Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Fanmail Q & A: Advice For New Writers

Pat,

I know you're busy, so I won't take up much of your time. I want to be a writer (Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to read anything of mine.)

I was just wondering if you have any advice for new writers. Just one piece would be really helpful…

Love the book,

Becky

Heya Becky,

Over the last few years, I've heard this question a lot. It comes up in e-mails and interviews with clockwork regularity.

Despite that, it's a question I never mind answering. I like giving advice, and I like talking about writing. So this one's a twofer for me.

That said, my answer tends to change. If I'm reading something that irritates me, my advice might center around how to avoid that particular irritation. Sometimes it just depends on my mood, or what I'm working on in my own revisions.

But I've also noticed a slow change in how I think of this question as time goes on. Sometimes my answer centers around the nuts and bolts of the craft: revision, or character, or how to comport yourself professionally at a convention.

But more and more, I tend to answer this question in more practical terms. While these snippets of advice tends to be much more universal and useful that talking about managing POV, interviewers seem to be put off by it.

I've come to realize that when an interviewer asks me, "Can you give one piece of advice for new writers?" what they're really looking for is something pithy and encouraging. They want me to say "Reach for the Stars!" or "Never give up!"

But that's not really good advice. I mean, you could really hurt your shoulder reaching for the stars. Good advice is occasionally disheartening. "Come to grips with the inevitability of rejection." Or "Don't quit your day job."

Once, I had a lovely 30 minute phone interview that ended roughly like this:

Thanks for the interview, Pat.

My pleasure.

In closing, if you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

Live somewhere cheap.

I beg your pardon?

Odds are, it's going to take you a long time to finish your novel. Then it's going to take you a long time to break into the publishing world. That means you're effectively going to be working at a job that will pay you nothing, and you're going to be doing it for years. So you should live somewhere cheap.

I was thinking something more along the lines of worldbuilding….

If you live somewhere like Seattle or Manhattan or LA, you're going to have to shell out thousands of dollars just in rent. If you have to work three jobs just to pay your rent, when are you going to find the time to write?

Do you know how I managed to keep working on my first novel for 14 years without starving to death?

Student loans? Some sort of trust fund?

Shit no. I learned how to live cheap. Up until 2005, I never paid more than $225 a month for rent.

Wh-- how?

I'm a good bargainer. And I had roommates. And small-town Wisconsin is a cheap place to live.

Also, I lived in some real shitholes from time to time. But you know what? You can write in a shithole. You can't write when you're working 70 hours a week.

[chuckles nervously] Well, I think that's about all the time we have….

Hell, I was so poor for a while I qualified for low-income housing back in 2004. Those places were pretty nice, actually.

Remember to turn in next week, folks. Thanks again, Pat.

Did you know that if you boil a paper shopping bag long enough, it makes something that's almost like soup?

[Cut to static]
Okay, I made up the part about paper bags, but the rest of it is true.

The nice thing about being a writer is that you can do it pretty much anywhere. If you want to be a Hollywood actor, you have to live in LA. If you want to be a professional pianist or a ballet dancer, your options are pretty limited. But if you want to write, you can live whereverthehell you want.



For example, back in 1994 I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a shared bathroom down the hallway. The rent was $135 a month, everything included. My friends called the place: "The Pit."

I was really poor back then. I was working three little part-time jobs and paying my own tuition. I didn't even have a telephone because the 30 bucks every month for basic service was money I could really use for other things. Like food. You can eat for a month on 30 bucks if you're careful.

Was the place a shithole? Absolutely. Was it inconvenient not having a phone? Of course. Hell, at one point my parents took out a classified add in the college newspaper because they had no other way to get in touch with me.

But I had time to write.

In fact, I distinctly remember writing Kvothe's first admissions interview while living there. And his first class with Hemme. I was pretty proud of those scenes, and they didn't change all that much between there and the final version of the book.

Best of all, living cheaply is a skill that will serve you well *after* you're a published writer too. Especially if you're writing Fantasy or Sci-fi. Tobias Buckell did some research into the advances a new writer gets for a first novel. And, on average, it's not a ton of money.

So there you go, Becky. My advice for a new writer. Live somewhere cheap. Sorry if it's not the gem of wisdom you were looking for, but really, what would you do with a gem of wisdom anyway? This is more like a muffin of wisdom. Everyone likes muffins.

Later all,

pat

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Monday, September 14, 2009
My Personal Spring....

I've spent most of my adult life going to college in one form or another. I spent nine years as an undergrad, two years getting my masters, then another five years teaching.

About two years ago, I stopped teaching because it was taking up too much time and headspace. I decided that the grown-up thing to do would be to leave my day job and focus on my writing.

