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November 2012



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About Writing

DISCLAIMER: I still consider myself very green as an author. While I've been writing as long as I can remember, it has only been in the last three years or so that I have been a "working" author, and by "working" I mean sending out stories/novels/poetry for submission, publishing, and (sometimes) getting paid for my work.

Here's what I've learned so far:

1) Diversify -- As a young author, I thought I wanted to be "literary." I wanted to be the next Faulkner or maybe the next Kerouac. While I read tons and tons of horror and science fiction and fantasy books during my formative years, as an adult, the vast majority of my reading has been from the classics/literary section of the bookstore. It wasn't until I came back to writing speculative fiction that writing really started to click for me. My early stuff (mostly unpublished) was sometimes experimental, sometimes good from a descriptive point of view, but, really, not much happened in those stories. It wasn't until I learned how to use the archetypes of speculative fiction and mix that with what I know about writing "literary" fiction that I learned how to write an actual "story" with a clear and defined meaning and end goal. Plus, not limiting myself to realistic settings and characters opened up entirely new realms of symbols, a whole new lexicon to explore. Good stuff!

Also under diversifying, I learned how to use characters outside of myself. I'm not a tweenage girl, I'm not an old man, I'm not an unhappily married overweight woman, I'm not homosexual, I'm not a woman of color, I'm not a "kept" man, I'm not a king, or a selkie, or a demon, a racist alcoholic redneck, or a pencil sharpener, or a forest. All the same, I've written from all of those perspectives and many more. In doing so, I've learned a lot about myself, about my preconceptions, and have a better understanding of our similarities as members of a larger humanity. I'll let the rest of those "literary" authors write exclusively about disenfranchised, college-educated, white folks (not that they won't show up in my stories from time to time).  I don't intend to limit myself to one character or one genre (doing so constituted my biggest mistakes in my earlier writings); it gets boring as an author and you'll eventually bore your readers.

Don't be afraid to use characters, situations, settings, and genres outside your comfort zone.

2) Keep Writing -- After finishing my first novel (still unpublished), I thought this is it. I'll get this published and then the literary/genre worlds will recognize my genius and come after me waving checks with five and six digit advances (okay, I never really thought that, or at least I'm still too embarrassed to admit I once thought this way).  No, that book is still unpublished. I don't think it is bad, in fact I love it, but it is the work of a very "green" author. There are a lot of good ideas and interesting settings, but very little else. The characters are flat; they are representations of ideals. There is very little in the book that is fully realized or multi-dimensional besides some of the Jungian imagery.
What have I done since then? I've kept writing. I don't focus all my attention on one story or one novel. I keep anywhere from 16-20 pieces out on submission at any one time, and instead of obsessively driving by the post office or checking my email, I've learned to keep writing while I wait (and reduced my habit of obsessively checking the post office/email to just once a day -- this, too, is progress for me).

While I still feel very green in some ways as I stated at the beginning of this post, I can also see some real progress in my writing from when I first started. I can better understand how a story is going to move along. I've learned how to pace myself when it comes to writing, and to not sit around and wait for some mystical muse (I have news for you - -she ain't real; and, if she is, she ain't all that).  For the last two or three years I've averaged about 200,000 words worth of writing per year. Usually one or maybe two novel-length fictions and a ton of flash, poetry, and short fiction. And with every story, every poem, every book, every song I write, I feel a little more confident. I can see the progress and have learned to take comfort in that.

3) Revise, Revise, Revise -- A work of art may never be "perfect" but that doesn't mean we should settle for mediocrity. I used to write a story or poem once and then be done with it. I wouldn't go back and revise. I thought editing was a waste of time. Part of this was because I rarely had to really try when writing in college or high school.  I'd wait till the last minute on writing assignments, cobble something together, and it would be what it would be. I usually got A's or B's as long as I was smart and/or docile enough to simply limit myself to regurgitating the ideas presented in class.

