This post is inspired by something on my blog. But it’s also a post about writing. It’s very much a post about writing. It’s also a post about life, because life and writing partake one thing: we all start out somewhere. And we all have something when we set out. Some will be very fortunate, golden children, and have everything they need to succeed. The stories on those always go that they end badly. But that’s stories, and that’s not always true. It’s mostly a projection of our envy. However any number of them WILL end badly. There’s a reason for that. Of course a lot of us, who come from nothing and got no help, also end badly. Or often never start out.
I won’t go into the blog, because it was a commenter who inspired this. I won’t say who or precisely what he said, just that he seemed to think the world had done him peculiar wrong because his parents weren’t very good at parenting and because he didn’t know how to get on with… well, anyone, but particularly the opposite sex. The thing is, even on the blog, he demonstrated a social style that was simultaneously aggressive and whining. This is a combination guaranteed to put off most normal human beings. He seemed unaware of it. I think he identified it, subconsciously, as “the way to win arguments” at a very early age, and therefore has continued using it, not realizing it’s creating a vast desert around him.
Most of us don’t have ideal upbringings. Some have less ideal than others. I’m not going into mine, because it’s none of your business, and because I love everyone involved, including the difficult ones. I’ll just say that around ten, having realized my brother was the family favorite, I decided to imitate his social style. Since he’s introverted and thinks manners and fashion happen to other people, this meant I took created my social desert around myself and was very miserable. Around 16 I started to realized what I was doing, and started consciously changing. I started paying attention to the popular-but-not-mean girls I knew and figuring out how to interact. And it worked. Combined with attention to grooming and dressing, I soon found myself very popular. And even though some guys ran when they heard long words come out of my mouth, an equal number of them (not all of whom KNEW long words) stuck around and became fascinated.
But wasn’t it terrible, changing who I was, that way?
I wasn’t changing who I was. Merely the presentation. Note I still used long words. I was just using social graces to make the medicine go down.
Of course the side effect of this is that it’s all too easy to become a chameleon and say things you don’t believe/act in ways you think despicable, to succeed. That is a particular temptation when it comes to hiding your political opinions, when they’re taboo in your field. That didn’t work too well. Not for me. I was getting to the point it was hard to look at myself in the mirror. Which is why it’s important to remember the line between social style and your core beliefs and motivations. Social style is and should be plastic, your core should not. Not if you truly believe what you profess.
But the truth is as an adult, if your social life doesn’t please you, you should identify what you’re doing that makes it the way it is, and you should change.
No changing won’t be easy. Social styles are ingrained. It’s like breaking an addiction: it will take time, effort, and extreme self-awareness to get it to work. But it can be done, and while I can’t tell you that most adults did it, I can tell you most adults OF MY ACQUAINTANCE did it, for good or bad, big or small reasons.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
Everything. You start with certain talents. You start with certain inclinations. You start with a “writing upbringing” whether that was, like mine, an aged teacher in a one room schoolhouse who delighted in your creativity, or a college friend who said “you should be a writer” or just a delight in long hours with imaginary people. That’s what you have. That’s where you’re starting.
NO ONE told you it would be enough, that it would be easy, or that it’s all you can do. And you should be aware it can change. In fact it will change, on its own, if you pay it no mind. It’s better to change it the way you want to instead of to the subconscious demands of your mind. Your mind is a gorram idiot, who doesn’t know the market.
Of course, marketing is harder now. It used to be that you marketed to the gatekeepers. If you were lucky you hit in that thin sliver where readers liked you too, but that was a crapshoot. Mostly you marketed to gatekeepers, which could be understood as paying attention to what they chose, to the interviews they gave, etc.
Now… well. It’s more like being a teen and judging your social style. You get many inputs. You have the example of successful peers. You have to be awake and alert.
If you’re not doing that well at sales, look at who is, and why. It could be, honestly, it’s not your writing. It could be your marketing, your theme, your ideas. So, if it’s those, work on those.
But what if it’s your writing? Isn’t that who you are? How do you change that? What if your type of talent just isn’t marketable?
First of all, I’m not sure talent exists. Not as neural programming, before birth or something. No, I don’t believe in tabula rasa. Obviously, you have certain innate propensities. But the thing is, when it comes to writing… Writing is not something that just happens. It’s not even as simple as speaking, and that’s not simple either.
