Becoming an Author, 5 Lessons From 5 Books in 18 Months
Aside from puns, the most exciting thing about being a writer (for me) (so far) is plotting out what's coming next. I think it has something to do with infinite possibilities and new beginnings. I'm not entirely sure. But before I can decide what to do next, I have to think about what I've learned so far.
The following five lessons, one learned per story, are keeping me motivated and excited about what's coming down the pipeline. Hopefully they can help keep you going, too.
STORY 1 lesson
Put effort into becoming a better writer. Become a better writer by becoming a better reader.
Feeling good about what you produce is fundamental to staying motivated. That doesn't mean you need to poop rainbows every time you consume your own work, but it does mean that you should find some pleasure or joy from your writing, whether that comes from the end product or the process of creation.
If you find yourself believing that your writing is categorically and irrevocably bad, then invest time in making it better.
Become a "better" reader:
- Read a little bit of everything (news, blogs, comics, subtitles, short stories, novels, literary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, biographies, romance, etc.), and read a lot of what you enjoy.
- Think about the elements and parts that you enjoy about some works, and don't enjoy about others.
- Think about what the author was hoping to accomplish as you read their words. (For example, I'm constantly asking myself questions like: What do I think of how that author strung those words together? Why do I think they chose those words to communicate that idea? What would I have done differently? I'm always on the lookout for ways in which authors handle situations that I find awkward or difficult, such as when transitioning from tight timelines to broad sweeping timelines, or when switching from describing minutiae of a situation to making broad generalizations. Identifying the balance that others strike in their writing helps me strike a balance in my own work.)
- Identify techniques and themes in writing that you admire/enjoy reading, and implement them in your own work. (For example, in Nino Ricci's THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, he opens with a scene that introduces two main characters, Esther and Alex, and then breaks and leads into the narrative with a brand new section that begins with, "That was how the day had got started," to summarize the scene he'd just described. Doing this allows Ricci to immediately engage the reader through dialogue, intriguing characters, and a dynamic setting, before getting into the meat of the story.)
- Identify interesting ways an author uses words and punctuation to communicate an idea. (I find this to be very helpful with dialogue. I like to pay attention to ways in which others format dialogue because doing so equips me with ways to execute my own dialogue.)
STORY 2 LESSON
Negative cycles of behaviour corrode your ability to endure, so take measures to prevent yourself from getting caught.
I've got a new one for you. What's the difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one? Writing! Haha, that's so funny, right? Har har. Unfortunately, I think it hurts because there's an element of truth to it.
If endurance and perseverance are key to becoming a published author, then it behooves us writers to help ourselves endure and persevere. That means being proactive and not letting ourselves get trapped in a sunless, grey wasteland of crushed dreams and epic sentences that no one else likes, because being stuck there makes it remarkably difficult to produce (AKA write).
Help yourself persevere:
- Identify your black hole soul sucking brain loops, and hold yourself accountable when the earliest symptoms present. Do this by changing your physical context and doing something active. Perhaps even consider doing that disruptive over-rated activity called "exercise". (For example, I often feel infinitely fortunate. Which is great, right? Secret to happiness unlocked, bam! Unfortunately, when my self-esteem takes a nose dive, which happens embarrassingly often, my shining castle of perpetual gratitude collapses into an all-consuming jelly pile of unsupportive crap. And I get stuck there, perpetually questioning whether I deserve my good fortune or not, whether I'm worthy of good things in life. My sense of self worth goes into hibernation, and I turn into an unsupportive jelly pile of unproductive human. So now, when I find myself feeling that I don't deserve BLANK (where BLANK is a revolving, seemingly limitless list of random fixations), I defer insanity one more day by going for a run/walk/stretch. The combination of context switch plus physical activity clears my mind and helps me refocus on my current goals.)
- Challenge yourself to answer people honestly and fully. If someone asks how your writing is going, give them an authentic answer. One that is longer than a single, four-word sentence ("It's going great!" is basically the definition of nervous discomfort masquerading as false positivity). Eyes may (will probably) glaze over, and you may feel like a gassy toad for taking up so much airspace with your verbal diarrhea, but the act of hearing yourself speak about something you're an authority on (your own book!) can help keep confidence from tanking.
STORY 3 LESSON
Not all practise work should make it into completed work.
If the key to becoming good at something is practise, which I think to a large degree is true, then it follows that someone who wants to become "good at writing" should practise writing. Writing that comes from a place of practise can often feel precious, which it is, but that doesn't mean it should become your life's work.
Maintain a healthy perspective about what you're producing:
- Write a little bit of everything, and write a lot of what you enjoy.
- Be honest with yourself about why you're writing a thing (Do you want to try a different genre, voice, pace? Do you need to practise writing dialogue, character descriptions, settings? Do you want to see how far a new idea can carry itself? Are you trying to prove your genius?), and use that information to help you determine how much energy you want to pour into a piece of content.
STORY 4 LESSON
Not all stories are created equal,
and even the Bible's been iterated on.
By accepting the three truths written below, I've been able to manage the expectations I have of myself, of other industry professionals, and that industry professionals have of me.
- Some stories really should become forever lost in the desktop folder that is not to be spoken of
- Some stories are writ in stone and should be erected as a stelae or buried deep in earth's bowels
- Some stories are perpetual works in progress
Managing expectations of all stakeholders will set you up for success:
- Identify, as early in the creative process as possible, how far you're willing to take a piece of work (How much energy do you want to invest? How much are you willing to change your idea and story? What about it are you attached to and what can you let go of? etc.). Do this to save yourself grief when industry professionals and critics highlight the parts they hate and love that you oppositely hate and love; do this to give yourself the strength required to make difficult creative decisions; and do this to help you remain focused so that you can use your time wisely.
STORY 5 LESSON
Write stories that you want to read,
not stories that you're comfortable writing.
I've read stuff that I think is awesome, but if I think about having been the one to write it, my head explodes. But here's the thing, exploding head feeling is a good thing (or so I tell myself, right befo- Kaboom! Splat!). Heh heh.
My gut check for whether I'm on the "right track" is whether I'm in a state of discomfort over what I've written, because if I am, then I know I'm pushing myself. And as we know, pushing existing boundaries = learning new things = a direction better than backwards.
Exist in blissful discomfort:
- Write something you like, but that when you think of having written it, makes you feel indescribably squeamish.
- Go share it with people who don't know much about you!
- Find a cave and hide for a million years.
- Go share it with people who don't know much about you!
The above lessons are the net result of countless compounding errors. And many, better writers before me have come to similar conclusions by making their own errors. (Just look here and here to see what I mean!) But everyone's journey is their own, and what I understand now that I couldn't before is that I want to write the books I wish I had found tucked away and hidden on our bookshelf back home. I don't know what that is yet, but that’s alright because not even a raging typhoon of self-doubt can change that I've already begun writing down words, or that I'm trying my best, or that I can’t wait to discover new levels of discomfort.
Thank you for reading!