You Don’t Have to Be Crazy To Work Here

So, how does one become a writer?  The long-delayed post today – because I had a routine doctor’s checkup – gave me time to come back and look at your comments, and we can all agree that a degree in creative writing is about as useful as a meringue hammer.  At least I hope we all agree, because I’m sure of this.

In fact, what little I took in terms of creative writing in school probably hindered my writing commercial fiction.  It’s sort of looking at things the wrong way.  Your Creative Writing professor might have been ecstatic at the bit of symbolism in which you dress a character all in white to symbolize purity, but the reader is probably not even going to register it consciously, and if your character all-in-white proceeds to do nothing much that’s interesting, then well… The reader won’t be happy.

Mostly what the reader wants is to experience emotions.  If along with it you can backload some stuff to make the reader think, and if your reader is a thinking sort of person, bonus.  But mostly the reader wants to experience something and “emotions” is the common denominator, atop of which you add the peculiar “cookies” of each genre.  So, say, for romance, you have to have … romantic stuff and tension between the couple; for SF (depending on subgenre) cool stuff like robots and space exploration; for fantasy everything from LOTR plus some; for urban fantasy shifters and vamps and hot chics (or cute guys) fighting them.  However if all those things don’t contribute to the emotional experience, you got nothing.

While from the critics end… well… they’re looking for symbolism and meaning and wondrous stuff like allusions to other books… yeah.  And most college courses teach you to be critics not writers.

So – you can’t learn it in college.  What makes a writer a writer?

Well, you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.

Most of us started out telling ourselves stories.  Or we told younger siblings stories.  (I only had cats younger than I, and they were notoriously averse to standing still while I told them stories.)  Or, when we were older, we told our peers stories (guilty!)

I wrote my first “novel” at six.  It was ten handwritten pages and Enid Blyton Famous Five Fanfic.  (Hey, one does what one can.)

By highschool I was writing 20k word “novels” of very, very bad Clifford Simak pastiche.

And that’s part of what makes you a writer.  Like the artists of old who copied the works of the masters, almost all of us started out by writing things in imitation of those authors whose work had moved us the most.

At some point we realize it’s not quite ours, and we start experimenting.  For me that was my twenties, which generated a never end of REALLY BAD experiments, including some that can never be buried DEEP enough.  In fact, my kids are under notice if they find and publish any of them, I’ll come back and haunt them into the next century.

But in the middle of the experiments, my taste, formed by an awful lot of reading, picked this and that that worked, and that other thing that sparkled, and…  And I started to get a clue.

In my early thirties I had the revelation that I was writing for a reader.  Yeah, I know.  I’m slow that way.  Now, I had no idea who “my reader” was or how he functioned, but I had an idea that I would write for the reader I’d like to attract.

And then it became sort of like playing chess on both sides, and things started to work.  That mind set is absolutely necessary to know when you’re too slow, when you’re too fast, when you’ve skipped something essential…

So – it’s hard to acquire, though at this point it’s second nature.  (Posting at austen.com and getting comments as I wrote really helped that sense of what the readers were getting or not.)

And there it is.  You become a writer by:

1-      Copying the masters.

2-      Learning to go beyond copy

3-      Reading an awful lot

4-      Learning to write for readers.

Sounds easy, right?  Right.  And you’re wondering where the part comes where you suffer for your art, aren’t you?

Trust me, there’s suffering enough in there.  Like most simple plans, the difficulty is in the execution.

Now – go work.

50 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Be Crazy To Work Here

  1. Giggle – my first fanfic was Laura Ingalls Wilder fanfic, when I was in middle-school. And I really got started by telling stories to my younger brother. One of my very best was when we were at the beach, and I spun him a yarn that the distantly-seen power plant farther along the coast was a factory for making soap and detergent, which they made by harvesting the foam on the breakers as they rolled in.
    One of many reasons to love small children – they are so gullible!

      1. My younger son’s wrote a quest fantasy with chameleons as main characters — a play, I mean. Then he made the characters ( drawn, cut out, stuck on Popsicle sticks) He made the side table into a stage, rigged a curtain and performed the whole thing for us, while we watched. He was three.

      2. Fanfic — wrote a “Star Trek” take-off when I was 19, and I actually got a good comment on it when it was rejected. I knew nothing, so didn’t realize what they were telling me, otherwise I would’ve done as they asked (as the mains didn’t matter at all, so why not make it a new universe?). I knew nothing about copyright and less than nothing about publishing, or I would’ve followed up right then and there.

