Advice to writers – tribes

One of the great things about writing is that it’s an art form with very few pre-requisites. You need to be able to read and write. You need something to write with. If you want anyone to appreciate your work you need access to an audience. Writing well is a bit harder though. Staying sane while writing well is harder still.

It helps if you don’t try to do it alone.

The first person you need is the one who believes in you. It’s not always easy to believe in yourself when you’re trying to be creative. It helps if you have someone else’s belief to push you onward when your own belief fails.

Adam Savage (yes the Mythbuster) talked on one of his fantastic youTube videos* about how a maker needs at least one person who believes in them. They don’t have to understand you or the things you make but they have to believe that you have value and your creations have worth. To that I would add that they don’t have to be physically close to you, online friends count. They don’t have to still be alive, the memory of a parent or grandparent who believed can be a light that you hold within.

If you’ve just realised that you don’t have that one believer in your life then don’t panic. You can find one if you start by being one. Find other creative people and believe in them. You’ll find that some of them will believe in you in return. You’ll also find that it’s easier to believe in yourself because you’re strengthening that part of your personality.

Once you have that one person who believes in you it’s time to fill out the rest of your tribe. You need people who face the same challenges as you. Even if they don’t meet them in the same way. So if you’re a writer you need other writers, if you’re having trouble balancing creativity and a busy life then you need others who’ve been through that, if you have to deal with mental health issues or disability getting in the way then you need people who’ve been through that.

You need people who are following the same path. So if you’re writing fanfiction you need to have some fanfiction friends in your tribe. If you’re planning to self publish then you need to reach out to others on that path. If you want to go the traditional publishing route then you need others who understand the pain of querying. When you’re writing your first novel then it helps to be around other new writers.

You need people who like the stuff that you like. They don’t have to be writers but it does help if they’re makers in some way. If you write scifi then you need friends who get scifi, people that you can go to movies with and binge watch TV with and discuss books with. You need people with whom you can get into knock down drag out fights about who’s the best Doctor, or Star Trek ship captain and whether Malcolm Reynolds is a bigger scoundrel than Han Solo.**

And finally your tribe needs diversity and generations. You need to reach out to people younger and older than you. You need people from the widest possible range of backgrounds and experiences and cultures and ethnicities. You need beginners and old hands and every level of experience in between. And you need to listen to them. People will tell you about their experiences both in creativity and life and you need to listen and respect. Not only will you be a better writer but you’ll be a better person.

Reach out to people. Find your tribe. Support them and accept their support in return. Be there for them But a word of warning. In your journey you may meet people who seem to be part of your tribe but who never repay. They’re happy to accept your praise and lean on you and others in your tribe but when the call for help goes out they’re never there. It’s ok to let them go. You don’t have to call them out. You don’t have to confront them. You can just withdraw from them. Concentrate your attention on the people who know they’re part of a tribe not the people who think you’re part of their entourage.

* I can’t find the exact video but here’s a link to the channel, Tested. I recommend it.

** The correct answers are: all of them, Sulu (yes he counts), and yes but Han has the cooler ship.

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Life Lessons: You can enjoy stuff you’re not good at

When I was a kid I hated being bad at stuff. I hated it so much that I would avoid doing things that I was bad at. Which is a problem because when you’re a kid you’re bad at most stuff and you can’t get better at stuff if you don’t practice it.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that if I wanted to be good at something I would have to endure being bad at it first. I would force myself to practice things in the hope that I would eventually get good enough to enjoy it. That’s a good attitude to have but it’s not the complete lesson.

The complete lesson is that, with the right attitude, you can enjoy being bad at something.

Which brings me to World of Tanks. I’ve been playing it a lot recently and on a good day I’m kind of sort of ok at it. On a bad day I’m terrible. I will never be a world class player. I will probably never be great at it. I might eventually be quite good (probably not though). But that doesn’t matter because I can enjoy it anyway.

Sometimes it’s a tough game to enjoy. I’m in the wrong tank on the wrong map with the wrong team and the wrong attitude. Sometimes I’m playing my socks off and I still lose because my teammates are donkeys. Sometimes it feels like I’m faced with a team of psychic tank drivers who move out of the way the moment I hit fire.

But then sometimes I’m the psychic tanker hitting tanks I can’t even see because I’ve worked out where they are and sometimes I’ll carry that team of donkeys to victory anyway. Best of all are the battles when I’m playing well and so is everyone else.

