Thursday, February 18, 2021

How to Pick up a Pen

"I'm not an author, I'm a writer, that's all I am. Authors want their names down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney." ~ Mickey Spillane

It's been awhile, so let us talk about the topic of writing. Just before Lent it appeared to be showing up all over social media in earnest, so it is clear there are many questions aspiring authors have. I'll do my best to answer them in this post from the position of someone who will have been published by publishers and publishing my own works for near 5 years, at this point. It hasn't felt much like it's been that long, so it's still a bit wild to think about. Being a professional writer is not a job I ever thought I would have in my lifetime.

And yet here I am, writing this very post.

Nonetheless, this post will be about learning how to become a writer. If someone like me can do it, then so can you. I was the least creative of my friend groups growing up, and the one who read the least, yet I am the one who is now the very opposite of all of them, due to making it my goal to learn story craft. Anyone can do it, so don't ever convince yourself that you aren't built for it. Talent merely gives you a head start: it will not keep you running the whole race. Only hard work matters, in the end. As long as you keep learning you can do just about anything.

The important part is learning the right way to handle things, which is definitely the trickiest part of being a writer. The main issue is that most of the advice comes from OldPub figures thinking with a 20th century mindset. It's all simply outdated.

One of the most common complaints I received from The Pulp Mindset, apart from being too mean to the above OldPub, is that several of the readers wished I went more in-depth on my writing tips, of which I was intentionally light on. Of course, they knew why I couldn't elaborate further--that simply wasn't the point of the book, but it was a valid request nonetheless.

However, I also believe there are far too many books on writing out there in the market. Most will not help new writers because just about all of them contain contradictory advice, and many do not remember what it was like starting out and being adrift without a paddle to row them to shore. I myself went through many writing books when learning how to write and I can't say any of them really influenced me much. Every writer simply absorbs information differently, which means explaining their specific process isn't really going to aid confused newbies. What is more important is learning how to put a pen to paper, so to speak, and how to keep in there for the entire duration of your very first project. You need to learn the Why of writing before you begin, not the How.

A lot of the problems that come with wanting to write, or wanting to be an author, are the expectations put on the job from decades of romantic nonsense foisted on you and the larger public from writer's workshops, librarians, schools, and OldPub as a whole. The first thing you need to do to be a writer (not an author--big difference, which we will get to later) is to have your predisposed ego smashed into tiny pieces. You need to come at it from a practical standpoint before you start. Embed this in your brain: Nothing you are about to undertake is special or magical: it is merely a job like any other that you must learn in order to do.

Writing requires learning tricks, gaining experience, absorbing from your surroundings, and applying them all to the act of putting words down in the correct order. The requirement--the ONLY requirement--to being a writer is that you constantly write. The more you write, the more you will improve. This also includes training your mental process of coming up with ideas to be more and more creative. Yes, even creativity is a process. The more you engage in something, the more you will naturally acclimate to it. The best way to learn how to write is just to do it. Treat it as something you must do, not something you feel like doing because you are some sort of tortured artiste. Writing is a job, not a social standing for special people.

But I also realize that just saying that doesn't mean a whole lot if the whole idea of doing it seems daunting from the get-go. I'm sure professional swimmers will tell you all about how easy it is to jump from the high diving board after they've done it thousands of times. That doesn't change that they had to work up to it after countless hours of practice. We should therefore start at the beginning.

Do you have your notepad ready? Then let us go through the steps.

I apologize if this is you.

We will begin with the most important question: Why do you want to be a writer? 

Beyond just liking stories, since most everyone likes stories, what is it about writing that makes you want to do this sort of thing? What is your drive? What makes you want to pick up the pen or, in this day and age, type on the keyboard? This is the very first thing you should ask yourself before beginning, just as you would any other job.

There isn't really a right or wrong answer here, but answering this as honestly as you can will tell you if writing is for you or not. No one randomly decides one day to be a nuclear physicist, for instance, they have motivations and aspirations linked to pursuing said occupation. Becoming a writer is no different. Why do you wish to do this on a professional level?