And so I did. What I didn't realize was how much college was part of my life. I've really missed it over these last few years. I miss taking classes, and teaching them. I miss walking around campus and meeting new people. I miss getting into arguments about philosophy at the campus coffeeshop.

And I miss writing my silly little advice column for the campus paper. I wrote it for almost ten years and gave it up for the same reasons I stopped teaching. It was taking too much time away from working on the book.

Don't get me wrong. There are some parts of college I don't miss. Writing the papers, for example. Or grading them, for that matter. I don't miss having to get up for classes, either. Believe it or not, back when I was a student, I sometimes had to be awake by 11 in the morning.

Yeah. I know. There should be a law...

One of the many strange things about being in school for so long is how it changed my perception of time. There is an ebb and flow to the semester. Everyone is tense around mid-terms, irritable two weeks before finals, and giddy by the time finals actually start.

But the beginning of the semester is a magical time. The beginning of the whole school year doubly so.

This time of year has always been spring for me. Yes, yes. I know it's really autumn. But my personal clock, influenced by over 27 years of schooling tells me that this is when the new year begins. It's time to to back to school.

For obvious reasons, I've been thinking about this for the last week. I live in a college town, and when school starts up it's almost like Stevens Point is waking up after a long sleepy winter. Students are wandering the streets again, looking for house parties and curbside couches. The bars downtown are full. People are moving furniture around, hanging out in the coffee houses, and jogging on the sidewalks. I don't need a calendar to tell me that classes are starting again.

This is also the time when I would write my first column for the new school year. It was tricky because I didn't have any letters to answer at the beginning of the year, so most of what I did was introduce the concept of the column to the new students and make a call for letters that I could mock. (Or give advice to, depending on my mood.)

So in honor of my personal springtime, here's one of my favorite introductions that I wrote for the College Survival Guide a couple years ago:

* * *

I love this time of year. After three months of vacation everyone is fresh and rested. All the Professors have forgotten how much they hate teaching. They smile and chat with each other in the hallways. They cluster around Xerox machines like lame, tweedy gangs, pretending they're cool despite the fact that they're doing the equivalent of selling encyclopedias door-to-door while all the other gangs are pushing lapdances, PS3s, and cherry-flavored crack.

Returning students are glad to be back too. Mostly because your summer jobs were tedious and degrading. Three months of summer vacation is long enough so that you've forgotten that most classes are tedious and degrading too.

This means that you're full of hope. You're sure your new roommate won't be like the last one who wore tinfoil socks and had a tendency to occasionally urinate in the refrigerator. You're sure you'll pass Math 106 this time around. You're determined to actually join some clubs this year and not just sit around in your dorm eating spray cheese from a can and watching youtube videos about cats.

Sure you will. And while you're at it you'll have plenty of time to map out your future career, find true love, attain nirvana, and develop a high-tech cybernetic arm that dispenses an infinite supply of orange PEZ . Sure. You'll have time for all that. After all, you've done the college thing before. You've got it all figured out... Right?




But you freshman are my favorites. I remember what that first semester was like: you've got a new haircut and some of mom's money in your pocket. You're on your own for the first time ever. You have so much freedom that you can hardly keep from shitting yourself with sheer delight.

And you express your near-infinite excitement the same way every freshman has done for the last ten thousand years. You buy posters for your dorm. You order pizza at unseasonable hours of the day and night. You touch yourself *down there* in a decidedly impure manner, repeatedly.

Well kids, cherish that delightful innocence for as long as you can. Because soon the horrible truth with start to dawn. You'll realize freedom isn't all nachos, whippets, and wicked touching of the bathing suit area. Freedom is also credit-card debt, STD's that would blister the paint off a car door, and scholastic performance so shoddy that your professors have to invent new grades to accurately represent how profoundly you are sucking in their classes. Something like "Triple F-minus" or "negative B plus."

Some of you, the smarter ones, are already starting to realize how dangerous all this lovely freedom is. Truth be told, your freshman orientation package should include a coil of industrial-strength nylon cord with a label that says: "Welcome to college. Here's a whole lot of rope. Feel free to hang yourself with it." Unfortunately, the effect would be ruined by UWSP's legal department, which would make sure the rope was actually too short for anyone to really hang themselves with. And they would attach a second label, larger than the first, with bright red letters saying: "We mean metaphorically. Dumbass."

Truth is, I can't keep you from metaphorically hanging yourself. And honestly, I wouldn't want to. College provides you an unrivaled opportunity for you to fuck up in a largely consequence-free environment. This is half the fun of college. If you don’t make at least one or two really nexa-level mistakes while you're here, you're really not getting your money's worth.

