Writing Something Brilliant

In Adventures in SciFi Publishing’s recent interview with Lou Anders, editorial director of Pyr Books, the host asked Lou, “What kind of [book] pitch do you want?” His answer, while not surprising, blew my mind.

Lou said his biggest pet peeve pitch was, “I’ve just written the most amazing fantasy since Lord of the Rings, which by the way is the only thing I’ve ever read.”

Lou then said, “People think they can come in to the genre at the top, having complete ignorance for what’s been going on for the last fifty or sixty years.”

In describing the kind of submissions he gets, he said, “What we see is a lot of okay material…it’s the brilliant stuff that really stands out.”

My goal is to make the science fiction series I’m writing strong enough to stand at the top of its genre. I want it to win awards, not because I crave recognition, but because I don’t want to put it out there until it’s that good.

While this is a noble pursuit – if I don’t say so myself 😉 – it presents a couple tough problems.

First, I can’t possibly read all the best science fiction books from the last fifty years, but I might be able to read some of the past few years that have similar. While my temptation is to just write, I need to take Lou’s advice. I can’t expect to write the next Dune if I don’t have an intimate appreciation of the best books in between then and now.

This leads to the second problem, which is a paradox for me right now. On one hand, I want to read all the award winners in science fiction that have something in common with my series (i.e. Campbell Award Winner, The Dervish House, because of it’s advanced nanotech society). Adding to that, I need to research space colonization and telepathy. I also want to keep working on an outline and character building before I write anymore.

The other hand comes from another quote in that podcast, that everything is a muscle, including writing. Between reading these books, research, outlining, etc, it could be a while before I’m ready to start writing again. But how do I expect to write an award winner if I’m not writing everyday?

This has been a cycle for me in the past few years. After weeks of worldbuilding and outlining, the idea either doesn’t work, or I get impatient and start writing. Often times, the outline changes and instead of updating it, I keep writing. What comes out the other end is a rough draft lacking continuity, character, and often times, sound science.

I’m trying to write something brilliant. Right now that means heavy on the preparation. Hopefully it will mean I’ll have a world to play in for a long time, one where the preparation I do now adds the depth and character that will make my stories stand above the rest.

The good news is that the moratorium from writing won’t last too much longer, because I’ve got a short story to start for Team PYP. I’m a little delayed on that though because I’m casting it in the same universe, which added more research to see what the other culture would look like. Having my stories for Team PYP performing double duty by adding scattered viewpoints in this universe is very exciting. This might also give me the escape I need to write in this world without wasting those words in my novel draft before I know where it’s going.

I’ve got to say, this is a lot of fun. I’m just getting impatient without the escape of writing fiction. I’m not picking up other projects, because I will lose myself in them, and I can’t afford the distraction. Ultimately, I keep telling myself I won’t be satisfied with the end product unless I do this work, so I just have to push through so I can write as soon as possible – but not before I’m ready.

About Timothy C. Ward

Timothy C. Ward is a Hugo nominated producer for Adventures in SciFi Publishing, who has been lost, broke and surfed with sharks on the other side of the world. He now dreams of greater adventures from his keyboard in Des Moines, Iowa. This summer he released two novels: his second Sand Divers book, Scavenger: A.I., where two parents use an ancient technology to fight a reproducing A.I. while trying to resurrect their deceased infant; and Godsknife: Revolt, an apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss.

8 comments on “Writing Something Brilliant

  1. The last few months I’ve spent editing other peoples novels. This too is another way to strengthen your skills as a writer. You have to know why something doesn’t work in a book so you can help the other writer. This in turn helps you identify problems in your own writing. The term steel sharpening steel applies and baby flesh toughens up. Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Tim. We’re here for you. 😀

  2. It sounds to me like you’re doing a good selection of the right things, Tim, from this not-so-seasoned comrade’s viewpoint. I think the short stories will be helpful to you as a bit of a sandbox to work out details in your world, as well as to investigate the nuances of your voice. All these things are needed for the brilliance to come through when you do crank out the bulk of that novel.

    Happy journeys!

