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Words for Writers: Self Confidence and Starting

 

I think my fave Words for Writers are the ones where I get to answer specific questions. I got this great question and with the asker’s permission, I’m posting my response to him, with personal details omitted.

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Question:

My question isn’t so much about writing as it is about self-confidence. I have a background in non-fiction writing, as well as broadcast which I think gives me a bit of a leg up in terms of honing my craft. But at the same time almost every interview I read with an author or filmmaker says “well, I’ve been doing this since I was 10” followed by “it will take you at least 10 years to get anywhere.”

 

All of which would be great if I was in my early 20s, but I’m 42. I know I can write….but at my age I find the “10 years of struggle” thing really, really daunting. I’ve done a fair bit of non-fiction stuff over the last 20 years and learned quite a bit about filmmaking….but I feel like somewhere I missed the window of opportunity that I needed (that might just be an irrational feeling on my part.) I will likely write anyway (because really, what choice do I have, it’s either that or endless regrets) but I was wondering if you could recommend any coping mechanisms that you used along the way, or groups you joined to keep you from giving up.

 

Also, you’ve mentioned your love of fan fiction. Where would be a good place to start posting fanfic?

 

Anyway, thanks for reading this. Hope everything is going well for you!

 

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 My Answer

Wow, complicated question.

 

You’re right, motivation is difficult. I was lucky that I started in fanfic young, so there was always a built-in critique and support group when I started to think about being a writer. People had offered praise, comments, critiques, and I learned how to work with an editor/beta.

 

If you do want to post fanfic, I suggest Archive of Our Own; I really respect this site as its run by the absolutely splendid Organization of Transformative Works. Fanfiction.net and Livejournal host fanfic too, but from what I understand, a lot of those people are migrating to Archive of Our Own. I think a great place to start posting your fanfic is Tumblr, actually. There’s a growing fanfic base there. Just tag the crap out of your posts, and break up the chapters to serialize the story.

 

The nice thing about fanfiction is that there’s different ways to engage with the community. Some is on mailing lists, some in community journals, some in personal journals, and some on online libraries and archives. There are even still some hardcopy newsletters.

 

As for the “fanfic” experience without actually writing fanfic itself, there is Wattpad,and Fictionpress. Those are fanfiction-like communities (readers searching for new fic to follow, writers who post a chapter a at time/ post serialized stories, and feedback/commenters) for original fiction.

 

Just be aware that there may be flammers and trolls. No matter where you share your fiction (original or fanfiction), you’ll get asshats, so don’t let them get to you. I’m professionally published and I still get asshats. It’s part of being a person who shares your creative works with others, unfortunately. Luckily, you can block people on websites and in social media!

 

I would also carefully read the Terms of Service for any site you post your original fiction on if you plan on later pulling down the stories and sending them out to agents/publishers. I don’t say this to be paranoid, but just because I don’t personal know what’s in the TOS, which is why I’m cautioning you to read them. I don’t use either site.

 

For other places to put up full books and receive critique and possibly agent/publisher notice, check out Figment, Authonomy, and the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. How useful each may be to you depends on how you engage with the community, and how much you are willing to do so. The first two are very community driven and people do read and comment on one another’s books.

 

I also recommend Miss Snark’s First Victim; Authoress has great contests that help you hone your craft, your pitch, and your writing. As of two days ago, nearly fifty people have either sold a book or signed with an agent through this site.

 

So there are some ways to find a critique group, and/or fast track the process beyond my other suggestions on my FAQs post.

 

But the thing is, there really is no way to fast track anything. By the same token, there is no guarantee that there will be a “10 years of struggle” either. A lot of that “10 years of struggle” that people are talking about is a) maturing as a person and a storyteller, b) writing shitty books that will never see the light of day in order to learn HOW to write and what kind of stories they want to tell, and to find their voice, c) learning about the industry.

 

And the thing is… you’ve already done some of that “10 years of struggle”. You said you’re a non-ficiton writer and a screenwriter both. So, you know how to write – you know how to construct a sentence, edit punctuation, the mechanics of writing which, believe me, is a big part of a beginning writer’s learning curve.  And you know how to tell a story, because you’ve screenwritten.

 

Think of writing fiction like taking a university course – you’re switching majors from NonFic with a minor in Screenwriting to a major in Fiction. You have course credits that you can transfer.

 

So really, you’re way ahead of the game.

 

All you need to do now is write the novel.

 

Well, how to be motivated about that? I have already written a Words for Writers post about that, but if you have any more questions, feel free to ask them.

