A Writer Reflects
Let me tell you a story…
A man in a faraway land resolved to stake his claim in the wilderness of the rugged tundra. His companions and neighbors thought him foolish; surely he’d die out there in an untamable land man was not meant to assert himself in! If the animals didn’t get to him, the harsh elements would finish him off. And even if he braved the unforgiving forces of nature, the deafening solitude would undoubtedly drive him insane.
These were valid points being brought up; some out of concern, some out of scornful ignorance. They even caused the man to briefly reconsider. But his heart would not allow it: the allure was too strong. He had heard the stories ever since he was a child: stories of great adventurers who had come before him, and not only survived, but flourished in that land. He knew that he had to do it for himself.
So gathering up everything he needed, he set off on this solo endeavor. As the settler entered into the fringes of the harsh wilds, his conscience tugged at him: was he making the right choice? What if those back in his homeland had been right all along? He almost decided to quit right there and head back home. But then he had a vision; an image in his mind. He was standing in the threshold of the home he would build with his bare hands. He looked out across everything he had made for himself, and he was grinning from ear to ear. The image couldn’t fade away. The settler crossed through the fringes and into the tundra. By that time, a heavy snow started falling, almost obstructing everything from view. Crystallized flakes started to drift down.
Through the haze, the settler spotted a sizable parcel of land on which to stop. He unpacked his belongings, and pitched the only quarters he had: a flimsy tent. He scrounged for anything that would burn in order to kindle a tiny fire. He couldn’t make a spark at first. The kindling he found became dampened by the falling flakes. He had to tear some of the shirts from his pack into strips just to keep the fire going through that first hard night.
He slowly began to build his lodging. Having been given no map, the settler had to scratch out his surroundings on yellowed paper everywhere he went. He had to remember every place he had been carefully; if he underestimated or mistaken, he went back and amended the map. Through his constant exploring, he soon knew where to find the best wood to use for his walls, the freshest streams from where to draw his water, the blooming bushes from where to pick the sweetest berries, and the prime locations from where he would hunt his game.
He began to cut down the wood for his walls; he measured carefully, he arranged the logs in many different ways. The walls began to stack up, log by log. It was no easy task, despite the fact that he was a trade craftsman: many a day ended with the settler lying in his tent, his lungs heaving and his back throbbing. He longed for someone to be there at his side to help him.
The snowstorms began to get worse. Heavier and heavier they fell. Winter gales began to whistle and rumble their way across the tundra.
One night, as he soundly slept in his tent, the tent began to whip and flap against the wind. Shaken from his sleep, the settler threw himself outside and tried to secure the tent further by hammering the pegs deeper. But the gale proved the better adversary: ripped from his foundation, the tent went soaring into the darkness, as the wind whipped around anything that wasn’t secured down.
That included an uprooted old tree, which suddenly came crashing down on the half-built lodging with a sickening crash.
It was such a strong blow dealt to his heart. As the settler awoke amongst the rubble of his work the next cold morning, he despaired at the wreckage. He also discovered that during the gale, the map he had been working on was lost to the wild as well. While he contemplated once again of giving up, the same vision came back to visit him. His mind immediately switched gears: wallowing in the mire wasn’t doing him any good. The only way to move forward was to regroup and plow another path.
So he cleared away the fallen old tree, and relying on his memory, he found his way back to the plentiful woods where he found more logs to supply his walls, this time fully secured by a hardening paste he made from the rich saps of the woods. He also worked to re-draw the map that had guided him for this far.
The first roof he laid didn’t fare any well; the gales came back and ripped it apart, shingle by shingle. As the storms worsened, so did his survival conditions. More and more of the animals he relied on for food either migrated or went into hibernation. The berry bushes he picked from froze at the roots and withered under the punishing ice. He had to ration his food and water.
And like his neighbors had warned, there came days when there was nothing but silence; just as powerful as any winter gale.
As he sat wrapped in his blanket in the walls of his windowless structure, the settler’s mind was bombarded by his thoughts. What are you doing? You don’t belong here! Escape with your life while you still can! Return to your countrymen. Even he believed it: returning home felt a better alternative than languishing in this godforsaken hell. “You were right, old friends. You were right.”