During the time between graduating college until after having our first child, I did not write much. I kind of put writing aside to focus on getting that house, getting a career, paying for cars. You know, all that normal mundane stuff a responsible young married guy has to take care of.  I'd write occassional journal entries, scenes, or poems, but not much in the way of fiction. I felt like my "Muse" was pretty pissed at me and didn't have much to say.

But then, the story bug came back to haunt me after the death of my late grandmother. My first book was basically a reflection on death with a fantasy setting. It was all about what happens to lost ideas and lost life stories if they are not first passed on to the next generation. I sat down and started writing. Even when my "Muse" once again grew silent (like I said above, she really ain't all that), I decided to keep writing.

I also took the time to sit down and relook all of my old stories and poems that had survived through several moves and several computers. I saw promise in many of them and reworked them or finished those that were unfinished. I realized how much "fresh eyes" can benefit a story. 

I also read Stephen King's "On Writing" and really understood what he meant about letting your manuscript rest before editing. This was revelatory for me as a writer. I realized how much better something could be if given the time to fully germinate and grow. 

It's like the difference between bland supermarket produce packed full of hormones for fast growth versus the fruits and vegetables you can find at your local farmer's market. Good things take time.

I've also learned to strive for perfection while accepting your imperfections. That leads me to #4.
4) There's Only One Way to NOT Get Published -- And that's by not sending out your stories. This is an addendum to #3.  At some point you need to get to the point where you understand a story is "done." Once it is done, you have to send it out into the world. Sure the odds are slim against you being published in the pro markets if you're an unknown or barely known writer, but there's still a chance. There's NO CHANCE of a story finding publication if you hide it away.
If you believe in a story, if you feel it has some value to add to the world at large (wether it be because of what you want to say with your art or having said it in a fun way), please send it out. Chances are, there's someone who would like to read that story one day.

5) Don't Get Bitter, Get Better -- Not everyone finds success at the same time. Some authors take more time to get to the point where they are publishable than others. Some authors have connections, others don't. Some live in New York, others (like me) live in the middle of nowhere. Some have a platform (like all those celebrity-authors on the bookstore shelf), while others are destined to struggle with obscurity.  This is okay. It is the way it has always been and will always be. Accept it. 

Here's what matters: Enjoy your work. I wrote long before I started trying to get published, and I will keep writing whether it gets published or not. It is just a part of who I am. It is part of how I process the world around me. Besides, it's FUN!

If you enjoy writing (and I love it), accept it may not ever make you a millionaire. It may never pay the bills. But does that matter? Really? If you're writing for money, than you're doing it for the wrong reasons. On some level it needs to be about love. If you love your work, if you're passionate, you'll keep at it. And simply by continuing to perform the writing process, you WILL get better.

Practice makes perfect, after all.

Don't waste your time going online to blast other authors or berate the Stephanie Meyers of the world because you think you are such a better writer. Don't waste your energy pointing out dangling participles in published novels (unless you're an English teacher, in which case this might be good homework for your students). Don't sit around and complain that you are better than so-and-so in your old writing community and are more deserving of success. Don't go around saying the only reason this person made it and you didn't is because they are better connected. Who cares? Really? All this does is make you sound like a primadonna.

Make your own destiny, keep trying, and keep improving your craft.



Amen, brother.

T.J., this is one of your best posts. Thanks for the insights into your writing life.

Re: Amen, brother.

What Berry said, T.J.! I especially like #5.

Re: Amen, brother.

Thanks, guys!

Great post, TJ!

Thank you sir!

It's good to have the Muppets agree with me.

Regarding #5, maybe I should retitle it "It's Not Easy Being Green."
Excellent post!#4 is a good reminder for me; I needed that.
Anytime... :)
Excellent post, in the opinion of someone in more or less the same position as you (a "working writer" who one who hasn't broken out yet).
Thank you.
You know, I just reread this post because I'm about to quote and link to it from my blog, and I love it even more the second time around.

