My Confession

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Back in the days when I was first trying to attract an agent and eventually get published, it used to bug the tar out of me to hear people in my same situation say, “I started writing because I knew I could write better than everything else I was seeing on the market.”  People didn’t just say it to their peers, but I’ve witnessed writers making the claim to potential agents and editors, as if that would somehow not insult the very folks who put all that sub-standard work on bookstore shelves.  I mean, really, that’s such an arrogant thing to say, and certainly not true.  It implies that every book the would-be-published writer ever picked up was terrible, and so far, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like anything they ever read.  Some of us are pickier than others, but eventually we all find an author whose work we can admire.  Announcing to all and sundry that your work is somehow better than every single writer in existence is contemptuous. 

So I guess it was only a matter of time before it finally happened to me.  I didn’t actually say those specific words, mind you (although when talking to a couple of friends about it, I wasn’t far off.)  What happened was that while reading a book, I had a revelation.  And as a result of that revelation, my writing has been cranking along faster than it has in quite some time.

You see, a week or so ago, I was reading a book.  With the turn of every page, I was running into more problems – speech anachronisms, too much character backstory for characters who didn’t need it, and a lack of a clear plot.  I felt exhausted at the thought of trying to finish, and no writer wants that.  But when I was explaining to someone why I was about to stop reading the story, I suddenly knew…I’d been working far too hard on my own New Shiny.  It’s set in an alternate United States, and I’d been so carefully researching every little thing about the time period that writing the story itself had fallen by the wayside.   If the writer of that book could sell his, with all its problems, then I can write and sell mine, too. 

I’m still not going to announce that I can do better than anyone else, mostly because I know exactly how hard we all work, published or not.  Having trudged through half of this book, I can at least do as well as that.  If mine turns out better, wonderful.  The details are important, and at some point I’m going to make sure they’re all correct.  But they’re not the most crucial part of what I’m trying to do.  I don’t have to punish myself figuring out exactly what color the sky is at sunset in Iowa in late winter, or digging through reference books trying to learn how territorial Americans named their city streets.  I can, instead, stick with writing the best story I know how, and deal with the details later on.  Ever since I had this thought, I’ve been completing multiple pages every night. 

It’s all about the story. Such a simple thing.  I wonder why I didn’t notice it before.

 

 *And no, I’m not going to tell you the name of the book or the author.  If we happen to be together in person, sure, I’ll whisper it in your ear.  I’m not willing to diss another author on the internet, which ranks up there with meanness. 

**Okay, except for the writer of Thomas Covenant, because I’m still not over how much I didn’t like that character.  But nobody else!

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15 comments to My Confession

  • Chris Branch

    “I can at least do as well as that.”

    Exactly. I’ve mentioned before (probably on this site) that while I might be inspired by reading a great book, I’m sometimes even more inspired by reading a not so great one, for this reason.

  • There have been times where I’ve thought that about a book, but certainly not all of ‘em, and mostly only recently. Back in the day, it was more thinking that I wanted to do that, to write like my favorite authors, to aspire to be as good as I thought they were. And I still do (though I do feel now that I’m at least close 😉 ), but there have been times lately when I wonder how something got picked up, what luck allowed a book to slip past, like maybe the editor had a moment of weakness or the devil came with some contract. After reading a particularly terrible book recently that was traditionally pubbed, I joked to my wife that maybe I just shouldn’t try so hard to write the best I can, because if that got picked up, then what was the point of trying to polish my own work. But it is just joking. I couldn’t do that. I take too much pride in my writing. And I guess I don’t begrudge their success, I just wonder at how it happened.

  • Back in the day, it was more thinking that I wanted to do that, to write like my favorite authors, to aspire to be as good as I thought they were.

    For years I was writing just to entertain myself. It was only after I read Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates that I said to myself, “I want to write like that! And I want someone to read it and feel the way it made me feel.” It was the first time I ever considered selling my own work. 😀

  • Misty, the only single thing that a traditionally published writer can offer to a reader is a great editing job. Everything else from cover to formatting can be done by a self pub. Isn’t it sad when publishers forget that and just toss book out there, willy-nilly. So sad.

  • Interesting post, Misty. I have to admit that when I read the Thomas Covenant books, my first thought was “I want to write!” Not because I thought that the books were bad and that I could do better, and also not because they were so much like what I wanted to write that I felt inspired to emulate Donaldson’s work. I found them so different, so odd, so dark, so unlike all the other stuff I had ever read, that I started to see the possibilities that writing offered. An author, I realized, can do anything with a good story.

