My writing ritual (warning: it ain’t pretty)

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeHappy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. Details and signup here. This month’s optional question is: Do you have any rituals that you use when you need help getting into the zone?

I hope my fellow IWSG-ers have some great responses to this question. I need all the ideas I can get, because right now my ritual for getting in the zone is pretty simple: sit my butt down in front of my computer and get to work. I wrote about that process in a post last December.

Part of why I don’t employ much in the way of writing rituals is that I have so little time to write. There are tons of rituals that I think (and sometimes know) would help me:

  • Freewriting, like the morning pages Julia Cameron writes about in The Artist’s Way
  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise in particular tends to fuel my creativity.
  • Meditation, wonderful for clearing the mind and tapping into the subconscious.

In fact, my ideal writing ritual would go something like this:

  1. Get up around sunrise. Eat and caffeinate while writing morning pages.
  2. Go for a “run.” “Run” is in quotation marks, because I would be running for less than half the time. But some running is better than no running, right?
  3. Meditate for 5 or 10 minutes.
  4. Shower.
  5. Write.

My actual writing ritual looks more like this:

  1. Sleep later than I planned, because I stayed up too late. Again.
  2. Grab some cereal and a Diet Coke. Check my watch. Crap. Less than an hour till I have to start work (and before corona, it was, Crap. I have to leave for work in 15 minutes.)
  3. Sit down, shovel Frosted Mini-Wheats into my food hole, swig my magic elixir of caffeine and aspartame, and agonize about what to work on: the paid writing gig (boring but $$), the novel I’m editing, the novel I’m writing, the short story I’m editing, the short story I’m writing, or the blog post I’ve been putting off for a week and oh crap tomorrow is IWSG Day and what the hell am I going to say to a worldwide audience of fellow writers when I can’t even figure out a decent writing routine…
  4. Pick whichever one I think will most likely entice my muse (the drunken floozy) to put down the tequila bottle and grace me with her inebriated and slightly stinky presence.
  5. Write. Get into the zone. And realize it’s time to start my day job.

Yes, I could get my sh*t together, get up an hour earlier, and go through the ideal routine (and the once or twice in 6 years that I did it, it felt great). Or I can accept that I am the way I am and that any method that lets me get the work done is the right method for me.

How about y’all? Have you found a routine that works for you? Or is your “process” as messy as mine?

IWSG: Traditions and addictions

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Greetings fellow insecure writers! And if you’re new here and not familiar with the IWSG, click on over there and check it out (after you read my post. You wouldn’t to hurt my insecure writer fee-fees, would you?) This post is part of the monthly IWSG blog hop. If you’d like to see some other great IWSG posts, check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

This month’s optional question: Other than the obvious holiday traditions, have you ever included any personal or family traditions/customs in your stories?

My current novel in progress is a thriller set where I grew up, near the San Joaquin Delta. It includes some autobiographical details, though my main character is most definitely Not Me, and she faces lots of dangers that would have left Actual Me crumpled in a broken, twitching heap. But still, it’s been fun to season the story with settings and events from my own life. So this month’s IWSG question is timely.

My main character’s father is based loosely on my own father. He wasn’t much for holidays or family traditions, but we did have one annual tradition that was inviolable: Derby Day. My father had a gambling problem, and horse races were his absolute favorite way to lose money. Even when he didn’t have a bet going, we watched the Kentucky Derby (and the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes) every. single. year, including all the pre-race coverage.

Triple Crown race days were some of the few times I saw my father genuinely happy, genuinely excited about something. Mostly he endured life, grinding through the days, self-medicating his depression with whatever addiction currently held him in its clutches. But on race days, there was a light in his eyes, a tiny window into the charming, funny man my mother fell in love with. A man I rarely got to see.

