How to Make A Living As A Professional Fiction Writer
Larry Correia: Writing Class-–Week 1, part 1 of 2
Welcome. I am your host for this report of Larry Correia’s Creative Writing class taught at Weber State University How to Make a Living as a Professional Fiction Writer. He kindly agreed to allow me to put this together and put it here on my site. This presentation is based on the notes I took during his lecture last night. I have tried to keep as much of the spirit of his discussion as possible, while occasionally adding my own interlocutions. I have taken the liberty of rearranging some of his comments to more closely adhere to the structure of his class. So, this is not a direct transcription of the class, but massaged for understanding.
One Easy Trick To Become A Professional Writer
People are looking for the secret to become a successful novelist. Among those who attempt a professional writing career, there is a 99.999% failure rate. However, the mere fact that you are trying to get better at your craft puts you ahead of the game. That being said, there is one easy trick to becoming a professional writer:
- Get good enough that people will give you money for your writing.
- Find those people to give you their money.
The steps are simple, but the devil is in the details.
How Do I Get Good Enough?
You need to treat writing as a job. If you wait for the inspiration, wait to write until you “feel like it,” you are going to fail. It is not easy, because if it were, then anyone could grind stuff out and make a million. Work at it the way you would work at a real job, and you will eventually get good enough that you can quit your day job and write full time.
Like any other profession, there are a set of skills that go along with the trade. To start with, you have to learn the basics of the craft. The more you write, the better at it you get. No one starts off as a great writer. Monster Hunter International, Larry’s first book, was not as good as his fifth book, which was not as good as his tenth book. If you expect to be brilliant right off, you will be a failure, because it just won’t happen.
Larry was in a discussion with a “literary writer” who was complaining about how his editor was forcing him to work too much. He and his literati friends were outraged that these grubby, common publishers had no respect for the sensibilities of these wonderful artistes and were trying to dragoon them into creating a book a year.
Larry was like, “Huh, that’s all? That’s not a lot for a real professional author. Also, maybe your publisher knows that there are people who want to spend money on your work, and they don’t want those customers to get away.” The thing is, people giving the author money is how both the publisher and the author stay alive, so it is important.
“But Larry,” the author complained, “quantity doesn’t equal quality!” [And scarcity never equalled money, either -Ed.] Shakespeare might disagree. While it is true that quantity is not the same as quality, the more you do, the better your chance of producing great art. The more you do, the better you get, the higher your chance of getting into your “zone of creativity” and really producing something special. There is absolutely no telling in advance what will strike a chord in your audience. Larry’s best work, by his own estimation, is not at all his most popular. The audience is the one that makes these decisions. The more you write, the more chances you have to do something that people will buy.
Don’t get hung up on the usual English major stuff. Stephanie Meyers (author of the Twilight series) got a “C” in her creative writing class. She now lives in a house made of houses made of gold bars. She produced something that millions of people loved and they rewarded her for it. It didn’t matter that her college professor didn’t like it. So, even if some random Internet Expert on Creative Writing doesn’t like what you are doing, that just means they are not your target audience.
So, to sum up, you can’t shortcut getting good enough, and the only way to do that is to write. [As the old saying goes, “Writers write.” -Ed.] The last point is that every writer should have as their most important consideration, “GET PAID.” This is a job, so you need to expect to make money at it.
The Rules of Writing
The problem with most English classes and many English teachers is that they are all about rules. They spend most of their time telling you what you have to do, and what you can’t do. In the process of talking about all these rules, they beat the love of writing and reading out of people.
Larry hates being on a panel at a con with a literati (a literati is a successful writer who has sold 15 books. As in, 15 copies of his life’s work) because these kinds of people are always telling Larry how all the writing he does is wrong. He doesn’t follow all the rules.
These rules are actually just suggestions. Other than the minimal spelling, punctuation and grammar required to actually have the reader decipher what the words on the page mean, any rules a writer follows is strictly their own choice. The more “rules” a writer breaks, the more difficult it is to get away with it. A writer like Cormac McCarthy breaks almost every convention in the English language, but can get away with it, because he is a genius.
So, beware of anyone who talks about “rules of writing” or “genre conventions.” Genre conventions exist because bookstores and online retailers want to put similar works together on the bookshelves. Larry thought that Monster Hunter International was in the horror genre, because it had monsters in both the book and the title. It wasn’t until Amazon stocked it in the “Urban Fantasy” section that he realized that was his genre. “Cross-genre” is just what we have always done. The more clearly you can explain it, the easier it will be to sell. The weirder it is, the harder it is to sell.
Still, there are some hard and fast rules of writing that Larry always tries to follow. Unlike most writing rules, these are not suggestions:
- If the readers like it, leave it in.
- If the readers don’t like it, take it out.
