Looking Back at My Unpublished Work - A Book Called "Starlight"

Before I can feel capable—or ready—to make a post like this for my most recent book, “The Girl with a Fairy’s Heart,” I thought it’d be fun to take an excursion through some of my old, developmental, unpublished work. This is in no particular order. I like to think, without meaning it at all, that this is somewhat brave of me—only because some of this old stuff is TERRIBLE. Delightfully, even insightfully, terrible.

But reading back on old stuff has lately been a wonderfully enlightening experience for how it makes me able to see my growth as a writer. I suggest to any writer who’s reading this to try this sometime, if it’s something you don’t already do. Emotionally prepare yourself to look back at some early work of your own. See how much you’ve grown, where and how you’ve improved, and cringe and laugh and be appalled.

I thought I’d start with a story of mine I came across recently. It was a short novel—about 50,000 words—called “Starlight,” written around 2012 and finished, I think, in 2013.

For some context, I was ten years old when I first tried writing a novel. So I’d been writing for about seven years or so. I don’t know how many books I’d written by that point, exactly, but it was a decent amount (not that any of them would be considered “readable” by my own standards, or by any standards).

“Starlight” was about a teenage girl named Carly Tills. The story begins with the death of her father—an apparent suicide. Later, in the course of her grieving, she begins to learn more about the man her father really was. For years he’d been obsessed with a serial killer he called Starlight. and had written several books on the killer. In some ways this was a coming-of-age story as Carly learns that her father was never the man she knew him to be. In other ways it was a meditative thriller as Carly suspects the serial killer is still out there and may have killed her father, and may now be targeting her.

It was a pretty strange story. But I remember it was incredibly fun to write.

And the writing… oh god, the writing…

What’s amazing to me about looking back on this book now, and on the writer I used to be, is how much I’ve grown since. My writing was very close to stream-of-consciousness back then, and I was able to pour writing out unself-consciously, charging forward. This is exactly what I needed to do. I’d have it no other way. But I just didn’t have the tools that I have now as a writer and storyteller.

Some of this is fundamental, which makes the story a delight to look back on. Filler words are in abundance, plenty of “that,” and “very”; or broader fillers like “began to,” or such stuff as “completely full.” I had also never heard what it meant to cut out filters in narrative, so there’s a lot of descriptions filtered through the character’s point of view rather than presented directly to the reader. By that I mean, I wrote “Carly saw…” instead of just describing what she saw. This creates an unconscious distance between the details of the story and the reader. This is so rampant in “Starlight,” I can’t even give any specific examples. It is, however, a mistake that all writers have to make at least once, or through a period of time as they develop, in able to learn not to do it.

Thankfully there are no mistakes of the “would of” instead of “would have” variety. I realize, as I look back over this story, that I’ve always been good at grammar and the technical nature of writing. I wasn’t great, but I had an intuition for it. That wasn’t always the case with sentence structure, but I was using semicolons correctly, for the most part (yes, I’m far too proud). So there’s that.

Many of my descriptions were abstract rather than visual. You’d get the feeling of a place without much to visualize it.

Oh, and this is a big one. Luckily it wasn’t something I overdid, but it’s something I’ve certainly overdone in some of my earliest stories. Occasionally, in “Starlight,” you will find such offenders as “a harsh gasp rattled violently through her.” This isn’t as bad as it could be. But it’s an unfortunate mistake to describe emotion as something that “strikes” or “rattles through” or “grips.” Well… I shouldn’t say this with authority, and I don’t mean to, because there is a proper way of doing this that isn’t so verbose or flat or, simply put, amateur. The key is usually, in my experience, simplicity and in how visual it is. Fortunately, there are such lines as this in “Starlight,” to balance it out:

“What? Me? What do you want?” She gripped the strap of her messenger bag at the hollow of her shoulder, tightened her lips shut.

It’s not great, but it’s not “shock swarmed her body” or something… godawful like that. This harkens back to one of the oldest but most useful pieces of writing advice, when employed properly: Show, don’t tell.

