Tuesday, June 13, 2006

what to do when you're crap at 23...

There's a lovely essay by Michael Chabon about literature and "entertainment" up at It's his introduction to Best American Short Stories 2005.


I am a huge fan of both your work and your advice to aspiring authors (I have a post-it note with a quote from you about bear wrestling for when i get discouraged). So I know that your most common advice to aspiring writers is to write.
Well what about when your youngish (23) and you do write, but you just feel like your skills aren't matching your ideas. In other words, you feel like most of your stuff is utter crap.
Did you ever feel like this? And if so what did you do to hone your skills, or improve your techniques?
How important do you think college is for writers?
Regardless of an answer, thanks for taking the time to read these questions.



That was pretty much how I felt when I was 22-23, too. I had a fairly good ear for other authorial voices, so I could pastiche, and I wanted to be a writer more than most people want to breathe, but I didn't have a lot to say and I knew that I wasn't very good yet -- and also that I had ideas that were better than I was.

What I did was work as a journalist. It forced me to write, to write in quantity, to write to deadline. It forced me to get better than I was, very fast.

It got stuff I wrote into print. There is nothing for a young author that teaches you how to get better faster than reading something you wrote in print -- suddenly every mistake, every infelicity, every laziness, shows up as if in neon letters.

And the process of transcribing conversations forced me to learn to write dialogue and learn the economies of getting speech patterns into just a few words. (Dialogue -- even "naturalistic dialogue" -- isn't how people speak. So you need to learn to distill.)

And I was also lucky in finding myself with several book review columns, being forced to read and review everything, including stuff way out of my comfort zone, or books I simply would never have picked up. (I think writers should read from the shelves they wouldn't normally go.) And it was great reading stuff where I'd read something and go "I may be crap, but I'm better than this." (Working on Ghastly Beyond Belief was a great help on this, too.)

Also I got to do some living. That bit was important too, and much of it was a side effect of being a journalist -- I got to see lots of bits of the world I hadn't known existed, and talk to people I would never otherwise have encountered. That was important too.

So that was how I did it. You'll probably want to do it differently. I don't think any two people are going to take the same path, or need to.

As for how important college is for writers -- I remember someone once asking here if he needed an MFA before he could write -- the awful truth is that no editor, picking up a manuscript, is going to check your qualifications before reading page 1, and no qualifications will keep her reading past page 2 if she isn't enjoying it and interested in what happens next. (On the other hand, to the extent that college makes you write, get stuff into print, read outside your comfort zone, and meet people you might not otherwise meet, I think it's great. But it's not any kind of prerequisite.)

Does that help?

Hi Neil,
You mentioned a short story by Harlan Ellison about the universe getting even with a plumber. I'd like to read it but you didn't give the title of the story. So if you do know the title, could you share it with us?
P.S.: I just bought The Essential Ellison, a 50 year retrospective of his stories; more than a thousand pages of madness & mayhem. It's never been easy to get your hands on (old) Harlan stories but on the face of it this is a great collection, published by Morpheus International.

The story is called "The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge", and the events of reminded me of it (including the way that the universe, having dealt with the alleged Sidekick thieves, now seems determined to punish the guy who pointed the finger at them).

It's in The Essential Ellison.

When I presented Harlan with the SFWA Grand Master award, I made the point that the reason Harlan was getting the award was because of the stories he'd written, not because of the stories about him or any of the side-issues and brouhahas. The Essential Ellison is a terrific place to start.


As someone in the States that also has to use a "dealer" to get new Doctor Who episodes, your post about the phenomenon a few weeks ago made me chuckle.

I'm getting from your comments today about The Idiot's Lantern (i.e. athlete's foot, gangrene, etc.) that you're not enjoying this season of Doctor Who. I continue to find them charming in their own way, and David Tennant continues to impress me and put a smile on my face.

Enough about me, though.

My question for you is: Have you considered writing anything for the new Who series? It would be presumptuous to ask about an episode, but perhaps a novel or audio adventure for Big Finish? I think the combination of Doctor Who + Neil Gaiman would easily make it something that interests most everyone, as well as helping to get some much needed exposure for the program Stateside.

Just a thought.


Did you miss the comments on the first four episodes, which were all positive? Here and particularly Here? (I thought "Girl in the Fireplace" was the high point -- perfectly constructed and a delight from start to finish.) The Cybermen thing was a mess of cliches, bad SF and rubbish moments that gets worse and more nonsensical in retrospect. "Idiot's Lantern" was a bit of a curate's egg -- Maureen Lipmann was marvellous, but I kept feeling that the script was trying to make points about the 1950s rather than simply tell a story set in 1953, and I couldn't believe in any of the people in it as people rather than as characters.

I think David Tennant is doing a fine job, but that some of the scripts for this series weren't in as good shape as those of the majority of the first series.

No, I can't ever see me writing a Dr Who novel (or any "licensed" novel). I don't write novels very fast, and when I do I'm going to write novels that are completely mine. If I was asked to write an episode of Dr Who I'm sure I'd say yes, as long as people were prepared to wait, but they might have to wait for years, as my dance card is very full. (I was asked to write a Babylon 5 episode before Season 1. I finally found time to write one for Season 5. And life was significantly less hectic back then.) It's not like they have any shortage of good people wanting to write Who scripts.

Is there any possibility that you'd ever write an episode of Dr. Who?
[Might be just us, but don't look forward to the two-parter too much.]

Jenn Erik

See above. As for the "Impossible Planet" two-parter, overall I rather liked it. The pacing was a bit off here and there, the Rose part of the ending was sort of pat and unlikely, but I thought it was exactly what it set out to be, a little lump of Lovecraft-in-space-style-solid-paranoid-small-number-of-people-on-doomed-space-outpost-trapped-by-ancient-demonic-alien-wossname fiction. Bad things happening on a distant space station is a sort of SF subgenre all on its own by now, and at least this iteration of it felt consistent.

And I think we're heading into "that's enough Dr Who, Ed." territory here...


Dear Mr Gaiman, I don't want to be rude but have you ever heard of LJ Cuts?

Yup. You can find out why I don't use them on the LJ syndicated feed Here and especially Here.


On the Stardust casting news front, the latest of the bickering dead Stormhold Princes to be cast(I think he may be Sextus, but don't quote me on that) is the Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding. Which is good, because his audition tape was astonishingly funny and quirky.

Tab-closing time. I really enjoyed this Carter Scholz essay on the life and career of James Tiptree Jr.

And there are some fun pictures from Balticon at notable not for the pictures of a very jet-lagged and tired me, but for all the shots of Lisa Snellings in a full-body rat-suit. She says that I had figured out backstage that it was her (although she had gone to great pains to convince me otherwise) and that, because I am evil and I knew how hot it was in that rat suit, I made an extra-length introduction saying nice things about her. I, on the other hand, think it's much more likely that any length of time spent cooking in a rat suit is going to seem like an eternity, and that blaming your introducer is completely unjustified. But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?

In a case very similar (as far as I can tell anyway) to that which regained some of the rights to Superman and Superboy for the families of the creators, I see that John Steinbeck's family has regained his copyrights from Penguin books...,,1796841,00.html

And finally, Saturday June 17th is the last day of London's Comics Showcase (63 Charing Cross Rd). There will, I am told, be alcohol, comics-celebrities, incredibly cheap comics and more. The end of another bloody era, isn't it?