But his heart wouldn’t allow him to concede defeat. Again he was visited by this future vision. He actively resisted it, tried to block it out, and tried to overcome such a fantasy with logical reasoning. But with every attempt, his vision shone through brighter than ever. Eventually, all he could do was surrender to it. By hook or by crook, he would make a fine home and a fine piece of land for himself…even if that meant staring cold death in the face.
It took the settler a great while to build the lodge. But as he hammered the last shingle on his roof, he stepped back to take it all in. He now had a livable home! With that day’s task completed, he warmed himself by the flames crackling in his new fireplace while savoring a hearty bowl of rabbit stew.
The next morning, he got up and stood in the doorway of the lodge. The winter was starting to clear up, and he could see small blades of green peeking through the melting snow drifts. He looked around him and a small grin grew on his face.
Off in the distance, he could see a group coming near him on horseback. He squinted his eyes to try and see: who were these mysterious men? As they sojourned closer, his eyes grew wide, his heart leapt in his chest. Though older and greying, he has recognized their faces. These timeless faces belonged to the men whose stories he had savored from long ago; the ones he longed to be like.
The traveling party made their way to the settler’s door. The leader of the party, a vibrant man with a flowing grey beard, climbed down from his steed and stretched a friendly hand out to the speechless settler. He noticed, too, that the grey man’s hands also carried the calloused scars of the neophyte.
“My son, you have it through your first winter. We are impressed by your persistence and determination, and we are more than happy to welcome you here. May we join you…brother?” The settler reached out his hand, and the grey man grasped it in a firm handshake.
“Of course — please, come in! I’ll prepare us a fest! Let us drink and be merry!” And as the sun set down over the tundra, the sounds of music and hearty jubilation could be heard echoing across the vast expanse.
Wait, What’s The Gist?
I know that whole spiel may have sounded cheap. Some of you may think the symbolism was too weak, too obvious. Some of you may think the allegory mythologizes something that’s not that big of a deal: wait, this is about writing? Are you sure we’re thinking about the same thing here? Sitting at a computer and typing a bunch a’ words ain’t some hero’s journey, y’know.
If the quality of the symbolism is all you’re wrapped up in, then you’ve missed the point by a long shot, my dear reader.
For this isn’t just some meaningless allegory filled with overwrought heroic survival imagery just for the heck of it. Underneath the gritty fantasy, it is, in fact, a true story. A true living story. It’s my story, it’s my other writer friend’s story, it’s Tolkien’s story, it’s Carrol’s story, and Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s and Vonnegut’s and Lewis’, etc. etc. I don’t think I need to name-drop any more famous authors for my point to sink in.
While we may not be battling the unforgiving nature decked in whatever scant survival gear we have, we are, in our own way, fighting against an equally unforgiving force: an emotional and mental one.
When we sit down at our laptops, open up Word, WordPress, Blogger, or even a lined paper notebook, we send ourselves on a metaphorical trek to the fringes of the white, vast expanse of our imagination. This is symbolized most beautifully by the very white space you’re greeted with when you open that blank document. Like the tundra, it’s white. It’s clear, and it’s wide. The possibilities are endless.
That’s the blessing, and that’s the curse.
I say curse because the free reign of the range allows a number of obstacles to fall before you, to trip you up and to test your resolve. I can’t say it plainly enough; this is my solemn guarantee: you will face obstacles.
You will face writer’s block.
You muse will leave you on and off like the girl that keeps coming back into your life, whom you can’t say no to because you love her too darn much.
You will get knocked down, lost, tired, and disillusioned.
You will find yourself hating it from time to time.
You will feel like giving up.
And for some who can’t take the heat, you will give up.
But there’s a single difference between those who turn back and those who brave the elements.
The crux of the allegory is this: no matter what obstacles are thrust in your path, it’s up to you, as the author of whatever project you have in your wheelhouse, to decide how you respond to those stated obstacles, and to the “writer’s journey” itself, as a whole.
Follow the example of the settler: persist no matter what. Persist even when there’s no hope. Persist even when you don’t feel like it.