And so there is horse racing in my new novel and even a reference or two to Derby Day. And as I write this character and her father, I am finding a new understanding of my own dad, deeply flawed and deeply wounded, yet steadfast in his love for me. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent most of my life trying to make peace with dad, though he’s been in his grave for well over 30 years. I don’t know if we can ever truly make peace with those who both hurt us and are part of us, but through fiction, through digging deep into characters and motivations, maybe we can get a little closer to that elusive state.

How about you, fellow insecure writers? Have you ever tried working out real-life relationships on the page?

 

Writing as an act of faith

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[Lewis Carroll] understands that the text you create is an object that collides with the mind of the reader–and that some third thing, which is completely unknowable, is made. –Jesse Ball, “The Edge of Sense,” in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process (Penguin, 2017)

Tomorrow is IWSG Day, and until about 20 minutes ago, I didn’t have a topic or even an idea for this month’s post. Then I read Jesse Ball’s lovely essay on Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, encountered the quote above, and was reminded yet again of how big a role faith plays in my writing. I don’t mean religious faith, though that too can play a big role in writing, but faith that the ideas will come, the words will come, and the words and ideas together will make something that resonates with a reader in ways I cannot fully imagine.

Like most insecure writers (Digression alert! Are there any secure writers? “Secure writer” sounds like an oxymoron.), I often approach my writing with trepidation. My brain is mush. The well is dry. My muse, the drunken floozie, is hung over yet again and not showing up for work. Ideas? I ain’t got no stinkin’ ideas. And then a movie will start playing in my head, or I’ll see a person walking down the street who practically begs to become a character, or I’ll remember some random event from thirty years ago, and I’m back in the writing groove. Some people call this magic, “inspiration.” Some people insist on waiting for it before they start writing. The rest of us like to get work done, so we get on with it and hope the muse takes a couple of aspirin and graces us with her half-drunk presence. And often enough, she does.

And yet each day, the fear creeps back in. What if, this day, the muse is passed out in some skeezy alley (Digression alert! Have you ever seen an alley that wasn’t skeezy?) instead of delivering her daily dose of inspiration? What makes me able to sit down and start typing anyway is… faith. Faith that the words and ideas will come. Faith that the muse will appear. Sometimes I feel like one of the Israelites, following Moses around in the desert and wondering if my daily dose of manna will fall from heaven. If you read that story (it’s in Exodus, don’t ask me the chapter and verse, and I’m too lazy to look it up), you’ll learn that each morning the manna fell, and if the Israelites tried to save it for the next day, it would spoil. But of course some of them tried anyway, because even though the manna fell each day, they feared that maybe the next day it would not. I’m betting some of those doubters were writers. (Digression alert! Can’t you just picture them lugging their stone tablets and chisels across the desert and grumbling about the lack of coffee to wash down their manna? Just me then? OK.)

Even when the words come, we writers face another form of insecurity: Will we find the right words? Many of us see our stories like movies in our heads, only with full sensory detail. It’s the ultimate in high-def–or maybe smellavision. But how do we communicate what we see and hear and smell and taste and feel so that the reader sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels it just like we do? How do we get the reader to share our understanding, our insights, our epiphanies? The answer is: We can’t.

We agonize over the perfect word, the perfect detail, to create some sort of Vulcan mind-meld with the reader, but we don’t live in a Star Trek episode (Digression alert! If I did live in a Star Trek episode, I’d be a redshirt.) Instead, as Ball writes, our words will collide with the mind of the reader and create a brand new thing. That new thing will be unique to the single, specific combination of writer and reader, and we don’t get to control it. That beautiful movie playing in my head will never play in a reader’s head in exactly the same way, because the reader’s movie will be shaped by their experiences, their culture, and their identity at least as much as by the words I agonize over. Sucks, yes?

Maybe not.

If I can get over myself, I can find this truth to be liberating. Yes, I should still try for the best words, the most vivid images, the most resonant cadence I can create. But I’m not entirely responsible for the result. So I don’t have to beat my head against my keyboard for three hours, searching for the perfect word, image, or cadence. I can give it my best shot, hope I improve it upon revision, and eventually let it go out into the world, trusting that it will resonate with some reader, somewhere, in ways I can neither imagine nor control. In other words, I must have faith–in my own ability, yes, but also in my readers and what they bring to the page.

