Recently I went through a purge of sorts. It started when I sat down to do something on my laptop and randomly decided to look through a couple overstuffed folders in my file cabinet. One of these was my “writing stuff” folder, where I file handouts and such relating to writing in general. (Stuff relating specifically to my works-in-progress goes in a different file folder or into a binder). Going through this folder started me on what turned into a multi-day project, aimed at one thing: decluttering. But not papers. Writing advice.
Over several days, I went through all the writing articles and such that I’ve gathered over the last 6-7 years (I was doing it before then too, but most of what I found dated back only as far as 2012). This ranged from stuff in the folder to my six (yes, six!) notebooks full of writing notes to things I had stored digitally via Pocket and my browser bookmarks.
I decided what to keep and scanned stuff into my laptop for hours, until the scanner on my all-in-one printer just flat out stopped working (even after I tried fixing it with a driver and stuff). The rest I threw out. With the digital things, I just better organized the stuff, though I did delete some stuff.
And I will say, this purge has felt satisfying. Actually, getting rid of things in general can feel like that, as I learned last year when I had to go through my stuff before we moved. I gave a lot of stuff away, including a lot of clothes that I just wasn’t wearing. More recently, I gave away a bunch of books because my bookcase looked super cluttered — and books are the hardest thing for me to give away, since I love books.
But just getting rid of papers and bookmarks wasn’t the only motivation behind me doing this, I think. I mean, heck, lots of people do that; it’s how people like Marie Kondo make a living. I think it was part of my development as a writer as well.
At my first Realm Makers in 2017, my main session teacher, Robert Liparulo, had a strong opinion about how-to-write books. He didn’t like them because he said that they would result in everyone writing the same way, without any uniqueness. I asked him what if we had already read them. He said to not use them as a guide and to throw the stuff out of our heads.
Now, I’m not saying craft books are bad or anything. They can be helpful, especially if they focus on certain areas. The most recent writing book I read was Dynamic Story Creation in Plain English by Maxwell Alexander Drake. I bought the book, along with another on point of view, at Comic-Con 2017 after attending a seminar on point of view taught by this pompously-named fellow. And boy, the series isn’t named “Drake’s Brutal Writing Advice” for nothing. This guy doesn’t care who he offends and is so brutal even a typically quite frank (and open-minded) person like me found this book a tough one to get through. But once I got past my initial visceral reaction, I realized that he does give pretty good advice in it, and that said advice could help my own work be much more dynamic.
Reference books are also great. No, not encyclopedias and stuff — though those are great too. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Thesaurus line of books (The Positive Trait Thesaurus, The Urban Setting Thesaurus, etc) are great little resources. Ackerman and Puglisi have even more stuff on their website Writers Helping Writers and their new library of materials appropriately called One Stop for Writers. Writer’s Digest has books on police procedure, poisons, forensics, and monsters, as well as more general craft areas. And these are just a couple examples.
But I think where I went wrong years ago was that I overwhelmed myself. I did much the same thing when I panicked during my last year of college, not knowing what the heck I was going to do with a degree in Literature and Writing Studies (what my globally-conscious CSU called an English major) and minor in French. I decided to get a certificate in web design from my old junior college. It only added to my college workload and added an extra year to my college experience after I got my B.A. The classes were also pretty stressful for the most part, to the level where I had actual freakouts over stuff that was pretty minor in hindsight. But my decision to “educate myself” on technology while pursuing this certificate was where I got really overwhelmed. I pretty much forced myself to read articles about tech and web design. My misguided idea that learning this stuff was “necessary” blinded me from seeing how miserable I was.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate technology. Even for a ’90s kid, I’m no stranger to technology — I even had a desktop computer of my own as a kid at one point, where I wrote things in Claris Works (this was so long ago Microsoft Office didn’t exist yet) and played this European geography game (or DOS games like the ridiculous Pickle Wars). Still, I grew up in a world without social media, smartphones, or even a particularly robust Internet. I taught myself web design out of a book in 8th grade, back in the days of Angelfire and GeoCities, and have kept it up as an occasional hobby since then. That was why I even considered getting the certificate. But I’m not tech-obsessed; I’m more like interested in certain aspects of technology. In my misguided panic, I overwhelmed myself with all those articles about tech, and I don’t think I retained any of that stuff at all.