    I have to disagree with Faith, though (and this is another reason why I believe we need to do a group post on self-publishing). The other thing that self-publishing offers to readers is the imprimatur of a professional press on the work itself. A traditional publisher chooses books of a certain quality to publish — with a self-pubbed book, a reader may find great writing, great story, great character, or s/he may find utter incompetence. Some traditionally published books are weaker than others, but the process itself offers some guarantee that the reader will find in the book’s pages at least a basic level of writing and storytelling skill. And, to me, that is worth a good deal.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay, Misty! Congratulations on your revelation!
    For me, I have been stuttering and stumbling through revisions and could do with a good revelation myself, but it’s still a nice pick-me-up to hear the happy enthusiasm of someone else finding their stride again.

  • Misty> I had two experiences that made me want to write. One was Clive Barker’s “The Thief of Always.” The opening paragraph of that book (I read it around age 16 or so) made me want to be a writer so I could make people feel like it made me feel. The other was with Sarah, and saying “want to write together? I bet we could write better than some of the stuff that’s out there!” In my head I was thinking “it can’t be that hard.” HA! Oh how the gods listen and punish! Writing is SO hard. And the crappiest book out there was miles and miles better than the first book she and I produced together (and she’ll back me up on that one). We got better, lots better, but it took time. And now I think I can do it. Why else would I write with the intention of submitting to agents? I don’t think I’m better than anyone out there, necessarily, but I’ve got to believe I’m as good, otherwise, why bother to seek publication. (Of course one might still write, but not seek publication).

    Now I write and edit. The biggest compliment I ever got from an author was that he had a post-it note on his computer: “WWMS?” “What would Mason Say?” (Mason was my editing name.) And he’d look at it when he edited stories before he sent them to me. He said I’d made him a better writer, and you know what, that was immensely satisfying. I really enjoy editing, even when it gets overwhelming. Right now I’m more comfortable editing short pieces (under 10,000) but I’ve done novel-length before and, if I had the time, would like to do so again. Maybe in the future.

    For now, though, just so the Universe is clear, I’m really sorry about the whole “I’m sure I could that, it can’t be that hard” thought, okay? I’m totally over it. I was wrong. 🙂

  • I have to admit that during all the years I wrote just for fun and just for myself, I sometimes thought “I can do better than that” when reading–but I never said it in my out-loud voice. Interesting how in the last couple of years, as I’ve focused more on writing for publication, I rarely think that–now I’ve got a much better understanding of how hard this really is!

  • I still remember what got me started. My eleven-year-old self finished A Wizard of Earthsea and I was miffed because there was a school for boys to learn magic, but not girls. It wasn’t an “I can do better”; rather, it was more about realizing that “Hey, I could do this too!” and suddenly gaining an awareness of the stories in me that I had to tell. I agree with Daniel about having that thought after reading a not-so-great book a lot more as I get older, but I try to channel that particular energy into “Okay, then I should get back to work.” 🙂

  • I think it’s interesting that we have two drivers appearing in this chat – “I can write better than that” and “I want to write as well as that.” Both of which are equally strong for the ambitious writer.

    And David, despite me not liking Thomas Covenant, I love that those books inspired you to reach for something more than you originally thought you could. 😀

  • I’ll admit that I have in my library a trilogy that I gladly dub, “The Worst Books Ever Published.” And yes, I read every word of all three books. It was like driving past a multi-car accident that involved a train, a bus, and a cruise liner. I had to finish. I cringed, but I read. And then I read it again, with a note pad and pen. And I cringed some more. But – while authors like Guy Kay made me “want to write like that,” this guy’s books made me believe I could get published.
    When I start to doubt my ability to write, I read something I’ve written, then I read a few random pages of one of those books and I feel so much better about my abilities…

  • quillet

    I’ve been driven by both reactions, at different times. It’s yet another reason why “read, read, read” is such good advice for writers.

  • Vyton

    I’ll be the odd one out. I came to writing because I like to tell stories, and I thought it would be cool to be a writer: somewhere between Hemingway and Arthur C. Clarke. Not even close, but I still like to tell stories. Thanks for this great post, Misty.

  • Razziecat

    Whenever I catch myself thinking “I can do better than that!” I remind myself that the author in question did something besides write a book (good or bad): He/she finished the story, submitted it (possibly numerous times), and got it published. Even a self-pubbed author went beyond the writing to get their work out there. Knowing that is both humbling and inspiring.

  • “…Donaldson’s work. I found them so different, so odd, so dark, so unlike all the other stuff I had ever read, that I started to see the possibilities that writing offered.”

    I think that made them a turning point in what was publishable in the fantasy market. Before, S&S was the depth of darkness. After, the fascinatingly grim had a spot on the bookstore shelves that it might never have found otherwise.