Wednesday, October 23, 2013

10 Different Firsts for Authors

When trudging into an unexplored territory for the first time, it’s common to assume what you see is the norm, that you’re not witnessing the exception to the rule, but the rule itself. This is a reasonable assumption and not all that unlikely to be true. So when a writer begins his work and hears all these horror stories about feeling rejected and demoralized, and meets with all these similar feelings, he may believe that all of the negatives of trying to be an author are just something he’s going to have to deal with. And then, one day, he is proven wrong.

1. The first book you actually finished.

May people dream about finishing that first book, but if asked, not many will say they see it actually finished in the next five years. It is typical for the dream to carry us longer than any concept or plotline.

So when it is done, suddenly, one day, without ceremony, we look back on it and think, at least for a moment, “That was easier than I thought it was going to be,” and, more importantly, “I can do it again!”

The first book gives an author the long-sought feeling of accomplishment. No longer is he just one of the masses talking about writing a novel; he’s done it. This first story is a huge hurdle that, after passing, breaks the illusion of the impossible task before him. It sets the standards for the stories after it, delegating an idea of what the author should expect from his other works, including time taken and word count managed.

The author knows now that he really can do it; he wasn’t fooling himself.

2. The first time you like what you’ve written.

I was four books in. Until that time, I would get halfway through a novel and look back dismayed. I would only finish because I forced myself. I kept telling myself I could always change it later. So, when the fourth came around and I was genuinely thrilled as I went, I began to realize just how much I really didn’t like the others. Looking back on it now, they have merits to them that I brazenly ignored, but I didn’t like them, and after I finally started to, I allowed myself to explore and experiment far more with that confidence.

This can be a while, and even when it happens, the lingering doubt may be there. But for everyone who writes a long time, there is always the sudden instance of, “This is pretty good!”

The doubt that comes from writing in general isn’t necessarily accurate. We can be far too critical on ourselves even when we’re in the beginning stages. Despite what people think about the raging beginning author, the problem with not being able to take criticism comes from doubt of talent, not confidence in it. So it is usual for people to take a while to have faith in themselves.

The author knows now that he might actually be good at something.

3. The first time you have fun at a critique.

I avoided most creative writing classes and workshops. Though I wrote all throughout high school in prolific amounts, I barely involved other people. I thought, and at times accurately, that the advice there would be closed-minded blanket rules, and I don’t like competition.

I didn’t really start seeking out criticism until college, which was, by the way the worst place to do it because those competitive bureaucrats I feared were often paid for acting that way. The teachers there—and I do only mean this about them specifically—were the biggest stereotype of “If you can’t, teach,” I’ve ever seen.

They never said anything mean to me. They never said anything really at all, no matter how long they talked.

But by the time I took creative writing my senior year, I had learned enough about the process to be confident, I had begun to understand how to sway the atmosphere of a room and prevent the hostility, and I had already overcome my confusion and insecurity about the writing “basics.”

After my ninth book, I started to enjoy critiques. A part of this came from avoiding people I didn’t respect or who didn’t respect me, by selectively controlling who I was talking to. I understood what I was looking for and I was sick of keeping my work isolated and unread.

One day, I traded books with an old high school friend. We went to lunch and talked about what we thought. I left there laughing, sorry I had to go.

That’s not to say I enjoy all criticism, or that you will ever be completely over reproach. I’m not thicker skinned, I just understand my thin skin better and put up controlled situations to best adhere to it. My point isn’t that criticism will always be fun, it’s that it can be.

The author now knows he won’t be crying for the rest of his career.

4. The first time you honestly compliment something you wrote.

Book 12: I gave it to someone to read. She didn’t, of course, because that’s what happens. But after my years of casually passing out manuscripts that people would ignored, I learned the benefits of nagging, and so nag I did.

After about three months of having it, I said to her, “You need to read it. It’s hilarious!”

It came out of me without even thinking about it. It would have to have, because I had never said anything so blatantly positive in my life. The second after I said it, I was shocked; it hadn’t been me forcing myself to be confident, it hadn’t be me being insincerely persuasive, it was the honest truth.