        Instead, I stopped writing except for poetry for years. Then had to be dragged back to it, kicking and screaming, by my brother as he needed an opinion columnist for our college newspaper (I went back at 29 to finish my degree; it took a year and a half, but I got it done — music major, history and English minors, more or less, as my school doesn’t “recognize” minors). So I started writing non-fiction again, did that for several years (also wrote for the college newspaper, the only non-journalism major, Master’s or not, on the whole paper), and only then tried my luck with fiction again when I was around 34 or 35.

        Not sure if this interest anyone else but myself, but I definitely understand and agree with Sarah’s point! 🙂

  2. for urban fantasy shifters and vamps and hot chics (or cute guys) fighting them.

    Speaking of copying the masters, in an Orwellian genderbender novel, could it be hotcute chicguys fighting Eastasian vampirelycans?

  3. I know I did #3… a LOT. But I never did steps 1&2 consciously. I also still have the knee-jerk internal voice that says “but, Cedar, you’re not a real writer.” Only I am, now. Step #3 lasted from the age of four up through this year, and I don’t expect that to ever end. I don’t read just in the genres I write, I read pretty much anything and I suspect (I hope!) that makes me a better writer as I blend all that into my authorial voice.

        1. What makes you think that matters? Plenty of people who aren’t “real” writers have apparently made quite handsome livings at this scam. And plenty of “real” writers have starved to death (figuratively, at any rate.)

      1. Well, I have a couple of external voices I trust that will tell me otherwise if I’m silly enough to say “not a real writer” out loud. You have… um, a LOT of voices who will assure you that you are!

        1. Cedar, just tack on a “Bwahahaha! I FOOLED them!” at the end (rubbing hands with evil satisfaction is optional). Because that’s what being a writer is really all about. Fooling people. Fooling them so well they *pay* you for the privilege of being fooled. And everyone has fun.

  4. For me, I was telling myself stories to go to sleep to from as far back as I can remember. I never seemed to want to sleep when I was supposed to, so telling myself stories worked.

    There was a mix of fanfic (Star Wars, “everything and the kitchen sink crossovers”, and several others I’ve mercifully blotted from my memory) and original (even worse – I had zero idea about character or plot at the time).

    Eventually I got better. Mostly through reading a lot and absorbing stuff. I still have no real idea how I plot, but somehow plot happens.

    1. Same here – lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep (and I’ve always been a bad sleeper). As a child, it was usually self-insertion into whatever my favorite tv show or book series was, which led to (shifty eyes, deep blush) pencil-written self-insertion Mary-Sue Star Trek fanfic in my teens (I am SOOOO glad we didn’t have the internet back then, so no one by my friends, who were doing the same thing, ever saw them).

      Though I do think fanfic is a great way to practice.

      1. Oh, yes – I used to make up adventures to go to sleep at night – and also to pass the time of long journeys in the back seat of my parents’ car.

  5. I started out writing plays so that my sisters could act them– usually a knight, damsel, etc, etc. My sisters were really good actors then. 😉

    I told stories to my brothers at night before they went to bed (I have four brothers and four sisters). I had to come up with adventure stories because –they were boys–… no other reason. 😉

    I didn’t start writing stories until I started my English degree. I was 38 by then. I had tried to write stories and novels before then, but they were always missing something– the timing wasn’t right, etc, etc. My first story was published in Bibliophilos in 2001. I did send a story to sci-fi/fantasy, but they were not interested in the story. They did want me to submit more, but at the time I was writing so many academic papers, it was amazing that I could get a four line poem out. (My poetry was a different story– I had my first poem published in a church newsletter when I was eight. My poetry has been published in many places now– Acumen and so forth.) I changed to fiction because I was so upset that poetry was not considered worth money.

    Then–an amazing thing happened– I spent several years trying to survive this illness. When I came out the other side (not completely actually), I began to write about people. Before I was writing about concepts and objects and even places. I lost that intellectual edge and found an emotional one.

  6. My first attempt? Louis L’Amour fanfic, and yeah it was baaaaddd, it was aslo written cursive in a ‘learner’s pencil’ with a stick figure cover, in grade… umm.. something early. Funny, I don’t feel I’ve moved past that very much in recent attempts.

  7. I started with fantasy stuff, then mil-sci-fi. Then I wrote aviation stories, some fiction, some not so much, for a decade before the sci-fi bug returned. I was reading anything I could get my hands on, from David Drake to McCaffrey to Ann Rivers Siddons to hard science and lots and lots of history. I also ended up helping with a county WWII and Korean War veterans’ book, because I was one of very few people who knew military stuff and could write well. Then I went to grad school and wrote history for grades and wrote sci-fi so that I wouldn’t vent my frustration on innocent bystanders. Two books, a novel, and 80 sci-fi stories and novellas later . . .

