Have you ever wanted something so bad, like SO BAD, but you just couldn't figure out how to get started? I mean, like if they just had a tutorial or something, but even that's not working, and you just want into the club so hard? I've been there.
Barrier to Entry
I wanted to make simple little games for the longest time. I wanted to be able to sit at a code editor and type code, then run it and have a game there. I was never interested in the visual game makers like RPG Maker or Sphere or any of those. I mean, they were neat, but I wanted it to be like the olden days, just me and lines and lines of code ending in a spectacular graphical extravaganza. But I couldn't figure it out. I couldn't get past my own insecurities and I spent years wishing I could make games that way but never really did much to figure it out beyond trying tutorials online that I couldn't make work.
I will say that thanks to Robb, I got over that hurdle and worked on the spectacular remake of Astrosmash with James. I sat at a code editor and created a game. Granted, it was a lot of work, but I was happy to do that work.
I know I'm not stupid, and I know I have programming skills, but there was just a barrier to entry, a hurdle in my own mind that I couldn't surmount.
I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I've wanted to make video games. Maybe longer. For a long time, I wanted to make writing my career. I had ideas -- good ones, though they may have just been reimaginings of The Wheel of Time and The Maltese Falcon -- and I wanted to get them out there and get my name out there as a serious writer. But I didn't know how to do that.
Casual Brilliance as Motivation Murder
The problem with looking at published books as a way to write books is a thorny one, in my opinion. You see something that someone has slaved over, spent years improving their craft to be able to create, and you look at sentences like, "The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed."
It's a simple sentence, and it has words that anyone could understand, that practically everyone has used, and it's completely confounding that someone could rearrange those words to convey something so meaningful and lasting.
Even worse is when you read a book like Neil Gaiman's Fortunately, the Milk, and it's filled to the brim with brilliance: time travel, a smart story, and lines that just seem to leap off the page. These are problematic stories to read as a writer because you get something like that and then you write something like, "It was too much to hope that the man behind Korta had kept his knife in its sheath." and you think, 'Hey, that's good.' But then you realize that you spent ten minutes thinking of that one sentence, and there are something like 3000 more sentences like that in order to finish NaNoWriMo and you sure as hell don't have 30000 minutes to make word count for November because you've still got work, and there are kids to put to bed, and don't forget that staying married is kind of important. So you push on, using sentences that get written, but don't sparkle the same as that first line. Then you get, maybe, 500 or 600 sentences down, and you realize that you forgot the point of the story, or maybe you decide you want a different kind of story out of this. What then? Well, you could continue to work on this story, which isn't nearly as sparkling as the first sentence, let alone how it shone when it was just a thing in your brain. Or you could abandon this one, like you had so many others, but you were really liking a couple of the characters, so maybe you could just throw this bit into a different kind of story? But that's stupid, so you abandon the whole stupid thing because every successive sentence you write gets further and further away from the quality of that first one and Neil Gaiman is so brilliant and he probably got Fortunately, the Milk in one shot -- just scribbled the whole thing down in one go -- and I can't even decide what I want my story to be and why can't I just be a real writer?
I mean, feel free to argue with me all you want, but that's been my struggle in my quest to be a "real" writer. The stuff that comes out in stores is so much better than I could ever aspire to. Even the stuff that gets universally scoffed at, that's got a quality to it that I don't have. How couldn't it? Not only has it been completed, but it's also been published. There must be some secret.
Nothing Casual about Casual Brilliance
But there isn't a secret. The more time I spend scribbling words for my magic-book-revenge-story, I approach the conclusion that it's exactly this: writing is hard. Those breezy sentences that you read on the page, all that effortless art that Patrick Rothfuss rolls up into the Kingkiller Chronicles, yeah, there's a reason the third book has been five years in the making.
I've come to understand that the more effortless the story seems, the harder the writer had to work to make it that way.
As a person who's trying to become a writer, when you don't see the sweat that goes into revision, editing, and planning on another's story, you get to think that it must just be that you're not any good, or you are missing some vital attribute that other writers have.
And there's a certain truth to that. Published writers, whether they acknowledge it or not, have been through a lot to get where they are, and they've learned skills, which you have not yet learned. They've spent countless hours at the computer, at the notepad, and at the typewriter or tape recorder, working their asses off to hone skills that probably don't get enough press.