This is how we weed out the hopefuls from the romantics. It isn't that I do not wish those with romantic aspirations to stay away from the field, but that I wish them to approach it from an angle that will not harm them in the long run. You should be a writer because you want to write. Many romantics do the exact opposite, harming their own potential and wasting their precious time when they could be learning a more practical skill, like knitting or banjo playing. You shouldn't learn a skill in order to not do it, and yet that's what many romantic authors not only do, but advertise loudly that they do it. This is the only occupation that does this, because it is the only one that has ridiculous romantic notions foisted upon it by the dying OldPub system.

Here's the issue with this thought process: Writing is not water torture. You either do it, or you don't. If you don't then you're not a writer. If you're not a writer then stop calling yourself one and find a better use of your time. This is not a special occupation reserved for high class brains so that they can lecture and look down on the low class plebeians. OldPub sold this image to you long ago. It isn't what being a writer is about, at all.

This advice goes for hobbyists, too.

If you are under the illusion that you are specially tasked with writing one story that only you can tell and then think you can just hang up your hat, you're probably not in the right mental space for this. That isn't quite what writing entails. You are better off hiring a ghost writer to just do the entire thing for you--it would take far less time and it will definitely turn out way better. Learning to write in order to write a single story is completely pointless, and misunderstands the occupation.

No one learns to paint in order to paint one picture. No one learns to play football in order to play one game. No one learns to fish in order to cast one lure. No one learns to do anything in order to do it one time. All the people in those occupations and hobbies learn the ropes before they begin, regardless of how much they do it afterwards. That is just giving the task the respect it deserves.

Even if you only want to be a hobbyist, you must learn how to write correctly first. Writing is no different than any other occupation or hobby, and you best get it out of your head should you think it dissimilar. This romantic notion of writing is what has turned the professional writing world into the equivalent of a modern art museum: an industry of people who have no idea what they're doing, who see the customer as an irritation, and then believe they should garner prestige titles and fame that will allow them to coast through life. They treat writing as a priestly occupation in a secular society. It's a bit disturbing, honestly, but that is how it looks to normal people.

However, this isn't how being a writer works, and we don't need more artistes in the world. We need more professionals, even if they only do it for fun and not as a career.

No other occupation does this romantic nonsense.

This is why it is important to know why you wish to be a writer, why you want to pick up that pen.

Do you want to be an author because you think it will give you fame (it won't) or "respect" from a higher class of people? Sorry, this industry is overcapacity on ego and childish adults as it is. You do not have that one brilliant story that will change the world or will breakout and allow you to retire early. The industry that manufactured these sorts of events doesn't exist anymore and no longer has the power or influence to trick boomer women who watch Oprah into understanding just how lifechanging your uncreative litfic nonsense actually is. OldPub is dying, and taking this sort of romantic idiocy out with it. Eventually only the mavericks of NewPub will be left.

The other reason you need to ask yourself why you want to become a writer is because you should know what it is you're coming into this to do. I write fiction and nonfiction which include, essays, short stories, novellas, novelettes, standalone novels, and novel series, all of which require different ways of planning and thinking about the subject. There are even more forms that I don't yet do. Are you just planning on taking on only one of the above forms of fiction and running with it at the exclusion of everything else? Then I would have to tell you that it won't be enough to really break out of anything less than a small niche.

In NewPub, being an author isn't enough: you need to be a writer. And yes, there is a difference between the two.

Writers specialize in anything that involves putting words in the right order to get a message across; Authors specialize in cocktail parties and bragging about how their pretty word order got them a good review in some literary rag that no one reads. One of these paths exist to reach people, the audience; the other exists to elevate yourself above them.

The difference is that there used to be an industry that could support the latter approach. However, it doesn't exist anymore. You cannot be an author and survive in the modern age because there is no more system in place to elevate egos and brownnosers as a higher class. Putting out a single book and hanging up your coat for a long retirement is impossible in the 21st century. To survive, you must either be a writer, or find another field. Those are your only real choices.

NewPub has no room for OldPub ways. That world is gone. Either adapt to reality, or die.

The current state of OldPub.