If you try something and the readers are saying, “This makes me want to kill myself, never write again,” you might think about taking it out. On the other hand, if you do something that is completely weird and people are like, “I love this!” keep it in.
Whatever you can get away with, you can do. Dan Simmons (author of the Hyperion Cantos) routinely breaks every rule in the book, but since he is one of the greatest writers alive, his stuff is phenomenal. You are probably not Dan Simmons, so you have to work up to it.
Larry himself has done some things just because people told him, “You can’t do that.” He has books where he switches from first person to third person between chapters. While he was writing Monster Hunter International, someone told him, “Under no circumstances use deus ex machina, it is a cop-out and your readers won’t stand for it.” [ deus ex machina – (from Greek) meaning “the god from the machine” is a device where some previously unknown character or force intervenes, solving a seeming insurmountable plot obstacle – Ed.] It so annoyed him that he put it into the book. Twice. And he got away with it.
To start with, write what you like and have fun with it. Try and stay at least a little in the lines, because you have to sell it, but have fun with it. If you are writing something that is not working for your audience, you may be writing for the wrong people.
What To Write About
John Brown (author of the Servant of a Dark God series) has what he calls “The Spark.” Larry likes to refer to it as “contagious enthusiasm.” It is an idea that the author gets excited about and thinks, “Gosh, this would be really cool to write about.” The more excited the author is while writing something, the more the readers will enjoy it. When Larry is writing a scene, and he is just cackling in glee to himself as it plays out, he knows that it is something that his readers will love. Then, after the book is done and reviews start coming it, it is usually the case that the strongest positive response is for those parts of the book he had the most fun writing.
When a writer starts writing things he thinks he should be writing instead of what he wants to be writing, it becomes a work that has all the checkboxes ticked off of the “important” elements of writing, it is no longer fun. Instead, it becomes a “dreary horrible grind of suck.” And the readers will feel it.
When someone tells you, “put this, that, the other, and this last thing into your book,” and you do it, even though you don’t want to, it affects the writing. And the reader enjoyment tanks.
An author is nothing but an entertainer. The author’s job it to make the reader happy. The author works for the reader, not the reader for the author. People buy and read books because they like them. Kill the like and kill the sale. Authors tell stories, that is what we do. If you want to do it as a job, you have to write like a professional, which means keeping your clients happy. Write what the readers like.
If you think that your readers work for you, “Oh, my readers don’t understand my artistic vision.,” then you will write your books, win a bunch of awards, and work at Subway.
When picking an idea to work on, pick something you enjoy, something you are passionate about, and don’t worry if it is too close to something else that someone has done. As long as you are not directly copying or plagiarizing, which is both illegal and immoral. Don’t do that. Everything else has been done. Every idea has been done before.
When Larry did Monster Hunter International, he was told, “Oh, Buffy did that. Oh, van Helsing did that. Oh, Men in Black did that. Oh, Hellboy did that.” [All that is actionable slander by the way, none of those guys were as well-armed as the MHI guys. Well, ok, Hellboy, maybe. -Ed.] Critics and reviewers get hung up on “tropes.” [tropes – a commonly recurring literary or rhetorical device, motif, or cliché (Wikipedia) -Ed.] There is nothing wrong with using tropes, they are the common cultural currency we use to tell each other stories. If someone says you are using trope X, Y, and Z, then be happy, it means you are using near-universal storytelling techniques, and you will reach bunches of people with your message.
Focus on something you like. Ideas are everywhere. The more experienced you become, the more ideas you have. A running joke among successful authors is that, at a con or something, someone will come up them and say, “I have this super-awesome idea. How about we team up, you use my super-awesome idea and actually write the book, we’ll make a zillion dollars and split it?” to which the author replies, “No. How about I give you ten super-awesome ideas I don’t have time to use, you write ten books, make ten zillion dollars and leave me alone?” Because the butt-in-seat-hands-on-keyboard-writing-100k-words, that is the hard part.
As ideas come to you, they won’t always fit in your current work. Ideas can come in any form. Sometimes, it is a phrase. Sometimes it is just a picture or a visual. A web page, something you read in a magazine, a snatch of overheard conversation. Wherever it comes from, it is a cool idea that you want to use in a book. And a novel is just a bunch of these cool ideas smooshed together into a story.
Don’t worry if you feel like you are uncreative. It will probably take you a year to finish a book [18 months and counting. – Ed.], and during that time, more ideas will come to you. Once again, you are training yourself as you are writing, so by the time you are done with one book, then you will have plenty of ideas for the next one.
After Larry had been working for Baen Books for a couple of years, he was doing pretty well and they didn’t want him going somewhere else. So his publisher, Toni Weisskopf, came to him and asked him if he had any ideas for new books. He started telling her all these ideas he had, and at the end of it, she signed him to a further ten book deal, which basically covered the ten most exciting ideas he had. So, now years later, he has used most of those ideas, but he has more.
