There’s plenty of material on ‘being’ a writer. A library worth of books has been written on how to become a writer, how to improve one’s craft and the best ways for emerging writers to become established. Everyone has their own dollar to throw into the kitty when it comes to passing down advice to would-be writers and emerging talent in search of guidance or quick tips.
Why should I be the exception?
In my own development as a writer and editor, and in the natural development of fellow writers I’ve kept in regular contact with, there have been some turning points that have stood out to me. The challenge is different for everyone, but the markers for development are often the same. Here are some of the common hurdles I believe that, once overcome, mark massive developments in one’s writing career.
Finding the right confidence
This one is basically a no-brainer. But I still wanted to bring it up if only because the no-brainers are usually the ones that slip past the radar.
Having either too little or too much confidence are both common problems for writers, regardless of their level of development. Too little confidence leads to unfinished stories and writer’s block. Too much confidence leads to stunted development and an unwillingness to accept criticism or edits.
Keeping the right level of confidence is a daily challenge – propping yourself up enough to keep pumping out content and not getting bogged down in how unforgivably bad it might be, while keeping grounded and able to take feedback without launching into vicious self-defence.
Writing is subjective and highly variable. That means everything ever written is hit and miss – emphasis on that and between the two polar opposites. Even the piece you’ve been working on for months and consider your current magnum opus. Keep telling yourself that what you’re writing down is good – not horrible (because then you’ll stop writing out of depression), not brilliant (because it’s not), but good. And remember that every piece of feedback, every proposed edit, is a potential bullet-point for improvement.
Cooking the same meal every night
I like risotto. I cook a pretty good risotto, especially with chicken and mushroom. My partner loves it (or she at least she says she does – I’ll take the compliment at face value). But no matter how fluffy the rice, it’s not going to go down well if I cooked risotto every night. Occasionally she’s going to want me to at least serve up steak and chips. Or order pizza.
Thank God she’s a better cook than me.
Point being, variety is the spice of life. Keep your signature dish – and make sure you’re so good at it that no one can compare – but make sure there’s more to your skill range than historical romance or family drama, especially in short stories. The short story market is always starving for versatility, and even in the genre markets you can only get away with working the same ideas/angle/characters for so long.
The best result is that experimenting with different dishes opens up a whole new world of opportunities – some ingredients you never would have thought to try in your staple dishes. Good fantasy writing can sometimes come from experimenting with thrillers, as another method of inciting high stakes and excitement. Writing historical fiction, even if not your preference, often forces you to think more about setting and tone, which is universally beneficial. And so on.
Some experiments will be total failures that would be better served never seeing the light of day. But who cares? You stepped out of your comfort zone. You tried something new. And maybe you’ll find another form of writing you’re good at and enjoy that you would never have considered without the trial run.
Taking it all too seriously
Yes, this is a problem in my view. This includes being preoccupied with the importance of a piece, the intended weight of the themes and how it connects to the quote-unquote ‘zeitgeist’ – to the detriment of all the other elements of a good story.
It’s fine for a piece of writing to have serious themes. But if you’re writing a short story then you’re a storyteller. If you can tell a story that happens to revolve around the issue of deforestation in Tasmania, that’s fantastic; it’s an intriguing subject, it’s topical and it’s a strong stepping stone for conflict and interesting events. But it’s still a story – a piece of prose seeking an audience to entertain. Articles and creative non-fiction exist for a reason – to give an appropriate platform for seeking an audience to educate and convince on a particular viewpoint.
Fictional prose can still be serious, weighted, tied in with the big issues of the day. The tipping point is where the ‘why’ overwhelms the ‘what’ – where the agenda eclipses the actual story and its events. Audiences rarely have much patience for self-importance. They want a story. And the best writers place any agenda or issue they wish to discuss in service to the story. Not the other way around.
There are many more mini-epiphanies a writer will have throughout the early stages of their career – I’ve only covered the ones that strike me as among the most important. Please leave your comments and any other turning points you’ve experienced through your development. A little bit of collective wisdom never hurts.
– Beau Hillier.