The Uncertainty of What to Say -- Where I Am in My Writing Journey

There is a great contradiction in what it means to be both an introvert and an artist. I have no doubt there’s been much written about this and I’m sure I would benefit from seeking those writings out; however, being someone who struggles with it, and with trying not to see it as a contradiction, I’ve found there’s much that can be said about it.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed profoundly as a writer. Part of this is the fundamental growth that comes with passing time: none of us is the same person we were a year ago, a month ago, even a day ago. And another part—the more active part—of my own growth as a writer is almost obsessively willful. I’ve been inconsistent with this blog, and will probably remain inconsistent because I don’t know what to say. In fact, it’s more than not knowing what to say, it’s the struggle of feeling whether I should be saying anything at all, and if I should, then how should I say it? This internal conflict mirrors the struggle of any artist when it comes to their own art, but in a much smaller way because, at least in this context, I’m talking about a blog that I’m not even sure anyone reads. So I decided that this is what I wanted to talk about, because I think talking about the creative process is both fun and incredibly interesting, in part because the creative process is such a depthless mystery for each one of us. And talking about things, or writing about them (especially that, for me), is both cathartic and insightful. It helps me process and understand things more, and there’s so much I can say about my growth as a writer—and hopefully provide some helpful insight or something of that sort, for someone reading this, about their own processes, or their own art.

To date I have three novels published under a small traditional press called Black Rose Writing. My first, OTHER ENDINGS, is a bizarre and emotional ghost story that I look back on and try not to cringe about. The second, FAIRLANE ROAD, is a dark urban fantasy thriller with a heavier focus on philosophy than on plot, with interesting characters and an exciting story. My third, THE GIRL WITH A FAIRY’S HEART, delves deeper into the world alluded to in FAIRLANE ROAD, and which I still regard as a truly strange book, but which I’m still fond of. I have a complicated relationship with each of these books on their own, and even more so on a broader scale when I look at them all at once. For most of my life I’ve simply blazed forward with my writing, story after story, the creativity flowing and bursting out as if of its own accord. And it’s produced some fun, odd things.

And things have changed so much since those books, even since my writing of the third book, which was released just last year.

At the end of 2018, I finished a book that was unlike anything I’d ever written before. It embodied themes I’d been wanting to explore for a long time, and seemed to be the kind of story I wanted to write going forward. I was excited and nervous and uncertain about it, especially because, for the first time, it was a very personal story. It’s called WHEN TIME WAS KIND TO YOU, and it’s the book that helped me cut through much of the other kinds of writing I’d done in the past. It opened the doors of the revision process to me, teaching me how to do it more productively and extensively. I did roughly six or seven drafts of it, approaching every read-through from a different angle, smoothing it out and tweaking it, erasing or replacing scenes and entire segments. It was such a process.

And what I’ve had to come to terms with recently is that I’m no longer in love with it—which is a new record. It usually takes me awhile longer to look at one of my stories in a new light, or to feel that I’ve outgrown it. This happened with WHEN TIME WAS KIND TO YOU within a few months. It’s an important book in my development, perhaps to date the most important, but it’s one I will likely leave behind and maybe, one day, revisit and rewrite from scratch.

My writing of that book straddled a line in my development as a writer. Partway through that book, I began to seek out ways to educate myself in the craft of storytelling in ways I never had before, and this opened up doors into my creativity and growth as a writer—and person—that I had never even known were there. I devoured lectures on writing (there are quite a few different kinds that can be found for free on YouTube, practically amounting to free college classes) and devoured them again and again, absorbing everything I could. I’ve done this with narrative storytelling and literature, and have done so with similar lectures on screenwriting and storytelling in film, realizing that there’s as much to be learned from the world of cinema as there is from literature. In fact, the crossroads where they meet is an incredibly interesting one. Where screenwriting requires immense efficiency, novel writing has much more room and space for experimentation and tangents of various kinds, and I think there’s a middle ground that great writers have found.

This education process has given me a clearer view of my own writing than I’ve ever had. For example, I’m a pantser, or a gardener, in the sense that I don’t outline my stories and then write them, I simply write them “by the seat of my pants.” It’s always been this way and will likely always be this way, unless I decide to write an intricate mystery one day. However, I’ve learned to retroactively outline my stories, or at least break down the components in order to get a clearer view of my work, which will aid me immensely in the revision process.

The difference here, between the kind of writer I used to be—even just a year ago—and the kind of writer I am now, boils down to intention. In the book I’m currently working on and almost done with, there is a clearer, more focused intention behind the story’s components, behind the story’s tensions. There is a clarity to how the characters contrast each other, to how each of them grows across the story, and it is so exciting and so exhilarating. This is especially the case when I realized how important it is to be mean to your characters.

