Friday, December 9, 2016

Three Things I Wished I Had Known When I Started Writing

I started writing in 2005 during my senior year of high school, having discovered The Craft in Mr. Koechling's Creative Writing class. I was going through a lot then, some of which showed up in my recent release of War Pigs, but writing found me at a low point in life and from there picked me up, cleaned me off, and set about making me a better man. My college creative writing professor, Al Maginnes, gave me confidence and some life lessons about writing that I will share here.

However, let's not confuse the issue at hand: writing, much like life, is never easy.

Unlike losing a fight, getting a rejection is often harder, and unlike working hour after hour on one low kick, sometimes I'd get so frustrated with the words being imperfect that I would scrap entire projects. In spite of that, I signed my first publishing contract for a series of Renaissance Fantasy/Vampire novels in 2009, and that fell through before we went to print for a number of reasons that were completely out of my hands. I later started selling short fiction, becoming more and more proficient at that, and then novellas, and there may be a novel or two getting picked up in the future.

This progress came from hard work, by keeping my nose to the grindstone, and my ears perked to listen and learn. That said, there were things I wish I had known when I first started, things that are not often told to new writers and, if we're all honest, things that veterans should say on panels but don't because these bits of knowledge are things that often slip through the cracks. There won't be bits like "finish your draft" or "edit with this or this in mind", but I hope the writers who are just starting out gain something from this, just as I hope that the vets who read this see my utmost respect displayed for them.

Without further adieu...

1. Mentors are important

We are often told that writing is a lonely life, filled with late nights, small sentences in the moment you can spare, and a constant grind that separates the talented from the successful--yes, you read that right, and what was said was correct as well.

Writing is about persistence, but writers don't learn this persistence overnight, nor we do learn it on our own. I had great teachers at the beginning of my journey: Kristopher Koechling taught me that I could do it, and Al Maginnes taught me that it was the persistent that become real writers. Those are two very important lessons that are hard to learn on one's own, especially the first if you were in the spot I was in where my entire identity was wrapped up in something I couldn't do anymore. But one important part of my current career is that I kept committing myself to finding a mentor.

Now, there are tons of stories of editors like Maxwell Perkins fostering writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and my personal favorite, Ernest Hemingway, but the mentor-student relationship is often these days is not confined to an editor-writer dynamic, but also relationships between writers. For myself, my mentors have been my guru John Hartness, James R. Tuck, David B. Coe, Emily Leverett, Lou Anders, and Gail Z. Martin. There are writers and editors who have I gone to, and they have taken their time to sit down provide advice on my work, the publishing industry, or support me with needed wisdom and motivation

The importance of mentors does come with a caveat: they show you the way, but you must be the one to walk it. It is important to go out and get advice, help, and direction for what you want to do with your writing, but it is also infinitely more important to listen to thoughtful criticism from them. Sometimes your mentors will tell you things you don't want to hear, but always consider the things they have to say.

2. The Moment You Stop = The Moment You're Done For

This is going to be hard to swallow, and I will not be surprised if people go "well, Jay, what's the point then?" But it needs to be said and I think it needs to be said more often for the sake of young writers getting into the business of today's publishing's business:

You are only as good as the work AND the amount of work you put out. 

There is no longer a world where a published author will be able to live off of the proceeds created by ONE successful series unless you are one of the lucky few to secure movie or television rights that actually see the light of day and the final product actually makes it to broadcast, and even then success isn't guaranteed (see: Eregon, Sword of Truth, Dresden, and on and on and on.) With royalty rates being a jungle of confusion when it applies to ebook sales and big advances dwindling across the board, the big box stores for print remain in a constant state of precariousness where they are often losing money holding as much stock as they do. Amazon has become to the go-to destination for print and ebooks outside of the cherished indie bookstores, and while those indie bookstores have seen a resurgence, the thing to remember about those indie shops is that they are not always going to carry your titles, nor can they--the margins they work on are still thin and they have to move product that moves. I saw this recently at a nationally recognized and lauded bookstore, Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville, NC, where their science fiction and fantasy section took up a small section of wall relative to the other shelves, and even then those titles were either brand new releases plugged in Locus or standard titles you'd expect to see at any bookstore like Tolkien, Heinlein, etc.

