Starting Out

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.

 

 

56 Comments

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56 responses to “Starting Out

  1. I believe talent is real. It’s not nearly as important as skill, or just plain stick-to-it-iveness, though.

    • Kris and Dean say “production and persistence” are the two main things. I thought they were crazy when I was young. Now I think they’re just right.

      • Amen to that. Those two factors have more to do with success than anything else, except maybe luck (and persistence plays a huge role in providing a window of opportunity for luck to show up).

        • Yep. Kevin Anderson talks of the popcorn theory. If you have one kernel of corn, in the perfect pot, at the perfect temperature, but you picked a dud, it will never pop. Throw in a handful of corn, a bunch of oil, in any pan, put on the fire. Some will burn, some will not pop. BUT you’ll have plenty of popcorn to eat. Of course, with books, the failures if they come early can burn YOU. You just have to make your gut into a new heart and carry on.

          • This is a thing, this heartbreak. You get so attached to the thing you made, you can’t let it go.

            At my age, having been burned away to nothing over, and over, and over again, I am aware that the thing I made is not -me-. I’m pretty fireproof these days. It comes from knowing who and what I really am. I’m what’s left after the fire, pretty much.

            I am also exquisitely aware that other people’s opinion, of me and of the thing I made… is their opinion.

            Since I’m Odd, how they form those opinions is largely a mystery to me. At some point early on I gave up figuring it out, and hung out with people who accept my frigged up weirdness and odd enthusiasms. Such people exist, and are to be treated like Kings and Queens. Odd Ones, get over thy selves. It ain’t All About You.

            However, none of that matters in Writing. Y’all caint see me behind this here keyboard. I might be Quasimodo for all the difference that makes. What matters is the words on the page. If there’s some style thing that kicks people out of the book, or if a particular character is doing it, that’s costing me money. I need to fix that.

            Like anything else, there a right way to write a story and lots of wrong ways. I’m not so big-headed I figure I can write any old thing and everybody is supposed to love it. I’ll make my best guess, fire it out there and adjust windage for the next shot.

            I’m also not shy about putting the stuff out there. (I’m looking at YOU, shy people!) My crap writing is just as good as anybody else’s crap writing, probably better than most. Certainly better than some recent Hugo winners, I’ll avow. Anybody doesn’t like it, they can join the line of people waiting to K my A. It forms to the left.

            Nearing completion on Number Four, this one is going straight to Amazon. I’ve got a Boss Battle and an ending to come up with. Characters are not cooperating, they’re scared somebody might die. I tell them nobody dies in my books except red shirts, but do they listen? Never.

            • I used to be held back by a fear that I just couldn’t handle rejection. That I’d be just destroyed by the long series of rejection letters pitching my first couple of books. But I bit down hard, and sent them anyway – armored by knowing that I had a hell of a great many fans through the original blog, and yes, I was pleasing them mightily with my writing.
              I got to be downright insouciant with the rejection letters – which predictably arrived; I just pitched the form ones into a folder, saying to myself, ‘someday you’ll rue that day you turned away the next Margaret Mitchell/JK Rowling/whomever’. Nope, the rejection didn’t even annoy me very much.
              I think it was a character in Paul Scott’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ series, who was fond of saying, “One must bash on, regardless!’ (I’m rewatching that series on streaming video, which is how it comes to mind so readily.)

              Bash on, regardless!

              • I haven’t even gotten a rejection yet. It’s like a black hole that accepts things in, but nothing comes out. I prefer to thing of that as publisher office ineptitude rather than my book sucking.

                That’s why the Amazon listing for #4. The first three have to wait for the rejection. I did submit it, I’m stuck waiting until they get damn good and ready to say “no thanks.”

                This is not an awesome business model, if any publishing types lurk here. Putting a sign on your website that says “Dear new writers, please f- off, we are too busy to deal with you,” it seems kinda lippy. Just sayin’.

