Growing as an Author: A Reflection

Picture it: Sicily, 1942. Marne, 1992. As a student half-way through my high-school years, I indulged the fantasy of being a writer. Much of what I wrote in those days was, believe it or not, snail-mail correspondence, primary to my aunt who at the time dwelt in Oregon. But I did other writing, too. Mostly flash fiction about powerful wizards, as I recall, inspired by the Lord of the Rings, with my content consisting mostly of scene descriptions and almost zero dialogue. That summer of ’92, as the calendar inched toward September and the resulting issuance of my driver’s license, was my final big rural summer-vacation hurrah before I started working and thinking about what happened after I graduated. It was the last time I experimented with creative writing for more than a quarter century.
In the early ’90s I wrote on a then-innovative Brother word-processing system, the WP-3400, the kind with a daisy-wheel electronic typewriter attached to an amber CRT monitor, supported by a 3.5-inch drive for storing documents. The unit is long gone, but I still have the little cube I bought to store my disks, complete with a description of which of the dozen floppies contained specific types of files: On the back, in pencil, I noted which slots held my disks dedicated to correspondence, school papers, mail merges, “author stuff,” and my diary. The Brother unit was the successor to my first typewriter, a 1930s-era Royal KMM, the kind that so enchanted me that last year I bought a replacement KMM on eBay that now sits on my living-room desk and occasionally gets pressed into service for envelopes and checks.
In college, I didn’t spend much time doing creative writing. Much of my work as a writer either focused on Latin translations (if you’ve never studied a foreign language deeply, you’d be surprised at how translating original works to and from a different tongue sharpens your sense of syntax) or journalism. By the time I resigned my editorship at the Herald, I could write an 800-word editorial in about 20 minutes, with the resulting product solid enough to go directly on the page with very little editing on its journey.
Corporate life after grad school and newspapering led to corporate documents, rendered in corporate prose using corporate fonts. Then I experienced a brief period wherein I feared that corporate life might prematurely cut me loose, so my evenings pivoted to freelancing for online service journalism websites, mostly generating short-form how-to content related to finance, technology or careers. When you write, and then later edit, 400-word freelance articles in sufficient volume, you learn even more about what does or doesn’t work with English usage.
But non-fiction and fiction are wholly separate beasts. I recall — still with a sense of wide-eyed astonishment at my own inflated sense of self — the way I dived into my first experience with National Novel Writing Month in 2011. I remember Duane telling me the details of NaNoWriMo on Oct. 30. On Nov. 1, I began to write a detective story I only sort-of thought through. But I had believed that because I could churn out near-perfect non-fic prose in large quantities in short periods of time, it couldn’t be all that hard to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
I fell short of my 50k goal that year by roughly 48k words. Try as I might, I couldn’t wrap my head around the right way to tell my story. The following year, I tried again, with no creative writing exercises between events to hone my craft. Again, I fell short, but by only roughly 30k words. The year after that, after dabbling with different short stories, I eked out a “win.” Last year, same deal.
None of my NaNo novels are truly complete. Sanctuary — my 2013 victory– is fundamentally solid, but Chapter 4 vexes me still and fixing it will requires a stem-to-stern rewrite. Last year’s Aiden’s Wager stands around 60k words and is targeted for 85k when it’s done. I know how to finish it because the blanks have been fully plotted, and I think the story has real legs, but I also need to strip a lot of the graphic depictions of what amounts to torture porn from the middle chapters before it’ll be safe for polite audiences.
And I’ve been published as a fiction writer, with this year’s Providence, a novelette included in the Brewed Awakenings anthology.
Now I labor as a publisher, receiving queries from authors and editing selected works. I find I’m writing more things — fiction, non-fiction — but also thinking more carefully about how those pieces are presented. I also recently perused my own writing archives to uncover various trends. Such as:

  • My personal blog has moved away from short essays on a given cultural or political topic, to more occasional but longer essays interspersed with factual updates about what I’ve been up to. The trajectory points to longer, more substantive pieces submitted less regularly.
  • I’ve grown more precise about English style even in my informal work, mostly as a reaction to the frequently committed style errors I’ve seen in some of the service-journalism editing I’ve done over the last few years. Many English constructions are common enough that most people don’t think about them, but which still get a “substandard” label by the guardians of linguistic orthodoxy. Increasingly, I default to more conservative usage.
  • I’m more acutely aware of the mechanics of long-form fiction than I used to be, and such knowledge colors how I approach a new fiction story of any length.