Write the ideas down. Save articles, save clippings, save images. Write everything down and file it away. One possible way to do things is using Evernote on your cell phone.
Religious Wars I – Outlining v. Discovery Writing
There are two generally accepted ways of writing a book. One is to plan out all the major plot points in the novel before starting the book. The other is to just have an idea in your head, start writing, and see what emerges. There are people deeply committed to both methods, yet the fact is that there are very successful writers who use nothing but discovery writing [often referred to as “pantsing,” as in “writing by the seat of your pants” – Ed.], others who are meticulous outliners [I remember hearing about an author who wrote up a 20,000-25,000 word outline for each novel. – Ed.], some who use a combination of the two.
Larry considers himself a light outliner. Before he starts a 100,000 word novel, he will have a five-page outline with the beginning, the middle, and the end of the plot, the main characters and the high points of their character arcs. Without this map of the novel, he has a tendency to wander off, get lost, and write his way into a corner.
If he is working with a collaborator, he will have a more extensive outline, one that has each scene laid out ahead of time, all the character moments, everything that either of them is going to need to write the book.
A discovery writer, on the other hand, is you are really uncorking your brain and you can be super creative and brilliance will flow. Some of the best wordsmiths in the business are discover writers, because they just start spewing poetry out of their brains onto the keyboard. However, a common failing of discovery writers is crappy finales. It is easy to end up with a 200,000 word novel and no ending in sight, so the author says, “Crap. Aliens did it.”
Pick one and try it. If it doesn’t work, try the other. The only important thing is whatever works for you. Also, don’t slavishly follow the conventions. Just because something is written on the outline doesn’t mean it is graven in stone. You may have a character doing something according to the outline, but when you get to that place in the book, you realize that the character is not who you thought he was when you wrote the outline, so he wouldn’t do that, he would do something else. You can stick with the outline and be mad because it doesn’t fit what you think the character should be, or you can change the outline, fix the character, and write the cool stuff. Always write the cool stuff.
If you are discovery writing, you might write yourself into a corner, where your characters are doing stupid things and acting unnaturally just so that the plot moves forward. Back up, try again. Perhaps try and plot ahead a little bit from your current position, so you have a better idea of what is going to happen. Then, when you are good, go ahead and start again.
Religious Wars II – First-Person v. Third-Person
The argument between first-person and third-person point of view is another great debate among writers. Incredibly talented authors have told all kinds of stories using either. Larry himself has used both. Most of the Monster Hunter International books are written in first person, while the Grimnoir Chronicles and Saga of the Forgotten Warrior are both in third person. There are pros and cons of either method. If you are more comfortable in one or the other, that is the one you should use.
First person has the advantage of more immediacy. It can be more visceral, the reader more tied into the character. Since they are seeing everything through that person’s eyes, it is much easier to relate to them. The difficulty with first person is that the author is limited to showing everything through the viewpoint character, which means that he needs to be at every pivotal moment in the book. This can be extremely limiting. Now, there are ways to cheat. Larry has used journals from other people that the viewpoint character reads, or switching PoV for a chapter to third person. Both of these are violations of the rules of writing, but if done well, can be very effective. Again, it is all down to the author’s skill.
Outlining is a good match for a first-person perspective. The reason is that with an outline, you can set the action up so that the main character can be everywhere he needs to be to see all the action in the novel. If you are doing discovery writing with a first-person novel, then it is possible to get yourself in a situation where things are happening, but the protagonist can’t be there to see them. This can cause problems.
On the other hand, with a third-person perspective, the author can tell a bigger story. Epic fantasy usually has huge world-spanning plots, and are told in third-person. They have as many point of view characters as they need to tell the massive story.
When Larry wrote the Grimnoir Chronicles, he used third-person. He had two or three main viewpoint characters who provide about 80% of the story, then a handful of supporting characters. These supporting characters are there because they provide the most interesting view of whatever is going on. One good thing about third-person is that it allows the author to tell the story from the point of view of whoever has the coolest or most interesting view of the action.
Another advantage of third-person is that if a scene just isn’t working, it is possible that all that needs to happen is a change in viewpoint. Say, for example, one of your pivotal scenes just won’t come together. Your solution may be as simple as writing the scene from the villain’s perspective. Third-person gives you the freedom to write it from whatever point of view works best.
The down side of third-person is that it can be more difficult to bring the reader into the story, because they have a harder time relating to the character, since there is more of a distance than in first-person. Also, some people can be confused by a lot of changes in point of view.