Also a cringeworthy delight to encounter in this book is the way I used words to excess. Non-visual descriptions pepper every paragraph, needless nuanced additions and modifiers engorge every sentence. And sometimes, as it is with young, developmental writing, there’s just unexplainably awkward sentence constructions, like this big old winner:

Having forgotten her phone on her bed, Carly had no way of knowing what time it was nor how long she had been out, but it wasn’t long before she turned—hugging herself, constantly wiping tears from her eyes and cheeks—for her house and started walking for it.

The awkwardness of it speaks for itself. I mean… what was I thinking?

Although there is a great deal of potential for character in this story, as in character arcs, the fact that it could be a coming-of-age crossed with a thriller, the story never really grasped that potential. I wasn’t talented enough for that yet. Therefore, as with many of my early work, “Starlight” is a work of great potential and very little meeting of that potential. But that’s how we grow.

The endearing element of this is how I threw myself into writing and, though I didn’t know it at the time, learned a lot from it. Even now, here I am, learning from it.

Recently I’ve discovered that the fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has entire series of lectures available to watch on YouTube. While I’ve yet to read any Sanderson, I now fully intend to. I’ve learned so much from these lectures on the anatomy of storytelling, you could say, as well as on the business of writing. Whether you read fantasy doesn’t matter; if you’re a writer, I highly recommend seeking out those lectures. I bring this up because of some of the things Sanderson has to say about progressing as a writer, and certain markers and stepping stones that show you are progressing in the right direction.

Not long after completing “Starlight,” and being young and with only a surface-level understanding of the business of publishing—and knowing even less about the importance of editing and the power of the revision process—I sent the book out to publishers and agents. This is something I was always persistent with, happily so. I have a hefty pile of rejection letters both physical and virtual, and a few of those are for “Starlight.”

One of the major things Brandon Sanderson spoke about in one of his lectures was about querying literary agents. He said a good indication that you, as a writer, have gone from amateur to semi-pro, is when you begin to receive personalized notes on rejection letters. When it isn’t merely a generic “This isn’t the right time for us” or something of that sort, but comes with something personal, even if it’s just a tiny note, that’s when you know that you’re approaching a readiness for real publication. I can still remember the first time I got a personal rejection letter—it was on a manuscript I sent to Tor, one of the largest publishers out there. I don’t remember how long ago that was, exactly, but it was long before “Starlight.” To receive a personal note from such a major publisher is still, to me, very cool to think about. In fact, I forgot about that until recently. The note was for a book called “Charlie Louise,” and it was a small note, but said something to the effect of, “This is pretty good. Keep writing.”

“Starlight” was one of those early books that I actually got a couple of requests on. I sent it to a few publishers (and even sent it to Black Rose Writing, the current publisher of my first three books, which means that I proudly have a few rejection letters from them), and sent it to a few agents. If I recall correctly, two agents got back to me wanting to see more pages, which in itself is a stepping stone. One of the personal notes I got back on “Starlight” was this: “While the voice on this is excellent, we had trouble connecting with your main character.” A disappointment? Sure. But in the writing business, and for me, this was such a great thing to hear back. Rejection letters are reason to celebrate; they’ve always made me excited because they’re what I expect. It’s only now, years later, that I look back on this particular rejection letter and realize how big of a stepping stone this was, and how important it is to me now.

Reading through a few pages of “Starlight,” I see exactly what that agent meant. I’d been writing long enough to begin developing a voice. That may be one of my strongest areas as a writer: my voice. Then again, I’m still terrible at objectivity when it comes to my own writing, and am evidently insecure about it in a number of ways, but I think I can say that with confidence: My voice is one of my strong spots. The writing in “Starlight” is permeated by a lack of experience and room for growth, but that’s exactly what was meant to be happening with that book. That’s the age I was, both as a person and a writer. And it’s such fun to look back on now, because yes, I think it’s pretty terrible. But there are elements of it that are strong enough to remain interesting, especially because I can see how I’ve developed those elements—even more so, how I’ve grown through so many of the faults that “Starlight” is riddled with. For an early story, however, it dealt with some interesting themes, blending morality in bold ways, exploring the intricacies of growing up and facing reality.

