Take it for what it's worth: my (worthless) advice to other writers

4 years ago | ubersoft (Member)

THE RAMBLE

I've been really struggling with getting Issue 24 finished, and sometimes when I'm wrestling with myself it's a good idea to write something else, especially if it's about something that's been whirling around in my head. And when Issue 24 is finally finished, it's going to be a milestone for me – it will be the end of Curveball Year Two, and will kick off the final arc of Curveball's current “Project Recall” storyline (Year Three).

So I've been thinking a lot about Curveball on a meta level, which has been very distracting on a practical level, and very recently I got distracted (in a good way, not a bad one) by the “Kidding Not Really” thread lifesharpener started, because it got me to thinking about writing on a meta level (ok, so maybe that IS a bad way, but in a bad way I enjoy) and finally I guess it's come to the point where I just have to write this down so it's out there, so I don't have to think about it any more, so hopefully I can go back to finishing Issue 24 before June is finished, because if I don't I'm going to be really, really pissed.

So with that out of the way…

THE PREAMBLE

…I have mentioned in the past that Jim Zoetewey (and, specifically, Legion of Nothing) was the guy who inspired me to consider turning Curveball into a serial. What I've never said was that Wildbow (and, specifically, Worm) was the guy who made me think that maybe I shouldn't bother. When I was considering starting CB as a serial, Worm was relatively new (seven or eight months old) but two things were already pretty clear:

- Worm was a great serial
- Wildbow was a fucking fantastic writer

On top of being good, Wildbow also wrote like a goddamned machine. And I don't mean “machine” in the sense of “what he creates is soulless”, I mean it in the sense of “the guy is unstoppable! He never gets tired!”

So when I was thinking about it one of the first things I had to wrestle with was “why bother? You can't compete with Worm. There's no place to make a mark.”

(And I should add as an aside, that Worm has—at least in the web serial world—permanently altered the superhero fiction landscape. If you search for reviews for any superhero serial out there you will inevitably run into one where someone says a variant of “well it's no Worm, but...” – that's a pretty impressive impression to leave on a reader and on a genre.)

So I had an idea for a story and one of my first thoughts was “this would be so cool!” but one of my second thoughts was “what's the point? It doesn't matter how cool it is, it will probably never be as cool as Worm.”

Obviously I got past that. Which is the thing I want to talk about—the advice that I want to impart. Advice I'm not entirely sure is good for writing in general, but advice that I feel is absolutely necessary for writers specifically. And the advice is as follows:

THE ADVICE

As a writer, you will be deluged with competing desires. You'll want it to be good. You'll want the audience to love it. You'll want your peers to be impressed. You'll want lots of reviews. You'll want people commenting enthusiastically on each update. You'll want people talking not just to you, but to other people about every post you make, speculating on what will happen next, maybe even being inspired themselves. You won't want all these things at the same level, and you won't want them to the same degree as everyone else, but I'm pretty sure you'll want them.

And there will be other people who want specific things out of your work. And if they don't get those things, they'll either try to convince you to provide them, or they'll ignore you as someone who isn't giving them what they want, or they'll actively campaign against you because this is the Internet and that's what people on the Internet do.

And all of those things will come together to attack you. You will struggle with each one:

“Why isn't this good enough?”

“Why does my audience not seem to care?”

“Why don't I have the respect and adulation of my peers?”

“Why isn't anyone reviewing my work?”

“Why doesn't anyone comment on my updates?”

“Why did this guy give me a bad review?”

And so forth, and so on. These things will whirl around in your head and you'll try to find answers to them, and some of that is actually good—considering why your story isn't working the way you want and trying to fix what you think is broken is part of the process of becoming a better writer, so a certain amount of that broodishness, when not taken too far, actually helps to make you better. But a lot of it actually works against you because there are too many opinions, too many variables, and in the end you can't account for and address all of it. In the end the only way you get better is to keep writing, but trying to absorb all that stuff as you go is a surefire way to not write at all.

And the worst thing to do is to get to the point where you decide the best course of action is to not write at all. Part of getting good is forcing yourself to risk being bad in public.

So as a writer, the most important thing you have to do is push all those competing desires aside and focus on one question, and one question only. And that question is as follows:

“Do I really want to tell this story?”

As a writer, that is the only concern that should drive whether or not you take on a project, and whether you keep doing the work. As a writer, you need to decide if the project is worth it—and if you decide it's worth it, you need to do it.

