Six impossible things

Six things I wish I’d known

Last Friday, Minnesota Public Radio reran a series of round-table shows in which they asked groups of people from various professions – teacher, musician, entrepreneur, doctor – what six things they wish they had known when they were starting out in their profession. Most of the answers ended up being things that would have enabled people to avoid mistakes; a few were things that would have allowed them to start doing some useful or valuable thing sooner.

Naturally, this got me thinking. On the whole, I am pretty happy with the way my writing career has turned out, but there are certainly things that I could have done differently that would have made my life easier along the way. So here are my “six things I wish I had known.”

1. You don’t have to start with any one length, style, type, structure, or viewpoint. The most obviously pernicious, for me, was the length one – I was told, early on, that I should write short stories to learn the writing craft, then move on to novels when I’d published enough to show that I had in fact learned. I spent years writing unpublishable short stories that, when I look at them now, are excerpts from, or outlines for, novels. I eventually gave up and wrote a novel anyway, which sold, and I’ve resented all that wasted time ever since.

It has only recently occurred to me that I’d also heard the “Don’t write in the first person” advice. It wasn’t promoted nearly so strongly then, and my natural bent was toward third person, but I think I’d have written my first first-person story considerably sooner if I hadn’t had that stricture in the back of my head…and since I learned a great deal about viewpoint and characterization from writing that book, I’d have gotten better as a writer considerably sooner if I hadn’t put off that particular story.

2. I wish I’d listened more carefully to more experienced writers. One of the joys of writing SF/F is the community of writers, many of whom are happy to talk shop with beginners and even wannabes. Like most newbies, I was eager to talk to them…but I can remember more than one instance in which I asked a question and the response was not what I thought I wanted to know, so I ignored it. Years later, I came to the realization that I had not been told what I wanted to know – I’d been told what I needed to know. Or I hadn’t been given a specific, pointed answer that would only apply to the situation I was currently wrestling with; I’d been handed a general principle that, with a bit of work, would have helped me get on in a variety of situations. Better late than never, I suppose.

3. I wish I’d had more confidence in my own intuition and my own choices. On the face of it, this seems to contradict the one above, but for me, at least, they apply to different levels of the writing process and career management. I’m not talking about confidence in my skills or in my decisions about characters or plot; I’m talking about career choices on the order of “Should I sell a story to Acquaintance A, who is starting up a new magazine, or should I submit it to Asimov’s or F&SF instead?” or “Should I accept the offer to co-edit a high-profile anthology, or should I pass on it and just write?” or “Should I risk antagonizing my current publisher by skipping over to a new one?” I spent weeks agonizing over various career decisions, usually when my gut was telling me one thing and most of my friends, colleagues, and business acquaintances were telling me something else. Going with my gut feel never led me wrong, but it would have been easier to do if I’d believed in it and not mentioned the decision to anyone else until it was made.

4. At some point, you will be more successful than someone you think is a better writer than you are, and less successful than someone you think is a worse writer. Guilt and jealousy are equally poisonous, if you don’t recognize them and wrestle them into submission. They can poison your friendships and your life; they can poison your writing. And it doesn’t much matter what’s going on with the other writer; it’s entirely possible that the “better writer” is jealous of your characterization, rather than your success, or even perfectly satisfied with their own success because they define “success” differently from the way you define it. It’s equally possible that the “worse writer” feels guilty, or jealous of some aspect of your writing or career or life.

Writing careers are like the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland – everyone starts running when they like, in whatever direction, and stops when they feel like it, and defining who won is as impossible as determining when the race is over…but people keep trying. It will make you crazy if you let it. So don’t.

5. Not everyone is on your side. There will always be people who are not happy to see you succeed, or who will only be pleased if you succeed by their definition and by following the path they think is the right one. This can be blatantly obvious, as with the people who congratulate you on your first sale and then stop talking to you, or it can be more subtle, as with the ones who can’t say enough nice things about your unpublished work, but who suddenly find all sorts of problems with the stuff that’s in print and are happy to inform you of each and every error, now that it’s too late to correct them. I’m always particularly bemused by the ones who inform me, quite seriously, that they have a problem with one of my books because “magic doesn’t work that way.” Um, it’s fiction; I made it up; how can it not work the way I decided to have it work?