One thing I didn’t expect from looking back at old unpublished work is how it charts my growth as a writer and storyteller. It’s been a refreshing experience, insightful and enlightening. It’s even helping me gain some perspective, helping me look at myself now in a different way. I can see more clearly how I’ve grown as a writer, how I continue to grow. It’s making me feel proud of myself and more confident than I normally feel going forward in my career. All the more reason that I suggest this to you, any writers or artists reading this. Try taking a look at the stuff that you’re normally embarrassed to look back on. You may just end up feeling proud of yourself.

Looking Back at My Own Work - Fairlane Road (2017)

I began writing Fairlane Road not long after finishing Other Endings. I knew from the start that it was a strange story, and knew very little about where it was going. The rest of the book, especially the end product, was a surprise to me—in some ways, it’s still a surprise.

I think part of that is because I don’t always know how to classify my own books. That is especially true of Fairlane Road, though time and reflection have given me some perspective.

I finished writing it in February of 2016. Although the book is only about 150 pages, it took me roughly a whole year to write. At the time, it was the hardest book to finish that I had ever written despite its small size.

Looking back at this book, I can see how it was a struggle to find my voice. I was emerging from some important parts of my life and stepping into a new stage in my progression as a writer. My relationship to language—how I used language—was changing, especially after my discovery of Raymond Carver, who remains possibly my favorite writer of all time (I’ll likely do a post about him, someday). And over the course of Fairlane Road, I think my voice evolved and settled into a comfortable rhythm. Of course, I’ve evolved so much more as a writer since then, but this was an instrumental book in my development.

Partway through, in fact roughly halfway through the story, my writing slowed down almost to a stop. I realized that the antagonist of the story—Charlie Knox—was not who I’d originally thought. The story took on a deeper philosophical meaning, and from there it was complex to me, harder to write. At one point I got so stumped and writing felt like such a chore, I abandoned the book and began to write short stories. I needed to write, I always need to write, but it was no longer fun working on this book. Taking a break turned out to be a fantastic thing to do. It gave me space to breathe. I had fun coming up with short stories and finishing them within a day or two.

It was as if I’d rediscovered the joy of writing. Reminded myself of what it’s supposed to be, what it can be. And I was able to return to Fairlane Road after about a month (if I recall correctly) and the rest of the story went much more smoothly.

And, as with any past work, there’s plenty to critique.

I think the very beginning of the story is a bit stilted, primarily in the dialogue. I’ve had a friend confirm this, though luckily it isn’t so bad as to be unforgivable, and the story cruises along nicely so that this stiltedness dissolves.

There are a couple of small early scenes with Charlie Knox that feel a little overly theatrical, again with dialogue. This makes the scenes pretty fun, even if they skirt a bit with the cartoonish. I believe this is a result of my not knowing Charlie Knox well enough yet. Had I been a better editor, I could’ve fixed this in subsequent drafts, since I came to know him better later in the story.

And perhaps one of the most interesting things about my own relationship with this book, to me, is how I think of the character of Andrew Jean, Jezebel’s father. When I first wrote the book, he was one of my favorite characters to write. He’s a bit cynical, pensive and philosophical and stubborn, and he has a troubling connection with Charlie Knox. This connection isn’t as interesting as Jezebel’s, but it’s enough to make Andrew’s and Charlie’s confrontation a tense one. As time has passed and I’ve reread the book, now that it’s been published for awhile, I don’t feel the same about Andrew Jean. I think he’s overly serious, and his cynicism is a sad weakness since his philosophies border on nihilistic. There is a self-importance about him that makes him a compelling character, but not one I’m as personally fond of anymore.