                • Robin Munn

                  When is the hard-and-fast deadline for your first three, where if the publisher doesn’t get back to you, you can assume rejection and put it up yourself? Are we talking a few months, or 5-10 years, for you to be able to put books 1-3 on Amazon?

                  • More than 2 years, and I’d put them up. I also know something and guess more of the state of trad pub right now. I’m not sure it’s worth waiting for.

                    • The articles decrying Amazon for “ruining retail” have started, I expect you are right.

                      http://phantomsoapbox.blogspot.ca/2017/03/amazon-is-destroying-america1.html

                      We saw the same articles popping up when the Big Boxes “killed” down town Main Street twenty years ago. I note that the rents on those Main Street locations have not decreased over the years, and there are stores in them still. Even in rural Ontario the rents are idiotically high.

                      However I do expect that B&N will be going under fairly soon, next three to five years unless the Trump Economy surpasses all expectations. When that happens, there will be some major sorting out in the publishing universe.

                      Having four or five books up at Amazon might be a pretty good thing by then.

                    • Barnes and Noble doesn’t have that long. Their revenue went DOWN 16% during CHRISTMAS.
                      And once they’re gone, a few (very few) publishers/imprints might retool and rediscover reps who talk up the books in independent bookstores, instead of their simply dictating their laydown with a phone call to the regional manager of B & N. The ones that rediscover them will survive. The others… what do they give us, Amazon doesn’t?

                    • The thing to look out for, via my local logistics expert, is to see when they start being late to pay suppliers. At that point, start looking at their fixtures to see if any of the bookshelves belong in your house when it goes under. (I’m still sad that we didn’t have a truck or access to one when Borders went down. I liked those bookshelves, they were sturdy, and by the end they were going for $100 for the 8-footers. You can’t get fake wood shelves for that price these days, let alone oak.)

      • Oh, so this. And it’s a source of frustration to me, how life, and an attempt to try at least keep socially connected somehow, gets in the way. I’m aware that I’m becoming increasingly withdrawn, so I’m trying, for the sake of emotional health, to stay connected to people, even if it’s just through this digital way.

        It frustrates me, but so does having the words slip away when I sit and want to write, or the image fade when I raise the stylus. So I know I have to fix one thing first, before going back to creating.

        • Oh yes. Becoming withdrawn is a constant danger, because it is so easy to excuse. Work, family, and little things like food and sleep (who needs those?) get in the way. You know, important stuff.

          Getting back on the horse is tough, but good for you. Can be fun, too. Keep at it, lass. You’ll be glad you did.

        • Being withdrawn is normal. I’m “withdrawn” all the time. That’s how I deal. Being withdrawn and not eating, that’s not good. Go have some chocolate.

          As I said the other day, when my characters go on strike I write some slushy romance scene for them. That seems to cheer them up, and then they go do something interesting.

          Just for a giggle, maybe try ripping out a couple of sketches of your characters doing something amusing or frivolous. The dragon trying to look at a butterfly on his nose, or some such. Then post the results. I’m sure we could all use a laugh, and working on something cheerful and silly may make you feel a bit better.

    • sabrinachase

      It’s sort of like sourdough starter. It is certainly possible to start from scratch, but if you have a starter culture it’s faster and more consistent. Yet, still unique as it picks up local biome. (Read a fascinating article once about a sourdough culture “library” from all over the world…)

  2. This is a good analogy. What is usually called an author’s “voice” is very much a learned quality, and I think we learn first by imitating the writers we love, and then through feedback from readers.

  3. You can also make a virtue of necessity, and yet also use “your style.” If you have a plain style that occasionally breaks into lyricism at appropriate moments (like falling in love, seeing God, surviving an impossible challenge, etc.), people tend to put up with it and enjoy it. If you had only one character talking in the elaborate periods of the nineteenth century, it could be fun or a good way to create fear.

    Basically, lowering the entrance requirements.

