While incapacitated after my shoulder surgery, I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect upon my writing career, specifically, the lack of progression toward success within my writing career. I’ve been writing off and on for most of my adult life, submitting stories since I was at least 15 years old, and collecting mostly rejections. At best, I’ve had one story published each decade. Not what I’d call an impressive showing.
I haven’t improved as a writer. I haven’t made any sort of inroads to a successful writing career. So I’ve had time to ponder about why that is. Sure I have ADHD and it was undiagnosed for most of my adult life and that has played a role in it, however, I’m not here to assign blame or look for a scapegoat. I’m trying to discover what I can do now to correct the situation.
In high school, I was anything but studious. Again, we can blame many things on that, but so what? It won’t change anything and wallowing in self-pity is less than useless. It’s actually counterproductive, in fact. The point is, I’ve had an incomplete education. Instead of paying attention in class, instead of learning grammar and studying literature, instead of breaking down short stories and novels into their component elements and learning what makes a good story, instead of concentrating on technique, I was doing my own thing. I’d read pulp fiction, The Shadow, Doc Savage, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, E. E. “Doc” Smith, along with many of the then current science fiction and fantasy stories. Or I’d daydream, scribbling little pictures in the margins of my notebooks and textbooks ala Sergio Aragonés of Mad Magazine. Or I’d write my own stories. Stories that I submitted in my English teacher when we were in the composition phase of the English class and I’d get good grades on.
So, arrogantly, I thought I knew what it took to be a writer. A writer writes, right? I was already doing that. Therefore, I had even more reason not to pay attention in class. Learning that stuff was for the mere mortals in class.
As a writer, I was able to create my own voice fairly early on and wrote in my own style rather than create imitations of other writer’s works. My natural abilities as a writer were able to carry me through high school and into college, where I was still able to get good grades and comments from my instructors. They’d see something in my style and suggest certain authors I should read and analyze.
Analyze? Me? Why? I already was a genius, wasn’t I? A prodigy? So I failed to follow their advice. The only how-tos on writing I read were from “Writer’s Digest” on how to submit to fiction markets.
And submit I did. And rejections were received for everything I submitted. But all that meant was those editors were idiots. They just couldn’t recognize my genius. It was their fault I wasn’t selling, right? Not mine.
Fast-forward to today. After decades of writing, Ive sold a story in 1987. Another in 1997. Three twitter-length fictions in 2009. And finally, a story in 2011 and another in 2012. Not much of a record, is it?
A glance at that career makes it appear as though I’m just a hobbyist instead of someone who takes their career seriously. And the last couple of weeks have made me take a long, hard honest look at that career and it’s come up sorely lacking.
Last week I picked up “Robert Silverberg’s Science Fiction 101” (formerly titled: Worlds of Wonder). While reading his very first essay, “The Making of a Science Fiction Writer,” he explains his own educational journey to becoming a successful writer, and during that journey, he read a book by Thomas Uzzell called “Narrative Technique,” and I read Silverberg’s account of what he learned from that book, which was that writing was much more complicated than he first thought. It just wasn’t taking an idea and expanding it to short story length. It was that a story is constructed from many elements, including plot, characterization, situations, conflict, style, and more.
And then it struck me like a cold slap in the face: I had no idea what any of that meant. I know what the words mean dictionary-wise, but not in a writing context. My arrogance had led to form a shaky, unstable writing foundation. In other words, my writing houses were being built upon a bog of ignorance.
Today is the beginning of a new year. I plan on making 2014 a year of education. I am going to relearn everything I should have learned in high school. I’m going to tear down this house of cards and create a sound foundation upon which to build my writing chops.
I’ve already asked for help on the writer’s forum I attend, Absolute Write, and they’ve given me many great suggestions, such as the Longman Anthology of Short Fiction and the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, for example. Now Norton’s sounded familiar. I thought maybe I had a copy, so I tore my library apart looking for it but came up empty, but I know I’ve seen it somewhere, possibly at my mom’s.
So I’ll check her house, then I’ll check Half Price Books and the library for copies. Until then however, I’ll finish Silverberg’s book, which also has many great short story examples in it. I’ll break them down and try to analyze them to see what makes them tick.
Thus, my goal, or resolution, for 2014 is to spend it learning, relearning, and growing my knowledge of the basics of writing fiction in the hopes that a more solid foundation will help me to become a more publishable writer.
As Robert Silverberg said at the end of his essay, “only you can make a writer of yourself, by reading, by studying what you have read, and above all by writing.” Great advice that I will finally, after all these years, take to heart.
So instead of drinking a cup of kindness for times gone by, I’ll be looking to the future, to times as a better learned writer.