Whether or not it is hilarious is arguable. Or rather, subjective. But, at least at that moment, I felt like it was. I truly believed it. And even though, had you asked, I would have said I like what I wrote, it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had never actually said something good about my writing without straining over the phrasing and fearing their disagreement.

Sometimes we feel that no matter how good we are, we’ll never actually be able to recognize it. The insecurity will always be there. But then, one day, it isn’t.

The author now knows that at least one genuinely thinks he’s a good writer.

5. The first time after editing your book, you were actually sad it was over.

This is different than being sad after typing out “The End,” on your first draft. That’s generally sad, and, no matter how unsatisfactory the book has been style-wise, we still often feel connected to our characters.

But in the same way that putting a “real” book down can leave us with grief, our own books can do the same. When so often the reading of our own writing is painful, that connection we feel to the character is lost, and we don’t feel like a true reader. The story’s over, and we’re like, “Next.”

This took me a long time; longer, I think that it does for most writers. Book elven I struggled to read through with very little time on my hands to do any sort of writing, let alone editing. The novel, which was far too long, took me three full days to get through, and I spent most of it cutting down. At the end, I finished just as I had to go to work, and I got up and left to find this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I thought it to be a dissatisfaction with the ending. I thought there was something wrong with it. There was some reason I was unhappy. But as the day went on and the feeling lingered, I suddenly recognized it to be what it was: I was sad it was over.

We like to not trust ourselves, to think that our opinions and feelings towards a book are too biased to ever really meet up with how a reader would see it. Yet, there are times that, despite seeing far too much of “backstage,” watching how the monster is sewn up, seeing the princess chain-smoking in the dirty alley, it is still possible to believe in the magic.

The author now knows that his book could be a “real” one.

6. The first time you don’t believe a negative criticism even slightly.

It was high school. My play had been performed for the first time. I asked my friend what he thought of it. He didn’t like it, and he had no qualms about telling me it. Maybe because he didn’t want to like it. It didn’t hurt at all. Not immediately, not later, I was never bothered. I was amazed I was never bothered.

It’s not as though that’s common. It’s not as if after that moment I was able to roll with every punch they gave me, but it was still nice. Nice to know that, whether or not it was confidence in myself or a lack of confidence in him, I could truly ignore criticism.

Authors often fixate on criticism with the eternal question of, “Am I right, or am I just too stupid to realize I’m wrong?” People can let the most idiotic of advice influence them, and that is the hardest part of the writing process. So nothing can be more of a relief than when you know, surely and positively, that you are not the one who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

The author now knows his opinion counts.

7. The first time you couldn’t stop reading what you wrote.

I’m not really an, “edit while you write,” sort of person. I’m not advocating against it, though I know people do. I tend to write the whole thing then edit the whole thing; I usually don’t read what I’ve written until it’s finished.

Then one day, I started a book. Then I stopped it and worked on something else, but that’s a different story. In between novels, I went back through and read all of the beginnings that I had written and never finished, and this story stood out to me. I couldn’t wait to make it.

The words just flew onto the pages, and I’d never been more excited or happy with the results. But what was different, what was weird, was that I couldn’t stop reading it either.

Every day I’d sit down to write. I would open the page and glance at the first sentence. The first then lead me to the next, then to the next. Each morning I would reread the entire thing.

At first, this wasn’t problematic because there wasn’t that much to it. But, of course, everyday it grew and grew, and soon it was taking large chunks of time to get through it. I thought, I’ll read until I get bored and then jump to writing. This was a fairly common process for me anyway—I would get interested in the first page, yet quickly lose interest. But I never got bored, and I would keep reading.

There is nothing wrong with getting sick of reading the same thing over and over again. Some of the greatest books in the world are only interesting when you don’t know what is going to happen. It is common for writers to never have the same obsession as their readers, but it’s really nice when we do.

The author now knows he can write a hook.