(Caveat: this is only true for a specific kind of writer. If you're working “for hire” your priorities become quite different).

But you aren't working in a vacuum. You're writing something that other people will read—even consume—and those people don't care (and they have no reason they should care) about what you think is worth doing. They are their own people, with their own wants, and desires, and priorities, and preferences… and in most venues where your work is put on display, their priorities and opinions are more important. Because they're the readers, and they have no obligation to you, as a writer, to appreciate what you were trying to do. If they don't like the end product, it's not because they have failed as readers—they get to hate and/or be bored by and/or be unimpressed with anything and everything out there.

But then the flip side comes up again—you can't do anything about that, other than try to get better over time. So again, you, as the writer, have to return to the one thing: “Do I really want to tell this story?”

See, there's tension there. Over time, at least in a best-case scenario for writers, you as writer get to choose the story you want to tell, choose the way you want to tell it, and convince the audience you were right, and the tension goes down. Over time is the important part there. But it doesn't happen if you allow yourself to be intimidated out of telling the story you want to tell, because when that happens you start down the path of trying to meet expectations first, and the danger of doing that is that it's a pretty short jump from that to pandering, at which point you will find yourself less and less able to actually take a risk when you tell a story.

So you start off by telling the story you want to tell, whatever that story is, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and at the end of it all you take it on the chin and move on. And at the end of it all you'll probably see what you would have liked to do better if you had the chance to do it all over again—and the great part is, you will have a chance to do it all over again, just in a different story. But you commit to the story you're telling, don't let go, and see it to the end.

It sounds like a very arrogant stance to take, and that's not an unfair comment to make. When you say “I don't care what the world thinks, I'm going to write it anyway” you are running on Ego (well, more to the point, on Id) and a lot of it to boot, but it serves a very important purpose.

SOME CONTEXT

Going back to my original dilemma, after thinking about it for a bit I realized that when I asked myself “why bother? You can't compete with Worm” what I was really trying to do was shield myself from failing in public. Let's be clear—ultimately Worm is a bit too dark for my taste, but that doesn't keep it from being utterly fantastic, which is tough to process because there is so very much of it. Even eight months in to the serial there was more story in Worm then than there is of my serial now. And it was good. It's not hard to see how my subconscious was afraid of failure when I started posting my serial in its shadow, because it would be very easy for anything to look pointless by comparison.

But here's the thing: Wildbow wasn't the problem. And Worm wasn't the problem. Wildbow isn't a proper antagonist. He doesn't go around trying to stop people from doing things. He writes his stories, he does it exceptionally well, and there's absolutely nothing about that which prevents anyone else from doing the same thing. The problem was me: one of my Big Stupid Insecurities is that I'll wind up being a Salieri to someone else's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—constantly struggling to achieve a goal I can see but not reach, while someone else not only reaches it, but they brush it aside as if they don't understand why people even consider it a goal in the first place. Not everyone has that specific issue, but I tend to think everyone probably has something, and the only way to successfully get past an issue is to want something else more than you fear whatever it is you obsess over. What got me past that with Curveball was that I really wanted to tell the story, so much so that I decided that even if it pissed people off that I was starting a second serial while the first was bogging me down, or even if everyone hated it, or—even worse—even if no one cared about it at all, I would want to see the story told. What's more, the more I thought about doing it, and the more I thought about how I wanted to present it, I got excited about doing the work. So at the end of the day, despite a not insignificant level of insecurity and terror, my desire to tell the story won, and I told it.

And I'm really grateful I did. My storytelling abilities have improved dramatically compared to what they were when I started. I didn't expect to stretch myself with Curveball, but it turns out that writing in present tense forced me to look at language differently. Forcing myself to write in a genre where “action scenes” were kind of necessary made me think about how to make that happen. The whole of idea of trying to make prose feel like a comic book forced me to make choices that, good or bad (some were good, some were bad) made me flex in ways I never had before. And none of that would have happened if I'd tried to this without an audience, even during the times the audience was practically non-existent—and what's better, that audience definitely exists now! (Though it's rather small).

Anyway, this started gelling for me when I was reading the “Kidding, but not really” thread, when lifesharpener was speculating on why people don't get reviews. My smart-ass response in that was “I am far too arrogant to believe this is true” but that's a distorted translation of my point here: whether or not your work is good shouldn't be a consideration while you're doing the work. You consideration should be “do I want to keep telling this story?” If yes, you keep telling the story.