6. I wish I’d known to buy Microsoft stock when it went public. If I had, I could probably have bought my own publishing company by now, or retired to Tahiti. And honestly? This should really be Number One. Because “Buy Microsoft” is probably the most all-around useful tip I could have given the thirty-years-younger me, though “Buy Apple” and “Buy Amazon” are right up there. Which actually tells you a good deal about writing as a career, if you stop to think about it.

  1. I wish I’d known not to trust advice from good writers – I lost a lot of years until I realized that one glib and facile writer actually had advice that was the worst possible advice – for me.

    After I grew up a bit in writing, I realized I didn’t like his books, either – and for the same reason his advice was wrong for me. He sells very well, and I’d love to have him as a friend – he’s a fascinating man – but we are NOT copacetic in the writing, plotting, characterization aspects of writing. I had his books, and few others, when I started – he should have prefaced them (as all writers of advice should) with: ‘try this advice – which works for me – and be aware it may or may not work for you.’

    If I can tell someone newer than I am one thing, that’s what I tell them: there are many many ways to write – try different advice until you find what works for you. Don’t try to make all the advice somehow work together because you admire the different writers you got the advice from. Yes, you will have to learn to plot – some time – if for nothing else than to clean up plot holes. But some fly by the seat of their pants, and others of us need good strong scaffolding solidly in place before we write.

    Your other advice is great – except for Microsoft. I finally sold mine after it did poorly for over ten years. I got tired of it. Your mileage WILL vary. Even if I’m wrong, I’m still glad I got rid of it.

    I make other decisions the same way – not all of them good.

    • ‘try this advice – which works for me – and be aware it may or may not work for you.’

      The world would be a much better place if everyone doling out writing advice employed such a disclaimer.

      • Better yet, anyone offered advice should know to take it carefully. I have found that unsolicited advice, in particular, is often very bad indeed.

  2. LOVE this. All of them are so true. For me, the one on jealousy rings especially true, since I’m at the stage where a lot of my friends are currently getting agents or getting their first deals. It’s hard not to compare myself! But I’m always happier when I just focus on doing what I need to do, so hopefully one day I’ll be there too.

  3. Since my first two novels were in first person, I’d be hypocritical to repeat the advice “Don’t write in the first person.” But I do tell people “Don’t write in first-person because it’s ‘easier’ or because it’s a ‘good viewpoint for beginning writers to use.’ Because it isn’t. It’s a trap that looks easier, but isn’t.”

  4. This makes me wonder what lessons I’ll someday wish I’d learned earlier. So far I’ve only got one: Waiting for inspiration to finish something leads to nothing getting finished. It took me a long time to be in a place where I could get my head around that one. Inspired or not, you gotta sit down and write it.

    Well, and maybe a second: Don’t reject other methods out of hand just because people keep telling you you “have to” write that way. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to your guns and the process that works for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mine incompatible advice for whatever little nuggets might come in handy some day — and maybe enjoy subverting the pushy “have to” mandates along the way. 😉 Which is some fun-house-mirror reflection of numbers 2 and 3, I suppose.

    Ah, number 5. I think (in hindsight, of course) that that may have been one of the several things wrong with the Horrible Ex-Writers Group ™. It would explain an awful lot, anyway. For definitions of “succeed” that don’t include publishing, but do include finishing large projects or pushing one’s limits or whatever milestones come along in the intermediate phase. Which gives me another one, and I do wish I’d learned it earlier: If a writing relationship isn’t working, and you’ve given it a fair shake with no improvement, walk away. Sticking it out and trying to force it into the mold you want isn’t going to benefit anyone.

  5. “You don’t have to start with any one length, style, type, structure, or viewpoint.”

    Thank GODS for this one. I got cursed with a ‘creative writing’ class in college that was more about the teacher promoting his own works than about teaching us the craft & how to write sale-able fiction (and he shall remain nameless, but he’s a known SF writer who had one good novel win awards, then proceeded to fade into relative obscurity, with nothing else published after that). He HATED anyone else writing SF or Fantasy — he did everything in his power to discourage me and a classmate from writing it. I would’ve given up completely, if not for another prof…who taught screenwriting for film & TV…who did everything in his power to ENCOURAGE me in my fantasy writing!

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