“Ten Things I’ve Learned” by Stephen Leigh (Part One)
I’ve been lucky. Over the last five decades (and let me tell you, pointing that out that makes me feel so old
…), I’ve managed to sell and publish twenty-six novels and somewhere around fifty pieces of short fiction, along with the occasional non-fiction piece and the even more occasional bit of poetry. That’s a total (counting only the first publications and not the various reprints, other editions, and foreign publications) of almost 4,000,000 words of published fiction.
Now, before you accuse me of shameless bragging, I want to emphasize that I’m not
saying how incredibly talented I am and how I’ll probably be considered by future generations as the second coming of Shakespeare. I suspect future generations will consider me the second coming of Howard Sturgis (“Who?” you ask. To which I reply “Right.”)
In truth, what those publications of mine show is that if nothing else, I’m persistent, dogged, and stubborn. They show that I am an ugly mule, not some beautiful thoroughbred racehorse. They show, perhaps, that I am what nearly anyone could be: if they desire it enough, and they live long enough. I’ve made my career mostly in the midlist, not the top tier.
Along the way, I’ve also realized that there are some truths about being a writer: things that in my mulish, stubborn way, it probably took me longer than it should to realize; things, in some cases, I wish I’d learned a lot earlier in my career. Here are ten of those realizations, with the hope that maybe a few of them will resonate with some of you who read this, those of who are starting to tread the same path.
You poor, poor fools...1: Expect progress to be slow, not fast
I’ve seen this one not just in writing, but in music, in aikido (another avocation of mine), in painting, in any
form of art. We Westerners seem to expect that everything can be learned in ten easy lessons. We also seem to think of every pursuit as a race, with a finish line at the end.
None of those expectations are true. Oh, yeah, there’s those few, those brilliant and irritating few, who race into the bestseller lists and win the big awards and reach fame and fortune with what appears to be their very first efforts. These people are the exceptions
. Don’t expect yourself to be an exception, because the great likelihood is that you’re not.
Here’s the first part of the equation: Nothing worth learning can be learned quickly. There’s a reason nearly every artist laughs when someone calls them an “overnight success,” because “overnight” consisted of months and years of learning the necessary basic skills; of looking at other artists and trying to figure out how they managed to make their work so incredible; of trying to imitate some of that and failing, and failing again and again and again, but each time getting just a little bit better; of trying to find your own voice in all the chaos and managing (eventually) to coax it from its chrysalis stage; of honing that voice and making it your own…
Overnight success takes years
for most of us. Decades, sometimes. For some of us, too, it never really arrives.
And here’s the second part: There’s never, ever, any finish line for any art or avocation. “Mastering the art” is a chimera—once you think you know everything there is to know, you’ve committed artistic suicide.
I can pretty much guarantee that you’re going to write stuff you think is terrific. I did. I wrote short stories all through high school and college and I thought they were incredible, easily as sophisticated and polished as the crap my teachers were throwing at us from the literary canon. In college, I even started sending out those nascent efforts, yet somehow the editors to which I sent my works of unadulterated genius were somehow blind to their literary quality and did nothing but send me lots of rejection slips.
Reams and reams and reams
of rejection slips.
I kept all of those old stories that no one wanted. They’re in a file cabinet in my office, and I can read them now and understand why they never sold.
They really, really sucked
I just couldn’t see that then—because it takes time to get to the point where you have the necessary expertise and knowledge of the craft to see your early work for what it is: early work. Practice work. Bad sketches of what could be, rife with errors that you didn’t and couldn’t see because you didn’t have the experience yet.
There’s a reason why there’s an old cliché about having to first write a million words of crap. So get started on that as soon as you can. Maybe you’ll get lucky and only have to write half a million.2: Expect criticism. No, rejoice in criticism…
As a writer, the word you’re going to hear more than any other is “No.” No, I’m not interested in your story/article/poem/novel. No, this is simply not good enough. No, this plot twist doesn’t make any sense. No, I can’t believe the character would do that. No, the setting doesn’t feel real. No, and no, and no again.
Look, I’ve been doing aikido for over twenty-five years now, and every time I go to class, my teachers manage to point out something I need to work on. And I want them to do exactly that, in the same way that I want my editors to be honest with me and tell me when something isn’t working because otherwise that mistake doesn’t get fixed
because for whatever reason, I’m just not seeing it.
The worst thing you can believe as a writer is that your prose is pure gold and should not be touched. The worst thing you can believe as a writer is that you are a freaking genius just waiting to be discovered. The worst thing you can believe as a writer is that you don’t need an editor.
You need an editor. At the very least you need competent first readers who will tell you what’s working and what’s not working, because you’re too close to your work to be unbiased
. You know the story that’s in your head and your imagination, and so sometimes you’ll think everything’s there on the page when it’s not. That’s an easy mistake to make--read some student work, or some slush pile material, or the majority of self-published work if you want to see that in action.
Most of us need a critical, honest, impartial response to our drafts in order to make those final drafts work well. Remember point #1: another thing it takes a long time to acquire is the ability to read your own work as if you’re reading someone else’s work, and to see what’s wrong with the draft on which you’re currently working.
Honestly, some of us never quite get there…
An honest critique is a glorious gift. It really is. It’s just sometimes hard to realize that.3: Don’t be jealous of the success of others
Early in aikido, I was told “Never compare yourself to the other people who started about the same time you did. Only compare yourself to yourself.”
Easy to say, hard to do. That works for writing, too.