And to reaffirm, there is always going to be a challenge for any new author breaking into the business: as much as it matters that you produce quality work, you also have to produce a LOT of it in a business that is rapidly changing all the time. 

Get used to never having breaks between projects, or working on multiple projects at a time. Get used to late nights with little sleep and early mornings with little in the way of a break before work, and get used to always having to stay in contact with your editor, and embrace The Grind. Writing is no longer the business of writing the "Great American Novel" and cashing a check--if you really want health insurance, or a house, or a family, and you want to write full time, you need to learn how to afford a comfortable on less than you expect to make, marry a person that knows this, and keep grinding.

Let me repeat: the business of writing and publishing is about grinding.

I knew that getting in. It is the reason I call Jishnu's mercenary company The Grinders--because this is no longer about just being the best, but about consistency, gumption, and ploughing onward. I know bestselling authors who were real hot for a good span of years, something happened, they disappeared, and then all of those gains they made disappeared with them. Now they have full time jobs outside of writing. That happens, but the moment they can get back to it, they get back to it, because time is ticking and they know the value of grinding.

Do the work and keep working. Don't worry about the advances, or the publicity, or what comes--the work comes first, and you need to work a lot. That is how you will move forward.

3. Life is your Art, so live Life

I've done a lot of shit.

I've fought grown men in rings and cages, lost a significant other, climbed mountains, drowned in lakes, been in car crashes, gotten into a sword fight with real swords, walked around with more money in my pocket than most do in their entire lives, loved for days, wasted nights, drank myself stupid, smoked myself smart, watch the sun come up, performed Sabbaths and Voodoo in midnight clearings, meditated with yogis, read the Bible six times cover to cover, lost my soul, found it again, sinned, saved myself, attended more funerals than I wanted to, watched people die right in front of me, seen babies born, got my Purple Belt, broke my neck, hands, feet, skull, and shins, ran down enemies and lifted up those I despise, started a podcast, become a beer and Scotch connoisseur, been rejected more times than I can count, and to quote the master Dusty Rhodes, "I've dined with kings and queens and lived off pork and beans." 

And I'm only 30.

Tolkien was at the Somme. Hemingway boxed in Cuba. Rowling struggled to live. Glen Cook worked in factories. Mary Stewart toiled in obscurity. Stephen King wrote in a trailer. Huxley took a walk around town on Mescalin. Writers live lives for their art, and their art is a reflection of their lives. I meet too many writers that think they are going to become great by simply writing what they know, forgetting the fact that the luminaries they looked up to wrote around everything else that was going on in their lives, and everything that went on left itself in their writing. It is why I despise the advice of "Write what you know". It should be "Know what you're writing."

So get out there. Go for a hike, eat some fungus, go to church, have a game night, go to the club, go lift weights, get in a fight, visit a library, paint, grow a garden, spend a night in jail, learn how to fire a gun or start a fire, talk to cops and criminals, whatever. And write when you're done doing this things, and write before you do something new.

Consider at it this way: in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, a prisoner walks outside a cave and see the world for being more than shadows on the wall that they've always known, yet when they go back inside the cave and tell others still looking at the wall about the world outside, the other prisoners fail to believe this person to the point of violence. While there is a very important narrative here about the nature of perception, cognition, and dissonance, what a writer does is paint pictures on the wall of the cave in new colors, showing new and different things, and sparks an interest to leave the cave and actually see new worlds. Our stories are transitory and they ease that transition from one consciousness to another--something newer, something different, and hopefully something more healthful.

How many people do you know want to go to London because they read Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter? How many people started reading Fantasy, or Mystery, or Romance, because they tasted ambrosia through the pages of their first genre story?

That is the power of writing, and to imbue your work with that power you have to deepen the Well of Experience. Go get those experiences and report back to those who have not yet had the chance to dig their own.

Now go on, get away from this blog.

Go find someone who can show you what to do, get to work, and live. These are the things I had to learn that I wished someone had told me when I first started on this dream. I hope they help you speed up yours.

Go forth and grind.

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