There is a painfully unfortunate side-effect to this worldview. It's very easy to make the step from dedication to your vision into “an unflinching belief in your own imagined superiority” – in other words, it can make it easier for you to be a right arrogant prick. It can lead you to reject good advice by convincing you that there is no such thing as good advice because it all “conflicts with your vision.” It can make someone who is doggedly convinced of their vision a terrible writer if their vision happens to contain a lot of things that are just plain bad:

“My Vision Is That I Will Capitalize Every Word In Order To Make The Reader Decide Which Words Are The Most Important. It's A Bold Stylistic Choice And I Stand Behind It 100%.”

It's a risk. It can be minimized if you're willing to put in the work, be self-aware, think through the things you go through, but it will always be a risk, and will probably wind up being a bigger risk the better and more successful you get. But it's also the thing that will make you better.

So: always tell the story you want to tell, even if you're the only one. And the only time you should ever stop telling the story is if you decide you don't want to tell it any more.

(While we're at it, don't confuse the momentary emotions of discouragement and frustration with the belief that you don't want to tell the story any more. Right this very minute, I do not want to finish Issue 24 because I'm very frustrated and it's pissing me off. But the truth is, I actually really DO want to finish Issue 24, I just don't want to feel this frustration, and part of my brain is trying to convince me that if I gave up the story I wouldn't have to feel the frustration any more. You can be your own worst enemy sometimes. Tell yourself to do something rude, either metaphorically or metaphysically, keep calm, and write on.)

OK, sorry for the interruption. Hopefully this helps me write on. If it helps anyone else write on, that's absolutely fantastic.

Curveball (Updating)
A Rake by Starlight (Updating)

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Responses

  1. Tempest (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Wonderful. You have just hit nearly all of my insecurities.

    Not the one about Bow, he is just too lovable. But I can forgive that because, well, I'm nice.

    The constant reminder that I do want to tell this story is what keeps me going when the doubts come for me, but its hard. And it is nice to know that we are not unique special snowflakes. Our problems are shared problems, among many of us it seems.

    So thank you, for putting this out there.

  2. Chrysalis (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Like I recently told Temp in chat - if you're doubting yourself, think of poor little me who is doing all of this IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. You guys have it so easy. :)

    Anathema, a web serial about the effect superpowers would have on our world. http://anathemaserial.wordpress.com/
  3. lifesharpener (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    If "The Preamble" comes after "The Ramble", shouldn't it be "POST-Amble?" haha, just kidding.

    Dude, you got some serious soul searching going on... and it's really cool.

    I appreciate you giving words of solid advice and encouragement, which very well may offset any discouraged authors thinking about giving up after reading my post... (which is totally not what I was going for, but in hindsight realized might have happened). You're saving me from myself. You're Batman, and I'm Two-Face...

    I myself will carefully consider your advice for writers, (no doubt I will find myself in that place soon.)

    Good luck finishing issue 24!

    In the spirit of your advice to keep writing "despite the emotions", I leave you with this brief scene from Runaway Bride; the part when Gill finds out that Maggie never had a rose tattoo...

    ---------------------------------------------
    IKE - "...I think the man is heartbroken."
    MAGGIE - "He is not!"
    GILL - "I think I am."

    Gill grabs his guitar and sits.

    GILL - "Hey, Ike, what would Jerry do?"

    IKE - "Jerry. He'd play. He'd play... Jerry
    would play his heart out."

  4. J.A. Waters (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    It's good to see these thoughts because they do highlight the shared creative experience. The key I always hear is tell the story you want to read, so, yeah, you're spot on in that, that's what I think you have to boil into your drive. Otherwise you get hung up on whether or not you're original, whether or not you compare to writer so-and-so, or whether or not you're liked.

    What's kind of neat (terrifying) to me is how these insecurities spread across all creative fields. Because, in addition to writing, I used to draw and play with music stuff a lot. For artists of all types, style seems to draw a more immediate crowd. I think considering something like Wildbow's work is a natural draw toward what's been proven, so the instinct is to compare yourself to another's ideas and quirks. But that person's style got started with them because they made something new that worked. So I try to focus on the content, on the characters and the plot. Somewhen someone told me that style is what happens when we make mistakes that we embrace. Maybe the readers will like it, but if they don't then maybe find new ones. Like you said you need a certain arrogance, otherwise you die changing out your core.