The fact of the matter is that too many aspiring writers still have an outdated view of what it means to be a writer. There is no reality of a writer that anywhere near matches the silly portrayals on TV and in the movies, or even in some books. Those were all written as wish fulfillment to alleviate the writers' fragile egos. Writing is simply a job, no different from plumbing or working at a call center. There is nothing mystical about it, and that's not a bad thing.

Get that into your head and harbor no illusions. Writing is an occupation, not a priest class for special elites.

"I'm a commercial writer, not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book." ~ Mickey Spillane

Are you still reading after all that? Perhaps you may be in the right mind to be a writer after all. Now we can discuss creativity.

The reason you want to write is going to control what kind of writer you will develop into being. Your genre preferences, what it is about stories that strike you, your beliefs, your imagination, and your ambitions, will all help form what path you will take forward.

That said, if you are tackling fiction, you have many avenues to go down in order to begin writing. The one thing you need to learn fast, however, is that whatever you write will be terrible when you first start writing. It is unavoidable. In order to alleviate this problem, you need to write somewhere in the ballpark of a million words of bad fiction in order to get to the place where you can start creating good works. However you get to that million words is up to you, but there is something you should understand before you begin whatever first project you start with. That being, your first story will be awful. It doesn't mean it will be completely without merit, but it will not be good on a technical level in ways you won't yet be able to yet understand. 

Many think you should start your writing on some sort of dream project and get your million words out endlessly re-writing it until you hit your word threshold. I tend to think this is a horrible idea that might chase potential writers away since this a lot of work revising the same project so many times that you might feel too creatively stifled and believe professional writing is in any way like this when you get good. The truth is that the better you get at writing the less time it will take to complete projects, so this sort of approach of learning to write doesn't feel correct to me. It actually teaches you the wrong expectations.

I'd say to start yourself off with short stories. Writers used to start writing with short stories back even before the pulps existed, and they are a good way to learn how to craft a full narrative. Writing a story to completion, even if awful, is a good learning experience and a great motivator for continuing with new projects. Reaching the end after only a couple thousand words is less time consuming than still not seeing it after 150k+ of endless noodling and false starts. You will still have to write many more words before your prose gets there, but at least you will understand the nuts and bolts of the process a lot faster. Either way, it is going to take time.

Get the junk out of the way first.

While you're doing all this you should also keep up a schedule of writing everyday. It might feel daunting at first, but it really isn't so tough. At least writing down 500 words each day will get you far, especially if you're starting with short stories, but it will also teach your creative muscles how to turn the faucet on and off when needed. The more you do it, the more it will make sense to you, and the more you can write when you get better at accomplishing your tasks.

You can also add a bonus of transcribing two paragraphs from one of your favorite books by hand on paper. Point out the nouns, verbs, etc., and have their placement burned into your brain.  Do this everyday and you'll be surprised as to how much you'll improve in a short amount of time. All of these tips will help you get there in a much smoother fashion.

What will also aid you is reading in your genre of choice. This might actually be difficult if you're like I was and left simply unware that there was a whole buried era of storytelling that had what you were looking for, but you should be able to find something close to what you want to write. Originality is overrated. Read those books closest to yours in intent, take note of what they're doing and how they're doing it, and apply it to what you do. As long as you read you will have a concrete example to remind yourself of what you're aiming for. You don't stop reading when you become a writer.

You also don't stop getting ideas.

One thing writers get asked a lot is about where their ideas come from. The answer usually comes in the form of a joke. "Idaho. My ideas come from Idaho. They take the train." It sounds flippant, but it's a strange question. Other than uttering a joke, the recipient of the question might just roll their eyes or angrily reply in frustration. The reason they do this is because the question misunderstands how stories are written.

Ideas are a natural part of creating something, but they are no special than anything else in the process. I could be watching a movie and wonder what if the story went a certain way. I could be sitting in a doctor's waiting room and a random sentence from a patient will stick in my head. I could be reading a book and be unsatisfied with a plot turn or character motivation. I could be walking down the street and step on a plastic bottle. I could notice it is sunny outside. I could just be sitting down and already writing another story. Ideas aren't special, they're just thoughts that turn into motivation. As long as you're thinking you will always get ideas. There is nothing unique about them. It is how you apply those ideas that matters most.

