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!
One of the things that I have enjoyed since moving my blogging to FontFolly.Net hosted on WordPress five years ago has been seeing all the information about traffic to my site at a glance. Such as the Referrers–a section of the dashboard that shows you when someone followed a link on another site to my blog, or used a search engine. That information is available over on my author site (SansFigLeaf.Com), but I have to work harder to get the logs and parse them. WordPress does the work for me.
I used to really enjoy about once a month looking at the list of Search terms that people use to get to the site. As more and more people use private or anonymous browsing options, that list doesn’t change much, with more and more searches lumped into the category of Unknown Search Terms. Not that I don’t begrudge anybody some privacy, but it was amusing to speculate as to why someone had typed “bland relish tray” or “ceramic figurine queen jubilee” into a search engine, and whether whatever post of mine it was that they clicked on was at least entertaining to them.
On the other hand, the person who once typed “collecting dictionaries” so far as I know never left a comment or asked any question about the topic. Which is kind of sad, because if they typed that search term in, I hope it was because they or someone they cared about collected dictionaries, just like I do, and it’s always fun to meet someone who shares your interests.
Search terms aren’t the only thing of interest. Another part of the dashboard lists all of my old blog posts that someone has clicked on today. Certain old blog posts come up again and again. When it is one of my series of posts about why I love science fiction and fantasy (which are usually a review of a book or series of books or a particular author or a movie or sci fi TV series), I understand, and hope that the person enjoyed the post. When it is a particular post I wrote some months back about some infamous closet cases: former anti-gay Congressman Aaron Schock and former Pinal, Arizona County Sheriff Paul Babeu, I know that most likely it means that there has been a new development in Schock’s criminal trial on federal corruption charges, because whenever a story about his case gets published on news sites, I get a few hits. This week, though, it seems the reason why is that there has been a new development in the federal corruption investigation against Babeu. So, it was interesting to learn that he may yet be brought to justice.
I am happy that the all-time most read post is one about writing, Time doesn’t work that way. Makes me think I should get some more of my draft posts about writing, storytelling, et cetera finished and uploaded.
In one of the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett asserts the theory that there are only a small number of real people in the world, and the many people you meet are merely duplicates; that’s why you seem to meet the same kinds of people over and over again. I was reminded of this phenomenon by a string of tweets by Anne Theirault being shared around on Tumblr. They begin with her observation of a couple at the next table who seem to be on a coffee date that is not going well.She proceeds to live tweet the conversation she is overhearing. The guy talks about himself constantly, without ever asking his date about herself. Any time she volunteers something about herself, he has to turn it into something about him. Example, she mentions she likes to cook, he tells her that she must taste this exotic sauce that he makes that a friend who is a chef says is great. And so on. Eventually the woman on the date fakes getting a text from her mother as an excuse to escape. A little later Anne tweeted about all the reactions she was getting. Specifically, that most of the men who responded asserted that she’s being unfairly mean to the guy and/or accusing her of making the whole thing up. While the overwhelming majority of women respond that they have been on exactly the same date.
The Tumblr post has been shared nearly 200,000 times as of this morning. I noticed that I was not the only queer guy by any means to share it and comment that we had also been on this exact date. Other people have added the observation that they know it’s true not just because they’ve been on a similar date themselves, but because they know dates like that happen every single day.
I noticed that a lot of people sharing it on Tumblr make the observation that this proves you should never date a writer (the guy describes himself as a writer and says a lot of very cringe-worthy stuff about writing). Which means that these people completely misunderstand. First, Anne Theirault, who live-tweeted the exchange, is herself a writer. That wasn’t the observation she was making. The guy isn’t cluelessly obnoxious and self-absorbed because he’s a writer. He’s cluelessly obnoxious and self-absorbed because he’s a guy.
When I reblogged the Tumblr post, I observed that I had been on that exactly date back in the 90s, and had to fake coming down sick in order to flee. I was the writer in the conversation. The other guy was a performance artist. But I’ve had the exact conversation (not in the context of a date) with guys who are in marketing, guys who are software engineers, guys who are car mechanics, guys who run their own businesses, et cetera. And even worse, I know that there have been conversations I’ve been in when I was the cluelessly self-absorbed guy who only wanted to talk about myself and never let the other person get a word in edgewise.
Guys are socialized to be that kind of person. We’re supposed to assert ourselves, and dominate conversations. If we don’t all have the requisite extroversion streak to dominate, we’ve at least all been socialized to expect that our needs are always important, that of course anything we are involved in is going to be interesting to other people—not just interesting, but exceptionally interesting, because everything we do is special and unique and better than what anyone else is doing. Guys are taught to be entitled. We’re also taught that it is our job to win people over to our side. To be competitive even in a conversation. We’re taught that a date isn’t a chance to get to know another person, a date is an opportunity to conquer and take the other person as a prize.