Heck, I’m no saint: I’m speaking as much to myself as I am to you. I have to remind myself of these simple facts every time I sit down to write a sentence. Even Ernest Hemingway, who would’ve never admitted it in public, found himself beat down by the realities of the author’s life. He even put himself under the microscope in what’s probably the most brutally honest letter ever written, addressed to fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald —
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Quite a revealing statement for someone as revered as Papa himself. But he’s absolutely right: forgive the excrement, but there will be times when what you write will be shit; there’s just no nice way to say it. There’s a solution for that, though: come back tomorrow and try again. If a raging snowstorm causes a tree to smash your foundation, get up tomorrow at the crack of dawn and cut yourself some more logs; despairing over your setbacks ain’t gonna help you.
Do you think the pioneers on the Oregon Trail helped their case by being all depressed? They faced the same physical obstacles our man on the tundra did, and then some — and still they settled, grew the land, and helped expand the country westward.
But like the settler, we writers are all kindred spirits in this one key similarity: we all have purpose. Our purpose is to write; we were born to write, born to tell stories to the world. It’s a rousing call to take up the oldest of human traditions. We were blessed with this extraordinary talent, and that gives us a lasting purpose, a lasting vision that makes braving the harsh snowfalls, fallen trees and the metaphorical frozen tundra all worth it.
The Shape of the Trail You’re On
For those of you in the know, think of this as a refresher course. For those who aren’t, by talent or by interest, “writers”, think of this as a behind-the-scenes look into what we do.
The beginning of the fiction writer’s journey doesn’t start by typing “CHAPTER ONE.” It starts with an idea; a small stray kernel of a thought that somehow rolled into your subconscious, and like a mangy little mutt, bit into the ankle of your imagination and won’t let go.
You have to start by boiling it down to its essence: in one sentence, what’s the story about? Write this sentence out for yourself; I’ll borrow the screenwriter’s terminology: logline. It’s one simple sentence that says everything that needs to be said.
Let’s dissect one of the biggest stories for all the Tolkien freaks in the cheap seats: The Lord of the Rings. Even though it took three books to do it, they all can be tied together by saying something like this:
A young Hobbit must journey to Mordor to destroy a supernatural ring before the evil Sauron can re-claim it to conquer Middle-Earth.
While I’m no die-hard Rings fan, I think that’s a pretty fair over-arching summary.
Once that core plot is fleshed out to one sentence, everything single detail about the story stems from that. It’s important for an author to keep this one sentence at the forefront of their brainstorming: as a notorious tangent junkie, I’m guilty of sticking my head down numerous rabbit holes, to the point where I feel like a good chunk of what I’ve written doesn’t even contribute to the story! It may even be well-written — but it’s not pertinent. Save yourself that lost time and disappointment, and always stay on the logline track.
Like any piece of good fiction, we need a good batch of characters: who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Is the main character a guy or a girl? Will the antagonist be deeply complex and flawed, or will he be a mustache-twirling villain? What will they physically look like?
Once characters are established on the outside, we focus on what’s inside: what’s their personality? What traits or tics do they have? What goals do they have? What do protagonist and antagonist resolve to do by the end of the story? Never forget, any relevant information about the characters must both tie into and drive the story. In this author’s opinion, the characters are, essentially, living the story; the series of choices and actions they make are basically the engine in the car. Therefore, plot and character must be symbiotic; I can’t stress it enough.
If you neglect this fact, nothing will make sense, you’ll be going in circles, and you’ll never get your project built. Sit down and save yourself that headache, will ya?
So after an endless period of marathon backspace-deleting, Freudian psychology Googling, and obligatory head-banging, you got yourself a pretty fantastic set of relatable characters and enough of a story premise to begin your journey with. Like the settler, you’ve packed your mule, and you’ve made it this far to the crest of the tundra. The endless white expanse faces you now.
My studious friend, your exploring’s only just begun. Like any traveler, no journey is worth it without a map. And since it’s the most obvious symbol in my introduction, I don’t think I need to spell this one out for you.
Unfortunately, this line of work doesn’t provide you with a pre-set outline. The settler, when he came to the tundra, had no map: he had to create one for himself out of exploration, trial and error. Same rules apply with the outline.
Speaking for myself, there was a time when the traditional Roman numeral outline didn’t do jack for me. Too many letters and numbers and sub-points. So I found my own method of doing effective outlining. Sometimes I’ll break out the ol’ Roman numerals here and there, but outside of writing school papers for your tenth-grade English teacher, there is no set guideline as to how your story’s outline should look.