8. The first moment you become aware of your writing habits.

For me, diving into the writing world was like swimming through murky waters. It was heavy and hard, I couldn’t see much in any direction, and I was kind of just guessing where I was going. As I said, I did the majority of my work in my teens, which attributed to the claustrophobic fugue state, but it is not uncommon for writers to tackle a novel with little idea of where they’re going or what they are doing. Rather, have done.

My main recommendation to any potential writer is to read what you’ve written. It’s hard, it’s painful, but it clears those murky waters far faster than anything else can. I spent so much time writing and so little time reading it, that it took me many years to start being self-aware.

I would do things that were easily solved by being conscious they were going on. I ended up looking back through and correcting the same exact problems in each and every book that I had written. By the time I had understood these tendencies (which were easily revealed by reading it), I learned to prevent them in the writing process.

Self-awareness struck me like a hard epiphany. I felt the fugue around me even as I was deep in it, but I didn’t know how to remove it. Then one day, it seemed to separate. I stopped worrying about how my writing appeared to other people, feeling as though I knew. I got a good grasp on what I considered “good” writing to be, and what I didn’t want to be doing.

Writing for ourselves requires more knowledge than the brain thinks it needs to know: about literature, about the world, about the way people judge each other. In the beginning we are so overwhelmed by the information we still need, it often becomes a guessing game. But then, slowly and surely, the author starts to know exactly what it is he doesn’t know and can seek the answers easily.

The writer now knows what needs to be done.

9. The first time positive feedback leaves you unsatisfied.

I didn’t seek feedback until I actually wanted it. I didn’t want criticism, I wanted support. I sought it a little, but knew I wasn’t going to receive it to the desired extent, and so barely gave my writing to people.

Then, one day, I was sick of it. I needed more satisfaction than just that by completion. I needed to believe that I was good, and no matter how much the purists hate this, it required external reward.

I would go in and the feedback was positive. Some nitpicks here, some irrationality there, but for the most part everyone had very little to say. No one wanted to be the bad guy, and the ones who did were did—ironically—for the wrong reasons and still said nothing useful.

I was fine with that. At times, I tried to maneuver it that way.

Then, after a while, it just didn’t work. I would get positive feedback and compliments and people honestly liking it. And while that was what I had been looking for, it started to seem like a big waste of my time. I would leave those sessions, instead of feeling happy and exhilarated, annoyed and grungy.

When I, and many others, start, we sought only emotional support. There’s nothing wrong with that. But over time, it’s not enough, and it starts to get to a place where we think, “I don’t want you to like it. I need you to love it!” An author stops going to external places for that support, now out of honest confusion, knowing what he doesn’t know, and unable to figure it out. All of the sudden, he doesn’t need to be told he’s good. He wants to be told how to be great.

The author now knows it’s not about being meant to do it, but being able to.

10. The first time you realize people are taking you seriously.

It’s fairly common for people to belittle their own accomplishments. For some, many of the things they did “doesn’t count.” “I’m not really an author; I’m not published. I’m not really an author; it’s only on the internet. I’m not really an author; I didn’t get paid. I’m not really an author; it didn’t sell very well.”

But over time ambition will have its effect. The little projects add up, and while each of them have a compelling reason they’re not “real,” other people won’t see it that way. You’ll be talking about all that you’ve written, the articles on the internet, the short stories in small literary journals, the tiny awards you’ve won, and they’ll say, “Jesus Christ.”

The change from the obscure aspiring writer to the honored position of True Author is a gradual one, and yet we feel as though the moment will be obvious, that we’ll be sitting there saying, “Now I am a writer.” But it doesn’t come, and one day, while believing people see us as the hacks we feel we are, we suddenly find ourselves in a conversation that makes us realize, “This person is taking me seriously.”

Then, with that, we begin to acknowledge that maybe our work is going somewhere, that all the fears we have are proving to be wrong, and that maybe we do know what we’re doing.

Now the author will know that people are seeing him how he wanted.

I have yet to have that moment.