Let me share my evolution specifically related to the production of long-form fiction.
At first, I did what so many writers do: I sat down and started typing, tabula rasa, into Microsoft Word. Admittedly, for my first NaNo try, I did possess a vague sense of what I wanted to accomplish, but it was a back-of-the-cover blurb instead of a fully fleshed plan. I had some names and a sentence of two of demographics for my characters, but that was about it. I started the first chapter with no sense whatsoever about who the murderer was or why he (or she) did it, despite that the first chapter opened with the murder. My core learning is that I’m not good at turning on a spigot, transcribing the result and arriving at a product that looks like a coherent novel. Some writers can do it, but I’m not among their number.
With my second stab, I tried writing with Scrivener, to rely on its additional bells and whistles to keep my writing notes organized. I had a much better sense of the story arc; I knew, chapter by chapter, what the main plot sequences entailed. I also had some more fleshed-out character descriptions before I started the work of writing. What derailed me, though, were two problems. First, I aimed too high; I planned the first volume of a sci-fi trilogy instead of a stand-alone story, so when I filled in the chapters, I had to think about not just one work, but two other works that weren’t even well-considered skeletons yet. Second, I obsessed about little things far too much for a first draft. I spent a week on my opening chapter (which, I still think, was awesome, but too polished for the early drafting phase) and I spent several hours researching minor details, e.g. the physics of what happens when a grain of sand hits a person in a space suit at half the speed of light. In short: I mostly fixed the planning problem from the year before, but I got tripped up in trying to be too perfect the first time around.
With Sanctuary, I got the formula right. I planned the plot in detail, with scene-by-scene descriptions of the major plot movements or points I had to cover to keep the story straight. I walked into the story with a clear sense of who my main characters were, and I included a major subplot specifically to advance one character’s emotional development despite that the story was developed as a crime thriller. By Nov. 30, I had a complete novel in hand. And because I didn’t obsess about the details, I left myself occasional notes to fix things on a second read. One big fix requires a subplot rewrite, but … that’s the point of writing. You never let it go after a first draft, ever.
By last year, Aiden’s Wager built on my previous improvements and I fell into the rhythm much more quickly. I thought less about plot and character from a big-picture perspective, and more about nuance. It mattered to me that I got point-of-view consistent and appropriate for certain scenes. I cared that some characters changed as the story unfolded and others didn’t, and that certain characters demonstrated specific mannerisms or verbal tics. Instead of focusing on an event-driven plot, the story revolved around the main character’s rapid slip into Stockholm Syndrome and how he couldn’t quite break himself out of it without help from the family he rejected. So telling the story of the main character as he progressed from cocky rich boy to angry rape victim to willing submissive — and how he found the path back to wholeness — required more character development than plot twisting, and much more dialogue both internal and external than I was accustomed to writing. In particular, I had to write the main character’s girlfriend very carefully so that her demeanor in the early book hinted at, but didn’t telegraph, her later betrayal and then remorse.
I still have a long way to go as a writer. My “novelist voice” is solidifying, I think, and that’s an exciting place to be. I’ve already thought about what my next novel will cover — no spoilers! — and with the notes I’ve committed, I’m confident this one will be my best one yet.
Rare is the author whose very first novel gets published. Many successful writers admit to having drawers of early manuscripts gathering dust in a corner, because the craft of novel writing comes with practice. Every new manuscript that gets put into the drawer is stronger than its predecessor. Every new manuscript teaches the author a lesson about what does or doesn’t work for how he, as an artist, executes on his craft.
I know I’m a planner. I write only when the entire plot is graphed, the characters are fully fleshed and each scene has a purpose. So I have largely mastered the basics as they relate to a writer with my procedural biases. Now I’m working on more complicated things: Voice. Consistent and appropriate POV. Nailing a scene description with verbal economy. Obscuring didacticism with skillfully rendered dialogue.
I think writing is much like building a house. If you’ve never done it before, you stress over pouring the basement walls, framing the studs, running the plumbing — the basic stuff that’s second nature to a typical contractor. The more you grok the foundations, though, the more you stop thinking about the basic infrastructure that you’ve already mastered and jump ahead to the detail of the cabinetry or the shape of the marble on the countertops. The best architects looking at a field during a groundbreaking ceremony don’t think about drywall or concrete; they think about what vase will perfectly complement the leather sectional they’ve planned for the living room. So also should good authors progress so the fundamentals become instinct and they spend their creative time on the ornamentation that elevates a craftsman-like story into a work of transcendent art.
Writing coaches scold their charges: “Just write every day,” on the theory that habituation leads to success. It doesn’t. Learning from your mistakes to grow your skill matters much more than mere volume even will.