And so we come to the end of my February IWSG post, a post that came about because Ball’s words collided with my mind at just the right time and in just the right way to help me think about writing in a new way. And my manna is received, my faith is affirmed, for yet another day.

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

IWSG: My love-hate relationship with writing

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThe January question for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is:

What started you on your writing journey? Was it a particular book, movie, story, or series? Was it a teacher/coach/spouse/friend/parent? Did you just “know” suddenly you wanted to write?

I’ve always written, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with writing. I hated writing assignments in school. Hated. Them. I’d whine and complain and fuss and struggle and whine and complain some more. Then I’d suck it up, write the stupid paper, and get an A on it.

At the same time that I was being a huge whiny baby about writing assignments, I was journaling. I started a diary when I was about 10, which expanded into a journal by the time I was in middle school. My journals then were either spiral notebooks or stacks of binder paper held together with ancient report binders I inherited from my grandmother. Yes, I inherited office supplies from my grandmother. I still have a few of ‘em too. Did I mention my grandmother died in 1979? Anyone wanna buy a vintage porcelain stamp licker?

2020-01-07 18.38.33

But I digress.

So I’d sit in my room writing, copying down song lyrics, or jotting down the weekly top 40 from Casey Kasem for posterity. Yes, the entire top 40. All 4 hours of it, just about every Saturday morning. I was a nerd with no life, OK?

But I digress.

In my journal I collected ideas and pop culture and random written crap the way a magpie collects shiny things. And I wrote. Sometimes pages at a time. Sometimes I felt compelled to write. Sometimes I still do. But if someone told me I had to write a particular kind of paper about a particular kind of thing, well, that was an epic tragedy that required large amounts of whining.

After I became a librarian, I started writing academic pieces for publication: book reviews, journal articles, and book chapters. The whining continued, usually some version of the famous Frank Norris quote:

Don’t like to write, but like having written.

2+ decades on, that’s still an accurate summary of my feelings unless I’m journaling or doing some other kind of low-effort writing.

So why, then do I write anything more challenging than a summary of my day? I suppose the answer is the writer’s version of the bit about the mountain-climber climbing mountains because they’re there: I write because I have something to say.

But there’s another part to my writing journey, the part that started a bit over 5 years ago, when I started writing fiction at the ripe old age of 47. I told some of that story in an earlier post, Talent is Overrated, so I won’t repeat it here, but the gist of that post is that though I’d dreamed of being an author since I was a kid, I never tried, because I thought I had no talent.

The process of overcoming that negative bit of self-image was gradual, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but I do remember three key incidents:

  1. A former intern and friend gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, with a lovely inscription encouraging me to take up creative writing.
  2. I read Diana Gabaldon’s account in the Outlandish Companion of how she came to write Outlander. Tl;dr: she decided to learn to write a novel by actually writing one. That got me to thinking that maybe the same method could work for me, even if I had less spectacular results than she did.
  3. I realized that ~2/3 of my life was over (probably, if one believes the actuarial tables), so if I had any unfulfilled dreams, I’d best get busy. There’s nothing like an awareness of one’s mortality to give one a solid kick in the keister.

So one afternoon, I Googled “how to write a novel,” found the website for the snowflake method, and got started.

I still have a love-hate relationship with writing. I still prefer to have written. And I still whine and carry on when I have to put my butt in my office chair and type some damn words already. I do not, however, copy down the top 40 every week, because today’s music sucks. Now get off my lawn.

But I digress.

 

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

Living the Dream

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The December question for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is:

 

Let’s play a game. Imagine. Role-play. How would you describe your future writer self, your life and what it looks and feels like if you were living the dream? Or if you are already there, what does it look and feel like? Tell the rest of us. What would you change or improve?