    And I think that's why it's important to just follow the mantra of write often-write well. Get experience, get confidence, but the other key is in what you said: Risk being bad in public so that you get feedback as well. You say a writer isn't in a vacuum, but it can be easy to create one for yourself. But if you use critique to develop and improve I think you'll pass some plane of self-contained assurance.

    So by all means, keep going, but maybe fiddle with side projects too. Heck, some writers leave their favored works for years because they need the distance. Consistency is key, but quality suffers if you don't like what you're doing.

  5. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    @ubersoft -- this is very WORTHWHILE advice to any writer. It is one of the best topics anyone has ever contributed to WFG, in my opinion, and the shortage of comments almost fits because what else needs to be said? Write because you want to write -- the rest will take care of itself.

    Thank you for saying it.

  6. Ryan A. Span (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    I had a think about this and wanted to add a little something of my own. It's a bit personal so forgive me if I ramble.

    “Why isn't this good enough?”

    “Why does my audience not seem to care?”

    “Why don't I have the respect and adulation of my peers?”

    “Why isn't anyone reviewing my work?”

    “Why doesn't anyone comment on my updates?”

    “Why did this guy give me a bad review?”

    If you're anything like me, this never goes away, no matter how much success you achieve. You have to be prepared to carry it. It's all part of something I refer to as 'the fear.' The anxiety of never being good enough to fill that hole, the hole of not only wanting to be heard but wanting to have your words mean something to others, even if it's just a few hours of entertainment.

    No matter how many nice reviews I get on stuff I create, it's never enough. It'll make me feel good and put the fear away for a bit, but then it comes back, triggering an addictive need for more to make it go away again. But no writer gets a constant stream of good reviews 24 hours a day. Even if I did, I'd spend more time reading those than I would writing. I might never write again. Because writing is terrifying. It's a constant weight of judgment -- I've reached the point where I believe in myself enough, where I'm convinced I can make things that are consistently good, but... What if? What if I spend all that time and effort overcoming these demons, only for my worst fears to come true? What if a fickle audience will judge me harshly despite what I think is good, or worse, won't care? It's so much easier to run away and just bury your head in the sand. Sometimes the urge to run and hide gets overwhelming and you have to step away.

    And then, if you're anything like me, you come back to it every time. You can't stay away. You have to tell stories, and you're not satisfied with leaving a string of abandoned, unfinished dreams behind you. It may take years, but somehow, you knuckle down and hammer out every last word you've got inside you. Then comes the most terrifying part, but you've come this far, and you're sure as hell not going to let all that blood, sweat and tears rot away in a desk drawer or a dusty corner of your hard drive. So you put it out there one way or another and hope that this one will make the fear go away.

    It doesn't, not for good, but that's okay. You've let the fear pass over and through you. Where it has gone there will be nothing. Only you will remain.

    The reviews are intoxicating, but it's a fleeting high. It won't be there all the time. You can chase it, but you'll ruin yourself in the process. All you can do is hold fast and know that if it mattered to no one else, it mattered to you.

  7. Madiha N. Santana (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    I relate a ton to that experience Ryan.

    I'm confident enough in my writing that hitting the Publish button is a hurdle, rather than an impossible obstacle, and I don't think that'll change. But I'm pretty much always anxiously awaiting some revelation that I'm no good and should not be doing this at all. I have this latent, irrational fear that someone will just hit me so critically that I won't be able to go on. I have an anxiety disorder (among other things) so that only makes this worse. But every time I manage to hit Publish because despite everything, I want to keep doing this so bad. I can't imagine a life without some writing going on.

    I've got a lot of inertia built up lately, it's not like when I began and had to climb that mountain without tools every time. I've gotten some validation since, and that helps. But what's helped more is that I have a huge personal desire to do this.

    I don't think it's totally wrong to do things for external validation. But it's a lot harder, and probably a lot more painful unless you become hot stuff overnight. I've been at this for close to two years now and I'm still not even lukewarm stuff.

  8. Ryan A. Span (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Dennis: It's not wrong, no. Hell, it's something I still do, even well past that self-destructive point (because anxiety disorders ahoy). But I've gotten better at pulling back from it, and if I have a message, that's what it is. You can't fight it, so accept it, and try to roll with yourself.

    The string of projects I've got behind me has helped me feel more confident and more credible in people's eyes. Occasionally, when I send my writing CV over to a prospective new job, they'll sound impressed, and my query letters almost never get ignored anymore. Those are the kinds of thoughts and achievements that actually feel strengthening, rather than just propping up the anxieties. That's why it's important to keep seeing your stuff through to the end, because that's what will ultimately help the most.

