Writers Write is a resource for writers. In this post, we look at science-fiction author, Octavia E. Butler’s Writing Advice.
Octavia E. Butler was an American science fiction writer. She was born 22 June 1947, and died 24 February 2006.
Butler was one of the first women and one of the first African-Americans to succeed in the sci-fi genre. Her novels were about future societies and superhuman powers. ‘They are noteworthy for their unique synthesis of science fiction, mysticism, mythology, and African American spiritualism.’ (via)
She was a multiple-recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Her novels include the Patternist and Parable series. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), was the beginning of her five-volume Patternist series about a group of telepaths ruled by Doro, a 4,000-year-old immortal African. Other titles include Kindred and Lilith’s Brood.
In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Grant. In 2000 she received a PEN Award for lifetime achievement.
This advice is taken from her short piece, “Furor Scribendi” in Bloodchild: And Other Stories. In the afterword to this essay, Butler translates the title as “A Rage for Writing” or “Positive Obsession”.
Octavia E. Butler’s Writing Advice
“Writing for publication may be both the easiest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Learning the rules — if they can be called rules — is the easy part. Following them, turning them into regular habits, is an ongoing struggle.
Here are the rules:
- Read. Read about the art, the craft, and the business of writing. Read the kind of work you’d like to write. Read good literature and bad, fiction and fact. Read every day and learn from what you read. If you commute to work or if you spend part of your day doing relatively mindless work, listen to books on tape [what we now call audiobooks].
- Writing is communication. You need other people to let you know whether you’re communicating what you think you are and whether you’re doing it in ways that are not only accessible and entertaining, but as compelling as you can make them. In other words, you need to know that you’re telling a good story. You want to be the writer who keeps readers up late at night, not the one who drives them off to watch television. Workshops and classes are rented readers—rented audiences—for your work. Learn from the comments, questions, and suggestions of both the teacher and the class. These relative strangers are more likely to tell you the truth about your work than are your friends and family who may not want to hurt or offend you. One tiresome truth they might tell you, for instance, is that you need to take a grammar class. If they say this, listen. Take the class. Vocabulary and grammar are your primary tools. They’re most effectively used, even most effectively abused, by people who understand them. No computer program, no friend or employee can take the place of a sound knowledge of your tools.
- Write. Write every day. Write whether you feel like writing or not. Choose a time of day. Perhaps you can get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, give up an hour of recreation, or even give up your lunch hour. If you can’t think of anything in your chosen genre, keep a journal. You should be keeping one anyway. Journal writing helps you to be more observant of your world, and the journal is a good place to store story ideas for later projects.
- Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it. All the reading, writing, and classes should help you do this. Check your writing, your research (never neglect your research), and the physical appearance of your manuscript. Let nothing substandard slip through.
- Submit your work for publication. First research the markets that interest you. Seek out and study the books or magazines of publishers to whom you want to sell. Then submit your work. If the idea of doing this scares you, fine. Go ahead and be afraid. But send your work out anyway. If it’s rejected, send it out again, and again. Rejections are painful, but inevitable. They’re every writer’s rite of passage.
- Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence and practice.
- Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent. Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, and changing its direction when necessary. Persistence is essential to any writer — the persistence to finish your work, to keep writing in spite of rejection, to keep reading, studying, submitting work for sale.
- Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journaling, writing, and learning you will be doing will stimulate it. Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong.
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