I imagine this a lot. Usually when I should be writing. While other middle-aged straight women fantasize about Brad Pitt or The Rock and a bathtub full of Jell-O, I daydream about hitting it big as a writer. Book tours! Interviews! Swanky cocktail parties! Appearing on the Stephen Colbert show! (Psst… Stephen. I’m currently accepting bookings. I can even be witty and charming if sufficiently caffeinated. Have your people call my people.)

Being the hopeless nerd that I am, I also fantasize about being able to write full time. I even have a schedule worked out:

  • 7:00–9:00: Write
  • 9:00–10:00: Gym or walk/run in the neighborhood
  • 10:00–12:00: Write
  • 12:00–1:00: Eat a nutritious, delicious lunch and take a walk (Note: in my fantasy world, it’s always sunny and 70F with no wind, so I can take long, meandering walks outside whenever I feel like it. In reality, I live in Flagstaff, where it’s currently 18F with 2 feet of snow on the ground.)
  • 1:00–3:00: Corresponding with my agent and editor, social media marketing, blogging, and—my favorite—answering my fan mail. Paging Gilderoy Lockhart…
  • 3:00–5:00: Gardening, napping, reading, journaling. Maybe a little laundry thrown in to keep me in touch with how the common people live so my head doesn’t swell too much.
  • 5:00–6:00: Lounging in the hot tub until my meal service delivers a hot, delicious yet healthy dinner.
  • 7:00–10:00: More reading, journaling, maybe some knitting, a little Twitter.

Sounds lovely, right? Right. However…

I was off work from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday, so theoretically I could have tried out at least some of this ideal schedule. I also take staycations occasionally, which offer a full week in which to road test my dream career. Yet, funnily enough, fantasy and reality never quite align. Let’s take Friday as an example, since I didn’t really have anything I had to do that day. Here’s roughly how it went:

  • 7:45–10:00: Writing (OK, so far, so good, even if I did sleep a bit later than planned)
  • 10:00–11:30: Stuff face with Thanksgiving leftovers, then complain about stomachache
  • 11:30 am – 10:00 pm: Scroll through r/AmItheAsshole on Reddit, smugly convinced that I would never be the asshole in any of the posted scenarios. Nope. Never. The weather is just fine way up here on my high horse, thanks.

And here’s Saturday:

  • 7:45–9:30: Reading about houseboats on the internet, because my current novel-in-progress will have at least one scene set on a houseboat. Children, this is what we writers call, “research.” No, it only sounds like farting around on the internet. If a writer does it, it’s research. And thanks to all that research, I now know that you can buy DIY plans on the internet for a houseboat or something called a shanty boat, which is exactly what it sounds like, and I want one.
  • 9:30–10:00: Writing (not a dang word involved houseboats)
  • 10:00–10:45: Spend another 45 minutes feeling superior to the other assholes on Reddit.
  • 10:45–11:30: Stuff face. Get stomachache.
  • Photo of snow in foreground with blue spruce and San Francisco Peaks in background
    Dead tauntaun or pile o’ weeds. You make the call.

    11:30–5:30: Tunnel through snow to car, excavate car, make several unfunny jokes about tauntauns and AT-AT Walkers, and trudge through snow with husband and camera in tow. Fork over $80 for someone to plow driveways, then go to town, because we’re almost out of milk, and I’m starting to feel like I’m in a sequel to The Shining even though I’ve only been snowed in for 2 whole days.

    Photo of garden sign and small tree covered in snow
    I really want to Photoshop a tauntaun or AT-AT in here. Too bad I don’t know how to use Photoshop. Sounds like a job for… Research!

Yet despite all of this evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that I could lead a life of genteel literariness if only I had enough money to quit my job and write full-time. I probably have a better shot with Brad or Dwayne and the bathtub full of Jell-O.

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

#NaNoInspo: Write Badly

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeMy November post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is all about writing badly.