That isn’t so much a flaw in the story as it is interesting to me, and kind of exciting. The way my relationship with my own characters changes over the years. I’m sure any writer might find joy in exploring this with their own past work.

Perhaps the biggest thing about Fairlane Road to me is how I feel about its philosophies, because it is decidedly a philosophical book.

While there is much discussed by the characters on the deeper nature of good and evil, right and wrong, and other similar things, I think the most important and impactful philosophies are the unspoken ones. It’s all good and fine what the characters speak about, even if I would rewrite much of it now if I could, but the heart of the story is in what the story says without saying.

Vague spoilers, by the way, if you’ve not read the book.

My last reread revealed this to me about it. How, really, the main opposing characters represent light and darkness at odds with each other. And, by the end, the course of events implies the powerful importance of meeting our dark sides and embracing them, seeing darkness as the other face of light, death as the other face of life. It’s a simple message, but I still find the way my book explores it to be compelling and thought-provoking. And very weird, too.

On the note of positive aspects of the story, I’m still proud of some of its structural tricks and the unfolding of the narrative. And the characters have stayed with me, especially Jezebel who, though embodying the light, is far from perfect and whose actions are often questionable. I love writing closely in her perspective (though still in third person), meaning I almost never judge her actions as the narrator, meaning it’s up to you to judge her as you will. This wasn’t intentional in Fairlane Road, but is something I tried to do in the sequel, which I’ll discuss more in my next post. But the effect of this has been a delightful range of interpretations of Jezebel; it’s different for almost every reader I’ve talked to. Some of those perspectives were surprising and enlightening. I love that.

This book was a culmination of many things. Its primary thematic elements stem from far back in my life as a writer. I have a number of developmental works from my youth that deal with young people who straddle the line between our world and another. This goes way back with me, for some reason—and is part of the reason the writer Neil Gaiman is such a beloved favorite, and a definite influence. I’ve even had characters who very much resembled Jezebel in past books, and they too were torn between our world and another strange world. Fairlane Road was the first time this ever came together successfully in a story of mine.

It is also a book of many influences, from the poetry of William Butler Yeats, to the screenplays of Ingmar Bergman and also the first season of the show True Detective. And the character of Charlie Knox began in a dream. Early in my conceiving of the story, I had the character of Jezebel, I had the town of Lamplight, I had an idea of what the Higher World was like. And then I had a dream about a ruined city where the streets are full of trash and degradation, and there is a cult run by a married couple. The married couple were psychopaths, completely insane and depraved. And they had a child. The rest of the dream was simple fun and strangeness, but the idea of a child of two cult leaders, and who that child would grow up to be, is how the character of Charlie Knox originated. It’s one of the few times that a dream has truly inspired me.

Feel free to comment to let me know what you think, leave any feedback, or let me know what you’d like to see in future posts. Thanks for reading!

Looking Back at My Own Work - Other Endings (2016)

I thought it might be interesting to take a small journey back through some of my own writing. And this blog seemed like the perfect place to do it. What I plan to do is make this into a small series of posts as I periodically take a look back at my own work, mainly my three published books. I may also do the same with some of my older books, which for now shall remain unnamed and will forever remain unpublished (for the better). It might be fun.

Feel free to leave feedback, let me know what you’d like to see in these posts (or any future posts, in general).

For now, cringing as little as possible, let’s take a look at my first published book, Other Endings (2016). This should be interesting. For me, at least. Hopefully for you, too.

Other Endings is the story of an emotionally battered and despondent man named Lester Halley who flees his life and ends up in a small English town called Margaret’s Mourning. He begins to learn more about the mysterious small town, comes to know some of its people—the good and bad—and learns that it is haunted by ghosts. For him, these ghosts are both literal and metaphorical, seeming to arise from the darkest part of his past, connected with a love he lost long ago.