Thanks again for writing this.

(And holy cow, 200,000 words? I've never calculated my own output on a yearly basis, but that seems like a TON!)

200,000 words is not as much as it sounds. I try to average about 5000 a week when working on a novel/novella. If I did 5000 a week (usually 1000 words a day w/ 2 days off to devote to family) for 52 weeks that would equal 260,000 words. As you can see, I do give myself weeks off at times to spend with family on vacations.

Also, keep in mind that I may write 200,000 words a year, but not all of those words are usable. Some, of course, are edited out later on. Then there are lots of false starts and fragments in that number.


Great Perspective

Thanks for the insights and perspective. It's always nice to use someone else's perspective for a kick in the pants. Keeping forward motion seems to be the thing for me. Rather than editing a story to death, I "strive for perfection yet accept imperfection". I'll only get better by writing new stuff as well as writing everyday. Besides, letting go feels pretty good as it opens up unlimited possibilities contained in the next story.

Re: Great Perspective

I agree about that whole "forward motion" thing. That really is a good goal not just for writing, but for life as well.
I'd add 'keep reading' to the list. If you've never read dragon lore, or vampire legends etc, etc, and seen how some of the greats have handled their subject, that lack of knowlege will creep into your work. You can alter the rules, but you have to know what you are altering first. *g*
I agree wholeheartedly!
I saw a link to this on a friend's lj, and thought perhaps even people further up the chain could learn from your fifth point: http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2009/11/stargate-universe-syfy-.html#comments
...oh boy...

Thanks for the link.

It's amazing how die-hard genre fans can fight over the silliest things sometimes.

Actually, #5 wasn't just written for newbies. It was equally inspired by some of the whining and comlaining I read over recent nominations for various literary/genre awards. Who cares if your Viking Space Opera (or insert subgenre of your choice here) didn't win a Nobel Prize? As long as fans of Viking Space Operas (or subgenre of choice) like what you wrote, that should be all that matters I'd think.

But, as I said, I'm still "green" and perhaps simply haven't seen enough to become cynical, yet.

That said, on the flip side, I have read a few compelling critiques stating the nominations for some awards are too insular to a particular subgroup of writers to the detriment of the awards themselves. I've read that some awards devolve into popularity contests over the writers instead of being about the works themselves.

But in the end, what does even that matter? As long as you are writing words you enjoy writing and finding readers, that's what it should be all about in my opinion.
agreed. *g*
Wow. I completely, utterly agree. Most failed writers and nut-jobs I know / know about got that way because they failed to follow these rules!
And there are a lot of nut-jobs out there. Hmm. Maybe "Beware the Nut-Jobs" should have been one of those rules for newbie writers?

BTW -- I read "Fraternite" over at The Rose and Thorn. recently. Great, great story! It is my favorite story of yours I have read so far (and I liked the quite a few others, too). It reminded me of the Jack London survival stories I used to read, in a good way. Well done!



Wonderful insights and truly encouraging, T.J. I can so identify with wanting to remain "literary" in my writings and allowing that to shape my imagination. I spent years creating works that were hollow and without heart. I wasn't listening, nor was I following the personal direction of my hand to take me wherever the story was going.

And your point on waiting for your muse is so true. I know dozens of writers still waiting for Godot. He won't show up either.

-Angel Zapata

Re: Musings

Thanks, Angel!
All great points, but #5 says it the best.

Excellent post, T.J. :)
Thanks, Jon. I've been feeling a lot of that whole bitterness thing out there in BlogLand lately. It just seems so ... unnecessary. I don't see it doing anyone any good.

Sure, we all need to vent from time to time (trust me, my loving, long-suffering wife hears an earful from time to time; sometimes writers I know and trust hear it from me in private), but does it really need to be public? Does it do anyone any good?

Criticism is one thing, but sour grapes are just sour grapes.