Tips from Modesitt
By Mark Meier
I was in email contact for a short while with one of my favorite authors this week. I asked if he would help coach me for a while in my writing career, but he demurred. He’s a professional writer, so that’s very understandable – “professional and familial obligations.” He did, however, provide me with a set of basic guidelines that “seem obvious, but are seldom offered or followed.” Here’s what he wrote to me: First, any story, character, and plot must be interesting – both to the audience, and even more important, to you as the writer. One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a critic who observed that I could even make coopering [barrel-making] interesting. That was because I found it interesting and could convey that interest to the reader. If you aren't interested, even enthralled, with what you're writing, how can you expect a reader to be interested? I believe the critic referred to the main character in Wellspring of Chaos, from the Saga of Recluse series. Second, details are important and absolutely necessary, but you can't overwhelm a reader with them. You have to pick and present those details that show how and why the setting or the occupation or the character is different from others. Third, if you cannot visualize a scene and character in your mind, it's a good idea to sketch it out. Fourth, fights or action are not causes; they're results of something else, usually economic or political. Even when one is reacting to an attack or an invasion, that attack was precipitated by something not involving human direct violence, i.e., famine, natural disaster, economic warfare, a ruler's desire to take land or wealth, etc. Fifth, fight or action scenes are invariably short in real life. While there are some authors who can and do write lengthy action scenes, such events seldom occur in real life. Even battles involving tens of thousands of men break down into to brief flurries of action preceded by extensive preparation, and followed by regrouping and more preparation. Sixth, always ask "Why?" Why does this character act this way in this situation? I could give you several pages more of such points, as could most successful professional writers, and there would likely be both similarities and differences, because ALL writers differ in some degree. The last point is more general. You have to learn what works for you, and what doesn't. Copying others is a fool's game, because a copy is never better than the original, and all any author has to offer is craft in putting words together and stories that are in some fashion original to himself. In all, I have to say Mr. Modesitt exemplifies what I aspire to be as a writer. He responded to my email, didn’t condescend, and was polite – and helpful. I can only assume he has loads of fan mail on a daily basis, yet took the time and effort to personally respond. His tips make sense, and I’ll be printing them to post where I see them often. I hope to keep them in mind as my writing journey continues. As an author, Mr. Modesitt weaves memorable stories. (Wellspring was published in 2010, and it instantly came to mind when he mentioned the critic’s words.) His action scenes are realistic and easy to follow, and there’s always an undercurrent of political intrigue in every story of his I’ve read. That’s something I’ll have to do when I start my series on The Archives. In a previous email he mentioned, “Since I did spend nearly twenty years working in government and national politics, I'm not sure that I can ever avoid incorporating some of what I learned there, although some of my books are more overtly political than others.” No small wonder he’s so good at describing the machinations of the powerful. Mr. Modesitt, if you’re reading this, let me thank you again. You are an inspiration.