  9. Emma (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Thank you for the advice. I will definitely keep all of this in mind. It also reminded me why I don't read the more popular stuff. I don't want to compare my writing to them and get upset that their not as popular. Just focus on me, my story, and my readers.

  10. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Wildbow's discussed having these very same thoughts. Its often refferred to as "imposters syndrome" where you feel like an imposter in your field. The fear that someone is going to discover that you're just faking it, and someones going to figure it out. Its VERY common with artists of any stripe (and lets not have the, are authors artists fight again, please). Personally, there was a time frame that if someone DIDN'T exhibit signs of that kind of fear, was always positive upbeat and proactively unhumble about their art, i auotomatically distrusted it and them. To worry that your art isn't good enough means, not that you feel like a failure (though you often do) but that you feel like YOU CAN DO BETTER! and you can. AFTER PRACTICING more. which is what your current art is, practice for the next art. which is practice for the next.

    So keep plugging away. And chris, yes... worm is better written than curveball. I'll say it, the pig has some chops, is better with the written word than you or I (for now). BUT.... when I see curveball pop up in my rss feed, I dance for fucking joy in my seat in a way that no worm update ever made me feel. I like Curveball more than I like Worm. Its more enjoyable to me to read, and when people who are unaware of the existence of serial hero fiction express interest, i link them to, in order, Curveball, Legion, SuperPowered, Worm.

  11. Billy Higgins Peery (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    I keep sitting down to write something, only to be intimidated and walk away. Let's see if things stick this time.

    (Just realized the irony of that, since your post is at least in part about authorial inspiration.)

    Ubersoft, this is all good, well-expressed advice. I think it's very important that authors write what they want to write, not just because it leads to better serials, but because it leads to a greater diversity of serials.

    As fun as it is to use Wildbow as a punching bag ("It really isn't!" Wildbow yelled, while getting punched (We're not even really using him as a punchbag I just desperately wanted to make that joke)), his serials merely represent merely one way of looking at the world -- one way of depicting it in fictional form. It's a well-told view of the world, sure. But it shouldn't be the only one people pay attention to. It's not one that's going to resonate with everyone, and even the people who like it aren't going to have every bit of their being satisfied by a single serial(ist).

    What I'm getting at is genre diversity. Genre diversity is honestly one of the most important things a medium can have. It's what allows for greater authorial freedom, sure. But it's also what allows a medium to reach the widest readership. Comics, for instance, are doing better than they have been in a long, long time. One of the reasons for that is companies like Image, who are putting out a kaleidoscopic selection of comics. As with everything, there's a type of serial out there for everyone -- if a writer doesn't write that type of serial, we end up with a potential group of readers, lost.

    Web serials are so primed for genre diversity. They don't have to deal with corporations who are afraid of stories with an offbeat, individualized point of view. That's kind of what I'm trying to get at when I talk about "quintessential web serials." The authors of quintessential web serials utilize one of the medium's greatest advantages -- freedom -- and use it to tell stories that ONLY they can tell. Stone Burners, Nowhere Island University, The Other Kind of Roommate, Tales of MU. These stories are f***ing weird, man. They HAD to come from the Internet. These authors told the story they wanted to tell, and they did it in a way that only a niche-y internet could hope to support.

    (There's a long discussion to be had about why I'm not sure about putting Wildbow's stuff on that list. In short: his stories are one-off, obviously, but their success -- along with the way they've been imitated -- makes them feel less weird.)

    There are some ways in which web serials aren't very diverse at all (a lot of superhero stuff, very little non-genre stuff, etc), but I think that'll change as the medium gets older. The best we can do to help things out is tell our own stories -- ones which will grab the interest of pockets of readers. More and more stories get out there for more and more types of people. The medium as a whole sees more fans, and by extension more authors. Things grow and grow, until web serials become the next big thing.

    And it all starts by writers following your advice. It all starts by writing what you want to write, ignoring the voice inside your head that tells you you're not good enough. It all starts by writing the damn serial.

    "Any number of hitlers, are still not my problem." -Tempest
  12. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 4 years ago

    Just wanted to jump in to say I've appreciated the comments in here and found the follow-ups extreme thought provoking. I haven't been replying because I'm still trying to get Issue 24 out, because it is currently an albatross hung around my neck and I'm busy wandering the earth and all that other Coleridgey stuff.

    Words, words, everywhere,
    and not a key to type

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)

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