In my early twenties I thought I was super-talented when it came to writing. I’d edited my school yearbook, written reviews and articles for the local newspaper, written plays and seen them staged in college. I’d written a novel, to see if I could, and had mothballed it without doing anything with it. I had this idea for a fantasy novel and started working on it, consumed by youthful ego, blind to purple prose and without any real idea of how the story would (or should) hang together.
I read up on the publishing industry, bought the Writers & Artist’s yearbook, started thinking about getting myself an agent. But I hadn’t finished the book yet. I’d given friends pieces to read and should have known from their silence that there was something wrong with the work. Full disclosure: it was pompous, overwrought and pretentious in the extreme. I read through it now and cringe.
There is this tendency, especially when you’ve studied literature in college, to believe that things should be written in a certain way. “Good” books contain big words, deep thoughts, carefully crafted sentences, are Literary with a capital L. Some young tyros take it further still, start dressing in a certain way, cultivating a persona that they feel is more Authorial. Luckily, I didn’t go that route, but I was still entirely too wrapped up in some unrealistic idea of myself as a writer.
What do writers do? Well, they write. Anything other than putting words down in your manner of choice (a notebook, loose-leaf pages, type-written on an ancient Remington, tapped out on a keyboard and saved to the cloud) is superfluous and a little bit presumptuous. It’s gilding a lily that hasn’t bloomed yet.
I’d like to say that twenty-something me woke up one day and asked myself what I was doing, where I’d gotten this ego from and whether I shouldn’t be more concerned with developing as a writer than making ambitious plans to secure an agent and sell a book, a book of which I hadn’t even completed a zero draft.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I wrote a synopsis and sent letters to two agencies seeking representation. I enclosed a few chapters (without mentioning that the book was not yet finished), and a stamped self-addressed envelope, per guidelines. I then sat back and dreamed of the possibilities, while keeping watch for the postman. I got one form-letter rejection from an Irish agent, and a more personalized one from a British agency. The latter was far more kind to me than it should have been, but boiled down in essence to “Great idea, shame about the execution”.
That, more than anything else, made me pause for thought. There was a part of me that protested – I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember! People I know tell me I write well!
That part was overruled by the fact that someone who had no reason to flatter or criticize me had taken the time to point out (kindly, gently), that what I thought was super-awesome writing was, actually, not.
I stepped back and tried to look at things objectively. Reading over those chapters now, I can see serious issues with voice and tone, and the aforementioned purple prose. Back then, I wasn’t so sure where I was going wrong, but I knew the agent was right (thank you, Carole Blake) and that if I wanted to keep writing, even just for myself, I’d have to work at getting better at it.
Turns out there were two really important ways for me improve my writing:
- Read more. I read everything I could get my mitts on. I read across genres and lost any lingering notions I had about “importance” when it comes to story-telling. I learned from what I read, saw how authors framed their stories, how they wrote their characters, how one voice could captivate me while another repelled. I re-read the books that I love most and tried to figure out what it is about them that makes them work so well.
- Write more. If it was true that writing is a constant in my life, if it really is my, for want of a better word, vocation, then this part shouldn’t have been too difficult. It sometimes was, but it shouldn’t have been. I played with genre, experimented with tone and style. I wrote short pieces, wrote a(nother) novel, wrote articles or blog posts or tweets or tumblr recaps of my favourite TV shows. Whatever, I tried to write consistently. By that, I mean daily. That’s where if gets tough. That’s where discipline comes into it. This is where I tended to fail.
I’m not the best person in the world when it comes to self-discipline. I had jobs and relationships and all manner of things that imposed on my time and made it easy for me to put off the notion of sitting in a chair and putting words down daily. The gaps between writing days grew, stretching to weeks or months at a time. I grew avoidant to the point where I got mad at myself.
First, I started blogging. I had a blog on WordPress about book-selling (funny incidents at work, odd questions asked by customers etc.) for which I also wrote book reviews. I even had an audience, a small one to be sure, but they were loyal. They kept me writing, day after day.
Then, in 2006, I read about NaNoWriMo for the first time. There was an article about it in a magazine in my doctor’s office. It was November 11th. I went home and signed up immediately, confident that I could pump out 50,000 words in the remaining 19 days. I couldn’t. I crashed and burned somewhere around the 10k mark. But those 10k words were fiction, and I realized how much I’d missed writing it.
From 2007 to 2010, I did NaNoWriMo every November. I went to meet-ups and lamented the craziness of it all over coffee with my fellow writers. I made it to (and sometimes past) the magic 50k every year. Trouble was, I wasn’t writing anything much (other than blog posts) for the other eleven months of the year.
By November 2011, I had a day job that involved writing (and editing) and was overwhelmingly busy writing things for work. I’d stopped blogging. I skipped NaNoWrimo. I loved my job (and I still miss it), but I started to vaguely resent the fact that I was “using up all my words” writing for someone else.
In 2012, I jumped back into NaNoWriMo. Met up with a great bunch of people, who continued to meet throughout the year (I confess, gaming weekends and visiting friends meant I often missed those non-November meetings).
In 2013, my team was laid off. Without a job, and with time on my hands, I decided I might as well write more. I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in summer, but washed out. I was worried about finding a job, worried about money, afraid I’d have to leave my apartment when my redundancy money ran out. Afraid of having to leave a city I’d grown attached to, and the friends I’d made there.
By November, all of those fears had come true. Still out of work, redundancy money dwindled to nothing, I handed in the notice on my apartment and jumped into NaNoWriMo with both feet. Somewhere around the 47k mark, I hit a road-block. I was sitting at a write in, stumped. I opened a blank document and started writing something else. And then kept writing it.
It’s late January now, I’m living with my parents, I’m broke, but I’m still writing it.
I’m writing every day.
It’s not even that hard to do.
When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing, itching to get back to it.
This feels weird.
In all, I’ve written and discarded 7 (seven!) zero drafts of different novels. I made half-hearted editing passes on a couple of them, but ultimately was happy to let them languish in a folder on my hard drive.
This one’s different.
What is also different is that I’m aware now of my own tendency towards avoidance, and I’m trying to make myself more accountable, more disciplined.
In case you haven’t guessed already, my new year’s resolution was to write more.
So far, so good.