    • Oooo! The Evil Emperor’s speech paterns . . . could be fun, but possibly hell for the writer, getting in and out of poetic mode.

      • Whatever works. One of the folks I knew years ago wrote all her villain’s lines while wearing a Halloween mask, and making silly/spooky laughter at appropriate times. Worked for her, too.

  4. Until you run up against a physical law, there is nothing you cannot change – or at least work around, sometimes needing more or less extensive help of course. Stephen Hawking, for example, cannot change his disease, but he is still producing physics papers. And carp can fly, given the appropriate launch mechanism…

    No, it’s not easy. But there are also no excuses.

  5. When I read, be it fiction or non-fiction, I am nibbling different kinds of author voices, learning what might be worth trying to borrow from and what goes “thud.” There’s a lot to be said for horrible warnings, especially if you recognize them as horrible. And I get to read examples of what might not work for me, at least not for extended periods. Too terse? Too florid? Too many almost-right words? Too warm-n-chummy-informal?

    I’ve read some wonderful stories that were written as a jocular first-person narrator with wonderful humor and gusto, and know that that voice doesn’t fit me. It would be forced and awkward at best. John C. Wright has marvelous cadences and uses language in beautiful ways, but again, if I try it for the extended periods he can write for, it goes sour and strained.

  6. I started out writing poetry, so when I tried to write story, I had a hard time cutting out those “beautiful phrases.” I was told recently from a reader that they know my style because even when I deliberately cut some of the “florid” phrases, some of them slip in. It adds a beauty to the prose when it is not constant. It is like the difference between using red as a room color or an accent color.

    • Good analogy. First thing I sold, oh over a decade ago now (and nothing much since) was poetry. The lyric style is an annoying habit to break… If you catch yourself writing bouncing alliteration, you might be a lyraholic. If whole paragraphs have cadence and rhythm, you might be a lyraholic. And if your characters start speaking iambic pentameter out of the blue, you might be a lyraholic…

      • I was first published in poetry, but weirdly I can’t write it in English. Only in Portuguese.

      • Back at my Clarion in 1973, Ted Sturgeon told us that if we needed to change the mood in the middle of a story, to write the first paragraph of a new scene in blank verse. I did this, and as best I can tell nobody noticed. It was funny, however, reading scene-change paragraphs in sentences that rhymed.

      • Interesting– I published poetry, but was never offered money 🙂 Even in the more “prestigious” of papers. *scratching my head

        • The poetry thing was during a time (late 90s) when poetry was cool again, very briefly, for a certain set in the city I was working/studying in. The got literally *thousands* of pieces to sift through. I think I got maybe $10 all told from it (that spread over a half dozen pieces I wrote for them, not including the stuff that went for free), but it was actual money that wasn’t unspendable promises. The magazine only lasted about a decade or so, but between the art, local interest stuff, and poetry bits, it stayed solvent remarkably well.

          So “sold” without the amount sounds a lot better to my eyes. *grin* Still counts, though.

  7. I realized a while ago just how Irish my phrasing was, the way it flowed, the way I flourished, not that it was flowery but it had a distinct way of conveying rhythm, thoughts, and story. This I thought of as just my style (it takes a lot of effort for me not to chop sentences, add parentheses everywhere, convey side information in brackets), until I had to work on an Irish accent and listened to a long series of programs talking about the Irish soul (and how it was being destroyed by the then current Ireland economic boom. Apparently academics all over the world want the peons to wallow in poverty for the peon’s own good) and as I practiced the accent I came to realize the accent was accessible through phrasing. All I had to do was phrase things as I normally did, without my conscious attempts to tamp that down, and the accent would appear. My great grand parents on my mom’s side were the ones who came over to Canada, my Grandmother and (obviously) Mom were born here, and the accent was gone completely but the phrasing remained. That said, I don’t often use that voice in writing as I like to read more direct words rather than words that exist for the words themselves. Story over style.

