This past weekend, I attended New York Comic Con. While I did not have a table this year, which was unfortunate because I have a new book to sell (you can help me make for it by buying it here), I was able to attend the various professional panels aimed at writers. This year’s slate of high-profile writers was particularly strong, especially in the fantasy department were Terry Brooks, Brandon Sanderson, and Diana Gabaldon offered insights into their writing processes and careers. Below, I have collected the advice I found most helpful and interesting from both the top names and from the many other writers who paneled, and loosely organized that advice around a number of themes. I hope you find them as helpful and inspiring as I did.
If you’re writing process isn’t working, then change your process–Chuck Wendig
When faced with an overwhelming amount of editorial feedback or critique, change something small. Changing something small reminds you that you have power over the piece–Peter V. Brett.
You can write a novel in a year writing 400 words a day. That’s about 1-1/2 double spaced pages–E. Lockhart.
The only feedback you get until you publish is that wordcount number adding up–Diana Gabaldon.
Who do you listen to? A really good editor. Anyone else, I’ll listen to an see if they have anything valuable to say, but you get a lot of feedback from people who don’t know anything. You’ve got to stand up for yourself–Terry Brooks.
The best feedback is from people who already like your work but who want something slightly better– (in my notes, but I didn’t write down who said it).
Take something you love and put it in a different context. I loved Faulkner. I wanted to put the way he dealt with class, the rich and poor, in a new element. Tolkien’s structure seemed like the perfect structure for that rich/poor dynamic–Terry Brooks.
Write out of order to avoid writing block. Move to a different part of the book, either to an exciting part or to an easy part–E. Lockhart.
I usually go through about 10 drafts–Karen McManus.
On writing comics: I write differently if I know the artist, if it’s an artist I’ve worked with before. If I’m workin g with a new artist, I’ll describe more—Jimmy Palmiotti.
Plotting vs Pansting
I don’t write in straight lines. I don’t write with an outline either–Diana Gabaldon.
There is no such thing as plotting or pansting. Every writer does both. They are tools. If you don’t use both, you’re not using all the tools available to you as a writer–Brandon Sanderson.
I always start backward. I know the whydoneit and the whodoneit, and then plot backwards–Kara Thomas.
I tend to start with the big idea, but I’m not sure what it means–Karen McManus.
Plotting is like a Jenga tower. If you take one small thing out, the whole tower can collapse–E. Lockhart.
We are all people. People make dumb decisions. It’s ok for characters dumb decisions because that’s what real people do. That makes characters feel real–Wesley Chu.
Sanderson’s second rule: flaws are more interesting than characters themselves–Brandon Sanderson.
I did what most writers do. I gave the character a flaw or two–E. Lockhart.
As the character’s power increases, their power becomes more evident–Brandon Sanderson.
I try to include “good” characters who have to deal with mental illness. Most of American media is like if there’s someone with a mental illness in your book, they’re probably the bad guy. We need to change that–Dan Wells.
I consider the antagonist and the villain as two separate characters: The villain is evil. The antagonist prevents the characters from getting what they want, but they should be relatable. We should be able to understand to understand them. Our main character could end up going in that direction. One example is Ms. Marvel. There are villains in that show, but the parents are the main antagonists. Another is Lord of the Rings. Sauron is the villain. He’s pure evil. Gollum is the protagonist, but what decisions got him there? We can see ourselves making those same decisions–Brandon Sanderson.
Villains don’t have to be villains from the start. They just have different agencies—Karen McManus.
The thing that bugs me most is repeated plot arc. Too many writers write the same plot over and over again. It’s as if, because they were successful with the first one, they just hit the reset button on book 2 (or series 2, or season 2) and write the same thing again–Brandon Sanderson.
The mystery needs to matter to the character, not just to the reader who is trying to figure out the mystery. There have to be character consequences for the reveal–Karen McManus.
Don’t have your conflict shoot your reader’s empathy for your character in the foot–Brandon Sanderson.
All mysteries have a reveal. Not all mysteries have a twist–Kara Thomas.
Point of View
First person turns on how interesting the voice of the character is–Brandon Sanderson.
If you’re writing a scene, and you know it’s a good scene, and it’s an important scene, but it’s just not working out like it should, change the point of view. You’re probably writing it from the wrong perspective–Diana Gabaldon.
You should violate every rule–Terry Brooks.
The value of rules is that they make you look at your writing and analyze it in a technical way–Naomi Novak.
All writing rules are bullshit–Peter V. Brett.
But bullshit fertilizes–Chuck Wendig.
All writing rules amount to “don’t write badly.” They attempt to turn an art into a science–Naomi Novak.
Use writing rules like cooking, not baking. There are rules like ‘don’t dump in the whole package of salt’ and recipes are important when you start, but eventually you don’t have to follow the recipe exactly, unlike baking. You’re going to be tasting, adding more or less flavor according to preference. There is a preferential aspect, a matter of taste–Chuck Wendig.
50 years ago, the rules were different. 50 years from now, they’ll be different too. Trends come and go. What’s commercial comes and goes–Wesley Chu.
Pitching and Finding an Agent
Querying sucks–Wesley Chu.
I was at a party once and an agent asked me what my book was about. I [was hesitant to share my book because of all the big authors he represented]. He told me “You don’t refuse books; I refuse books. If you want your book published, you have to put your work out there–Peter V. Brett.
I was trying to write to the market. It wasn’t until I wrote the books I wanted to read as teenager that I was able to sell my work–Karen McManus.
Read outside your genre. Find the things that people do well in those other genres you love to read. They have skillsets and ideas we don’t have. Find out what they do and bring that into your own genre–Terry Brooks.
It’s not a matter of genre, it’s a matter of patterns–Diana Gabaldon.
You have to read mindfully and critically–Chuck Wendig.
Everything you read impacts you–Terry Brooks.
One of the things that makes us most worried as writers is that we’re going to copy someone else, and yet we’re an amalgam of all we’ve read and experienced. We need to look at what’s influenced us and tear it down to the emotions and then build it back up into something new–Brandon Sanderson.
When you work with people you like, all of your bad decisions seem good–Brian Azzerello.
Writers need to experiment. Writing the same thing for a long time would be a mistake–Terry Brooks.
Find people who you can tell the truth to, and who will tell the truth to you–Scott Snyder
You’ve got tp challenge yourself. You can’t rest on your laurels–Terry Brooks.
On imposter syndrome: I picture myself reading my book in front of a whole crowd at Yankee Stadium, and 60 thousand people are going “boo!”–Scott Snyder.
Sometimes, the magic works–Terry Brooks.
Influence people in a positive way. Give them an experience in space and time–Terry Brooks.
In the final analysis, your work is your brand– Joe Illidge.
How do I title my book? Poorly–Dan Wells.
On giving a 5 minute answer to a lightning round question: Have you seen the size of my books? That was fast for me–Brandon Sanderson.
I enjoy the process of writing. Once it’s done, I couldn’t care less. Except for getting paid. I enjoy that–Terry Brooks.
There was so much variety in the advice given at nycc this year. Each of the writers took their own path and some of them disagreed with each other. There is not one way to succeed, there are many. Find the advice that speaks to you and implement it. It is, ultimately, comforting to know that their are so many paths to success.