  8. The other reason to write is just to get the ideas out of your head and done with it, just fanfic that I had to finally put out of my misery. I wasn’t writing for anyone and wasn’t doing it to be readable, interesting or gather an audience. For that I am ever thankful and no longer get bothered by them. Never underestimate the power of an idea that just has to be put to rest.

      1. Yes it does! I’ve read a lot of SF/Fantasy/Horror, plus fanfic: about 8 bookcases, 9′ tall, some of it double depth.

        I write the entirely wrong way because I’ve run RPG universes that I made up in my younger days. My approach is that I’m writing all about the Non-Player Characters and what they do (just as I mentally had to do while running games) which gives a depth to a world that is necessary to get a willing suspension of disbelief.

        I don’t put down a set ending because I can’t: a real universe is messy, people have their own backgrounds, and the smallest decision can have huge impacts later on. Then adhering to what I know of science means not only the big things but the simple things like the Square-Cubed Law… just implementing that in known story realms means they must change, which means I end up writing alternate universes. When you get 30 years of complaints and nitpicks… sigh… I can’t even begin to figure out where such a universe goes, what will happen, how it will end. Like with gaming, I set up the scenario and then everyone moves through it as they would in their lives. Thus stories must have continuity before and after, and placing just where it *ends* means just finding a major thematic ending point or major end of events point.

        Luckily I’m not looking to sell the stuff, just get it put down and out of my head so I can move on to other things in life.

        1. > I’ve read a lot of SF/Fantasy/Horror, plus fanfic: about 8 bookcases, 9′ tall, some of it double depth.

          My collection is similar – by counting up blue Rubbermaid tubs and multiplying, I think I’ve got something like 10,000 books (maybe half fiction). I’m feeling the need to purge (and the need to get some tax deductions before the end of the year) so just yesterday I started in on a project of going through EVERY SINGLE TUB and giving half of the books to charity.

          I culled out something like 1,500 books yesterday and need to bring them to Goodwill today.

          Actually, those numbers make it sound like I’m 30% done with the project, and that’s not remotely close. I shudder to think at the size of this task. :-/

          1. Several years ago my family went through the house on a book-thinning spree. Over 3000 volumes went to a rural county library; filled the back of a full-size pick-up. However, this opened up space for new acquisitions, and the library (added onto the house because of the overflow) is once again stacked at least three deep. We will not speak of the research books now crammed into my storage unit.

            1. When we moved from South Carolina, we sold 2/3 of our books at 50c per hard cover, 25c per paperback. The result was 3k which financed a down payment on a new car, (yep, in small bills. I’m just glad the man didn’t think we were drug dealers) and hotels and food for the move west.

              Since then we’ve grown our library to probably five times the size it originally was. As I go electronic, I’m getting ready to have another massive book sale. (We have to. We need to house-downsize, or be ready to when the kids move out.)

          2. I don’t get rid of books… what I hate are re-issues with changed names… those get thinned out when they happen.

            Back in my 8 to 10 grade years I was at a book a day and soon stripped out everything of interest at home and had to buy more. Now its a couple of shelves of reference books, a shelf of geology texts, some woodworking books here and there… one of the best pieces I have was from my Uncle Edward: The Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (2 book, hardcover).

            Reading has tailed off due to some brain damage due to medications… went to blog writing just to help recover from that. No longer strongly attached to the SF/Fantasy/Horror communities because of health problems. But I’ll never thin out my collection – its the only way to make sure I know what I’ve read.

            1. Hi there ajack – I have been on a lower dosage of chemo for over nine years so I know how that causes damage to the brain. Blogging has helped me a lot, then writing. Also have you tried Lumosity? It is online and is a really good boost for my brain. Good luck–

              1. Cyn – My problems are caused by a bad reaction to lipitor, which is similar to some documented problems but plays into a familial strain of narcolepsy/catalepsy. When I started to describe the symptoms I realized that I had just described the undiagnosed ailment my great grandfather had… that was… unsettling. He didn’t get the chronic fatigue that I have nor the loss of coherent though process, but the rest of the symptoms line up. I am, in no way, as mentally or physically capable as I was in 2004.