    As a gifted kid who was good at things with minimal effort, it was often a struggle to become actually good. A part of your brain is satisfied with the clear potential and doesn’t feel the need to make that potential a reality. Talent wasn’t a burden but for some reason I found it an obstacle. Everyone would tell me to give it everything, try my hardest, as if trying and failing was better than not trying and, thus, not failing. At the time I thought they were wrong (failing sucked gibbon bottom) but as I get older I realize more and more how right they were. What’s the point of wanting to do something but not wanting to put the work in? Does it matter if you half-assed it and failed because of that? Is it worse to full-ass it (or no-ass it?, which makes more sense?) and STILL fail?

    Or is there comfort in knowing that you gave it everything and your failure was out of your control? Yes. Failing still sucks baboon glutes but not trying is a betrayal of yourself and whatever talent you might have.

    Whoops. Got philosophical, my apologies.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      No need to apologize. Philosophy is always welcome. As are carp puns. Even philosophical carp puns.

    • You write the very best you can right now. Even if it gets a wrinkled form rejection with a dirty footprint on it*, there’s no shame if you’ve done your best effort. The only time to feel shame is if you know you didn’t do the very best you can.

      *Happened to me. Figured the magazine was about to go under. It did. That’s the one time rejectomancy was right on the button.

  8. Very nicely said. George

  9. I’ve changed multiple times in my life, often because I just couldn’t stand to be with myself anymore and had nowhere else to go. And I’ve had to become a bit of a chameleon at work because I’m not officially “out” politically, though a couple people have sussed where I stood on certain things.

    I am, however, out as a writer and I swear one of my former managers was hiring me a fan club because they keep bugging me for the next book. There’s even a prize for whoever can figure out all of my pen names. And then they have to tell me how they found them so I can plug that leak.

  10. If I have a style, it’s invisible to me.

  11. This reminds me of something I was thinking of the other day. The radio station (I was driving) was talking about “living the lie” – times when you say a little white lie that takes a life of its own and you can never escape it (a staple of comedies).

    Which got me thinking about how when you live a bigger lie you become that, and it turns into truth. One of the dangers of being in any kind of closet is that you might turn into your persona.

    The flip side being that faking the truth can turn into living the truth – aka “fake it ’til you make it.” Act brave and you gain courage. Act like a successful writer and you gain success as a writer. Etc.

  12. mrsizer

    There’s a Forum (an EST offshoot) thing they call “already always listening.” It’s the subconscious part of your brain that reacts before you actually think. Things like the “class clown”. It starts out as a defense mechanism and just takes hold and becomes part of you.

    You CAN change them, but it takes a lot of introspection and self-observation (I think they’re slightly different) to even notice you have them. We all do. Once you find them, you can bring them up to the conscious level and choose what you actually want to do, rather than just react. Eventually you replace them with different ones.

    I was a very shy person. When I moved to Denver (egads, 15 years ago, now), I decided to change that and I forced myself into social situations (not as in “butted into conversations” but more “go out and meet people; don’t stand in the corner”). No one who knows me now believes it when I tell them I’m shy. It’s pretty much gone. It wasn’t easy, but it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

    I don’t know if that applies to writing or not. I don’t have enough of a base to be able to tell. It seems as if it would, if only as a metaphor.

  13. Two things, easiest first: ” I know things like Twilight were DESIGNED to be written to a market and to succeed, and they DO.”

    It wasn’t. The market came after. This is a prog narrative to destroy The Wrong People Having Fun Wrong. And no, I’m not a fan. But we really need to stop feeding that machine,

  14. Second thing,

    “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.”

    Oh yes, and Boy, Howdy.

    The thing is, you probably won’t like the first two, three or more rounds of what you produce working the stuff that feels awkward and new. Don’t be discouraged! It gets better! And all the stuff that came easy will get better, as well. Bonus.

    Great post.