I decided I wanted never to stop growing as an artist and as a person, whatever that means. The path to success as an artist has much more to do with discipline and persistence than it does raw talent—although that is, of course, fundamentally important—and, for the first time, I’ve begun to feel confident about that. And it is an incredible, hungry feeling, to keep striving, to keep going, to never allow myself satisfaction in this.

But there remains the problem of deep introversion in the world of art. I’m not good at marketing myself, I’m terrible at selling my own books, not only because quality matters to me and I know I have grown so much since my published books, but because it’s deeply hard for me to feel okay about going up to someone and basically saying “Hey, I’m an author and I have some published books. You should read them.” I’m basically my own worst enemy in this scenario, and it’s ironic because I’m literally a bookseller and have the opportunity to sell my own books at the bookstore I work at. Which leaves me emotionally conflicted and nervous and wondering, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

I know that self-doubt is a fundamental part of being an artist, and I believe that goes for every artist. The battle against resistance—the “War of Art,” which happens to be the title of an excellent book I recommend to anyone, especially any artist who struggles with resistance—is rooted in the mere act of creating art. It is the upward climb of creating honestly and truly and effectively, and it is equally the climb of knowing you have something to say, and then getting past the resistance of feeling that you have a right to say it, and then getting past the resistance of knowing how to say it, and then getting past the resistance of finally fucking saying it—and saying it again, and again, and again.

In a past blog post I talked about struggling with impostor syndrome. This is something I do struggle with and feel, but, more recently, I realized—and have been processing, through a great deal of resistance and anguish—that I attributed far too many fundamental things about myself and my own mind to impostor syndrome than makes sense. I could go on about that, about coming to understand depression, and then realizing I don’t understand it at all, and trying to come to terms that it is, in fact, something I struggle with and have struggled with for long, long time, in far more acute ways recently than in the past, but for now I think this is all that needs to be said.

These are things I struggle with, these things are part of the climb of creativity and art for me. They won’t be for everyone, as we all have our own struggles, obstacles, resistances.

One of the most important things I realized, somewhat recently, is this:

I used to think that, were I to become a successful enough writer to support myself as a full-time writer, I would adjust my writing schedule to be much more disciplined. I used to think there was some line I needed to cross, some validation I needed to receive, in order to become the kind of writer I someday wanted to be. And I used to fall into the trap that life was in the way of art, like having to go to work.

I don’t think that way anymore. I genuinely feel my life has changed since coming to this realization.

I decided to write as if I were already a successful writer, and the result is that I’m more productive than i’ve ever been. For a few weeks, recently, I was writing 2,000 words a day, striving for that word count because that’s the number Stephen King names in his book “On Writing.” I didn’t always reach 2,000 words, but I was always close enough to feel content, and the striving was more important than the actual quota. This was interrupted by an intense, unrelated drop into depression, but I’ve been working back towards that and coming up strong. I set time aside every day, sometimes in short bursts, to write, and some days it comes smoothly, other days it’s like pulling teeth out—to borrow a metaphor I’ve heard a few times. I’ve learned it’s more important to get it written instead of getting it right, which is all the more comforting because of my refined revision process. You can’t revise and improve what isn’t written at all. So get it written.

I decided to stop valuing the wrong opinions, to stop looking at art any way aside from how I chose to look at it, and this has brought me peace. Everyone has their opinion, everyone has their influence—positive or negative—and everyone, most important, has their own process. There is no “This should be done this way,” or “This is how art is,” there is only the individual’s opinion and personal process, each as valid as the other. What is true of one person’s creative process—or even life, for that matter—won’t necessarily be true of yours. Sometimes one person’s can even be toxic to yours. Sometimes inspiring.

And I’ve learned that life and art aren’t ever in the way of each other. If I could become a full-time writer, I’d absolutely make adjustments in my life, but I wouldn’t quit my job, wouldn’t turn into a different person or drop off the face of the world. On the contrary, I value the various aspects of my life in how they feed each other and enrich each other, especially the work, the grind, the hard parts, even when those parts feel impossible to trudge through or threaten to drive me mad.

That’s life.

That’s art, too.

In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus illustrates a profound point about life using the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods to push a giant boulder up a mountain. Whenever he finally reached the top, the boulder was doomed to roll back down to the bottom, and Sisyphus was doomed to return back down the mountain in order to push it back to the top. Over and over in eternity. But the idea is to imagine Sisyphus happy. The struggle isn’t something to be overcome in our relationships, in our art, in our lives. It’s something to revere. Work doesn’t have to be done with the goal of finishing, otherwise the work becomes torture on the way to the end.

Camus said it best.

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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.