Here’s my advice on how to enjoy stuff you’re not good at:

  1. Accept that you have to suck in order to improve.
  2. Accept that there are some things you may never be brilliant at.
  3. Accept that you’re going to lose a lot.
  4. Realise that the more you lose the sweeter those victories are.
  5. Take full ownership of your wins even when you know it was through luck or the incompetence of others.
  6. Try to make new and interesting mistakes, if only for variety.
  7. Remember that it’s not the end of the world.
  8. Forget about external validation.
  9. It’s ok to laugh at yourself when you fuck up in entertaining ways.
  10. It’s also ok to laugh when other people fuck up in entertaining ways but only if you also laugh at yourself.
  11. Sometimes it won’t be fun it will just be frustrating and it’s totally ok to go and do something else for while.

Advice to writers – playlists

This is a departure from my previous posts aimed at young writers. This one is for everyone because this post is something I really needed to know ages ago but instead had to find out the hard way.

Music while writing can be controversial. Some writers, like Ian Rankin, swear by it and some, like Philip Pullman, can get quite salty on the subject. Even the writers that like to write to music tend to say that they can’t listen to music with words.

For years I resisted writing music, even though I love music, even though my husband would make me writing playlists based on the book I was working on, even though I tend to turn to music videos for inspiration when I’m all out of ideas. Gentlepersons, I was wrong. Sort of.

I come to you today not to praise the writing playlist but to suggest a new use for it.

One reason that we use music in films is because it’s great at setting the scene, creating mood, driving emotion. That’s not necessarily great while you’re writing. Unless you’re very careful you can end up with the music you’re listening to driving the scene instead of the characters. But writing doesn’t just happen while you’re sitting at a keyboard or a notebook.

My best writing often happens while I’m standing at a bus stop, or shopping, or looking out of a moving vehicle. It’s not really writing then, of course, at that point it’s still story. It doesn’t become writing until I sit down at the computer and write it. But that purposeful daydreaming of story is a vital part of my creative process and I can’t be the only one.

Here’s how to use a writing playlist to make your purposeful daydreaming more useful.

  1. Create a playlist for each writing project. Name it after the working title.
  2. Give each of your characters their own theme songs, they can have as many as you like.
  3. Pick some songs that reflect the major themes or moods or events of the story.
  4. Every time you add a new element to the story try to add a relevant song.
  5. Listen to this playlist whenever you’re doing something boring, like housework or shopping or walking somewhere.
  6. Only listen to the playlist that’s related to the current project. When you switch projects switch playlists.

This is so useful because the playlist creates a headspace that you come to associate with the project. That means that you can stop working on it for a while, do something else, come back and the music will take you back to where you were when you were working on it. The music pulls your imagination in the right direction. It becomes the soundtrack to the moving pictures in your mind.

Try it out, folks, don’t make the mistake I did and write another four first drafts before giving it a chance.

Advice to a Young Writer Part 2

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

This is part 2. Part one is here. There will be more parts. Each one will include homework.

The commandments of Writing

  1. Start your story
  2. Finish your story
  3. Make your story better
  4. Repeat

Writers can have trouble with each one of these and the trouble is nearly always caused by some combination of these:

  • The illusion of perfection
  • Shiney new ideas
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of success
  • Prioritizing other things

Some aspiring writers are full of wonderful ideas. They imagine beautiful plots and glorious character arcs and their characters have names and backstories and sassy dialogue but they never write any of it down. In their heads the story is perfect but they’re scared of spoiling the idea by pinning it down on paper.

Some writers start the story but then stall almost immediately. The more they write the more they hate the story. It’s not the way they imagined it. It’s not perfect

Destroy the illusion of perfection. Perfect is the enemy of good. And a story can’t be good until it’s finished. Go farther than that. Kill the idea of good or bad writing. Give yourself permission to suck. Start with a rough first draft or an outline. They don’t have to be good they just have to be written. You’re just finding the shape of the story. An outline is like an artist’s sketch. A rough first draft is like the Alpha build of a computer game. Once you have the shape of the story you can fill in the colour and the light and the shade.

During NaNoWriMo we have to deal with a phenomenon known as the week two wall. To write 50,000 words in 30 days it’s recommended to keep up a pace of at least 1667 words a day. Every year we see people keep up that pace with ease. They surprise themselves. They’re actually having fun. And then some time in the middle of week two it stops being fun. If they don’t keep pushing through the wall the writing stops completely. Some people give up at this point, some slow down but keep going. Some people decide that the problem is that the story is no good.They start a new one and then hit the wall two weeks later.

The wall happens because the thrill of the shiny new idea wears off. After more than a week of thinking about the same story it starts to seem boring. The writer loses faith in the idea. And then other ideas start to distract them. Newer ideas, shinier ideas, ideas that haven’t had a chance to get boring yet. Ideas that are still perfect.

The best way to deal with the lure of the new idea is to make a few notes about the new idea and then back to working on the current thing. By making notes you are making a promise to yourself that you’re not abandoning this new idea. You’re just putting it to one side for now.

