words of writerly wisdom from Neil Gaiman

On his blog, Neil Gaiman was answering a question from a young one who said basically, “I know the way to become a writer is to write every day, but what do you do when you’re 23 and feel like everything you write is total crap?” I liked his answer:

That was pretty much how I felt when I was 22-23, too. I had a fairly good ear for other authorial voices, so I could pastiche, and I wanted to be a writer more than most people want to breathe, but I didn’t have a lot to say and I knew that I wasn’t very good yet — and also that I had ideas that were better than I was.

What I did was work as a journalist. It forced me to write, to write in quantity, to write to deadline. It forced me to get better than I was, very fast.

It got stuff I wrote into print. There is nothing for a young author that teaches you how to get better faster than reading something you wrote in print — suddenly every mistake, every infelicity, every laziness, shows up as if in neon letters.

And the process of transcribing conversations forced me to learn to write dialogue and learn the economies of getting speech patterns into just a few words. (Dialogue — even “naturalistic dialogue” — isn’t how people speak. So you need to learn to distill.)

And I was also lucky in finding myself with several book review columns, being forced to read and review everything, including stuff way out of my comfort zone, or books I simply would never have picked up. (I think writers should read from the shelves they wouldn’t normally go.)…And it was great reading stuff where I’d read something and go “I may be crap, but I’m better than this.”

Also I got to do some living. That bit was important too…

I feel for the kid who believes that everything s/he does is crap — although really, it’s not like that feeling ever permanently goes away, you just get better at navigating it, or else maybe make yourself a nice gin and tonic — but I think the other extreme is just as common, especially among those raised during the era of the ‘self-esteem movement’ — you’re special just ’cause you’re you, and you can do anything! even if, uh, you don’t put in the time and work needed to gain the required skill set! okay, that’s really not how it works in the real world, but so what? go, wondrous you! So you get the teenagers and early twentysomethings who think they’re god’s gift to fiction, that success is just a matter of time, buoyed as they are on a lifetime of praise from teachers and parents and maybe some writing awards of one kind or another.

They’re wrong, of course — success is never assured, and major publication is most likely a long time in coming, because talent on its own is very nice but not enough, and you’re competing against everybody who’s already being published as well as the unpublished ones who are nonetheless just as smart and talented as you if not more so (or maybe they’re not, but they still know how to tell a better story, or they have a more unique and interesting worldview, or hell, they just got lucky.) Still, if arrogance can keep you at it — through the rejection and feedback and revisions and the next novel and the next and the next — long enough to get the first book deal, by which point you’ve probably been seasoned and aged just enough to feel grateful for the humble advance — then some might say it serves its purpose. And if you manage to keep yourself going even when you realize you won’t be the next Stephen King — or, say, Neil Gaiman — then you know you’re obsessed in the best possible way.

(And I’m sure there’s some nice middle ground between the two. I just don’t seem to encounter it very often. Seems we’re either neurotic or egotistical. Or neurotically egotistical.)

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