Some of the specific assertions that Anne tweeted that the guy makes about how incredibly hard writing is, and how he has to struggle with his inner demons to write, even those are not something that is common to writers nor restricted to writers. The performance artist disaster of a date spent a lot of time explaining to me how very very hard it was to do what he did, how he had to dig into his worst childhood memories to infuse his performance pieces with meaning, and so on. It’s a product of the self-absorption and competitiveness. He was trying to impress me, to make me swoon over his great emotional depths and work ethic.
The only inner demons a writer needs to struggle with are Procrastination, Distraction, and the “But it’s not perfect yet!” urge. And those aren’t really demons. They are ordinary (and usually quite minor) imperfections. Our struggles aren’t exceptional. They are the same kinds of things that everybody struggles with.
Not all guys are like that all of the time. There are even some guys who are almost never like that. Some of us have realized we can be like that, that it isn’t good way to be, and we try not to let our arrogance bulldoze everyone else. I am also aware that there are even some gals who can be that way. Humans are not perfect.
Unfortunately, a lot of humans are imperfect in very similar ways.
A few bits of news came in after I had scheduled yesterday’s Friday Links to post, but before they actually posted:
Legendary Blues guitarist B.B. King passed away Thursday night. He was 89 years old but just a few months ago still touring and charming audiences with his velvety voice. B.B. King: A Tribute to Blues Brotherhood.
William Zinsser, writer, editor, and author (and frequent updater) of the legendary On Writing Well, died this week. He was 92 years old. William Zinsser, Author of ‘On Writing Well,’ Dies at 92. He is less famous for another book he wrote, in the early days of personal computing, when a lot of professional writers were up in arms about how word processors would destroy the craft of writing and make literature robotic (seriously), Zinsser wrote Writing With a Word Processor, extolling the virtues of the tool.
At least one of the virulent anti-gay bills the Texas legislature has been cooking up as fast as they can in anticipation of a summer Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is dead for the moment: Same-sex marriage license ban bill dies in Texas legislature. On the other hand, 93 of the 98 Texas House Republicans Sign Shameful Anti-Gay Letter Pledging to Defy Supreme Court on Marriage.
And this pair of tweets went across my timeline yesterday afternoon. If you don’t know who Vox Day is, you’re lucky. Let’s just say he’s a virulent bigot who hates just about everyone:
Anyway, I thought it was a good thought to remember: holding people responsible for their hate speech is merely that, holding them responsible.
Some parts of this post may fall too far into the “what I had for breakfast” zone for some of you, but it helps me to stick to plans if I share them with people. Not that I get nagged often by my readers, I just am more motivated to do things I have said I would do than to follow through on plans that I keep to myself.
So I’ve been making some changes to my routines in an attempt to improve my writing productivity, and I’m thinking about some changes for this blog…
The other night while I was walking home from work (which takes a bit over an hour) I had this brilliant idea. For a while last year I participated in Throwback Thursday (#tbt or #Throwback) by writing a blog post inspired by one of the large collection of scans of the contents of Grandma’s old photo albums. It was fun. It was an easy way to make me write about something other than politics or the news.
But it isn’t something I really wanted to do constantly. Particularly since I was trying to avoid posting pictures of living relatives without their permission—or at least to minimize it. So that limited which pictures could be used. There’s also only so many childhood memories that I can make at least potentially interesting to other people.
So I took a break, figuring I would do it occasionally, or maybe pick a month next time, or something. Anyway, there I was, walking home in the drizzle, listening to music on my headphones, cars zooming by in the dark, and I had an idea of something else that I could do on Thursdays; make it the usual Thursday thing. It was a topic that could include Throwback Thursday. So I would have the benefits I get from having a weekly scheduled task, that could sometimes be a Throwback Thursday post, but most of the time would be something else. And that something else would, I hoped, be of slightly more interest than just another walk down memory lane with Gene.
It was brilliant! I even thought of a cute name that had the same initials as the short hashtag (tbt). I resolved to start my first post as soon as as I got home.
When I walked in the door, my glasses fogged up. I heard my husband call to me from upstairs, but I couldn’t understand what he said because I still had my headphones on. I had to turn off my headphones, take off (get myself untangled from) my backpack, peel off my wet hat and coat, hang up the coat and the hat, get out of my shoes, get the rest of my damp work clothes peeled off and tossed into the hamper, then pull them back out to check the pockets which I always forget, figure out where I set my glasses down when I came in the door, put on some sweatpants and fuzzy socks—all the while as Michale and I babble at each other about dinner and/or our days or something else that one of us thinks is important—check the mail, collect my phone and iPad and watch and headphones to put on their chargers…
And finally I sat down and woke up my laptop. I jumped to WordPress right away to start the first post in the new Thursday idea…
…and I couldn’t remember what the nifty notion was. I don’t just mean that I didn’t remember what I meant to start writing for today’s post, I mean that I couldn’t remember the umbrella topic/personal meme that was going to be my new regular Thursday thing. The thing that had the initials T B T and could include Throwback Thursdays as a subset.
I remember having the thought. I remembered the entire internal conversation about how I’d do it. But the idea itself? Gone.
And it’s still gone, days later. I haven’t got the slightest idea what it was. None.
I hate when that happens!