Where indeed?

While it is true that writing isn't some mystical experience that puts a writer above anyone else, it does take a writer to know how to use the ideas they get in order to communicate them to the reader. Art is about links, whether from person to person, God to man, or artist to patron, it is meant to extend ongoing communication between parties and even across generations. That doesn't mean anything you personally make will last that long, because there is really no way to know until you're dead, but that what you create is part of a tradition that was formed to do just that.

This is what makes the tortured artist lie such a damaging one for the process of creation, because it is the complete opposite of how art is meant to work. The fact of the matter is that most "High Art" you were forced to consume as a child was nothing of the sort, but pushed by the industry because it had the sort of message and or angle they thought kids should take in. They are just propaganda pamphlets disguised with camouflaged character names and a plot aimed at getting a desired political result. These aren't ideas, and they aren't meant to communicate. They're meant to stifle creativity and thought with acceptable slogans and proper formulas. Why else would schools push them on children, after all.

And this is also the purpose of modern writer's workshops, and why no aspiring writer should ever attend one. They do not exist to make you a writer, they exist to sell you an idea of being an author. They sell the image of tortured artist and "advanced" writing formulas that the narrow range of middle-aged urbanite OldPub editors enjoy--they do not sell you any sort of guide on how to be a writer or how to connect with the most amount of people with your writing or even how to make a living doing it. That they make more money hustling aspiring writers than they do selling their actual writing should be the hint that it isn't about the audience. They perpetuate the lie of the auteur author, living in an urban apartment and moping around life, misunderstood, as the uncaring world crushes their sensitive genius. Too bad this fictional artist type never actually existed or else it might be sad.

You don't really need a book on writing to learn to write, nor do you need to attend a class to become a writer. You just have to sit down and want to do it. This is a job, not a divine right. It's not going to come fast, but writing is a skill like any other, one you have to cultivate. Once you have it down you can do whatever you want with it and create whatever you desire. There is no real limit on creativity, but there is an actual limit on what will connect with your audience, and it is not their job to bow to your whims. That's not how conversation works.

Find the balance between creativity and your audience's needs, and you've got it made.

This is what OldPub wants you to be.

At the end of the day, however, if you want to be a writer today, you're going to have to operate in the pulp mindset. While I wrote an entire book about what that entails, the simple answer is to basically do the opposite of what the mainstream publishing industry has been doing since about the 1950s or so. You want to grow, while OldPub has done nothing but shrink for well over half a century now. You have to be willing to adapt to the NewPub world springing up around you and accept the old industry will not be around for much longer. The future is already here.

You have to be constantly writing, constantly producing, and constantly coming up with new ideas. You aren't going to be able to write one book every decade and wait for the money to roll in. That's the old world, and it no longer exists. That gravy train has been derailed. OldPub is dead, but you don't have to die with it. Become a writer if it's what you truly desire, but just know that most everything you learned about being one is completely wrong and will hurt you in the long run.

There isn't much else to say about being a writer, certainly not enough to fill an entire book, which is why I'm summing it up in one post.  I have no idea how writers manage to write those How to Write books, because there simply isn't really anything to say that you won't learn by just sitting down and doing it. Writing is about organizing your thoughts and assembling them in the best order for maximum flow. That's about it. There isn't anything else you can teach because the rest depends on your own creativity and ingenuity. It's up to you, at this point.

I hope this post didn't sound too discouraging for new writers, because one thing I want more than anything is more creatives out in the field. We are currently at a cultural low of tired rehashes, endless subversion, and nihilistic storytelling, and drowning in it. We need more artists to counteract this plague. But we also don't need more artistes who will help contribute to these problems and chase more potential audience away. The sinking ship of OldPub is full enough with such egos. We require more writers putting creativity first, and using their art as a way to connect with audiences instead of pandering to them or insulting them. We need a revolution in writing.

NewPub is here, and we need more ships in the fleet. It might take some time until you can catch up, but the journey will be well worth it. All you have to do is keep rowing.

For more on NewPub, check out the #1 bestseller, The Pulp Mindset!