Fear of failure can get in the way at every stage of writing. It makes some aspiring writers terrified of the blank page. Some get near the end but then can’t finish for fear of messing the story up. Some others can finish a first draft but then don’t dare to face it so they never edit.

Hold on to the idea that there is no failure in trying a thing and then that thing not working out like you hoped. That’s not failure that’s learning. If you write the story and the story sucks then you’ve learned one way not to tell that story. Your effort wasn’t wasted. It was practice. It was research.

Fear of rejection plagues writers when the work nears completion. If you finish a story then you have to show it to people and what if they don’t like it? For some writers the fear of rejection changes how they write. They pull their punches. The don’t write the story that is in their heart because they think people will judge them for it. Some writers don’t fear the rejection of their writing but the rejection of their identity as a writer. Sometimes people will hide that they even write. Historically some women writers concealed their writing. They pretended that they were sewing, or writing letters and they published under male pen-names.

Fear of success is usually a late stage writing problem. It makes writers avoid putting the final polish on their words. It’s why sometimes a writer will hesitate to call a work finished. It’s why some writers hold onto finished manuscripts and never show them to people. You might wonder why success would be scary. Didn’t I just say that writers fear failure and rejection? Why would success be scary too? Because when you succeed at something you sort of have to keep doing it. And now there’s an expectation of success. Success is a kind of responsibility.

Prioritizing other things is also known as “I don’t have time to write.” Almost everyone has time to write. It might not seem like that because your time is fully booked. That’s because it’s not natural for a human being to do nothing at all for more than a few minutes. We get uncomfortable if we are not occupied in some way. That’s why we all hate waiting so much. That’s why we have a word for boredom.

Right now all of your time is occupied in some way. It might be social media, or computer games, or dancing around your bedroom listening to loud music, or watching the same episode of your favourite show for the fourth time but it’s how you are choosing to use your time. Maybe that’s more important to you than writing. And that’s ok. People need to spend their time in the way that makes them happiest. But maybe writing would make you happier. Only you know. It’s up to you to decide if writing is a high enough priority to sacrifice the time that you are currently using for something else.

Homework

Your task is to name the problem. Which of the Commandments of Writing are you having trouble with? Is it just one? Is it all of them? Is it some more than others? What do you think is causing the trouble? Is it one of the causes that I pointed out?  Is it several? Is it something else entirely?

Your previous homework was to research how your favourite writers deal with the problem of finishing things. Go back and look at that again and see if your favourite writers are dealing with the same problems as you. Remember that every writer is different so what works for them might not work for you. But it is a place to start. And if it doesn’t work then there are many other writers with many other solutions.

Advice to a young writer part 1

This is based on some advice that I came up with to help my daughter. She loves telling stories and writes poems and fan fics but she’s having trouble finishing things. If there’s one thing I’m good it it’s helping people finish things.

Since her problem is with writing that’s what I’m going to focus on but hopefully this will be helpful for other arts.

There will be many more parts. Each one will set some homework.

You are not alone

The very features of the mind that make a person creative also make it harder to stick to just one thing. The very imagination that flits from place to place and links together disparate ideas and images is also as distractible as a puppy in a room full of squirrels.

All artists have trouble finishing things. All artists try to find methods to harness their imagination to the task. Some struggle with it their whole careers, some beat the problem so comprehensively that you would think they had never had to fight it at all.

Vincent Van Gogh was so prolific he could complete several paintings on a good day, but he sold only one in his lifetime and had to be supported by his brother. Leonardo Da Vinci was a chronic procrastinator who completed only 15 works but was supported by a series of wealthy and powerful patrons.

But they were painters. How about writers? The two greatest writers of humorous sci fi/fantasy of my lifetime were Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. At his most prolific Terry was completing two or more novels a year as well as countless short stories and articles. He was so successful he had to change banks because he filled the old one up. Douglas Adams wrote some of the greatest Doctor Who scripts ever, he wrote the groundbreaking radio drama Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he also wrote several novels and a book on natural history. He was such a chronic procrastinator that some of the episodes of the Hitchhiker’s where completed minutes before they had to be recorded. He once said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” One of his novels took three and a half years to write, but most of the actual writing was done in the last two weeks, and most of that was done over a single weekend.

My point is that having trouble finishing your stories does not mean that you are not a writer. It means that you have the same problem that every other writer has. And because it’s a problem that every writer has there are loads of solutions to it. Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing in advance which one will work for you so it’s going to be trial and error.

Homework

Your first task is to research some solutions for yourself. Pick a couple of your favourite writers and do some googling. You’re looking for interviews, articles and blog posts that talk about how they work. For example if you google “Derek Landy on writing” you’ll find the writer of the Skulduggery Pleasant books giving his thoughts on writing and answering questions about his method.