In the old days, when reading usually meant you were holding a physical book or magazine or manuscript in your hand, if something you read so infuriated you or was simply awfully written, you could literally throw it against the wall (or into the trashcan) in disgust. On Sunday this last weekend I really, really wanted to do that after reading a particular blog post. I’m not going to link to it or identify the author, because that would just be harassment—even though the author of the blog post is a professional who uses their blog to give advice and has (self) published books offering advice on writing. Instead, I need to follow the advice I give all the time: if you want more good things in the world for people to read, don’t complain about what’s out there, make something yourself.
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with aspiring writers. This happened especially a lot when I was the publisher of a small zine and attending sf/f conventions where I appeared on writing and publishing panels and usually had a table selling copies of the zine. A significant fraction of these random aspiring writers would talk about stories that they were working on but couldn’t quite figure out how to finish. And once I got into the details with them, it would eventually emerge that they hadn’t actually written any of the story. It was an idea they had and which they had talked about at length with friends. In many cases they would talk about the files they had full of descriptions of characters and an outline of the history of the world, but when pressed, they would admit that they hadn’t actually written a single word of the story itself.
Planning and thinking and even doodling about a story, gathering research and writing up background information are important tasks which are often necessary to the writing process, but none of that is the actual story. So I would tell these writers a few of rules:
- Stop talking about the story to other people, because that just makes the storytelling part of your brain think you’ve already written the tale. Sit down and start writing it.
- You don’t have to do world building before you start writing. Recently I saw a lot of people online passing around an excerpt from on old interview with one of Tolkein’s kids where the kid asserts that dad didn’t start writing the story itself down until the children started catching him in contradictions. I don’t know if the anecdote is true, but you can tell a lot of story before you have to stop and start making notes about the world building.
- Just sit down and put one word after the other. Don’t worry about whether you’ve started the story at the correct place. Don’t worry about the perfect opening line. You can figure that out later. Don’t get hung up (in the first draft) worrying about if people will understand the story or will like the story. Just start writing. The first draft is you telling the story to yourself. Worry about everything else after you have finished the first draft.
- Don’t stop and go back and re-write scenes again and again. Force yourself to leave things in the story until you reach an ending. Yes, you may scrap a ton of what you wrote later, but don’t fall into the trap of rewriting one scene for eternity.
- Write. A writer writes. Do it!
If you are writing a story, you’re writing. If you’re doing something else, you aren’t writing. Obviously, sometimes you have to take a break, or do some plotting, or jot down background information, or update a timeline, and so forth in order to know what to write next, none of that is actually writing. So if you’re spending more time on that than actually writing the tale, you need to stop, sit down at your favorite word processor or writing notebook, and start writing.
The blog post that angered me this weekend asserted that if you haven’t been published you aren’t a writer. I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to gatekeeping, but even discounting that, I have problems with that distinction. I understand that the author was trying to address the issue of people who are merely daydreaming about writing. And I agree that we do a disservice to aspiring writers if we enable their mistaken notions that writing is easy or that it’s a sort of magic process of ideas coming to us from the ether.
But getting published is a very arbitrary and classist hurdle. And particularly in this age of self-publishing, it’s not a terribly useful distinction.
Are you writing? Not background notes, but an actual story with dialogue and a narrative moving forward? Then you are a writer. Maybe you’re still in the early stages of learning your craft. Maybe what you wrote this morning was completely awful. Maybe you’re still afraid to show it to other people. Maybe you showed it to someone and they didn’t like it.
That’s not important.
Are you writing? Are you doing the work of putting one word after the other striving to get to the end of the tale?
If you are writing a story, even if you don’t know what you’re doing yet, you’re a writer.
Go! Write! Finish that story!