My rule is efficiency over formatting: if it helps you clearly organize your ideas in order for you to write the best story you can, then your outline can be written on a greasy napkin and look like a jumbled mess worthy of the Zodiac Killer!
As a long-winded blowhard (self-deprecation included), what I use is a long-handed method: I use paragraphs over numerals, letters and numbers. I take my story kernel, my “summary”, and turn it into an “expanded synopsis,” which can run up to about four to five pages, depending on how specific I want it to be. Since I generally brainstorm in this manner, this reads easier for me, and it doubly helps by threading any and all major plot points together into a cohesive treatment.
The same applies to when I’m creating and molding characters: I love to take the “biographical” approach to character creation: write everything about them as if I were their biographer. I try to include everything at first: general info like birth date, death date (I don’t usually kill off characters, so this option collects dust on the shelf), their gender, their physical looks; sometimes right down to the brand of cotton underwear they’re sporting.
Then, I’d establish the inner side: their personality, their traits, their goals, their fears, important life events that really shaped them, etc.
Now, I figure out how all this ties into and drives the narrative: I leave out anything that may not be of great importance, and hold back and use everything about the characters that aligns with your one-sentence premise. This is especially true for the inner character: while the story may be a physical journey, there is also an internal conflict happening at the same time that is truly powerful in determining the direction of the story, because it’s the internal conflict that forces a character to make a choice and deal with the consequences.
As you combine all this information together, the outline will begin to take place. When the dots are connected from beginning to end, you’ll have yourself a pretty handy map: now it’s time to start scouting for resources and building that lodge.
As you’re laying down the text to your story, always have that outline next to you; whether it’s open in another window or it’s printed out, sitting under your greasy elbow. Like plot and character, outline and text must be symbiotic as well. You’ll lose yourself if you don’t have your guide.
While I wouldn’t give yourself an aneurysm over this topic at this stage in the game, it’s important for an author to be conscious of their writing style, their “voice,” like all stuffy English teachers will refer to it as. Whatever that style may be, it has to be consistent, thorough and used accurately: otherwise, it’ll look like two people wrote it.
…and you don’t want to lose out on royalties to a fictional co-author, do ya?
You should also be asking yourself a series of important questions as you’re writing out your narrative. We of the craft are forced — or cursed, according to some — to be meticulous and concerned with every detail, because we have a laundry list of criteria that we have to meet if we ever expect to see our work on the shelves, on blogs or on Kindles; questions that need to be answered, like these:
- Does it all make sense?
- Is it entertaining?
- Are the characters relatable to people?
- Is it too long or too short?
- Have I misspelt anything?
- Is this story even sellable?
- Am I a worthless hack?
Okay, maybe don’t consciously ask yourself that very last one, but you should be honest and objective with yourself about how you feel the story is going. Because one thing’s for certain as well: you will be facing revisions. It will take multiple drafts until you finally have something worth publishing for the world to see. So if you’re in this rat race for real, don’t delude yourself into thinking that the first draft of anything you create is going to be some godlike masterpiece you can’t bear to change one word of.
Remember Papa Hemingway: even he wrote ninety-one pages to shit to one page of absolute gold. And remember our adventurous friend on the tundra: it took many attempts and times of re-grouping before he laid the final shingle on his lodge.
With time, energy and dedication, you write the very last sentence of your story, and you heave a great sigh of relief and satisfaction. By God, man (or woman), you’ve done it! The grin on your face is about as wide as the settler’s when he saw all that he had finished with his bare, calloused hands. No doubt, you should be immensely proud of yourself that you’ve come this far. But, the journey is still not over yet: odds are, you’re not going to let this work of yours sit in a drawer collecting dust, or in a folder on your desktop, never to be opened and read again. You’ve worked hard on it, you’ve personally revised it; it’s a no-brainer that you’d want to send it out into the world!
There are two viable ways in which you can do this: selling the manuscript to a publisher who can print your work en masse, or with the possibilities in our 21st century technocracy, you can self-publish your work, either in print or digitally. With the rise of self-publication technology in recent years, authors who may not even be seen by a mainstream publisher are getting their works distributed and read in the more, shall we say, “independent” realm.