                My remedy was to get a diagnosis, get a treatment (not a cure as there is no cure for the problem once created), and then see what skills I had left to work with. As a gamer I did some work in Second Life, just getting some spatial awareness and then learning java script, then started blogging once 3D worlds became physically disorienting to me. I started blogging to just get some thoughts down and then to pursue some topic that no one had real good cover on for me. I researched terrorism not only for the groups involved, but what it was an activity as understood by mankind. That took me far longer than I expected because we no longer teach the basics to get to an answer. Once I got the necessary materials by Grotius, de Vattel and others, I saw much of the language used in the US Declaration and Constitution being used prior to their writing and looked more at the basis for them, and the arguments during the ratification period which then, finally, gave me a good grasp of law of nations and why it is descriptive but universal law. From there I examined organized crime on an international scale, concentrating on the Red Mafia as they are intertwined with much of what happens in terrorism and at a Nation State level with international banking.

                I continued my interest in military affairs and history, and now could re-examine them on the basis of a much better understanding of what they represented. From there I moved into working with firearms and then going into woodworking (a familial tradition, just no one to teach me any more), paralleled with emergency preparation and getting things squared away for disasters big and small.

                I wish I had more than 2 hours a day for physical activity. That is up from 0 hours a day, and getting stamina back is now a vital, ongoing concern.

                I made it up as I went along, in other words. Some people get a bit frightened by what I can do… yet I am nothing but a shadow of the person I was.

                1. … we no longer teach the basics to get to an answer. Once I got the necessary materials by Grotius, de Vattel and others, I saw much of the language used in the US Declaration and Constitution being used prior to their writing and looked more at the basis for them, and the arguments during the ratification period which then, finally, gave me a good grasp of law of nations and why it is descriptive but universal law. From there I examined …

                  It is appalling how much more ignorant we are in comparison to our years of education than were earlier generations of Americans.

                  I speak not of our lack of Greek and Latin (although those created a common tongue by which educated people assured communication amongst themselves.) History is an ongoing conversation with our ancestors, arguments debated and ideas discussed; we have not learned the antecedents but instead discarded them as unimportant. We praise Pragmatism without an iota of understanding what the philosophy entails, thus are we unmoored intellectually, buffeted by whims and fashions.

                  Most of us are too ignorant to even understand how ignorant we are — yet we count ourselves wise and sophisticated.

                  1. I had a post on that some time ago… If they don’t teach it, how can you forget it? That is exactly what has been going on for at least two generations if not three. There is much the Framers included in the Constitution that is just a reference within it, and yet there are bodies of work behind the reference… but if you aren’t taught that, how can you forget it?

                    1. Hence the value of destroying old books. And of telling kids these days that there’s nothing in the past worth your knowing.

                      Mind, anybody who knew the history of the railroads and the auto industry would have been able to spot the cycle of the internet boom & bust before it went kerflooey.

                    2. Cyn – My thanks! I do not mistrust educators, as such, just the system that pushes material that should be taught out of classes. Luckily this 13th century form of education will not last much longer.

                      RES – Indeed, yes! That bubble was unsustainable and anyone who took the MCI ‘double network outlay every year’ without knowing where they were coming from got what they deserved. It wasn’t just the overbuilding and hype, but the bubble mentality that took hold with it. Same with housing before it started to collapse inwards… and what the real value of a home is, remains constant: a roof over one’s head, a dry and warm place to be, a safe place to sleep, all of those have no price to them but the cost can be over inflated. Whenever you hear ‘quick flip’ and ‘easy money’ hold on to what you have and wait for the bubble to pop.

  9. Well, my LOTR imitiations always changed the name. It helps.

    As for symbolism, the proper way to put symbolism is to smile when someone comments about the symbolism in a published story. No, I take that back. You can also put in the symbolism if the characters of the story are aware of it, such as when the mother’s earnest attempts to keep her son from turning out like his (dead) father involve keeping him from using his father’s sword. Or if it’s part of the mood — having a rainstorm make all the petals fall from the tree is not only a symbol of her depressing transition, it sets the mood with things going wrong. But usually not.

  10. I have always been overly ambitious for “beginner” things. In programming, one of my first programs was a copy of a game that my teacher wrote, reverse engineered from playing the game. When learning new computer languages, I usually do it with a specific goal in mind, and don’t do much practicing before launching into the project I’m working toward.

    My first attempt at writing was a story that was a cross between a CoDominium story I have read that had ships trapped by a black hole, and Niven’s Neutron Star, though I had never read either one at the time (I didn’t branch out much in SciFi before my last couple of years in High School), and I started it in Junior High on an electric typewriter (and I’m a lousy typist). It started as a contest between myself and another student, the idea being to write a one-page story, and be graded on who wrote the best story by our friends. Two pages in, I realized it wasn’t going to be very short, but I also bogged down and gave up before I got much further. I tried to resurrect it a few years later, but I still couldn’t get past the first few pages.