A few people who started selling their stories at about the same time that I started selling my own work have gone on to fame and fortune, to awards and best seller lists. A lot of people who started selling stuff about the same time I did seem to have utterly vanished.
If I look up toward the Fame and Fortune crew, I could feel neglected and belittled. On the other hand, if I look down at the Vanished group, maybe I can assuage my ego some. But I shouldn’t be looking either up or down and performing comparisons. I should be looking at myself in a mirror. Period.
Here’s the question you should always be asking: is what I’m writing today the best stuff I can possibly write at this point in my career? If the answer is “yes,” then you don’t need to go any further. You’re doing what you should be doing, and looking either up or down at other people doesn’t matter.
If the answer’s “no,” then you need to address that issue and figure out what you need to do to make your writing the absolute best you can make it right now. Period. You won’t get the answer by glancing either up or down at the others in your “class.” The answer’s inside.
Believe me, here's the proper way to think about Mr./Ms. BigName Author’s resounding success: they can’t possibly
write fast enough to please their fans. It takes someone, what, a day or three to read a book? Well, if it takes Mr./Ms. BigName Author a year or three to write their next novel, well, those thousands of readers of theirs are going to looking for another good book to read in the meantime. Maybe they’ll pick up yours!
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll acquire a few new fans yourself.
So don’t be jealous of your peers’ successes. Rejoice with them. They’re creating more readers for all of us, and that’s a good thing.4: Make writing a dirty habit
In my early career, I waited for the muse to strike before I wrote. I thought stories were supposed to flow in sparkling fire from my pen to the page, fully formed and perfect. It was how I'd always been told (by people who weren’t artists themselves) that Capital-A Art worked.
And it’s complete and utter bullshit.
Oh, it took me a long time to figure that out. When I waited for the muse to appear, I’d end up writing one or two stories a year—and they weren’t very good stories, either, because when stories are supposed to flow pure and perfect from your pen to the page, then revising them afterward is a form of blasphemy. So I mostly didn’t
revise past what little revision I did during the first draft. I accepted what the muse gave me.
My muse must have found that hysterical.
What I finally (and slowly) began to realize was that if I ever hoped to forge some kind of career as a writer, I couldn’t wait for the fickle muse to appear. I had to write without
her… because once you start writing, the muse can’t stand to be left out and she eventually shows up at your side.The very act of writing brings the muse to you.
Not only that, the more you do it, the more she expects it of you, and the more she shows up to help.
Early in my career as I was lamenting my lack of time to devote to writing, a much-better known writer said this to me: “If you write one single, lousy, double-spaced page a day—just 250-300 words—by the end of the year, you’ll have finished a novel.” Actually, that would be two years or more for some of the door-stopper fantasies I’ve written, but his point was well-taken, and I’ve tried to follow that advice. I endeavor to write every single day, even if it’s only a lousy page… and it is indeed amazing how you can acquire a very nice pile of paper over time, if you follow that advice. My personal goal is to get 1,000 words a day of draft written. I don’t always make that, because there are those days when it’s a struggle to get down even a paragraph, but there are also those (unfortunately too rare) days when the muse takes over and I spew out 2,500 words or more.
I’ve made writing a daily habit. I can’t imagine not writing. For most of my life I’ve also had a full-time job to bring in steady money. I’ve had to deal with family and kids and getting them to and from school and to activities, and all the time and energy that takes. I realized that if I was going to also be writer, then I needed to learn to write in whatever scraps of time I could steal. I’ve learned that if I have a few minutes, I can sit down at the laptop and move the story along for another paragraph or two. If I have an hour, I can get that page done. If I have more time, I can do more. I’ve written on lunch breaks, at slow times, early in the morning and late at night.
I don’t wait for inspiration. I sit down, I do my work, and I trust that the muse will feel the pull and eventually arrive to help. And if she doesn’t, well, that’s what revision is for.
You can do it too. Give up one of your TV shows, or stop playing that MMORPG that’s been eating up your free time. Get up an hour earlier; stay up an hour later. Make the time to write.
Then sit your ass down in front of the keyboard and get going.5: Pay forward!
Somewhere along the way, someone who is further on the path to the summit of the Great Writing Mountain will give you some advice, some help, some tip, or even a huge helping hand in moving you up that same path. It’ll happen, because as you progress in your own career, you’ll get to know the other writers and editors and publishers out there. You’ll meet them online, or in person at conventions, or at conferences or workshops.
They’ll hand you the gift of their own wisdom and their own experience, and you’ll be incredibly grateful, and you’ll want to someday pay them back.
The truth is that you probably won’t get that chance, because they’ll stay further along on that path to the mythical summit, or you won’t see them for years, or you’ll lose touch with them entirely, or… well, there are lots of reasons.
You can’t easily pay back. But you can pay forward.
No matter where you are on the path, there are people behind you: with less experience, less knowledge, less skill. What you can do—what you should
do—is reach back and help guide them along, just as others once helped you along. Point out the pitfalls that you’ve already discovered, so that maybe they’ll miss falling in themselves. Show them something cool that you’ve realized, so they can use that trick also and don’t have to discover it a year or two from ahead. Be a mentor.
That’s paying forward: giving the gift that you once received to someone else.
Think of it as adding to your load of good karma. The more you pay forward, the more good karma you acquire. The more good karma you acquire, the more likely it is that you’ll find your own path easier to tread.
Sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward.
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do here, too.
Part Two follows tomorrow...
Current Music: Awakening - Mahavishnu Orchestra