In Dead Six, there are two main characters, each telling their part of the story in first-person. Mike Kupari wrote one character, and Larry wrote the other, so each character was written by a different author, meaning they had very different voices. In addition, the name of the narrating character was given at the beginning of each chapter. People still complained to Larry that they were confused by the switches in point of view. He decided that those people were not his target audience.
The point of view you should use in a story is the one that will allow you to best tell your story. Like anything else, they are simply tools in your authorial tool chest.
How Should I Proceed on my Book?
You don’t have to do things in any particular order. You can have characters before plot, “the big idea” before the characters, it doesn’t matter. Anyone who tells you that things have to occur in a certain sequence is full of baloney.
The plot of a novel is just a series of things that happen. Many authors get stuck on “What am I going to do next?” In general, a novel is about 100,000 words long. This is some number of scenes, somewhere between 20 and 30 of them. However, there are some things that have to happen in the book. You have an introductory scene, a prologue, an epilogue, and perhaps three or four action scenes. So, right there, you are up to seven scenes for the novel, a quarter of the scenes done. You have your characters. Say it takes three scenes to introduce them, but then you have to resolve their character arcs, which could take another three or four scenes. So, now you have fourteen to sixteen scenes. Add in the events of the plot and you have all your scenes set up on your plot outline.
Of course, when you start out, it will not work out the way you expect them to, and you will have to work at it for a time. One way of getting unstuck is to look at the characters in the book and see if you can think of things they would like to do. Not so much what you need them to do for the plot, but the sorts of things they would do if left to their own devices. See if some of those activities can be incorporated into the work.
A method to work your scenes into the best order is to put brief descriptions of possible scenes on Post-It notes or 3 x 5 cards and then just move them around until you are happy with the sequence of events. The director Robert Rodriguez talks about this method in his book Rebel Without a Crew, which Larry recommends as a creative guide for authors.
Larry’s books start with a brainstorming session where he goes for walks until he has all his ideas in place. There is a funny story about that. He was on a panel at LTUE one with Dave Wolverton, Lee Modesitt, and Brandon Sanderson, all successful epic fantasy authors. At the time, he was still a relative newcomer and only had the MHI series under his belt, so he was “only” an urban fantasy author. A member of the audience asked a question, and Larry had what he thought was a great answer and the guy tells Larry, “Sssh. I want to hear from the epic fantasy authors.” This really annoyed Larry and he talked to Brandon Sanderson, asking him about what constituted epic fantasy. Sanderson answered, “Well, big plots, overarching, world-shattering events, lots of characters, extensive world-building.” Larry decided on the spot to write an epic fantasy just so he could rub the nose of the pinhead in the audience in it. [Larry’s takeaway quote: “I am entirely motivated by spite for my best projects.]
After the con, he was talking to Mike Kupari back at home, but they couldn’t come up with a single idea about an epic fantasy. Larry’s son was reading a Marvel Comic book that included concept art for a noir Spiderman, including a trench coat and a fedora. That got the two of them started on how cool the 1930s was, not just the fedoras and trench coats, but they had gangsters, Tommy Guns, and dirigibles. Then, they spent four hours plotting out a world for an epic 1930s noir fantasy that became the Grimnoir Chronicles. So, one of Larry’s best ideas was written to spite a smartass from BYU.
One thing that is important once you have your “big idea” is to make sure that you extract every possible bit of utility from it for you work. Think of everything that you associate with the concepts connected to your idea, and think of every amazing and cool thing that anyone else might come up with attached to it, and put them all in your book. You are going to be spending a long time, months or years, writing the book, you want to make it as amazing as possible. Create a “catalog of awesomeness” for your idea. If you can’t come up with a bunch of cool ideas, then you might not have enough there for a novel. Even there, though, sheer enthusiasm might carry you through, because you will think of more things as you go along.
When Larry wrote Monster Hunter Alpha, a werewolf novel, he went back through everything he could remember about werewolf movies (and, by the way, he believes that he has seen every werewolf movie made, since he is totally a monster movie guy), then he made a list of everything good he could remember about werewolves and tried to fit it in the book.
Once you start on the work, it can sometimes be hard to tell when to let it go. When writing the book, you should make the book as good as you can, but don’t dwell on it forever. The thing is that you will get better as you write more books.
However, if an author spends too much time working on any particular book, they may not learn the general skill of writing books, but only how to polish that one book. Then, if they get a book deal, they have six months to do the second and third books, but they can’t produce because they don’t know how to make a book a year, which is pretty much the bare minimum for a professional author to survive. Remember, “perfection” is the enemy of “good enough.”
Once you have a book done, immediately start on another one. As a professional, it is important to produce. And, if you are stuck on a project, start on a new one. Anything, as long as you are writing. If you are having trouble, then remember the lesson of Dan Wells. He tried to write epic fantasy and failed completely, then he switched to horror and did great.