widely.  You should be doing this anyway, of course.  But now that you're an aspiring author you need to take a craftsman's eye to your reading.  Yes, sadly, you will not get the same pleasure you used to out of reading, because you'll be analyzing it and noticing places where your favorite authors fall down.  But you'll also begin to notice the places where your favorite authors excel.  So if you want to describe a beautiful and ornate building, go read how Tolkien or Rowling or whoever described their buildings.  How did they keep it interesting?  How did they make it clear what they were describing?  And when you do find those occasional masterpieces where the book is so good you're not slowing down to analyze it, it makes them so much sweeter.

2) I watched an interview with Richelle Mead (author of the 'Vampire Academy' series) and she mentioned that some of her inspiration comes from just driving around. What are other ways to gather inspiration and motivation to write?

That's very interesting.  Well, let's break this down into two parts, though, because I don't want to get too much chocolate in the peanut butter.


You mentioned motivation.  This is the simple answer, the Nike answer: just do it.  Some people benefit from setting aside a certain time of day to write.  I've heard many authors swear by waking up an hour early (or two, or whatever) and knocking it right out.  And it's true that the first thing you do in the morning is usually your best work (I find this true at my day job, too.)  I, personally, am a night person so I don't do that.  But there is quite simply no replacement for butt-in-chair time, whatever time of day you set it for. 

Some people also swear by various phone and computer apps that turn off your internet (or just your timesucks) so there are no distractions.  I don't do this because I tend to research as I go - I may need to look up a bon mot or the year the Salem witch trials took place or whatever.  But you may benefit from it.  The thing is, whatever your bare minimum daily word count is, you just have to set aside some time every day and sit down and bang it out.  Like I mentioned before, you'll probably find yourself getting into a groove and doing a lot more than the minimum.  But if you set 500 words a day as your standard, you just have to sit down and write 500 words a day.  And no "rollover writing" either.  You can swear up and down you'll write 1000 words tomorrow if you can skip today, but you just won't.  It's lik lost sleep; you never get it back.  I'm afraid there's not much for this but to do it.  I often talk about writing as being both a craft and an art.  Sitting down and pounding away at the words, even when you don't feel like it, is part of the craft.


Now, the first half of your question is the trickier one, the one that gets more into the "art" part.  People talk about having a "muse" and sometimes people talk about having their characters chattering away in their heads, but these are both metaphors for the artistic process.  What motivates you, what inspires you, what gets the juices flowing differs from person to person.  Most people will say (and sorry if I'm sounding like a broken record here, but it is an important point) that reading widely in your genre will inspire you.  Nothing gets me wanting to write quite like reading somebody else's genius idea and wanting to top it, or put my own spin on it.  (Yes, I'm talking about you right now, John Dixon.)  I also get really inspired by movie trailers, which is a shame because they usually precede two hours of me not being able to write because I'll be watching the main attraction LOL.

Driving around seems like a good idea and obviously it works for Richelle Mead.  I know a lot of authors who like to "people watch."  They may go to the mall or a pedestrian shopping center or something like that and look for strange people and behavior to inspire their characters.  If you're a fan of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" I can recall an episode where Jake, the captain's son and an aspiring author, just hung out in the Promenade making up stories about the various people and aliens passing by.  That seems like it could be a good exercise.

Another thing I might suggest is dumb manual labor.  When you go into something like painting, pottery, woodcarving, and the like, you're essentially turning off the storytelling part of your brain and just worrying about your hand-eye coordination.  I, for instance, paint models, and whenever I've had a good long painting session I'll often come away feeling refreshed and ready to do some storytelling work.

Ultimately, though, I can't tell you how to get in contact with your muse.  You'll have to figure out what works best for you and try a couple of different methods.

3) I couldn't go to a few writers seminars and workshops at Shore Leave due to previous commitments and I had missed the seminar on writing tips. What are some helpful writing tips for young, aspiring writers?

Hoo-wee, this is a big one!  Obviously there's enough material on this topic for a panel of five smart writers to fill an hour.  (And, to be frank, reams and reams of books and countless websites.)  So, one thing I would say is, if you're not already, get plugged in and start regularly reading some industry blogs.  If you're not reading Janet Reid, Chuck Wendig, and John Scalzi, you need to unfuck that immediately, and also by using that turn of phrase I just reminded myself there are bunch of great podcasts, too, like The Horror Show with Brian Keene.  But that being said, let me take a big picture approach and tell you what I think are the most important things to bear in mind.

First: other writers aren't your competition.  This isn't a zero-sum game, where some people win and some people lose.  When somebody like E.L. James writes a book that blows up and millions of people buy it, it benefits me because millions of more readers are now logging onto Amazon, thinking about buying books, and might go ahead and buy mine one day.  Writers make up a community, and we have to support each other.  That's why I'm happy to answer questions like yours here and at places like Shore Leave.  It isn't a quid pro quo thing, but there is definitely a give-and-take, almost like an apprentice-and-master kind of vibe to the authorial community.  And we all have to take care of each other.  Suppose you blow up, for instance.  Then I could always ask you for a blurb for my next book.  So, remember there are plenty of readers to go around, no serious reader is buying only one book, and writers have to support one another, both emotionally, financially, etc.

Second: manage your expectations.  Or perhaps I should say, "Remember that you're doing this for the love of writing."  If you write for the love of writing, then you can never go wrong, and no amount of success or failure can faze you.  Because you're already doing what you love, right?  If you weren't willing to do this for free, then you shouldn't be trying to do this for money.  Because don't count on the money.  I think every author, when they get their first book deal, secretly harbors the dream that they'll sell a million copies and it will change their life.  And there are some people who will, with a straight face, tell you that you're going to sell a million copies and it will change your life.  But those people usually have an ulterior motive or an axe to grind.  You may never sell more than a few hundred copies organically.  You may lose money on what turns out to be an expensive hobby rather than a gravy train.  Or, Hell, you may just ride the gravy train and be the next Hugh Howey or George R.R. Martin.  I don't know.  But if you're prepared to do this just because you love it, and you like the idea of maybe one or two other people out there enjoying your work, then you'll be fine, and everything else will just be the gravy.

Third: that being said, once your expectations are managed, be prepared to bust your ass and never give up.  Common wisdom suggests that the fifth book is the book you'll finally succeed with.  I think this is true in a sense, not because five is a magical number, but in that if you have the drive and dedication to put out four books that fail, and you still go on to make that fifth one, you've probably got the makings of a writing career in you.  No one is going to hand you anything.  No one is going to buy your book "just because."  You have to get out there and hustle.  Your friends and family, who you expect to be your biggest supporters, will be some of the most reticent people to actually buy, read, and review your stuff.  You have to get out there and market.  No one is going to just spontaneously review your book.  I've asked nearly 400 professional and amateur reviewers to take a look at my debut novel.  To date, eighty people, including ordinary readers, have actually taken the time to review it.  If you're prepared, and you're ready to make the long hard slog, and you take nothing for granted and expect nothing from anybody, then any success that comes your way will just be the gravy.

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