How To Be a Writer
[Disclaimer -- I am not a professional writer. It has, off and on, been an aspiration of mine to make a living writing stories, but the idea of doing it as my sole occupation right now is not anywhere near realistic. That said, I have paid attention to the things that other people, people who are smarter than me, and people who make their living as writers, have said, and these are the skills I think that people who are regularly published have learned. --L]
I mean obvos, right? If you don't write, you're not a writer. Period. I nibble at the edges and there are months that go by without me writing anything. If I don't write, I'm not a writer. So I try to do better. Some people say to write everyday. And that's a good idea. Not always entirely doable, but a good idea. Definitely, it's easier to get on a roll and stay on it if you're writing every day.
2 Revise, edit, and rewrite
This is probably the second-hardest for me. I would love a good resource for how to properly edit stories. I suck at it. But I have permission from the man upstairs to suck, so there it is.
3 Accept criticism
I'm not saying that you should roll over and fix problems you don't think are there. I'm also not saying that you should meekly accept ad hominem attacks on yourself as valid criticism. I mean you should learn to separate the criticism that is going to make your story better from the shit that's going to kill your motivation or make you feel worse about yourself. I know there are resources out there on what kind of critiques you should accept from beta readers and critique circles. Those would be good resources for you too, if you're going to be beta-reading or critique-circling others' stories.
4 Critical reading
This one is my weakest point, I'd say. Which is saying a lot, considering what I've said about Writing and Editing. But what they say you need to do is be able to break down a story to its component parts and analyze what works for you and what doesn't. Basically learn to steal thematically and structurally, so you can make the story you're writing work for you. Also, if you read something that doesn't work, you learn what you can do to avoid making the same mistakes. My problem is that I get caught up in a story and two hours pass, and I know what's happening in the story, but I don't know how the author did it.
I know. Stupid Liam. It's there twice. But it's important. It's the most important. As my friend Rob Vogt says, you have to sharpen the saw. Write lots of stuff. You don't have to write a novel. You can write blog posts. They get you creating sentences out of words and help with your organizing-brain. This one's been a good one for me. I wrote myself into a corner, so I outlined what I wanted to say, and it's actually mostly coherent now. You can write poems. You can write short stories. You can write diary entries that nobody will ever read. You can look up writing prompts or writing exercises online, and you'll have more stuff than you can fit into a year right at your fingertips. There's lots of writing books that have exercises too.
But anyway, just write.
Motivation and Self-Worth and the Value of External Validation
A little while ago, Neil Gaiman posted on Twitter, "...If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion."
This raised a twit-storm and hurt a lot of people's feelings. I was unaffected, but I could see why people were upset about it. Needing to go to Clarion sounds like a barrier to entry, which is something that people could use as a demotivator and a reason to listen to the inner monologue of "I'm not a real writer." Real writers who have been published for years and years could take it as a slam. People who do not have the means to go to the Clarion workshop could see it as an example of a rich white guy exerting his rich white guy privilege and lording it over other people. And they did. Gaiman brushed the commentary aside with his usual charm, and explained that it was mild hyperbole. Considering in the next breath he mentioned that he'd never been there as a student, alongside all the stuff he's written about writing that he actually meant, this was the right reaction. Anyway, for most people, the pitchforks have been put away and life, such as it is on Twitter, continues. But it made me think.
How much self-worth and motivation do I get from external validation? How much would someone saying "If you don't [insert some criterion that I don't possess here], you're not a real writer," impact my ability to continue writing? Especially if it was something I couldn't do, and it was a writer I really respected, like Neil himself?
I have given this a lot of thought and the answer I came up with was, "Not a whole lot." I know I'm not a great writer. Probably, if I don't keep working at it, from more than just a "piling up pages and pages of rough draft" standpoint, I won't ever be. But I'm not going to let someone else put roadblocks in front of me when I put enough there myself, and when I have a good idea of what it would take to be a "real" writer.
Write. Read. Get better. Don't let anyone tell you you're not a writer if you're writing. I guess that's the tl;dr of this entire thing.