I began writing Other Endings in 2014, and finished in April of 2015. Since then, the amount I’ve grown as a writer is… immense, in every single way. For this reason, as this book was published at the end of 2016, it’s hard to look back on. As a writer, I suffer from the constant feeling that I can always do better, always make something better. It’s a driving force, one that I’ve managed to discipline and transform into productivity, but sometimes it is a torment. I’ve learned that that’s the case with anything of mine that gets put out into the world. I look back at my own work and think, If I could have just one more draft. And any number of variations of that. For me, no book is ever completely done. This is especially true of Other Endings. Oh, the things I could do to improve this book, given the chance.

I ramble.

In the way of critique, there is much to say about it.

There are a handful of logical issues with the book, mostly ones involving its setting of a small English town.

There is an issue of genuine wordiness, as this was a truly developmental book for me as a writer. It came out of a difficult and tumultuous time in my life—and was almost a much darker story. I was adrift, lacking a grounded sense of self and relying on exterior things and people for a feeling of meaning and self-worth. I learned a lot about myself during this time, and regret a lot about how I was, but it was a learning experience and it helped me become who I am today. I took the world, I took life itself, for granted. I took people for granted. I isolated myself behind barriers of opinion and judgment and fear and cynicism. I’m sure these feelings, in some ways, made their way into the book, into the characters, making it, for me, quite an interesting one to look back on. Maybe that’s why there are parts that still make me cringe. I was a much different person, a much different writer, when I wrote this book. Much younger, in so many ways.

Plus I was doing a lot to experiment with language and sentence structure and words. The result is that it is a book of excess from the point of view of writing.

While there are a few good characters in the book, there is so much more that could’ve been done in the way of characterization. As the writer of the book looking back on it, I think a lot of the dialogue could’ve been rewritten and given more subtext. I remember trying to be very direct with how the characters expressed themselves, but that doesn’t always work here.

I also feel that there are elements of it that come from too raw of an emotional place, and perhaps misrepresent mental illness from a broader perspective. I haven’t reread the book with this in mind to confirm whether or not that is the case, more so it is a feeling I have about it.

It is also straight-up incredibly weird. There are some reviews of the book that show me it was misinterpreted on a surface level, as to me this book was always much more metaphorical in nature not only with some of its specifics, but in a broader sense as well. There’s even a point in the book when it goes almost full allegory, with Lester Halley’s confrontation of the “agony god” of Margaret’s Mourning. Weird stuff.

That’s where, I think, the book’s strengths are. Not that its being metaphorical justifies its flaws at all, it simply offers explanation for certain aspects from which it can be critiqued.

For as much as I can critique it negatively, I’m still proud of it some ways. It may not be a particularly well-written novel, but I do think one of my strengths is simply in storytelling. Once the story picks up speed, which may be around the halfway point or so, it carries real momentum. At least that’s what I’ve found on rereads. And many of its emotional notes strike quite as I intended them.

It is a first novel, and I’ve been assured that there are so many authors out there who look back at their past books, especially their first books, and have something to this effect to say: “It’s a first novel, I know what’s wrong with it, and I’ve come to peace with it.” The “coming to peace” part is what I’m working on.

One of my favorite things that I’ve heard said about Other Endings is that it isn’t a fun book to read, it isn’t one that you read and necessarily “like,” in a conventional sense, but it’ll stay with you. That kind of feedback makes me happy. I’d like to write books that are fun to read, too, but this book was never intended to be that. It was never really intended to be anything. I wrote this before I even knew how it felt to be published, or how it felt to have an audience in any substantial sense. And I may not have a truly substantial audience still, but it’s a published book, it’s out there in the world, and that is both scary and exciting. As for Other Endings, the general feeling is: Yes, I’m published, and I’d love for you to read my work… but if you don’t mind, maybe don’t start with my first one?

And yet it’s fun being able to say that at all. The part of my mind where my impostor syndrome resides goes crazy with the thought of this book and everything I think is wrong with it and everything I want to be as a writer, but that’s always how it’s going to be with pretty much anything I write.