What I can do is this. When things get weird, or stupid, or broken, I can offer some advice on how to minimize the damage to your tattered life. If that doesn't work, then at least the rest of us will have a good laugh at your expense.

So e-mail your questions, sob stories, and mewling pleas for help to [e-mail no longer valid]. I'll do my best to answer them. Exceptionally good letters will be rewarded with fantastic prizes. I promise.


* * *

Oh my beloved survival guide. How I miss you.

While I'm busy working on book two and getting ready to be a dad, I'll probably post up an old column or two on the blog here. There's a few pieces of good advice buried in all the humorous bullshit.

Also, because I'm feeling nostalgic, those of you looking for advice can mail in questions using the contact form here on the webpage.

That said, be aware that I'm busy, and just because you ask a question doesn't mean that I'll answer it here on the blog.

But maybe... just maybe...

pat

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Friday, October 17, 2008
The Good Life

A while back I was in the grocery store picking up something to eat. I ended up behind a mom and her little boy in the checkout line. She was buying all sorts of grown-up groceries: hamburger, milk, celery, saltines, green peppers, tomatoes...

I was buying Fritos, some Mountain Dew, and a box of Fruity Pebbles.

The boy looked at his mom's groceries, then at my groceries. Back and forth. I could see him putting together the pieces. His mom's groceries were going to make meatloaf. My groceries....

That's when I realized how awesome my life is. I was living this kid's dream. Of course, I was living MY dream too, but I had forgotten it until this moment.

I looked at him and pointed at the Fritos. "When I get home, I'm going to eat all of those," I said. "and it's going to completely spoil my dinner." I smiled and pointed to the box of fruity pebbles. "That's my dinner."

He didn't say anything. He was only about six or seven, and I'm guessing that he was too stunned with my untrammeled glory to put together a full sentence.

But he looked up at me with eyes that said, I want to be like you. How can I do these things which you have shown me?

"Go to college," I told him.

I was just about to tell him that I was going to put the Mountain Dew on the cereal instead of milk when his mom hustled him away, probably because she thought I was some kind of pervert.

Which is only fair, I suppose. I probably am.





Later all,

pat

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
A New Edition to the Family


It goes without saying that becoming a published author has changed my life.

If someone were to ask how, specifically, I'd probably mention one of the big things. How surreal it is when people recognise me in public. Or when I show up to a reading or a signing and there are dozens of people there. I could mention how I travel a lot more now, or the fact that I can spend up to 5-6 hours a day just keeping up with my e-mail correspondence.

But truthfully, one of the thousand small changes has been how I feel about getting the daily mail.

Up until about a two years ago, when all this publication stuff started, my mail was pretty normal. Most of it was junk: fliers, credit card applications, cupons. The stuff that wasn't junk was usually unpleasant, like bills or notifications about my student loans.

Yeah sure. On some rare occasion something nice would show up. A card from mom with some cash in it, mail order something-or-other, a letter from a friend. But those were few and far between.

But now I love to get the mail. Every day is like a potential Christmas. I get all sorts of cool things. I get foreign contracts that I read and sign and mail back. I get free copies of books sent to me with the hope that I'll read them, love them, and blurb them.

And I get checks in the mail. I won't lie to you, that's really cool. A lot of my life I've been pretty poor. Not *really* poor, of course. But student poor. I spent 11 years as a college student, and there were a lot of times when I was broke, the next paycheck was three days away, and the credit card was full. I'm sure a lot of you have had similar times in your life.

I remember getting sick once, and not having enough money to buy aspirin or orange juice. Another time, I remember digging through my cupboards, examining the cans of weird food. The food that you have left because you hate it. I remember thinking, "How old is this can of vegetable barley soup? Will it kill me?" Once I got behind on my rent and my landlord burst into my little one-room apartment, waking me from a dead sleep and threatening to throw me out onto the street.

Fast forward to now. Sometimes I pick up my mail and there's a check in there. A check for money. A check for money that I didn't even know would be showing up. Best of all, it's money that I don't immediately need for something, like paying my overdue phone bill, or buying groceries, or settling a debt with a friend who lent me a little bit to get by.

But perhaps even cooler is when things like this show up without my expecting it:


(Click to Embiggen)

I didn't know the Danish version of the book was close to being finished. I'd never even seen the cover until I opened the envelope a couple days ago and found this inside.


I think this is translation number... six? Let me think, so far I've had editions in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan... Number five then. Six will probably be the German version that's coming out later this month. I'm excited to see that one too.

Later all,

pat

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