Lawrence Buentello has published over 80 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Murky Depths, Cover of Darkness, Bete Noire, and several other publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.
How long have you been writing and what got you started?
I’ve been writing since I was 12, which was a long, long time ago. By that age I was an avid reader, delighting in whatever I could get my hands on. I don’t remember the exact moment of inspiration, but at some point I believe I put down the magazine or book I was reading and thought: why don’t I write a story of my own? I found some loose leaf paper and a pencil and wrote a science fiction story about a space faring superhero who battled an alien creature capable of throwing electric bolts from — well, I’m not exactly sure where the bolts originated, so there was less science and more fiction, but by the time I finished the story I knew I’d come home.
This is the experience of most writers, I have to believe; a love of reading morphs into a love of writing. I’ve been writing, sometimes more avidly, sometimes less, for the duration.
What is the best piece of advice you have for new writers?
The best advice I can give new writers is this: if you want to produce your best possible writing, and have your fiction routinely published, then don’t be afraid of hard work.
The moment of inspiration is sweet, and displaying your vision in words can be a joyous experience. But writing is not only an inspired act, it is also a craft, and learning that craft — and applying what you’ve learned — is central to any writer’s success. I routinely outline my fiction (more on that later), patiently let my first draft cool, then run through four, five, or six revision drafts (or more) before I’m satisfied with the final result. This may not be everyone’s routine, but for me to satisfy my own standards of excellence I must apply the same approach to every piece I write, whether it’s 500 words in length or 50,000.
This idea of hard work also applies to the writer’s preparation: refreshing oneself on the basics (grammar, dramatic structure, and etc.) is essential, performing adequate research for each project, spending time researching markets, and keeping one’s writing skills sharply honed should be an ongoing practice.
Are there any writing resources, such as books or websites, you’d like to recommend?
I have learned, over the years, that no two writers approach writing in quite the same way. Some writers are miles apart in the way they write, which tells me that a given book on writing may be essential for one writer, and absolutely useless for another. So recommending specific titles is always problematic, but I would recommend that anyone trying to learn more about writing should read as many books on writing as possible, find the information that works best for them, and keep seeking out new information that might assist them in the future.
I prefer to create my work using definitive techniques; and, therefore, find books delineating writing techniques in concrete terms incredibly useful. For instance, Jack Bickham’s “Writing Novels that Sell” is perfect for me because it breaks down, in fine detail, all the elements necessary to produce effective dramatic narrative (if you can find this book I would recommend you study it, even if it isn’t your particular instructional cup of tea — it can help you recognize structural flaws in your work you might otherwise overlook).
Bickham’s ‘by the numbers’ approach might strike another writer as entirely unappealing, especially someone like Stephen King (as he describes his approach in his book “On Writing”), who prefers to uncover the story as he writes it rather than plot it out ahead of time. Of course, a writer could read such a book just to learn what to look for during revisions, but that’s another matter. As the old saying goes, ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Just remember that you’ll never get to Rome by ignoring the road signs. If you find your initial methodology for constructing fiction doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere, then you would well advised to try out other approaches. Some writers take a while to find just the right approach to coax the best out of their muse (and some writers give up entirely, when the right approach might be just around the corner).
That being said, a few titles that I would recommend:
“Writing Novels that Sell”, & “Scene and Structure”, by Jack M. Bickham.
“Telling Lies for Fun and Profit”, & “Spider, Spin Me a Web”, by Lawrence Block.
“The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells”, by Ben Bova.
“The Write Stuff”, by Barry B. Longyear.
“On Writing”, by Stephen King.
King’s book and Longyear’s book are useful for understanding how writing affects a person’s life in general.
What is your favorite type of fiction and who are your favorite authors?
I have written, and have published, in just about every genre in existence. I would never have done so if I didn’t like (and read) every genre in which I write. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been my favorite haunts since childhood, but I also enjoy mainstream fiction, and the classics. I’m not sure that the more reading you do, the better writer you’ll become, but my reading habits have certainly developed as if that was the case.
To make a list of every writer I like in each category would be an exercise in extensive list-making, so let me just say that I like too many writers to name in a short space, and I keep adding to the list as time goes by. I read for the pleasure of it, of course, but I also read to study other writers’ techniques, so I’m constantly re-reading the best of each writer for that reason.
What tips do you have for finding time to write?
Again, each writer works best in different scenarios, and some writers need large segments of time to work effectively, which is problematic (and which means that something in the writer’s life must be sacrificed to build these longer blocks of time). But, let’s face it, most writers have jobs, or attend classes, or sometimes both, and finding adequate time to write can seem daunting.
Until recently, I had to balance writing with a full-time job and family life, but I trained myself to write in small segments of time (when large segments were unavailable), and managed to write something on the order of a hundred short stories and a couple of novels over a ten year span, as well as a great deal of poetry. And not much of this was done in any block of time exceeding an hour. But training oneself to write in small blocks of time takes a little dedication, and not a little adjustment.
First, the writer has to believe that meaningful work can be accumulated under such a system, and then the writer has to learn how to turn on his or her focus at will. This is not always easy, but it’s certainly possible. Primarily, it’s a matter of seeing the work broken down into smaller parts — right now I will write on the first scene of the story, later I’ll revise that part and draft some notes on the next section, tomorrow I’ll begin writing the second section, then later in the day I’ll revise five pages of the story I completed last month — this disjointed manner of composing and revising fiction may seem distasteful at first, but the human brain is capable of adjusting to a wide range of requirements.