Another of my favorite things about the book, brought to light by a review I read of it, is my treatment of ghosts. A reviewer described how unique it was that I treated the ghosts of this story with empathy, as interested in their stories and their feelings as in the feelings of the living characters. The funnest parts of it to write were the haunted elements, the ghosts—and the character of Angie, the little blind girl who “sees” the ghosts and is connected to them. She’s probably my favorite character of the book, though undoubtedly I’d be able to write her so much better now.

So, in conclusion, Other Endings has a lot of problems both on the surface and beneath. Some of its problems are broad enough that, if I were given the chance and wished to devote that much time to it, I would probably rewrite the whole thing from scratch. But that’s a given with any past work, isn’t it? I’m gradually, continually learning to see—always with support—how cringing at past work is a gift, a sign of having grown.

There is some good to be found at the core of Other Endings, but the book needed research put into it, it needed a heavy editorial hand (the kind I have long since developed). But there are aspects of it that shine through, and I’ll always have an awkward fondness for it in my heart. It’s my first published novel, after all. And that remains the biggest stepping stone of my life as a writer so far.

The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I've Heard - Part II

#6. Start with Character, Not with Traits

Every now and then there is a piece of writing advice I’ve found that applies universally to everyday life as it does to writing. This is one of those.

What it means to start with character, not with traits, is exactly how it sounds. And it is especially true when talking about the relevant issue of representation in art and media.

When coming up with a character, your first thought should never be “This character’s role in the story is to be the girl in the group,” or “This character’s role is to be trans,” or “This character is the one with a haunted past,” or anything of that sort. To do this is to define that character by that trait, to decide: This is what makes my character matter.

In my opinion, this is wrong both in writing and in life. For one, it’s going to make for bad characters whose dynamics stem from a single dimension. In real life, people are deep, complex, and multidimensional. Only in identity politics are people defined by single dimensions of their identities. And two, no character whose role is more than a passing side-character should be doomed to serve as a tool within a story. Although some will disagree, I believe characters should be treated as people in a story, with their own weaknesses, desires, flaws, and inner worlds. Just as people in life should be treated as people.

When it comes to representation in writing, it means simply this: Start with their character, their personality, and whatever comes after is simply whatever else makes them human. Their traits are pieces of a whole, not the things that define them.

On this issue, it’s another thing if, within the story, the other characters around them define them by those traits. That is realistic. But you, the writer with your own perspective, should be above that. Representation for the sake of representation is going to feel empty (ex: “This is the asexual character”). Representation for the sake of telling the story of human beings (ex: “This is a character who, for the longest time, wasn’t sure why she didn’t feel the same way as her friends when it came to romantic situations or talk of boyfriends and girlfriends. At some point she discovered what asexuality was, and despite many people around her thinking all she’d have to do is have sex to discover otherwise, she knows she’s asexual and has found contentment in that”) … that’s where good character writing comes in. It’s the same regardless, really. Putting any character in a story for the sake of putting a character in a story (ex: “This is the token comic relief character”) is going to feel empty. Putting a character in a story for the sake of telling the story of human beings (ex: “This is a character who was raised very differently from the people around him, so he makes jokes more frequently to feel included and because making people laugh is one of the only things he thinks he’s good at”) … you know the rest.

#7. Your Day Job (and other parts of your life) Are Not Interruptions to Your Art

I’m guessing everyone has heard the line “Don’t quit your day job,” typically used as a joke or even as a demeaning comment. And not that this phrase needs to be reclaimed, but this advice, which I’ve only encountered a few times (including in the excellent little book, The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell), is an intriguing and important variation of that idea, one I find empowering in how it embraces the virtue of everyday life.

Among those who are disenchanted, it’s easy to fall into the mindset that if only you didn’t have to go to work, you’d really get some good work done in your art. Or, if not exactly that, then it is a mindset of complaint and negativity, and things like work and the obligations of regular everyday life can become tedious or maddening or can feel like interruptions to the important things you otherwise want to be doing.

I have days like this. I’m sure everyone does. But, to me, the important thing is that these are just days. They come and they swiftly go because I do not invite them to stay; I don’t allow myself to think like that.