 

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. — Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird.

A quick Google search on “Anne Lamott shitty first draft,” reveals that lots of bloggers have written about this quote and the importance of writing badly. Now I could do the responsible thing, and find another topic, or I could just carry on anyway, because I really want to write about writing badly.

Guess what I’m going to do?

One of the most valuable writing lessons I’ve learned in the 5+ years of my fiction writing “career” is the value of the shitty first draft. Or, more politely: the value of writing badly.

Pointless digression #1: Can it really be called a career if I’ve never been paid for it? I don’t want to contemplate that too closely, so I’m going to move on to…

Turning off your inner editor (or how to tell that a**hole to shut the f*** up)

I’m writing this post on November 1, also known as the first day of #NaNoWriMo. For the first time since 2014, I’m doing NaNo as it’s “supposed” to be done, i.e. I’m trying to write 50,000 words of a brand spanking new novel. I’ve spent the last 4 years or so editing my first NaNo novel, i.e. being a perfectionist. Fix this plot hole, delete that redundancy, spend 20 minutes trying to find a stronger verb for a sentence I’ll edit out 10 minutes later… you get the idea. My overly-aggressive inner editor has been having his nitpicky way with me for quite awhile. And now that I’m trying to write something new, I’m having trouble getting him to shut up.

Pointless digression #2: I picture my inner editor as Stripe from Gremlins (if you’re under 40, Google it or visit the Wikipedia entry. I’m not going to post a picture and risk being sued out of existence by the MPAA just to save you clacking a few keys, ya lazy bum.) Editor-Stripe looms over my desk, gnashing his many, pointy teeth at every digression, weak verb, or passage of rambling dialogue I create.

When I first sat down this morning to start writing the novel I’ve been outlining for 3 weeks, I struggled. It took me about a half hour to write maybe 200 words. Why? Because I kept trying to make them good. I’d frown at my monitor, type a few words, frown some more, take a swig of Diet Coke in the vain hope that caffeine+aspartame=inspiration, and type a few more words. It took me the better part of an hour to figure out my problem and give myself permission to write crap. I went to a write-in this afternoon and cranked out > 3,000 words in a little over 2 hours.

Why you should write badly

Admittedly, most of those 3,000 words are crap. But that’s OK, and here’s why:

  1. I can make them better later. I can take Stripe’s shackles off and let him loose on my steaming pile o’ prose (this is what normal writers call, “revising”), and it’ll get better. Gradually. Iteratively. And with much gnashing of teeth (Stripe’s and mine).
  2. I have to write the crap to get to the good stuff. Writing crap is my way of feeling my way through my story, getting deep into my characters, and exploring various blind alleys and winding paths to see which ones lead to creative gold. I have an outline, yes, but until I actually write a first draft, my characters are abstract ideas. They take their first breaths as living, flesh-and-bone people when I spew out a bunch of verbal diarrhea in a blank Scrivener window. Poor things. Isn’t that a helluva way to enter the world?
  3. And the very best reason: Sometimes—only sometimes—there’s gold in that thar crap. The words I think are terrible, just page filler to pump up my NaNo word count, turn out to be actually good. My writing teacher says that’s because when we give ourselves permission to write without editing, we tap into our subconscious in ways we can’t when we’re trying not to suck.

So my words of inspiration for you this National Novel Writing Month, are these: Give yourself permission to write crap. To write badly. To write so badly that you inadvertently summon the Demon of Suckitude, who will spend the entire month perched on your shoulder, whispering adverbs in your ear.

Pointless digression #3: And now I’m picturing the Demon of Suckitude in a cage match with Editor-Stripe. Send help.

