I've already blogged about serendipity in my writing career and about my reluctance to write for free, at least in situations where I am not writing to assist a charity or cause I support or am not writing to promote my other work or some aspect of my development as a writer. One way, of course, to help develop your career as a writer and to help hone your writing skills is to take on projects that are outside of your comfort zone, that introduce you to new genres, new editors and publishers, and new readers. I've touched a bit on this in my blog about writing in multiple genres and how that flexibility has helped me become more published than I otherwise would have been, but I thought I would talk about this in a bit more detail. Certainly there are a certain number of authors who hit the big-time straight out of the gate. They go from not writing to writing their first novel, then effortlessly find an agent (at least when that was still necessary and/or popular), sit back while there is a bidding war for thei rights, and collect a big advance and ongoing royalties while A-list Hollywood types vie for the movie rights. It's a great story, but the odds are kind of like the odds of getting hit by lightning. I've been hit by lightning (literally, not in some kind of metaphorical way in my writing career), but rather than metaphorically stand on a hill in the rain holding a golf-club above my head (none of which applied when I was actually hit by lightning) to jump-start my writing career, I try to do my best to hone my craft, expand my opportunities, and take advantage of those jobs that come my way to build my resume' and skills and contacts. While this listing will be far from comprehensive, here are just a few things to think about to increase your odds as a writer: Building Skills: 1. Writing: Duh. Hopefully, most people get better at something they do often, so writing in a base requirement for becoming a better writer. Better yet, I think is to write different things in different genres and contexts, because challenging yourself to write in a variety of different contexts makes you think about the requirements and styles and techniques of writing in a way you won't if you only write one type of thing, whether that is zombie haiku or epic fantasy. What are the conventions and stylistic themes of steampunk short stories? (Hint: Gadgets, derring-do, and honor are pieces of the equation.) How do reader expectations differ in scifi? (Hint: Discovering the world or the differences between the future and the present is a significant part of the experience for a scifi reader.) What do you need to do to expand an idea from short story length to novel length? (Hint: Padding with description is not the answer.) When I am on writing panels at a game or writing convention, I often recommend to people that everyone should try their hand at writing a screenplay. I usually quip that if they do every movie-going experience they have for their rest of their lives will be good. If they see a good movie great. If they see a bad movie, they will be convinced that their screenplay is so much better it will sell for big bucks. That is true and I usually get a few chuckles from it. But even more true is that writing a screenplay means that you must get the story across using only dialogue and setting--no internalizations, no minute cues from physical actions, no lengthy narrative exposition. Dialogue is a key writing skill. 2. Critiquing. I've written movie and book reviews and I belong to a writing group which collects and comments on one another's work in a serious way. (No ripping each other asunder, but to canned, golf-clap praise, either.) Commenting on something critically makes you pay attention to the details that the average reader or movie-goer glosses over because, at least in something well done, the effect is so seamless and so integral to the experience, that it is simply a part of the emotional gestalt of the piece. When you think beyond commas and adverbs to pace and foreshadowing and inconsistant tone and the like when commenting on someone else's work, you can't help but think about those things when you are writing yourself. 3. Experiencing art and life. Duh. Reading is good for writers. So is watching movies, plays, and, yes, even television. Reading and watching critically can be especially helpful, but it can also be good sometimes to just disengage and experience the art. Same with life--going places, doing things, engaging in conversations and new experiences can enrich the base your mind can call upon when writing. Expanding Opportunities: 1. Try new things. Yes, this can be scary and stressful and altogether unpleasant, but if you limit yourself to your comfort zone, you have limited your chances for success and foreclosed yourself from finding a new experience or genre or market that may be much more rewarding. 2. Put yourself out there. Don't just try to write outside your comfort zone, submit outside your comfort zone. It can't be bought if you don't let anyone see it. Seize the Job: 1. Build your resume'. I've written plenty of things I never expected to write in my life. I've written monster descriptions for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a BattleTech short, steampunk romance, poetry, and even, shudder, a cat mystery. I can't say that I enjoyed them all and I can't say that some of them aren't among my least favorite projects, but they were good experience, they got me exposure, they increased my range of contacts and networking, and they demonstrated my versatility to the market place. 2. Expand your network of contacts. Editors change jobs. That assistant editor at the small press who needs a quick story has aspirations and a career of his own. He wants to edit a magazine or an anthology or become an editor at a big-time NYC house or a publisher. Showing him what you can do now can reward you both later. And, editors talk and help each other out in a bind. That's what happened to me with the Transformers Legends anthology which came out a year or so before the live-action movies began. The editor for the anthology used to work with the editor who worked on my first novel, Forced Conversion, and some of my earlier short stories. When the Transformers editor complained he was short a story and deadline was approaching and he really needed someone who could write battling robot action scenes fast, my editor recommended me. Shortly thereafter, I received an email inviting me to submit a story for the anthology and letting me know that I could set the story in any one of the five Transformers universes. Seeing how I was practicing law before Transformers toys hit the U.S. market, my first reaction was "Holy *&%$, there are FIVE Transformers universes?" My second reaction was, of course, to reply that I would submit a story. My third reaction was to go to the local Blockbuster, rent the (god-awful) animated movie (featuring Orson Welles as the voice of the planet Cybertron), and then head to the local Barnes & Noble to get some Transformers fiction as part of my research. When you are a midddle-aged, overweight guy without a kid in tow, you get remarkably fast service by just hanging around in the kids' section of Barnes & Noble for a minute or two. I asked the apprehensive, yet helpful, clerk for books on Transformers and, along with a novel from the scifi department, he showed me a coffee table book that described all of the Transformers characters and explained how the five different Transformers universes interrelated. Now, between reading part of the novel, watching the movie, and studying the coffee table book in detail, all before coming up with a concept for and writing a story, I spent a lot of time on this effort compared to my average short story. Add in the rental cost for the movie and the really expensive coffee table book, and I spent a fair amount of cash for a short that paid me not that much more. But, I added another editor to my network, I demonstrated to my current editor that I would not let him down if he stuck his neck out for me in future recommendations, and I gained a tie-in credit which, along with my Dragonlance and BattleTech stuff, got me enough credits to join the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, further expanding my networking and gaining me access to lots of writing information through their yahoo group postings. And, the story was well received by the editor, Hasbro, and readers (even though it featured a Transformer who refused to fight or transform for reasons of conscience). Did I ever think I would write a Transformer story? No. Am I glad I did. Yes. It expanded my skills, my confidence, and my profile. It improved my resume' and my networking. I went outside my comfort zone and am glad I did. I hope you are enjoying my blogs on writing and that they are as helpful to you as to me. If you want to check out my stories or books to see the results of my efforts to be a better writer, go to my website at www.donaldjbingle.com or simply type in my name (Donald J. Bingle) and find my novels and story collections in print or on Nook or Kindle.
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