If the above seems unreasonable, just remember that the artifacts of a writing career are accumulated over time and not cast forth in singular fashion. If you love writing enough to keep it in your life, then you’ll find the time to do it.
But the best way to find the time to write in a busy life is to take an accounting of everything else you spend time on (like watching cable TV, surfing the net, or playing video games) and cashing in that time on writing. There is a potential hazard in this — as time passes, and the writer tires of the necessary labor involved in producing good work, it becomes increasingly easy for him or her to escape into less demanding activities. Recognize when this is the case, and resolve to work through these times or perhaps even take a vacation from writing until your desire to write returns. Remember, above all other things, that you shouldn’t turn writing into a chore — that way lies disaster. Write because you want to write, and not because you feel obligated to. This is the only way to keep writing over many years.
Do you prefer to outline a story in advance or write on the fly? Why?
Again, every writer’s approach differs, and the best one for any writer to employ is the one that gets the job done. But I am an outliner, and believe that outlining a piece of writing before beginning the first draft is essential.
Some writers believe that producing an outline of a proposed story kills the passion involved in producing that story, and this may be true for them. But I believe that drafting a precis for the story, even a brief one, keeps the writer from making unnecessary errors and acts as a ‘try-out’ for the story’s effectiveness. At times the outlines I produce are extensive, backed up by careful research; at other times I simply jot a line down on a piece of paper and dive right into the narrative. My approach depends on the complexity of the story, and whether or not I feel comfortable in my vision of it enough to proceed. Always remember, though, not to confuse outlining for the actual writing of the piece. Note-making can easily become an avoidance mechanism for actual writing.
If you possess the talent for holding complex constructions in your head, you may not have to worry about keeping copious notes on hand; but I’m no savant, so the more complex the details of the story, the more notes I produce. And by no means am I suggesting that I follow my outline rigorously — I remain flexible as far as the story is concerned, and change things up to a greater or lesser degree, depending on how the story is manifesting itself. Sometimes a writer can only take direction as a story unfolds, and at such a time instinct and ‘feel’ play an important role.
A final word on outlining: I believe all things follow logically from the beginning, so creating an outline (or careful notes) reduces the risk of botching the story’s logic and execution, creates an opportunity to produce a clean first draft, and greatly reduces the amount of revising the writer will have to face following the completion of the first draft. I have to honestly say this, too: I don’t believe in writing bad first drafts just to ‘get something written’. I believe in writing good first drafts, because a good first draft is the writer’s best way to create a great final draft. Adequate outlining and research helps the writer accomplish this.
How do you deal with rejections?
I deal with rejection like every other writer: my soul shrivels into a spasming wad and I feel like hiding under my house. Fortunately, this reaction only lasts for a few minutes these days before I regain my composure and accept the inevitable.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I think most writers who succeed do so in spite of feeling like they die a little with every rejected story. Having the child of your genius drop-kicked back to you with sometimes incredible speed is a difficult psychological blow, but if you want to see your work published it’s simply the cost of doing business. Remember, writing a work of fiction takes passion, intelligence, hard work, and dedication, and such a heavy psychological investment demands the pay-off of an acceptance. When that acceptance isn’t forthcoming, the writer feels as if he or she is being judged inadequate.
It’s actually the piece of writing that’s being judged inadequate, at least, for that editor’s needs, and this is the reality of publishing. An editor has to assess reams of fiction before selecting a piece, and the rest must be returned, sometimes with a warm rejection, and sometimes with a form rejection. When the writer realizes this is the case, and that marketing his or her work is a process beyond the creation of it, rejection takes on a different meaning. Rejection becomes a necessary part of eventual publication, should the writing gods be smiling on that particular work.
Years ago I developed an approach to marketing my work, and I’ve kept it up ever since. I keep careful records on submissions and rejections, and I do careful market research, using online marketing engines and other sources. When a piece is rejected, I try to submit it to a new market the same day, should time and market evaluation allow. I don’t let the story sit idle if there is another market to solicit. I’ve made this approach routine, so when a piece of writing of mine is rejected I simply follow my routine and the psychological blow is minimized.
But, truthfully, I’ve been doing this a long time now, and every rejection still stings a little. Fortunately, I’ve built up a resistance to the potential poisoning of my desire to keep submitting, and that is enough. The trial for the beginning writer is to survive this subtle poisoning until he or she succeeds.
What are your writing goals for the next twelve months?
I’ve begun a fantasy novel that I’d like to complete, as well as a mainstream novel, and have innumerable short story ideas to explore, and several first drafts to revise.
For the next five years?
I hope to produce several novels in the next few years. And I’m always writing short fiction and poetry. Writing short stories is a beautiful artistic habit I have no desire to break, and, for me, there never seems to be a dearth of subjects to explore.
Is there anything you’d like to plug?
I have several titles on Amazon if anyone is interested in my work. I’m not a hard-sell kind of guy, which is a professional weakness, I guess, but I’ll just have to keep working on that. Most of all, I love writing, and I hope that love shows in everything I craft in words.