For any artist, and this is especially true of writers, the importance of something like work, like your day job, cannot be understated. I say this from personal experience, and I say this as a regurgitation of some of the best advice I’ve heard or read on this very subject.

It sounds cliché but it's no less true that a great deal of inspiration is going to come from the intricacies and encounters and experiences of simple everyday life. To work toward something, to sustain oneself or a lifestyle, it may feel as though that work is in the way of that lifestyle, but really it is a relationship between the work and the lifestyle, and it can be a beautiful relationship. Where is the true reward in something if it isn’t something you earn? But there is, of course, far more to it than that. For example, people are not something you have to put up with. People are… well, they’re people. And the artist that does not have a sense of empathy or compassion for others, or does not have some kind of deeper-than-surface connection to humanity… well, what is that artist doing making art in the first place? In the same way that people give symbols power, so do people give art power.

Plenty of writers, especially aspiring writers, don’t commit to a serious, disciplined writing practice even with their day jobs, but still think that if they could write full time, then they would find that discipline. For some it might be true, but I know it isn’t true for myself, at least not yet, nor for many others that I know. It’s a nice dream to have, something to imagine, but it isn’t the case. From a personal point of view, I think it’s more important to start where you are. Carry that discipline into the job you have now and into the work you do, and carry it equally into your writing regardless. Understand the relationship between having two jobs, and make sure those two jobs aren’t at war with each other. There can be a harmony between them so that one feeds the other. Carry that dedication everywhere you go and into everything you do. This connects to the first piece of advice I shared in the previous post, about how it really isn’t about being inspired, it’s about the constant choice you make, the discipline you give yourself. To do this is a choice, one you have to make every day. Not that it’s going to be easy every day, but I think it’s more than worthwhile.

Don’t take for granted the position you are in. You are exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what you need to be doing. Start where you are. Everything and every person you meet is not an interruption on your way to your art, it is a teaching, something that can feed you, something you can learn from, both as an artist and a person.

#8. Compete With No One but Your Past Self

Sometimes I come across a writer, or a book, that is so good in every aspect, I can only describe the feeling as being close to envy. It’s the “I will never write anything this good” feeling, and it’s fairly common when there are so many truly great writers out there, each in their own ways and in their own genres. It is also a perfectly valid feeling, because chances are: You’ll never write anything that good. Mostly because whatever it is, it isn’t your story. It’s theirs. I’m experiencing this very feeling right now, having just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. I know for a fact that I am never going to write anything that good, but rather than descending into resignation and envy, I’m trying to channel that feeling into a motivation, a willingness to strive for more, to tell my story the best way I can, because that’s what Rothfuss did, that’s what all the great writers did. They told their story the best they could.

That’s where this piece of advice comes in, and it is as applicable to everyday life as it is to the artistic and creative process. It is delightfully simple, if difficult to put into practice.

The only other writer/artist/person you should be in competition with is your past self.

To be in competition with someone else—anyone else, be it another author, a friend, a family member, a loved one—means that everything you do through the filter of that competitiveness will be in the shadow of the thing you are competing against. Your every action will be dictated by that competitiveness. What you imagine is an act of freedom and independence will instead stem from that mindset. This can be observed in real life, not merely art, in brokenhearted people seeking happiness in the wrong places, thinking themselves free when really they are running away from something, their actions dictated by needing to distance themselves from the one who broke their hearts; it can be seen in people trying so hard not to be like their parents, not realizing that the choices they’re making or the beliefs they’re forming are acts of rebellion or defiance.

In the same way, in your writing, if you are in competition with another writer, all the writing you do will be through the filter of that competitiveness. You will be creating a cage for your writing that constrains it, ties it to something else, and what may feel like originality will be mere subversion that exists in the shadow of what it is trying to subvert. And not that there’s anything wrong with subversion—in fact, subversion itself is a powerful tool—and satire can be an effective genre. But, at least in my opinion, it isn’t somewhere you want to live. To be in competition with no one else puts you outside of disappointment and inadequacy. It is freeing, and it is peaceful.