When I decided to get serious about writing as a career around 2009, I made the same mistake again. I rushed headfirst into platform building with no plan, and don’t have much to show for it as far as I can tell. I only did it because I was impatient and also because I thought it was what I was supposed to be doing. Later, when I took a class on the subject from Christina Katz, and she encouraged me to put off building a platform for a while and just write, I was stunned. I was like, “What? Just write for five years, and don’t set up a platform? But–you don’t understand! I’m in my 30’s. If I don’t start a platform now, I’ll never have a career! I’ll lose my chance!” (Yes, I am this much of an anxiety-ridden drama queen. Bear with me).
Meanwhile, I was also collecting writing advice in the form of books and articles (online and print) to near-hoarding levels. To me, I had to do everything right — follow all the rules, do all the things I’m supposed to do — or I was never going to achieve my dream.
Now, on the other side of that 5 years, I realize I was wrong. I’m not saying I’m “cured” of my insecurities (far from it) or that I’ve solved all my problems. But I think I’m beginning to realize I don’t need to learn everything at once. I may have caused myself a lot of stress and anxiety over the last several years, but if I keep going, I will very soon have four finished novels (five if you count Darkly Bound, which I finished in 2011 then shelved), a possible series out of a couple WIPs (Music Land Maestress and my unfinished NaNo 2014 novel, which is also currently shelved), and some random smaller works that could be developed (like my duo of mangas, Fairy*Net and Fairy*Radio, my NaPoWriMo 2015 project, and a few short stories that aren’t related to any current WIPs, such as stuff I wrote for Story-A-Day in May 2015). Plus, I sometimes write fanfics on the side, even for NaNoWriMo. That’s not a bad start (assuming I don’t start to hate them in revision, as I did with Darkly Bound, which is why I shelved it).
And yes, I said start. As hard as it is for me to admit, I’m still a beginner. Heck, I’m still in my apprenticeship according to Mr. Drake, and therefore I should apparently throw out all the novels I’ve been working on plus a few more, since the first 8-12 novels are not “publishing worthy” and I should “throw it all away without remorse.” (I told you he was brutal). Though I’m pretty sure I won’t do that. I haven’t thrown away a manuscript since I got rid of the mystery novel I wrote in high school. (I probably threw away the novels I wrote in middle school to early high school too, since I have no idea where they are now).
Actually, this is probably a good example of a piece of writing advice I can ignore. I’ve written more than just the 6 novels I’ve worked on in the last decade. Like I said, I wrote novels when I was younger too. And they were preachy and just overall not great. My current WIPs definitely have their issues, but I think they’re probably better than what I wrote when I was like fourteen. All the writing I’ve done, as on-and-off as it’s been at times, has not been wasted time.
It’s not that I don’t need help. I definitely do. My novels tend to be character-driven, so I’m stronger with characters than I am with plot. I’m also not great with worldbuilding, especially with my sci-fi works. And when it comes to revision/editing and marketing, I’m so green I’m legitimately scared to death. (It doesn’t help that I don’t like social media that much to begin with). My problem is that I’m a perfectionist, scared to fail, and too stubborn to ask for help when I do need it.
Lately, I feel like I’ve gained more clarity about this stuff. Whether it’s from God or from the meditation exercises I started doing, or from something else entirely, I don’t know. But I think that maybe Mr. Liparulo was right — the less of this stuff I’m taking in — the more selective I am about what I do take in — may be what helps me find and strengthen my writing voice, or, as he puts it, to “embrace the strange.”
I noticed during my exercise that it was during 2015, the year after I did Christina Katz’s class, and the year I decided to do a monthly writing challenge of some sort every month, that I also started going through books on creativity: Fire Up Your Writing Brain by Susan Reynolds, Writing With Quiet Hands by Paula Munier, and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld. Maybe that wasn’t an accident. Maybe I actually, subconsciously, decided to take my creativity seriously. The following year, I further explored my creativity by going through The Artist’s Way with some friends. (I don’t feel like I got results from that book, by the way — but that’s another story). This led to me creating an inspiration blog on Tumblr, which is mostly filled with reblogs of writing reference posts (Tumblr is great for that stuff, actually; I think it’s cause of Tumblr’s huge fanfiction and RP communities), pictures of beautiful landscapes, and pictures I’ve taken of nature or of paintings in museums, to name a few. I named it Word Sparks, after my favorite lines in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
So maybe this is a turning point for me. I’m not sure what that means or what will come of it, but I thought it was worth blogging about. I hope my thoughts are helpful to one of you out there.
Gokigenyou (Good day), as the Princess PreCures would say!
Pic of notebooks is my own photo.
Emotion Thesaurus cover image from Writers Helping Writers.
Cure Flora pic screenshot by me from this video.