Jan 27

Next update February 9, 2014

Part 3 of “How I became a writer”.

A couple days late with this update, but by now I’m hoping folks realize they’re better off waiting for my Twitter update to know when the next installment is coming. (You can read parts ONE and TWO here if you missed them.)

To be honest, missing deadlines is pretty common in the industry. It’s less of a problem in magazines and websites, but in books and games it’s pretty rare for a writer to come in on time. (Not sure how it is for TV and movies.) Deadlines are more of a guideline than a rule, but don’t try to exploit this – it can bite you in the ass, especially as a freelancer.

A better idea is to use this industry failing to your advantage. If you are good about hitting your deadlines, editors and publishers appreciate and remember it. It’s another way to make you stand out from the crowd, and the less headaches you give to people you work with, the more likely they are to want to work with you again. It’s called professionalism, and even though some writers act like that’s a dirty word, I think we’d be better off if more authors tried to be professional.

Okay, time to get off my soapbox and back to the topic at hand. This week – writing to be a writer. Let’s start with the basics: if you want to be a writer you need to write. The more you write, the easier it becomes. If you do it properly (which I’ll explain in a bit), you will become better. 

I once estimated I had written over a million words before I sold my first novel. This included both fiction and non-fiction, ranging from school projects to reporting to government safety manuals. Right now some of you are nodding and probably thinking of the famous 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Well, brace yourself because I’m about to go on another off-topic rant.

Malcolm Gladwell is an excellent writer, and one of his strengths is the ability to take complex, multi-faceted concepts and distill them down to something simple and memorable. But I think he oversimplified things with his version of the 10,000 hour rule, and I believe he has severely underestimated innate ability or natural talent.

Don’t get me wrong: practice is important. But, as pointed out in this article and even admitted by Gladwell himself, the 10,000 hours is actually an average – some people needed more, some needed less, and there are exceptions to the rule. Also, the studies don’t look at failures who gave up on something after several thousand hours because they still sucked. If they were to go to 10,000 hours they still might have sucked, because they lacked the natural aptitude for whatever skill they were trying to master. 

Do I believe anyone can become a successful published writer if they just work hard enough? No, I don’t. I think you need some kind of basic talent. But don’t give up hope just yet, because I also believe that most people who WANT to become writers probably have that desire because they enjoy reading and language. They are very likely to have the natural aptitude already, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be interested in becoming a writer. So if you’re reading this blog because you want to be a writer, then odds are it’s within the realm of possibility.

But it’s not going to be easy. As I said before, it took me around one million words to sell my first novel. And this isn’t just sitting at a computer and hammering on a keyboard day after day. You need to be doing the proper kind of writing if you want to get better.

Last time I expounded on the virtues of being a varied reader: fiction, non-fiction, long form, short form, good and bad. I think it’s similar in writing. Obviously growing up we all will write our share of essays and reports for school, but I think you need to go beyond this if you want to make a career out of it. A lot of people ask me if they should take writing classes, and I’m always hesitant to answer because I think the value depends so much on the class and the instructor.

In my case, I took a lot of creative writing classes in high school – I’m not sure how much those helped, but they were fun and one of the few things about high school I didn’t find mind-numbingly boring. When I first went to university, I abandoned the writing in favor of math and econ courses as I pursued a business degree for 18 months before dropping out.

I kicked around with odd jobs for a few years before finally getting hired on as a teller at a local credit union. (The fact that my dad was a manager at one of the other credit union branches probably helped with that.) Around this time, I signed up for an adult education creative writing class. Many of the people in the class were very inexperienced, and I didn’t get a lot out of the actual course. But I did get to know the instructor personally, and he encouraged me to stick with my writing at a time when I had almost given up on my dreams of making a living as a writer.

His encouragement led me to take online courses to get my BA through Athabasca University, with a heavy focus on English lit. During that time I rediscovered my love of words. Even though I had now become a licensed financial planner and loan officer at the credit union, I began to seriously think about how I could leave my career in banking and finance behind for something more fulfilling.

In my spare time, I began to actively pursue freelance writing opportunities. Back then the internet was still in its infancy, so finding potential jobs involved going to the library and perusing the markets section in back issues of magazines like Writer’s Digest. (Writer’s Digest is now online, along with other amazing resources like Ralan.com. So much easier now.)

Through this I earned my first professional sale: $25 for selling the slogan “When do we get naked?” to a button company. A few months after that, I hauled in $75 for a greeting card. Exterior: Why so glum on your birthday? Where’s that winning smile? Interior, picture of false teeth: Oh, yeah. In a glass beside your bed. (These may seem like tired old jokes now, but 20 years ago this shit was cutting edge!)

A year later I took an unpaid position as a reporter for a (now defunct) online sports journal, covering the local indoor soccer team. Writing game summaries 2-3 times each week for 20 weeks a season was an excellent learning experience. Trying to come up with new and interesting ways to say TEAM A beat TEAM B over and over taught me a lot about how style and presentation affected readers. (And the power of alt-thesaurus in Word!) Digging for the “hook” in each game report helped crystalize the importance of drama and emotional connections to draw the reader into an article. And having a very tight word limit made me appreciate the importance of brevity and moving the piece forward.

