Greg: Writing advice, the good and the not so much

When I was but a very wee writer in Angus Young schoolboy pants, I would attend just about any science fiction convention panel for which the topic could be described as anything close to “Some Writer(s) and/or Editor(s) Talk.” Sometimes I would sign up for a writing class offered through a university extended education program, as long as there was some writer or editor who promised to talk. And I would read interviews with writers and editors, and tune into radio programs featuring writers and editors. For gosshake, I’d even haul myself to the library to read each month’s issue of Writer’s Digest, featuring such helpful articles as “Five Story Hooks To Blow an Agent’s Medulla Oblongata Right Through Her Eye Sockets!!!”

Shorter version of the above: I was hungry for wisdom.

I knew better than to expect a magic word, a shortcut, the literary equivalent of a get-rich stock quote. But I quite reasonably hoped to learn from the experience of others. I once watched our family cat Sheila teach our adopted kitten Socks how to walk the narrow ledge of a high fence. Even cats don’t learn everything by instinct. We animals need examples.

So, I think from time to time I’m going to use this space to post a good piece of wisdom I’ve picked up from others, and a bad one. If I can save someone from having to wear Angus Young pants, I will have done my job here.

The Good: Writing is not a race, and if it were, it’d be a marathon.

What It Means: It’s easy to get demoralized by the success of your peers. While you’re still waiting for a personalized rejection letter and they’re worrying about tax sheltering the advance on their third series, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve fallen behind, that everyone else is getting rich and famous and you’re just getting old. There’s no easy way to not feel this way, because there’s no easy way to avoid feeling natural human emotions, unless there’s something wrong with you, in which case please stand way over there, thank you. But, hey, look, writing is a selfish act, so don’t make it about them. Make it about you. Do you still enjoy the act of creating? Do you still get pleasure from writing a precise, beautiful sentence? Conveying a neat idea? Perfectly capturing a mood or an image? If so, focus on that. Your successful peers won’t drink up all the success beer before you get to the finish line. The world will continue brewing success beer.

The Bad: You’re not a writer until another writer says you’re a writer.

What It Means: It means there are some who’ve written and published and want more than the satisfaction of having achieved a goal. They want privilege, and they want someone to lord that privilege over.

Nothing wrong with wanting respect and recognition from other writers. But writers don’t get to decide who’s a writer. Not even agents and editors get to do that. If anyone at all gets to make that determination, it’s the reader. But I would dispute even that, because I was a writer before I ever published a thing. How did I know I was a writer? Because I habitually moved my fingers in such a fashion that writing occurred. I think it’s really that simple.

14 Responses to “Greg: Writing advice, the good and the not so much”

  1. March 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    You are so wise, o wise one.

    Next piece of advice: Never Surrender?

  2. March 30, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I think the bad advice (he said slightly self-consciously, wondering what writer gave you THAT advice) is only bad if the person it’s being said to believes it. If someone who wants to write (or ‘be’ a writer) could be blocked by something this subjective, then they might already have a problem.

    I do disagree with your take on what it means (insofar as it applies to me, and why I’ve said it), because I really would NEVER want a young writer to think that was where I was coming from. Since our initial exchange, I’ve revised my take somewhat, and might word that very differently (if not as succinctly) in the future.

    I never meant it in such a way as to keep anyone from being and/or thinking of themselves as a writer; I meant it in a more laudatory way, to encourage someone who already IS, but who may not have been bolstered by their peers, by someone saying “Yes – you can do this”.

  3. March 31, 2009 at 12:17 am

    “The world will continue brewing success beer.” Hear, hear!

  4. March 31, 2009 at 12:33 am

    James, I initially heard the advice when I was the youngest of punks in the antediluvian world the preceded online social networking, so the only writers I was likely to encounter were of the published sort speaking down from on high. I remember attending a weekend symposium at El Segundo College at which I first heard the notion of “not a writer till a writer says so” expressed. Sheila Finch responded by having the entire audience, some 100 to 200 of us, raise our hands, and she instantly declared us writers on the spot. So, yeah, our recent exchange reminded me of this incident, but, no, I’m not directly responding to your version of it. I appreciate that we were able to have a conversation about it on your journal, and it’s clear to me that you’re not trying to use your position as a published writer to serve as doorman to an exclusive club. Frankly, though, I think that’s exactly what some people *are* trying to do.

    I apologize to you if this seemed like a direct shot at you. I certainly see that it looks that way, for which, again, my apologies.

  5. March 31, 2009 at 1:38 am

    Oh no, man – not a direct shot. I just figured that exchange was the most recent quotation for you to reference.

    Our back and forth helped me realize that WAS how a lot of people took it – so I’m glad you know that’s not how I meant it!

    My example (which I was trying to express imperfectly) had to do with when I started in comics, and despite my bravado, was VERY nervous – until established pros like Larry Marder and Dave Sim and Jim Valentino made it clear I had “a seat at the table”.

    It did help.

    FWIW, I LOVE your good advice example.


  6. March 31, 2009 at 3:29 am

    Man, I just want to hear more about Success Beer. It’s the best recursive loop I’ve ever heard of.

  7. 7 rachelaaron
    March 31, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I agree, that Success Beer quote is going on my google status, it’s rad.

    For the bad advice section, I think the worst advice I ever got was when I was in college and I took a creative writing class. There, my professor told me (quite good naturedly) that the way to get published was to get short stories in journals, and an agent would find those and offer to take me on. I wasted a good 2 years struggling through short stories before I realized that all my ideas for for novels, I didn’t actually like short stories, and hey, maybe there’s more than one way up the mountain.

    I’m still bitter about all the time and blood that went in to those years. I’m sure I learned something, but I’d be hard pressed to say what it was.

  8. 8 tapratt
    April 1, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I will not drink all the success beer, but I will drink all the regular beer, and that, I think, is the real success.

  9. April 1, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Great stuff from brewmaster Greg.

  10. 10 Haddayr
    April 2, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Um. How did I not know you had another blog?

    I am outraged.

  11. 11 Haddayr
    April 2, 2009 at 2:18 am

    Oh. I see. Because this is a group blog. Of which I’ll bet you and Tim have spoken often.

    I am never going to outgrow my penchant from shooting my mouth off before thinking on the Internets, am I?

  12. April 2, 2009 at 3:14 am

    You’re hardly responsible for keeping up with our blatant and crass self-promotional efforts, Haddayr. I’m just happy you’re reading!

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