Your speaking and your writing will be influenced by the language you learned as a child, the style of speaking and writing your family/friends/society valued. And in turn what they valued might hinge on hereditary stuff in your family/group/society.
For instance, is my talent for lyrical language something innate? Or is it because dad read poetry to me in my cradle? And did he read poetry to me because he came from a long line of very successful poets?
Do you know? Do you care?
The lyrical style, which arguably survived my changing languages, is what I get “for free” in writing. The one talent. The one thing. Freely given.
Unfortunately I realized after my first published trilogy, it also limits your readership. And if it’s the ONE thing you can do, it restricts it even more.
So I worked. And learned. BTW NEVER let ANYONE tell you writing or style or timing or plot or whatever can’t be learned. EVERYTHING can be learned. It all depends on how much you want to learn it and how hard you’re willing to work.
But what if you can’t? Then you’re just making excuses for not being able to work hard enough. Or not wanting to.
I know. I did it for years. I told myself my style was unique and special and someone would eventually LOVE it.
It’s not true. If only two people read you, even if there’s a vast reservoir of readers out there who would love it (and it’s unlikely. Most such writing has innate defects that are keeping most people away and which you won’t even see till you overcome them) they’ll never find it. But, like holding fast onto self-defeating social styles, it IS comforting. Hence “Well, people like romance in their books, and I won’t write that trash” which is one of my own friends’ excuses. “I’m better and smarter than that.” Which must be a great deal of comfort, when you need to work menial jobs because no one will buy your books. And when your great dream of sharing your invention falls flat.
I don’t like cold comfort. I like succeeding in my dreams. So I took the other path. I’m still taking it. It’s hard, because oftentimes what I must learn is completely antithetical to what I naturally do. But it’s possible. And once you do it a few times, it becomes easier. It becomes an habit, like your previous mode was an habit.
“But should you write to market? You always tell us not to write to market!”
Waggles hand. I don’t know. I know things like Twilight were DESIGNED to be written to a market and to succeed, and they DO.
It comes back, though, to observing the more popular girls and imitating them. How far should you go? Do you want to also mimic their opinions and their attitudes until you become trapped in that persona? That way, I think, lies suicide, real or metaphorical.
But imitating their smiles, their social graces? That’s okay, and allows people to get to know who YOU are without being repulsed by dysfunctional social modes.
It’s the same thing in writing. I have a friend who really ADMIRES nineteenth century writing, and tries to imitate it. That’s fine. Except no one ever reads the great stories he has to tell. Our storytelling is different because our conditions are different. Nineteenth century writing wasn’t competing with TV or games for entertainment and it was self-consciously elitist. It was leisurely, slow, and often determinedly obscure, so it sounded “important.” Sure we read authors from that time, but we go in knowing they’re from that time, and adapt our expectations. Modern authors, we expect other things from, and soon grow impatient with nineteenth century mode, particularly when combined with some newby mistakes (and we’re all newbies compared to the greats who have survived centuries.)
Or you can take your ideas, the core of things that matter to you, that which is exclusively yours and dress it in the right clothes, and put in the right manners, so the reader will actually read and like what you do.
Look, 90% of the books I get from KU hold me out. I want to like them. I want to get into the story. But the writer holds me at arms length by not telling me what I need to get in; by cloaking it all in weird, stilted language; by not researching; by making their opening scene/character/world DELIBERATELY repulsive.
It comes back to being a teen again. The world is not going to adapt to you. Not in the ordinary way. Sure, sometimes you’re so rich, so powerful, the world will. And if you are a billionaire, you can promote your book until it becomes the “new thing.” But most of us aren’t billionaires. We have to adapt to the world — and the writing world — not it to us.
And yes, even the golden children, the fortunate ones, to whom the gods gave everything in society or in writing need to know these facts, and to learn to adapt. Our envy notwithstanding, most people I know who succeeded with their first written book hit a wall shortly thereafter and never wrote/published again.
Part of it is that the world changes, and if all you have is what you were given, you don’t know how to adapt. Say you come in doing spy thrillers, then the cold war ends, and you don’t know how to do anything else. Worse, you don’t know how to LEARN to do anything else. Same could be said for horror, or, now, UF. All of these had times of great bloom, then failed.
Even if you have everything, there are probably details that could be better. It will be even harder to learn to change them, BECAUSE they’re details. But if you do it will increase your ability and longevity.
Strive. It’s the best you can do. And if you’re lucky, it will be enough.