If you put yourself in competition with your past self, then you are doing something different. You are challenging yourself to grow. You are striving to be better than you were, and that is something no wise person would advise against. And it is more than worthwhile to decide to never stop growing, both as a person and as an artist.

#9. Remember the Power of Context

For these last few rules, I want to get a little more specific and a little more practical.

This is one of my favorite things to keep in mind. The power of context.

Another way of saying this: Do not let things happen in a vacuum.

Let’s make up an example.

Say you want to portray a character having a mental breakdown related to other people around him—some kind of agoraphobia nightmare or something. What do you think is the most effective way to do this?

You could lay out all of this character’s thoughts, a stream of consciousness that serves almost as a rant in text about how there are too many people and they’re all in a hurry and it’s maddening and it’s ruining the world and it’s driving this character crazy. That could work on its own. Done right, it could be something unique.

But if you’re aiming for effectiveness as a scene, wouldn’t it be better to put those thoughts into context? To put your character on a crowded street, to describe the whooshing of cars on all sides, the chattering sounds of dozens of voices, the footsteps and the cell-phones ringing or buzzing, the smells—some cologne and perfume, some putrid—and to interweave the same aforementioned thoughts into this scene and within the details. I think it spices it up a bit, grounds it, makes it more effective. The context makes it what it is.

You can also use context for seamless transitions into little segues. Say you want a character to start a conversation about marijuana. You could have it pop up randomly in conversation, because that happens all the time: sometimes there’s no telling where our thoughts go, or where a conversation flows. But for the sake of fluidity, it might spice things up if you have this character smell a whiff of marijuana while walking someplace, which then segues into a conversation about marijuana.

Context is a very simple, powerful thing. And reminding yourself of it can bring a scene to life in ways you never could’ve imagined before.

Sometimes context comes in the form of mere small details that flesh out the setting of a scene. Sometimes context will drive the entire scene.

And this is true, in my opinion, for poetry as well.

#10. Reveal Character Through Action and Image

This is an obvious one, very simple, but it’s never wrong to repeat it, because it is so important. It’s something I struggle with but am learning to recognize in my own writing so I can put it to use. Rather than go on about it, I’ll use a vague example from my own writing.

There are two characters—Wes and Alicia—who are newly together. They’ve been together for no more than a week or two even though they’ve been friends for much longer, so they are still getting comfortable with each other. In the early drafts, I introduce these characters in the way I just did to you. I basically explained, “They’ve been together blah blah blah,” in about a sentence or two, before moving closer to them and into the details of the scene.

In a more recent edit, I got rid of any of that stated exposition, and replaced it with this: “Wes is standing by the small iron fire pit that’s been set up in the middle of the deck.  There’s a red plastic cup in Wes’s hand and he’s talking with Alicia. They’re standing close together. When Wes makes a joke and Alicia leans forward with laughter, she puts a hand on his arm.”

This ties into context, but in my little writing journal, it’s its own separate reminder, so that I can always have it in mind: Reveal Character Through Action and Image.

#11. Conflict is a Driving Force

For the last piece of advice, something simple, fundamental, and endlessly practical.

You always want your characters to have weaknesses and desires—and yearnings, in a broader sense—simply because that’s how it is with real people. And it is immediately compelling even before any major plot points come in. Within scenes where nothing dramatic may be happening on the exterior, having some sort of conflict, some sort of unmet desire or yearning within your character(s) will compel the reader forward regardless. In fact, there are great books—truly great books—where the plot IS the character and their inner world. Done right, it’s all you really need. And it’s important to remember the importance of conflict in this way.

All the better is when you can meet the interior conflicts with the exterior. Always move the writing toward something, even if it must be the most minuscule of things.

That’s all I have for now on the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard. I hope you find this helpful in some way, productive in others. And do feel free to let me know what you think! What you would add, what you would take away. And thank you for reading.