The con to that outlet is that, setting aside exceptions to the rule, your work may not get the national and international exposure that a J.K. Rowling or a Stephen King book would get without the money, clout, and trusted reputation that a major publisher like HarperCollins, Random House or Simon & Schuster has. So if your aim is to get your work read by that wide of an audience, well, you better get your query letters and your manuscript queued up and ready to send out. And be prepared to send a crap-ton of them; like it was with the revisions, don’t expect the first publisher you submit it to to write a glowing letter of praise and offer an instant publishing contract. The likeliest of odds is that you’re going to receive some kind of rejection letter; and a form letter at that, as insincere as the little devils are…
With self-publishing, there is no support from a publishing house. Everything is coming out of your pocket: distribution costs, publishing costs (should you use a press company to print your work), any and all advertising, social media ads, Kindle licensing, etc. And unless you’re a master salesman with the natural charisma for getting any schmuck to buy anything you’re selling, you might have to outsource for a PR firm to help spread the word about your opus. So it’s ten times as harder, and ten times as discouraging.
As you persisted in actually crafting the work, this is merely Part Two of the journey. If you believe in the quality of your work, and if you get the manuscript into the right pair of hands, it’s only a matter of time before you see your story being read by hundreds, thousands — maybe millions of people.
Braving the Elements
So, what are some of the common obstacles a writer will face in his journey to complete their opus? Let’s touch on some here.
The first obstacle is one I briefly touched on before: the rejection of publishers. Should you choose to submit your manuscript for publication, expect that you will receive rejection letters from some pretty big — and small — publishing houses. Sometimes they will be vague form letters; sometimes they’ll explain why they didn’t choose to go with you. Some of them will encourage that you keep sending more work in the future for future consideration.
I get it: it hurts getting turned down from a place like HarperCollins. But rejection is not the be-all, end-all. Pick yourself up off your backside and try again.
Even the best authors were getting turned away for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes it takes years for a book to see itself to print: Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps my favorite fiction author, to me is the perennial parable of an author’s stubborn persistence. He started writing and submitting his short stories to the glossy magazines after he returned from Germany in the close of World War II. While working as a PR man at General Electric, it took him a good five years or so, receiving hundreds of rejections in the process, before he cashed his first royalty check from Collier’s magazine in 1950 for his first-ever published story. Two years later, his first novel, Cat’s Cradle, hit the market. It took a full seven years before his next novel, The Sirens of Titan, was placed on the shelves.
Here’s an even more extreme example: cult author and notorious alcoholic Charles Bukowski, known for his pulpy, ultra-realist style of prose, worked for decades at a dead-end job with the U.S. Postal Service, while having little to no success in getting recognized for his work. He received the most unheard-of offer of a lifetime from a publisher who believed so strongly in him that he promised to pay Bukowski a secured income for the rest of his life on one condition: that he blow the post office and write full-time. He saw his very first novel, 1971’s aptly titled Post Office, when he was fifty years old.
Every author’s success story varies wildly on the spectrum, but every single one has the same central theme: if you believe in the quality of your work, then there’s someone else out there, with the right pair of hands and the right connections, who will as well. So it’s important not to give up on yourself after the first try and turn back.
The second obstacle that people cite the most as a dream killer is the tried-and-true fear any creative person — especially authors — will face: the fear of rejection, or the fear of indifference, in the court of public opinion.
Many artists –writers especially — sometimes never live to see the full appreciation of their work. F. Scott Fitzgerald, now widely hailed as one of the most popular and lasting writers from the Lost Generation, saw his brief flirtation with public ardor come and go. The Great Gatsby, his magnum opus, was somewhat of a dud when it was released in 1925. Things continued to decline until he died of a heart attack in his L.A. bungalow fifteen years later, a frail shadow of his former self: consumed by alcoholism and peddling himself for work as a hack Hollywood screenwriter. While he initially enjoyed a taste of the celebrity writer’s life while he was at his peak, it would take another twenty years or so after his death to be fully appreciated and regarded as one of the most important authors in American history.
Future appreciation notwithstanding, that type of untimely demise strikes fear into the hearts of writers like me: this is one of my deepest and darkest fears, of dying before my time.
And it doesn’t seem to help that, despite the many masterpieces written through the ages and balanced on Greek pedestals by academia, the public today still views writing, and writers, in a type of lowly, practical point of view. One type of rebuff is from those who, whether they realize it or not, trivialize the craft and not give it the respect it deserves.