 

Lastly, you said that “almost every interview I read with an author or filmmaker says well, I’ve been doing this since I was 10 followed by it will take you at least 10 years to get anywhere.

 

This is not always true. What they’re really talking about is putting in the work.

 

I know some twenty year olds who sold the very first book they wrote. I know some fifty-five year olds who sold the very first book they wrote. I know some sixty year olds who have agents and haven’t sold a thing in twenty years. I know some people who sold a book they wrote, edited and polished in a year, and I know some people who sold a book they wrote, edited, and polished over ten years. I know some people who signed an agent with their first book, and never sold that book, but sold the next six.

 

This has nothing to do with your age or where you are in life, and everything to do with whether you’ve written the best book you can write. If you write a damn good book, and you hone it, and craft it and polish it, what does it matter if you get it done in one year or ten?

 

For comparison – Triptych was about 8 months of writing, and about a year and a half of editing because I’d never done it before, and then another four months of editing with the publisher. The draft that you can buy in the store is #64.

 

One of my new books is over two years old. I wrote it in three months and have been editing it ever since. We’re on draft #74 and my agent hasn’t signed off on it. We haven’t submitted it together anywhere. There will probably be a few more drafts, in fact, before it is submitted anywhere. And I haven’t started writing the sequel book, save for a few scenes here and there that I didn’t want to forget.  That’s okay with me. The book isn’t ready yet.

 

And yet again, I started another book last August, finished it in November, edited it over the holidays, and my agent is shopping it right now. The draft editors are reading is #4. It all depends on the book, and how it comes together, and not your age.

 

One more thing: Publishing is very hurry-up-and-wait. Even if you wrote a whole book and got it perfect tomorrow, signed with an agent the next day, and sold it to a publishing company the day after, it still wouldn’t come out until mid-2014. There’s too much marketing to plan, a cover to design, edits to do… it’s a slow process which involves a lot of people who have many different projects they have to turn their attention to. So there’s really no rush. And it’s not like you have to retire from writing when you retire from your job at sixty-five, right? You can keep writing, welp, right up to the coffin.

 

As for things I did to keep from giving up…

 

Well, I cry sometimes. I throw books at the wall and walk away. I start novels and never finish them. I won’t deny it. Some days it gets overwhelming and I want to give up.

 

But then I think about the thrill of seeing my book in my hands, on shelves, in other people’s hands on the subway. I think about the way I’m opening people’s minds with my stories, the new thoughts and ideas I might give them, the stories mine might germinate in them. I think of the pride in my grandmother’s eyes. And yes, to be crass and honest, I think about the royalty cheques.

 

I still have a day job, I don’t make ends meet with writing, but I also write in the hopes that one day I will make enough on my myriad of novels that I will be able to quit the day job and spend my days being an actor, being a writer, and touring to give talks.

 

I also made a point of making authorly friends (met them at local book launches, meet ups, by answering ads in local bookstores, etc.) who have all felt what I feel when they’ve been low. They get it. I can go out with them for coffee or beer or goddamned vodka and talk it out with them. It also helps, I find, to make yourself accountable to friends and family.

 

I tell people about my books as I write them, and their enthusiasm (“When can I read it!?”) helps me get energized and positive about the story. I give them chapters to critique as I finish them, or bounce ideas off them. I let some of my friends name a lot of my characters.

 

My Mom is also really, really good at scolding me if I miss self-imposed deadlines, and once when I was like, 10k behind on NaNoWriMo, she made me sit at the kitchen table and gave me that patented Mom-Glare every time I got up to pee. She made me dinner and tea and let me talk through issues with her. It was the exact kind of tough-love I needed.

 

I impose deadlines on myself and try to stick to them. I do NaNoWriMo. I got Scrivener and it made the whole process much quicker and more streamlined for me.

 

Anyway, I think I’ve run out of advice to give….

 

I think you’re right, it’s irrational to feel that you’ve missed a window of opportunity. And yet I’m not dismissing that fear, because I feel that way sometimes, too. I wonder if I went with the right agent, the right publisher, if I shot myself in the foot by publishing like this instead of like that, for taking that deal and not the other one, for talking to this person at the party when I should have been talking to someone else instead… maybe it’s not a comfort to know that the second guessing and the self-doubt don’t ever really go away. You just get better at telling it to eff off; especially when you surround yourself with people who help you to remember that you want to do this for a reason, people who support you.

 

The thing with writing is… you can start whenever because there’s no special course you need to take, or age you need to be. All you have to do is write.

 

I wish you all the luck.

 

–J.M.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

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