How to write badly

Anyway, if you doubt me, try it for yourself. Try making yourself just write. No editing. No making frowny-faces at your monitor while you try to cudgel some brilliance out of your under-caffeinated brain. Just write. Let the words flow, and put in placeholders for stuff you aren’t ready to write yet, such as:

    • Stuff you need to research. Example: [research history of 18th century couches and enter description here]
    • Plot holes you could drive a C130 through. Example: [explain what the heck Stripe is doing in my living room]
    • Pieces of scenes you need to figure out. Example: [explain exactly how Stripe goes about shredding the 18th century couch]
    • Descriptions you haven’t figured out yet or aren’t in the mood to write. Example: [describe the Demon of Suckitude’s hairstyle and genitalia]

You can use your writing software’s comment feature for this, but I like to put my placeholders in the text in square brackets, so I don’t have to take my hands off the keyboard to grab the mouse and navigate to the menu that contains the comment feature. I can also find them easily later, because I don’t normally have square brackets in my writing for any other reason. And, bonus! If the comments are in the text, they’ll be included in my NaNo word count when I validate at the end of the month.

You’re welcome.

Wanna see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants
here. (Powered by Linky Tools)

Learn to Write Fiction 1: Get Started

start-road-1668916__340_pixabayI explained in my last post why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s. Sometimes I think my life’s motto should be, Better Late than Never. Anyway, once I decided to give this whole making-up-stories thing a try, I had to figure out how to get started. Just put some words on the page? Well, OK, but as I said in my last post, creative writing is a craft. And crafts have to be learned. So, how does one learn to write a novel? Especially if one has a day job and doesn’t want to spend a couple of years and many thousands of dollars earning an MFA?

How I got started writing fiction

As I mentioned in my last post (Have I plugged that thing enough yet? Maybe my life motto should really be, Shameless Self-Promotion for the Win), I literally started by Googling “how to write a novel.” Yeah, I know. I’m an academic librarian, a professional searcher with the universe of published knowledge at my fingertips, and I started my creative writing career with a lame-ass Google search. Truth be told, I wasn’t very serious then. I did that search on a whim.

That whim and that search led me to the Snowflake Method by self-proclaimed Snowflake Guy Randy Ingermanson. By pure luck (or fate or law of attraction or whatever you want to call it), I found an approach that meshes nicely with how my mind works. I read through Randy’s pages, and the magical phrase that has so often sent me on life adventures clanged through my work-addled brain:

I can do this.

Learn the craft

I’ve said it before, but it’s important enough to repeat: Creative writing is a craft. Not magic, not some gift that only a rare few people are blessed with. And crafts can be learned. But they aren’t learned automagically or by osmosis or by standing under a full moon at midnight and sacrificing a live chicken. They’re learned through study and practice.

So that’s my first piece of advice if you want to learn to write fiction: study and practice. What does that look like? Here are 3 suggestions:

  1. If you want to write, you have to read. If you want to write romances, read good, successful romances. Ditto for thrillers or mysteries or whatever your chosen genre is.
  2. But reading other people’s stories isn’t enough. After all, you can’t learn to knit just by wearing sweaters. You have study the craft itself. So get some good books on the craft of fiction writing and start reading. At the end of this post, I list the books I found most helpful as a brand-new writer, but your mileage may vary, as your approach may be different from mine.
  3. Practice. For me, practice took 2 forms:
    1. Doing exercises in writing books. They help you apply techniques right as you’re learning.
    2. Working on my own writing. I started planning, then drafting, my first novel right after I discovered the Snowflake Method. As I read books about the craft, I tried to apply what I’d learned to my own work.

Books for Getting Started

There are a zillion books about fiction writing with a zillion different approaches. You may need to read widely to find a few that work for you. The ones listed below worked for me. The first two can help you structure your novel and get started writing it. The third will help you avoid common newbie mistakes so your writing sounds polished and professional. Note: these are Amazon Affiliate links that will throw a few pennies my way if you use them to purchase.