    1. And that’s part of the reason I largely gave up the notion. I couldn’t see how I would ever get past the blockage after the first few pages. Then I come here and get the bug again. Hmph. 😉

  11. I’m not sure when I really “started” writing. I know I must have before high school, but I don’t remember it. I do remember telling stories to the other kids on the playground in elementary school – but… uhm… and this is probably telling… it was sort of taking the dirty stories (and also ghost stories and urban legends, but less-so those) I heard the big kids telling each other and trying to make my new story out of them. And of course there was trying to get the other kids to play along in some big roleplaying type story, like the time we semi-reenacted Willow. In high school I know that I started writing fanfic… (Oh, I think before high school I started doing it too. I think my GI Joe fanfic was first, though I don’t know if I wrote more than a paragraph. I think there was a contest for a new GI Joe and it required a drawing and some backstory.) Not sure if SWAT Kats or Xena: Warrior Princess fanfic came first. But X-files followed shortly after. May have been around the same time that a friend and I traded our notebooks where we were writing romances. (Well, *I* was writing romances. She was writing gang fiction with romantic subplots. Very West Side Story and I think it may have had sci-fi elements as well.) It just grew from there.

      1. To be fair, I was described as writing (paraphrasing from memory), “The most interesting soap opera in SWAT Kats fanfic.” xD Xena was action/adventure… Xfiles was half romance and half paranormal.

  12. My first attempt at independent writing that I clearly recall is in the 4th grade writing a SF script. It was terribly derivative of Lost in Space and Star Trek, but it was evidently good enough that my English teacher let me mount a production for the class. I wrote a good bit through the rest of elementary school (we didn’t have a middle school, just a junior/senior high), both poetry and (usually SF) short stories. In high school I made an attempt at Trek fanfic but decided I didn’t have a book in me (HA!).

    I also submitted a Sherlock Holmes short story to the HS literary magazine. The entries were blind judged, and the English Lit teacher threw it out as a plagiarism of a real Conan Doyle story. When she found out much later that it was mine, she said she would have known then that it wasn’t a plagiarism, and she apologized profusely. I never have figured out if that was a compliment of my writing skill, or my morals.

    I wrote all through college, but when I started work, I found that the creative muse dried up for a time. I threw myself into other creative endeavors, deciding I needed SOME kind of outlet, and eventually it returned in spades. I tried to start a Men in Black novel franchise but couldn’t break into it. I have a good dozen of those sitting on a shelf someplace. Then I started Burnout. Took awhile, and some help from Travis. And yes, I played around in numerous fanfictions; interestingly enough, I deliberately chose to use them as learning opportunities by posting them in appropriate forums for feedback. I would decide, “In this story I’m going to work on characterization,” or “I think I’ll see if I can write a love scene,” or whatever.

    So it turns out I have millions of words in me and lots and lots of books that I never dreamed I had.

  13. The first time I can remember latching onto writing is when I was nine. We had a blue journal in 4th grade that we were supposed to come up with stories in, and I couldn’t stop. Wrote my first “novel” when I was ten, but it really resembled a Star Wars/Star Trek rip-off. Then, for the next several years, I wrote a lot of fanfic kind of stuff based on whatever I thought was the hot thing of the day(V, Ninjas, etc.).

    Then one day, while sitting in 11th grade English class, I started wondering, “What would happen if we were attacked right now and cut off from the world?” BOOM – stories have been original ever since.

  14. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write, once I learned how to. Like Kate and others, I think it started by telling myself stories when I went to bed so I’d fall asleep. Fortunately, none of the fan-fic from those days of pencil and paper survive. There was one Louis L’Amour that I remember doing at my grandmother’s house one summer after I’d read all six or seven books I could find there and the library was too far away to walk to — my grandmother didn’t drive and this was small town Oklahoma, a big change for a kid in late elementary school/early junior high who lived in the DFW area. There were lots of Dark Shadows fan fic and, later, derivatives from Star Wars, Dune, etc. My mind reels now just thinking about it. All I can say is thank goodness for bonfires. The world has been saved from all of those.

  15. I can tell a story at the drop of a hat. It takes hard work to write a novel.

    I can remember telling stories to my younger brother, and to my cousins from next door, when I was five or six, and from then on. I put a few of them down on paper, but really didn’t like to write. During my time in the military, every WORD I wrote had to be truthful and precise (intelligence reports are NOT the place to be whimsical!). It wasn’t until I couldn’t do all the OTHER things I did for fun and profit that I turned to writing. I should have started here in the first place. Now I’m in the process of completing book #8.

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