This includes undervaluing the effort it takes to produce any sort of written work. See, where I get personally pissed off is when people who claim to know everything there is to know about “hard work” will tell me or others like me that writing looks like the easiest job in the world.
If I may paraphrase –
“Wow, you get paid to sit at a computer and write all day! That’s such an easy thing to do! That must take little or no work at all!”
- Joe C. Average, 2017
I’ll bet you any money that if any of you have ever told someone that you are, or want to, work as a writer, you’ve gotten a response somewhere within the ballpark of the above phrase.
Well, excuse me, Joe C. Average, I’ll take a little bit of time out of my busy writing deadline schedule to offer up a couple of retorts to your hypothetical statement:
- Yes, it is true that I do a lot of my writing sitting at a computer. Because it’s 2017, not 1945. Despite the bad rap of digital technology being a “lazy shortcut” to “real work,” which would you rather do: neatly type out and format your words, or scratch it all out by hand on a pad? Be honest with yourself, it’s a no-brainer; and remember, the typewriter wasn’t embraced at first.
- “Easy” is a subjective description; of course you see it as an easy task. Because you only go off of what you see on the surface: probably the closest thing you see to a writer are those plugged in to their laptops at Starbucks, with their book or screenplay being the only thing open on their desktop. But are you present inside their minds? Have you spent countless hours of just trying to think of something good enough to put to page? Believe me; whether you mean well or not, saying that writing is “easy” is grade-A patronizing.
- “Little to no work?” You are, without a doubt, absolutely clueless as to what you speak of. Don’t worry, I’ll be explaining why.
There are some folks out there — a great deal of “some folks” — who forget that there is more than one type of “hard work.” When people think of “hard work,” they immediately think of people like construction workers, firefighters, mail carriers…those people whose occupations require a lot of physical labor that you can actually witness for yourself. Therefore, physical labor equals hard work.
I don’t disagree with this at all; that is absolutely true. But it’s not the only qualification. My argument is that the task of an author is just as strenuous and challenging as when our story’s protagonist built a house from his bare hands. Only in a much different way.
From a different angle, I can’t entirely fault anyone who’s not a writer for coming to such a conclusion. With technology use being front and center in our lives here in the West, we can be instantly entertained. So when you see some kid, young man, or, on the off-chance, a middle-aged man, with their head buried into their computer, you’re more than likely to think that they’re screwing around on the Internet or something, when they could be doing something more productive.
Well, no. Sitting down and putting a string of words together is a form of the work that the writer has to do. But it’s half the battle; like an iceberg, there’s more below the surface.
A lot of work that the writer has to do to craft their story takes place in the brain; that’s why the Good Lord gave us the brain in the first place, y’know. As creators, we are literally creating something out of nothing. That takes a lot of brain power and a lot of hours thinking.
So don’t be deceived by what’s on the outside. While out bodies may be still, the gears in our heads are swiftly turning.
But an even worse stumbling block we have to face doesn’t come from the outside. As the sagest of sage wisdom says, we are our own worst critics. There are no words to convey how frustratingly, maddeningly, and aggravatingly true this statement is.
This is the little voice inside our head; the one that creeps in at the lowest of moments and whispers the most vicious things into our ears: about how our work sucks, about how talentless we are, about how we should give up because everyone’s gonna hate what we wrote, anyway.
They’re always personal, and they usually come in the silent moments. Like the settler, when he was struggling in his rut, his thoughts came back to haunt him, poke fun at him, make him turn back. And they can be helluva convincing; I can speak from personal experience.
Unfortunately, the times I gave in to these biting insecurities outnumbered those times where I kept going. It’s still an upward battle I have to face; like any sage advice you receive from a well-known author, the best thing to do is to “silence the internal critic.” I’m not saying that you should never do your own revisions and proofreading at any point, but relying too heavily on your “internal critic” — which can be wrong — can be detrimental: we become too cautious. We begin to want to stay within the bounds of what’s safe, what’s familiar. We start thinking that we have to completely, and subserviently, pander to the market if we’re going to get our works printed.