      1. How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method – Randy Ingermanson. The book that started me on my journey. It’s for people who want to impose some structure on their novel but don’t want to make a detailed outline. This process worked very well for me as I planned my first novel.
      2. Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between – James Scott Bell. Like the Snowflake Method, Bell’s approach is a compromise between hardcore outlining and winging it (or plotting vs. pantsing). He provides enough structure to help you get started without overwhelming you.
      3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print – Renni Browne and Dave King. And if you want even more books to read, check out The Best Books on Writing Ever, a recent blog post from Browne’s Editorial Department blog.

     

How about you? Are you new to writing or an old hack? Do you have any favorite resources to help new writers get started? Share them in the comments and help out your fellow scribblers.

Talent is overrated

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThis is my first ever post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop. On the first Wednesday of each month, participants, “Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.” Today I’ll use this opportunity to talk about why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s, even though I’d always dreamed of doing so.

I’ve been a bookworm since forever. I still remember one Saturday afternoon when I was about 6 or 7, and my mother was too busy to stop right.that.minute and read me The Wizard of Oz for the 472nd time. Yes, I was quite the Oz fangirl. I picked the book up, tried to read it myself, and discovered I could. The first time a kid reads a chapter book on their own should be a milestone celebrated with fireworks. And cake. Lots of cake. But I digress.

I started journaling not long after that and fantasized about becoming a fiction writer. So why didn’t I? I am going to tell you, and you are going to think I’m an idiot.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher told us to write a short story. That’s it. Write a short story. We had spent exactly zero time talking about how to write fiction. We’d read plenty (thanks, Mrs. Rainer, for interrupting my senioritis with Heart of Darkness), but we hadn’t studied a dang thing about how to write anything other than essays and term papers.

So I wrote a short story. And it sucked. Big time. It sucked hard enough to create a black hole that threatened to consume the entire planet. The planet survived, but I got a lousy grade and assumed I didn’t have any “talent” for writing fiction. And splat went my dream like a bug on a windshield.

I majored in English as an undergrad, but I avoided all the creative writing courses, because I didn’t have any “talent.” Of course I didn’t, because I couldn’t produce a decent short story with no training whatsoever. I told you, you’d think I’m an idiot. Instead I wrote boring literary criticism, got my degree, became an English teacher, hated it, went to grad school, and became a librarian. All the while, I kept writing. I even won a student paper contest in library school, but I’m pretty sure I won by being the only entrant.

As a librarian, I wrote and published journal articles and book chapters. I blogged. I struggled with how to channel my compulsion to write into actually getting an audience. I read about how fiction writers got started and ached to have the “talent” to write fiction.

And then I approached 50. My boobs went south, my blood pressure went north, and I began to reconsider my dreams. There’s something about knowing ~2/3 of your life is over that makes you think long and hard about how you want to spend the last third.

Around that same time, I reread Diana Gabaldon’s account of how she wrote Outlander (tl;dr: she wanted to learn how to write a novel, and decided that the best way to do that was to actually write one). I read about how other authors started their careers. And one slow afternoon at work, I Googled, “how to write a novel.”

That was in 2014, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since. I won NaNoWriMo in 2014 and finished the first draft of my first novel a few months later. I’ve spent the years since revising it from almost black-hole-level suckitude to something almost worth reading. I’ve written a couple of short stories. I’ve read books and articles and blog posts about fiction writing. And I’ve learned two priceless lessons that, had I known them 30 years ago, might have changed the course of my life:

  1. Talent is overrated.
  2. Creative writing is a skill, and skills can be learned.

Why are those lessons so important? Because “talent,” is some mystical magic bestowed on the very few, probably those born at midnight under a full moon in a witch’s side garden or something. But learning is something we control. We have the power to get better. It’s hard work, yes. Lots of reading and learning, and lots and lots of practice, practice, practice. But those things are under our control. We can choose to do them. We can’t choose to be born in a witch’s side garden at midnight.

So if you’re discouraged, if you look at other people’s writing and wish you had their “talent,” remember: You can learn it. You can build it. You can choose to invest time and sweat and blood and tears in yourself, and you’re never too old to start. The power is yours. Claim it.

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