Friday, February 19, 2016
Journey of a Writer
I have been observing writers lately at all stages of development, mostly through the Facebook posts of my fellow indies, and I've been relating some of their comments to where I was back in 1969 (wow -- 47 years ago!) Shortly after I began to publish in 2011, somebody made a comment that I seemed so confident. I guess that's because I already had over 40 years' experience thinking of myself as a writer and I really didn't feel insecure about the craft.
I did go through some of the same stages, however, that neophytes experience. I'll present them here, along with some advice for beginners.
1. Hey, I just discovered that I really can write a story!
It's such a thrilling novelty to discover that you CAN construct a story and write it down. This happened to me in 1969, after I first read Tolkien. The idea that his elves were immortal struck a chord and I began to wonder what an immortal race would really be like -- how would it affect their view of life (you can see that the psychology of the human, or elvish, condition was already something I was interested in). I became fixated on the idea of immortality and it dominated my writing all the way through two constructed worlds (see The Blessing of Krozem -- FREE on Smashwords).
2. Becoming obsessed with writing
It's all you want to do, 24 hours a day if you could, and you resent anything that gets in the way, which can make life stressful for the people you live around. Believe me, I've been there.
2. Dissatisfaction with the results
My first efforts resulted in an endless and out-of-control plot. I discovered that it's not enough to have a beginning and an end -- you've also got to have something decent to put in the middle. I discovered what is my bane (maybe not other people's) -- the curse of improvisation: too many subplots, too many fascinating new characters who just beg to be developed. This leads to endless editing, frustration, and a final recognition that that first story can never reduced to anything publishable. Unfortunately, that problem still persists for me, although not as uncontrollably.
3. I see a lot of people who don't realize that this first effort isn't good enough to publish.
There is no shame in abandoning your first piece. A major piece of advice I would give the beginner is ... don't be in a rush to publish! When I began, there wasn't any self-publishing except vanity presses and no real way to promote those boxes full of printed books. Fortunately, I didn't make the expensive mistake of employing a vanity press -- I just kept sending out to regular publishers and collecting rejection slips.
Anyway, my advice to the beginning writer (especially ones young enough to be able and willing to wait a few years) would be to let your book cook! Don't just assume that this story you love so much is the great American novel or even a respectable piece of writing that will be enjoyed by a decent number of people. It's fine to employ beta readers as long as you can keep the relationship friendly! Or set the book aside -- write something else. Then go back to the first one. Try editing it, changing some things (I rewrote the beginning of my first piece so many times that I now can't remember which version was supposed to be the finished one). Try to look at it critically. If it never really grabs you or moves you after a period away from it, it probably isn't as good as you thought it was. Avoid those nasty one- and two-star reviews by being absolutely sure that what you've produced is worthy of critical analysis.
4. Practice, practice, and then practice some more!
It's not only musicians who need to pay attention to this advice. It doesn't matter if you accumulate a drawer full of manuscripts, or I should say a computer full these days. You might be able to go back and resurrect some of the earlier material after you've developed better technique or better insight. In fact, I'm in the process of doing that right now.
5. So what kind of books should I write?
This depends on what you want to achieve. If you're looking to be wildly popular and make a decent amount of money, then write whatever is trending at the moment. Vampires -- zombies -- dystopias -- space opera -- whatever. Just be sure you have some kind of twist that sets your book apart, and don't forget the importance of characters who aren't cliched, because if a reader can't muster up some affection for that handsome space captain or that sexy blonde vampire, you'll get indifference or some of those one- and two-star reviews that stress writers out.
But if you want to be different, then go for it. You may never become widely popular, because you have to find other people who think like you do, and frankly that's not always easy. But you will feel more satisfied with what you've achieved.
6. Develop a routine and a methodology that works for you.
Find a routine that suits your lifestyle and leaves you time for the other people in your life. Right now, I have nobody in my life and haven't had any since 1997, and frankly I don't think I could have written what I have (mainly the termite stories) if I had still had family responsibilities. But if you do, just make sure you keep your priorities straight. I think the hiatus I took from writing from 1983 to 1997 probably benefited my later efforts. I certainly ended up with a more complex outlook. I gave up on the immortality theme, for one thing (I discovered that Highlander: The Series had just about covered all bases on that subject). And my termite series turned out to be a real joy to write, and (according to some reviewers) to read.
7. Finally, don't be a slave to the rules of writing.
I was an English major, with considerable graduate work in the subject, but I never took a course in creative writing. I never had any intention of becoming a writer until I was 29 years old. I think the best background for a writer is familiarity with well-regarded books down through the ages, from Homer to the present day. Also, knowledge of the English language (usage, grammar, punctuation, spelling -- the whole nine yards) is so important. Make the dictionary your best friend! And utilize the internet! A Google search of a grammar question usually will yield an answer. Just yesterday I checked out the rules for how to form a possessive with proper names ending in "s" and I found that the jury was still out. I decided in my case that "s's" was the way to go.
As for the rules of style, I break a lot of them. Frankly, I had never heard of the "show, don't tell" thing that everyone is so hung up on these days. I write in a manner that seems proper and necessary to the context and to what I'm trying to achieve. If you become too self-conscious about what you're doing, it will probably make your work stiff, boring, and artificial, although you should be sensitive to anything that feels awkward. I'm not going to apologize for including pieces of historical explanation when it's the only logical way to bring the reader up to speed about the past. I also don't apologize for using lots of dialogue. People communicate through dialogue and one thing I'm always interested in is communication. As for POV, I agree that one should try to be consistent, but sometimes a shift is the most effective way to move the story along and reveal character.
So those are some of my thoughts on the subject of becoming a writer. Pontification over!