It comes with a price if we let this little critic inside our heads do all the thinking for us: it dampens out risk-taking. We snuff out a little bit of our adventurous creative spirit. We may not feel like we’re truly expressing ourselves in our writing. And at the end of the day, if the finished product is only a third of what we had originally hoped it would be, then that’s one more missed opportunity we can add to our list.
Why This Headache is All Worth It
You’ve gotten to this point and I’ll bet you’re probably thinking to yourselves, “Good Lord, it takes all that stress and pressure just to write a little bit of fiction? Who in their right mind would subject themselves to that? What makes it all worth it?”
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. Most people want to be comfortable in their lives and face as little stress as possible. Some people see living as an author as nothing but a guaranteed dead-end road to a cardboard box on Skid Row.
Let me ask you something: replace “writing” with something you enjoy doing; something that makes you happy.
Have you done it yet?
Okay, now that you’re thinking about it, is this activity something worth devoting time and energy towards? Is it something you’d defend from the barbs of ignorant critics? Is it something that, if you could, you would spend all day doing?
If you’ve said yes to all of these, then congratulations: you have a passion. You have something that brings a lot of sense and personal fulfillment to your world. It may or may not be marketable, but it makes your life just a bit more worth it.
Same thing applies here. To those of us — myself included — still piecing together some kind of an author’s career, we aren’t blind to the facts of life. We all have bills to pay, groceries to buy, rent to meet, etc. In our prioritizing, we usually file away those things that, in the short-term, aren’t going to meet our responsibilities.
And that’s where the problem lies: writing is not made a priority.
If what you want is to be a successful fiction author, then by God, carve out time to do it! I get that you have other duties; but it’s still not an excuse. I have no excuse when a day goes by in which I don’t at least spend an hour working on a project. And I’m not saying that you have to write thirteen or more pages a day in order to call yourself an “author;” while some writers do set a word or page quota for themselves in order to keep them on task, that’s all it is, an incentive. You don’t have to write two thousand words a day like Stephen King in order to magically turn into an author. Your output could be thirteen pages, or thirteen sentences. It’s better than nothing.
If your passion is channeled through proper time management, then eventually it’ll become an everyday part of your life.
At the risk of sounding like every shlock self-help guru making the rounds out there today, self-confidence is an immeasurably important part of the writer’s equation. Self-doubt and insecurities — giving in to the grumblings of that vicious internal critic — are why many who talk about wanting to be a writer end up leaving their half-finished manuscript in their desk drawer.
Of course, many of you probably know all this stuff by now, so you may be rolling your eyes at my regurgitation. But knowing it and applying it are two different things; and it’s a mystifying paradox when, despite our self-awareness, we so easily forget and we stumble into the same traps we’re told to guard against. I still can’t figure out why that is.
But we’re human; what better answer is there?
That’s why we always, and frequently, need the positive advice and examples of those who’ve grabbed success for themselves, because it’s a constant uphill battle for them as well.
The worst part is when even our own minds work against us. Many a time, unfortunately, have I thought to myself that I don’t even want to write; something that gives me great joy to do, and I don’t want to do it. What kind a’ world do we live in?
But it’s more comfortable to take the easy way out instead of going in and doing the work. So we avoid it. Eventually, that one day turns into many days, those days turn into months, into years…and all of a sudden, you realize that all the time you could’ve spent making that writer’s dream a reality was wasted because you let your creature comforts speak for you.
Do yourself a favor: when you’re in that funk, go tell your mind to shove off, once in a while, because even it can be wrong.
I’m no stranger to the fact that being an author is, in essence, a solitary trade. It’s necessary: we need the quiet and solitude in order to concentrate and focus on our work. But for those social butterflies out there, it can get pretty lonely pretty quick. I’ve heard many a famous scribe refer to the author’s life as being a “lonely one.”
This image probably doesn’t help our reputation:
“…when we think of a great literary genius, the image likely to come to mind is that of a disheveled writer bent over his desk, alone in a dark room with crumpled pieces of paper strewn across the floor.”
Bringing that into the 21st century, the image of a person hunched over their desk, fingers poised in a pecking fashion, eyes burned to the computer screen is no more appealing to the general public, no matter what century you’re in.
And with the crippling fear of public rejection thrown in, it becomes even more isolating. So I completely understand when it sometimes feels like we’re the only ones out there, alone.