During this time I also picked up a small freelance contract to rewrite the safety manuals of the government department my wife was working at. I can’t say this job was exciting, but it was another learning experience. The Safety Officer kept telling me to keep everything “short” so people would read it, but he also wanted everything to be extremely detailed and specific to avoid any chance of liability if anyone was injured. It was critical to focus on how much information readers could quickly and easily absorb, and I discovered that it’s easy for writers to overestimate the ability of their audience to follow along. When you write something, you are hyper-focused on every element that goes into the piece: every character, every action, every detail is there for a reason. But readers rarely have the same level of focus; they sometimes skim over things, or get confused by what seem to be simple (and important) details to the author. I realized there’s a delicate balance between “dumbing it down” and making your writing accessible.

I even tried my hand at humor by submitting a couple pieces to ESPN for a short-lived fan-column they had called When World’s Collide. They’re a bit dated now, but if you’re interested here’s the first one: Shaq vs Wilt (written shortly after Wilt’s autobiography claimed he slept with 50,000 women). The second pitted Roger Clemens vs Pete Rose (mine is the second entry listed, so scroll down). Keep in mind, this was pre-Clemens steroid saga. Back then the big scandal was that he’d thrown a hunk of a broken bat at Mike Piazza in a game, and Pete Rose had just ripped the head off a reporter named Jim Gray for daring to ask about his gambling. (We were all so innocent back then.)  

I was also writing many short stories at this time, though I wasn’t having any luck selling them. Part of the problem was I was chasing the money, and sending my work to the largest and highest paying markets. (Back then, e-zines were almost non-existent and paper publishing still ruled the world.) My writing wasn’t up to the quality of those markets yet and, just as importantly, the editors at these magazines were so swamped with submissions that they couldn’t give personalized rejections. Without any feedback on my writing, it was hard to improve.

And then fortune smiled on me. Actually, it t-boned my car at an intersection one evening while I was coming home from work. I wasn’t badly injured, but the insurance settlement was offensively high enough for me to quit my job at the credit union and go back to school full time. I was accepted into the Masters program at the University of Alberta English Department, and I truly believe those two years were instrumental in helping me make the final leap from struggling amateur to professionally published writer.

Liberal Arts education often gets a bad rap, and honestly I don’t know that a degree in it will ever help you get a job. But in my case I found the experience to be nothing but beneficial. It wasn’t as simple as exposing myself (hee-hee) to works of classic American literature or Elizabethan drama. Many of my courses examined the cultural context of these works from non-traditional viewpoints. It helped me realize that there are perspectives outside my own; and I think that experience has helped me write realistic characters that aren’t simply mirror images of myself.

Another aside here: I know there are lots of horror stories (mostly from white guys) about the horrors of Women and Ethnic studies in post-secondary education, but I never once felt like I was being oppressed by Femi-Nazis or being drowned in Imperialist Guilt. Sometimes I was the only male in class, or a different ethnicity than the professor, but I always felt like I was treated with respect and my opinions were considered along with everyone else. I don’t know if that was because I went in with an open mind, or if I just got lucky. But I think if you go in expecting to find resistance, you’re going to find resistance. Just saying.

By far the most valuable course I took while I was working on my Masters was a creative writing course taught by acclaimed Canadian author Greg Hollingshead. The class was only 13 students, and it was more like a writers’ group than a university class. (I was the only sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer in the group – the rest of the class were more “literary” in their style – but I never felt like anyone looked down on me. Again, maybe I just got lucky.)

Each week 3 students would write a short story and give it to the rest of the class. The next week we would discuss these stories, giving our feedback and opinions. Analyzing the works of other writers and getting feedback from the group on my own work was something new to me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be a writer.

In fact, I think that’s the real key to writing to be a writer. You need feedback. Lots of feedback. My editor at the sports journal; the Safety Director for the government manual, the other authors in my Creative Writing course – they all saw different things in my work that was both good and bad, and it helped me to understand my own writing in a way I never could if I was just going at it alone.

Finding a writing group is pretty easy now. (Thanks a lot, Obama… er, I mean, Internet!).  I think it’s a lot harder to find a good writing group. There are all sorts of forums and message boards and fan-fic sites that have folks willing to give feedback, but what you need is valuable feedback. If people simply adore everything you write, they probably aren’t giving good feedback. If they hate it all, that’s not very useful either. If everyone in the group has the same opinion most of the time, I’d consider that a red flag. And if the feedback isn’t specific and precise, you can’t use it.

I don’t have an easy answer to finding folks who will give you the proper kind of feedback you need, but search a bit on the internet and I’m sure you’ll find something. You might need to join and leave a few groups before you find the right one, but trust me – it’s worth it! I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I didn’t start selling my fiction until AFTER I had that feedback. (FYI – here’s a list of the few short stories I managed to get published. I’ve got lots more at various stages of completion, but I’ve been so busy with novels over the past 8 years I haven’t had time to focus on them. Maybe someday I’ll put them all together in an e-book and throw it out there for folks who are interested.)

Wow – just realized how long this entry became. That’s what happens when I start talking about my favorite subject: me! Okay, let’s stop here and next entry I’ll go into how I got my big breaks – BioWare and selling my first novel, Temple Hill.

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