  3. Excited for you! Keep plugging away, one day at a time, sooner or later things will fall into place. 🙂

  4. Tim,

    You could also always consider the disjointed version lacking in continuity and brilliance as journalling; a sort of more extended outlining, where you get to know your characters better. I certainly do that and will continue to do that. There’s no way that I can keep track of every layer of the plot through every twist and turn if I don’t. Journalling has to exist pre- first rough draft; it’s where I determine if I can take the plot believably down that particularly crazy road to mayhem and confusion and bring it back out again on the other side, or if I’m going to have to plot a course around a certain possible but not plausible plot-twist in order to keep from writing myself into a corner.

    …But there again, I started out as a SOTP writer, and only later figured out how to create outlines that didn’t stifle my creativity.

    Oh–that’s another thing: I seem to have to write in layers… So, if I can get a good action plan roughed in, other details, like what tools are available, the emotional and spiritual, and what so-and-so was really thinking right at that horrible moment can come later, along with more of the five senses.

  5. lol. I definitely wouldn’t say such a thing to an editor. But I have a similar pet peeve. It’s the writer’s version.

    Although I know it’s well-meaning, I hate it when people find out that I write and then say, “Maybe you’ll be the next Stephanie Myers.” Or “… the next Tolkien”. What really bugs me is when (as in most cases) they make the latter comment without:
    A) Having read any Tolkien
    and B) They haven’t read any of my writing either (nor are most of them willing to)

    As I said, I know that the intentions are good, but it’s meaningless.

    Similarly, I had one friend eagerly supportive of my writing, but to be honest, she read very little of it. From all I could tell, the bulk of her faith in me was simply because of my artwork. She seemed to think that I should send samples of my art with every submission.

    Honestly – I want my writing to be able to stand on it’s own, whether or not I do art with it.
    With all I have going on, I don’t have a lot of time to write, let alone read – but I know some of the names since Tolkien at least. Good luck, Tim.

  6. Maybe it’s just a Wednesday talking, but while we all hope to write something brilliant, most often we write something good. The question becomes “is it good enough to sell?”

    I don’t want to be the next Anne McCaffrey or Piers Anthony or whoever the current version of them is (frankly, I don’t care who the current version of them is). I just want to write books I like and hopefully write them well. If an editor likes them, great. If readers like them, even better. However, publication has never been my first goal, only a side-effect of the writing process. My goal was to finish something, and I have. Twice. Working on the third at the moment.

    I admire your desire to be the best, study the best and do the best you can. The reality is your next book will always be better than the one you’re writing, no matter how much you plan, and your last book will always be your favorite until someone else reads it. It’s the curse of the artist. The eternal striving (and failing) to capture our vision and share it.

    That editor was speaking as a person, and that’s all an editor is in the end – a person with likes and dislikes. God willing, one day you’ll find one who likes your stuff and gives you a chance. Persistence helps a lot in that search, and the patience to wait for some people to change jobs. *evil grin*

    Basically, the Turtle says, “Relax. You’re doing fine.”

    • I agree, Robynn! And frankly, sometimes I think as people in the industry, we may be setting the bar too high. It’s not that we don’t all want to write a classic, but there’s no way we all can. One of the reasons I started writing was because I ran into several unfortunately-published books that caused me to narrow my eyes and say, “How in the world did this get into print (and onto my local public library’s shelf???)” Because they were horribly written and broke every rule of good writing that I understood as a non-writer at the time. “I can write BETTER than that!” I said–and set out to prove it.

      I write exceptionally well compared to those books– my heroes have likeable traits and flaws that are real, but not the type that overwhelm the story; my villains have those more praiseworthy attributes that makes people able to say they’re real and not just two dimensional; my plots go places, and etc., etc.

      The difference between my stories and theirs is that they convinced someone to publish them–and then somehow convinced libraries as well as other individuals to buy their books, awful as they were. That–is marketing. It has little or nothing to do with the actual worth of their stories (which is nil).

      • Oops–I meant to say, “Setting the bar too high for ourselves.”

        And those stories? They broke every rule I’ve heard expounded on by industry professionals: The writing was horrible from the first sentence, the “good guys”–were there really any “good guys?”–were totally unlikeable dreck or complete non-entities; the writing was dreary and telling; and so on. With the one book, the only reason I made it to page 4 was because I was goggling at how horrid the book was!

        I finally decided that it must have gotten on the bookshelf based on the cover blurb alone, and the (apparently) complete desperation of the library staff to come up with enough new sci/fi material to pacify their subscriber base.

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