How not to write

Paul Raven @ 23-09-2010

I link to lots of other people who do, but I never write writing advice posts. This is because I’m a poor writer.

I don’t mean “poor writer” as in “possessing an inadequate or skewed grasp of the rules of grammar and narrative” (though there are doubtless some people out there who’d put me in that category, including myself every now and again). Nor do I mean “poor writer” as in “writer with insufficient disposable income” (though, again, I feel like one of those rather more often than my privileged lifestyle should allow me to).

No; by “poor writer” I mean “writer who fails at the most basic of writing hurdles”. I mean “writer who doesn’t write“.

All the anecdotal wisdom in the world, be it on the internet or elsewhere, shows us one clear thing about writers and other creative types: innate talent isn’t anywhere near as conducive to success – however defined – as sitting your arse down in that chair and, y’know, doing it. Pressing the keys, moving the paintbrush, practising the chords, whatever. To create successfully, one must take the chance of creating unsuccessfully. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; to try is to invite failure, but not to try is to ensure it; [insert favourite admonitory aphorism here, after spending a few minutes picking a nice font, printing it out and sticking it to the wall above your monitor, before making another cup of coffee].

This is not exactly a revelation to me; it probably isn’t to you, either. I’m not writing this post to claim that this has come to me as a flash of hard-earned wisdom or a bolt from the blue. People have been telling to to me, directly and indirectly, ever since I started listening (and probably before). To some extent, listening is part of the problem. I’ve probably spent at least half as much time reading the advice of fiction writers as I have actually writing my own fiction. Probably closer to the same amount of time, if I’m honest.

So why this post, then? In part, it’s as a reminder to myself. Over the course of the last fortnight, I conceived and wrote a 5,000 word sort-of-story, and published it here. Sure, it’s flawed (as a piece of pure fiction, as speculative futurism, and as many other things), and hell knows it’s narcissistic, rather silly and gloriously self-indulgent… but you know what? It was fun. And the funnest bit was seeing it finished, sent out into the world for people to read. To look at it on the screen and think “hey – I made that!”

I’ll use every excuse in the book to give myself a reason I can’t do any fiction writing. Too busy; not in the right frame of mind; feeling bad about my level of ability; whatever. Failure hurts; if you’re pain-averse, avoiding failure is easy. Just don’t try! You’d probably have just screwed up anyway. Better to save that spark of an idea for that mythological time later in the day/week/month/year/lifetime when you’ve got the time and mental fortitude to look the possibility of failure in the eye and stare it down. Because that moment is sure to arrive some day. Probably. Just not right now. Maybe tomorrow. (I’m so Gen-X it hurts.)

Isn’t it amazing, how well we can lie to ourselves? Sure, I’m busy. Everyone‘s busy. Successful writers, they’re really busy… and very few of them are Hemingwaying it up in a shack with nothing to do but drink whiskey and excise adverbs. I look at good friends like Gareth L Powell, who has a day job and two young children, and who still cranks out what seems like an inhuman wordcount every week; or public figures like Jay Lake, who (as pointed out by John Scalzi, responding to the questions of dozens of self-deluding schmucks just like me as to what motivates him to write) also has a day job and a child, plus cancer-related health problems that have seen him bouncing in and out of chemotherapy, heavy sedation, painkiller regimes and invasive surgery over the past few years, and who still writes, writes, writes. You wanna know how Jay Lake got that long bibliography on his Wikipedia entry? Dude sat himself down, and wrote. Day in, day out. It’s not something he aspires to, it’s something he does.

100 years of cyborg solitude” was a reminder to myself that I can do it, too*. As Merlin Mann points out, neatly snarking the countless swathes of products and advice blogs offering gems of advice for the aspiring creative: “Only ū— can make the writing happen™[via CrookedTimber].

Yeah, I know, I just linked to a creative advice post after decrying the reading of creative advice posts. But that irony is implicit in the post in question, so nyarrr. (I figure I can break the rules so long as I’m playing the game.) And I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with reading what writers have to say about writing, really; engineers ask other engineers about their methods all the time, after all, and who among us wouldn’t want some top tips from William Gibson [via BoingBoing], an undisputed master of his field?