But it doesn’t have to be. Despite the backstabbing, idea-stealing motives of some cretins festering out in the world, there are genuine people that are willing, and want, to help you succeed. This even includes the oft-feared publishers, editors and literary agents; guys with somewhat of a bad reputation painted on them.
No one likes being told that their work has flaws. We all have that gut instinct to react with claws unsheathed, ready to defend any bit of our text to the very death. That’s good and bad; you should defend your work if there’s a certain section, text or story idea you think is too important to cut out. But don’t go so far into left field where you become so darn sensitive.
There will be times when you have shit writing. Would you rather someone point it out and offer honest suggestions, or just have someone blow smoke up your butt, just to spare your fragile ego?
If you ever want to grow and get better, then you would rather go with the first “would you rather.”
None of us are infallible, and it’s only natural that we’ll find ourselves in creative ruts from time to time. I can’t speak more highly of the times I’ve taken my work to close writer friends whom I trust, and I’ve received critiques and suggestions on my work that I would’ve never even lent a thought to! As a result, they’ve made my work infinitely better than I could’ve hoped. And I could only allow that to happen if I allowed myself to lower my defenses and came to them with a humbled and genuine heart.
Remember, we’re all part of a community here. Kurt Vonnegut said it best:
“The fact that you have completed a work of fiction of which you are proud, which you made as good as you could, makes you as close a blood relative as my brother Bernard. The best thing about our family, our profession, is that its members are not envious or competitive.”
While the last sentence is really dependent on the individual’s personality, he has a very good point: we all want to help each other, we all want to succeed as writers. It takes bravery and it takes trust to seek out this help, but once you do, you’ll thank yourself for it eventually.
I believe what I argued was right: writing is hard work; as strenuous and as time-consuming as any other type of skilled trade human beings do day after grueling day. It’s also a journey in its own way: nurturing something from start to finish, overcoming very harsh and very real obstacles every day.
It would be impossible if it were not for two things: passion and persistence. Without either of the two, nothing will get you anywhere as a writer; not even your God-given talent. That’s a fact of life you should resign yourself to as quickly as possible if you ever want to see your fiction sitting on the shelves or in someone’s Kindle.
The times in which you want to give up with be plenty and often. They will definitely feel appealing. You may even face direct criticism or “talk some sense into you” lectures from those close to you; those you would normally think would have your back and support you. They may even be well-meaning and looking out for you.
But to any writers; professional, beginning or aspiring, this is my charge: don’t ever let anyone discredit your passion and your craft. Not Mom, not Dad, not Great-Great Grandma Blanche; not even Joe Shmo McHobo down on the corner. Like the nay-saying neighbors in the settler’s story, the whispers in your ear are just another obstacle you have to personally overcome. Your passion should be ringing in your ears louder than any other criticisms.
This may be the hardest truth for any of you to face. You may be talented at writing, you may have good work disciplines and keep yourself on track; you may even have had your works in the hands of editors, and even published on the shelves.
This is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll become some A-list author overnight. For some of you, you may never be another Rowling, King, James Patterson or Suzanne Collins. You may not earn millions of dollars in book royalties, you may never see your work get optioned by the suits in Hollywood. You may never have a national or international readership. Your blog may never get as many hits as you dreamed it would.
And you have to be okay with that.
I have to be okay with that.
What I can guarantee you is that if you know that’s what you’re born to do, then it will be personally fulfilling to you. Even if you don’t have millions of readers, or if you book never helps you pay your bills, at the very least you’re living for the creation of the work, and not solely for the fruits that it may reap you. Because if the thought of a reward is all you’re after, then you’re going to be disappointed if it doesn’t come.
I’m going to bring Kurt Vonnegut back in one last time. Every great writer has a slump period: his came in the years after his most enduring and defining work, Slaughterhouse-Five, was published. Every book after that never seemed to live up to their predecessor’s reputation: the public didn’t take to them like they used to, and the literary critics had declared him over the hill, with his best works behind him. It got to his head so badly that he wanted to just quit altogether. And he almost did.
But not even his betraying thoughts could keep him away from the typewriter. Despite what any savage review would say, despite what any disgruntled reader had to say, despite what even he himself had to say, Vonnegut couldn’t push away who he really was at heart:
“…it’s my trade and the only trade I know.”
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