What is fundamentally wrong, however, is thinking that reading the advice of other writers is a substitute for doing your own writing, and that’s a sin I’ve been guilty of for… well, for as long as I’ve claimed aspirations of authorhood, basically. Knowing my personal history as I do, I’m not going to claim it’ll be an easy habit to break (self-discipline is an aspect of my personality that needs to hit the gym in a big way), but nor will it break itself.

It’s high time I put up or shut up, in other words. Which – among other things –  means stopping this tirade and getting on with some proper work.

After all, I have writing to do later on.

[ * What can I say: deadlines and promises to people I respect and admire are huge motivators for me. There’s gotta be some useful way I can use that… ]

Bookstore futures from Shirky and Doctorow

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2009

bookstore signContinuing the increasingly ubiquitous discussion of the future of bookstores (in the wake of Borders in the UK going into receivership), two heavyweight thinkers have thrown their opinions out into the ring in the last few days. First of all, Clay Shirky, who notes that there are three basic groups of people arguing for bookstores to be rescued from what seems to be an unstoppable decline, and that it’s the one that treats bookstores as having in intrinsic community value that has the most hope of coming up with a workable model for the future:

[This] third group, though, is making the ‘access to literature’ argument without much real commitment to its truth or falsehood, because they aren’t actually worried about access to literature, they are worried about bookstores in and of themselves. This is a form of Burkean conservatism, in which the value built up over centuries in the existence of bookstores should be preserved, even though their previous function as the principal link between writers and readers is being displaced.

This sort of commitment to bookstores is a normative argument, an argument about how things ought to be. It is also an argument that might succeed, as long as it re-imagines what bookstores are for and how they are supported, rather than merely hoping that if enough nice people seem really concerned, the flow of time will reverse.

Then we get a response from Cory Doctorow, who can come at the question from multiple angles – as someone who has both frequented bookstores and been employed by them, and as someone whose creative output is sold through them. As always with Doctorow, out-of-the-box thinking comes as standard; for example, instead of seeing print-on-demand technology as a business-killer, why not look at how you can use it to add value to the bookstore experience?

At the Harvard Bookstore, they have someone who spends the day mousing around on Google Book Search, looking for weird and cool titles in the public domain to print and shelve around the store, as suggestions for the sort of thing you might have printed for yourself. This is a purely curatorial role, the classic thing that a great retailer does, and it’s one of the most exciting bookstore sections I’ve browsed in years. And even so, there’s lots of room for improvement: Google Books produces the blandest, most boring covers for its PD books, and there’s plenty of room for stores to add value with their own covers, with customer-supplied covers (the gift possibilities are bottomless), and so on. I can even imagine the profs across the street producing annotated versions — say, a treatise on Alice in Wonderland with reproductions of ten different editions’ illustrations and selling them through the store’s printer and shelf-space, restoring the ancient bookseller/book-publisher role.

Plenty of room for one-person middle-man businesses in there, as well… maybe the publishing houses should start thinking in this direction, too. What if they outsourced the physical side of book publishing – design, layout, so on and so forth – entirely to custom designers? You’d quickly get a range of services from the utilitarian to the luxurious, and add an element of individuality to a medium that has become increasingly homogenised… [image by jayniebell]

Blue-sky thinking aside, Doctorow and Shirkey make it plain that there’s no reason bookstores have to die off… but it’s up to the people that run them (and, to some extent, those who use them, too) to make some changes in the direction of sustainability.

The Existential Buffer – how and why our brains filter the Here and Now

Mac Tonnies @ 18-06-2008

Mac Tonnies - Loving the AlienMac Tonnies is planning a voyage into inner space. Where else can he go to find out what’s happening in the Real reality that our brains keep hidden from us? Continue reading “The Existential Buffer – how and why our brains filter the Here and Now”