In Writing, Progress Doesn’t Always Look Like Progress

It’s been sort of a perfect storm of late in terms of triggers leading me to think very hard about writing advice, writing processes, and progress in writing.

Part of it is the discussion I had with awesome human Anthony Carboni on our podcast, Ragnatalk, where in Episode 15 we attempt, however vainly, to tackle the nature of failed, troublesome New Year Resolutions.

Part of it is the blowback to the Marie Kondo Netflix show, and the backlash to the blowback, and the backblow to the lashback. (Wait, what?)

Part of it too is this tweet by other awesome human, Delilah Dawson:

I am wont to describe myself sometimes as a failed novelist. Which seems strange, of course, because I’ve published over 20 novels with a handful more on the way — which would seem like the earmark of success. I’m a NYT-bestselling author, to boot, which again would maaaaybe suggest that success has been met, good job, go me, self-high-five. But I also wrote my first novel at 18. And wrote four more that were execrable. And tried to write countless others, all of which litter the earth behind me, a wake of Story Corpses and Book Carcasses whose lives were ended prematurely when I abandoned them. Given that I didn’t have my first novel published until 2012, when I was 36 years old, I had far more years under my belt as a failed writer-of-books than as a successful one.

Now, obviously publishing a novel is only one metric of success — finishing one certainly is, too, and I finished my first book when I was 18, so I understand if you’re bristling a little at this point, because we should celebrate our successes! Shit, sometimes writing a single sentence is a major win, right? But before you run at me, arms akimbo, warning me of my error, I also want to make sure you realize that when I say failed novelist, I don’t mean it as an insult. It’s not derogatory. It’s not meant to ding me or self-limit me or even undersell me. It is, for me, a huge win: I am not a person who reviles failure, and in fact, consider it a necessary part of Doing The Thing, whatever the hell The Thing is. Failing at a thing means you still tried. And trying means doing.

My path through that forest of failure — and, eventually, success — is a pretty janky, drunken zig-zag. (As I make fun of here.) It’s a stumbling tumble working counter monkey at coffee places and as an IT guy for a fashion company and selling computers and doing marketing for the library system and then there was game writing and screenwriting and transmedia writing and comics and, and, and. It’s a whole lot of not writing novels, while also trying very hard (and failing very hard) at writing novels.

It was a lot of giving up, and (thankfully) even more giving up on giving up.

So, I’m cool with being a failed novelist. Because there was just no other way.

I note this because, I very obviously don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. And you could not replicate my journey if you tried. (Even if you could replicate it, it wouldn’t be yours, it’d be mine, and would likely bring you little joy or triumph. Unless you’re my doppelgänger, CHNURK MANDOG, who is out there, right now, the motherfucker. With his beard of bees and his snake-fingers and the spiders that live in his mouth! Damn you, Chnurk Mandog, damn you.) And yet, and yet, despite being the cartographer of the jankiest-ass map, despite not actually knowing what the sweet hot hell I’m doing, I still tend to give writing advice.

Now, it’s been very interesting to watch the reaction to the Marie Kondo thing — in part because it seems a whole lot of people are just now discovering her spark joy form of minimalist organization. And it’s been interesting to watch the reaction to the reaction. Obviously, she riled some people up by suggesting they should only keep so many books on their shelves and her methodology for determining what books to keep or not to keep certainly isn’t for me, but it will also work for a lot of people even as it doesn’t for me. Predictably, some people were like FUCK YOU MARIE KONDO YOU CAN’T TAKE MY BOOKS YOU GODDAMN DRACULA, and further predictably, some of the over-reaction is probably due to an (un)healthy dose of racism and sexism. But for me it also highlighted how we present, and engage with, advice — like, because we’re All Forever Online, we are probably well-aware at this point that nuance in conversation needs way more oxygen than the Internet is often willing to give it. Everything is either THE BEST or THE WORST, everyone is either THE HERO WE NEED or CANCELLED, KICK ‘EM OUT THE AIRLOCK, every point is either A THOUSAND PERCENT TRUE or SO WRONG IT LITERALLY CURDLES MY URINE.

And writing advice has in the past taken this form, too — let us never forget the Traditional Versus Self-Publishing Wars of 2011-2013, where you were either an Elitist Snob-Slash-Serf Leaving Money On The Table or you were Some Authorial Trash Panda Regurgitating Hot Story Barf On Kindle For Ninety-Nine Cents. Or how about how no matter who you are, if you want to be a writer you have to Write Every Day, and Real Writers don’t use adverbs, and Real Writers spin widdershins before they write, and Real Writers eat bees.

(That last one is true, though.)

So, the advice coming from the Cinematic Kondoverse is that you should get rid of books, subtext: because if you don’t you’re a bad wasteful piece-of-shit, you piece-of-shit, you’re wrong and she’s right and so what if she never said that and it’s just advice that you can easily take or leave, but screw her and the streaming service she rode in on.

But no, really — it’s just advice.

And writing advice is just advice, too. It’s like you asking me how to drive to the mall. Maybe I tell you to take the highway, or to take backroads, or to fly a fucking dirigible there because dirigibles are rad, man. No one answer is right or wrong — it’s just me telling you how I’d go. And I think with advice, and writing advice in general, we need to be very cautious as the givers of that advice not to perpetuate the right/wrong dichotomy, not to suggest that there are secret handshakes or one true paths or magical equations you can cleave to to find success. Advice is often the product of survivorship bias: I DID THIS AND IT WORKED FOR ME SO YOU DO THAT NOW, TOO. And maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t. It’s why I open and close Damn Fine Story with caveats that I don’t know what I’m doing, that writing advice is bullshit — but sometimes, bullshit fertilizes.

I’m not an expert. I’m just an explorer. I realize that more and more, every day.

(Note: there are actual experts out there, and while writing advice is not science, some things actually are science, and we should endeavor to weight the opinions of actual experts in those fields as greater than that of Internet Randos, please and thank you.)

So, what’s the point of all this?

I don’t yet know.

What I can tell you is that I know less about writing now than when I began, and that my successes have been born of failures, and that my failures are made from just trying shit. All the time. It’s me constantly poking at this thing I do. Sometimes that means 2,000 words a day, sometimes it means 5,000 words in a day, sometimes it means no writing in a day because I’m lost in thought to it. Sometimes it means self-care. Sometimes it means I realize today’s self-care is just a crutch, and I can’t lean on it. But every day it usually means touching it, so to speak, just a little bit. It means looking at it, prodding it, not leaving the work alone. It means accepting that to do this thing I want to do, I need to do it, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, and not always in one direction. Progress is not always in a forward direction. It’s too often sideways. Once in a while, it’s driving in reverse. Sometimes you go back to go forward, sometimes you spin in place for a while, just revving your engine. I don’t know.

That’s the point: I don’t know.

And nobody else does, either.

Nobody but you.

But to Delilah’s point above, there is no waste in your effort. That’s the key takeaway here — the goal is simply never to give up, and always to be doing something. Thinking, plotting, writing, rewriting, scrapping it, starting over, just fucking poking and prodding the thing. How you do that, and the form that it takes, is yours. But be assured that no effort is left on the floor. No part of it fails to teach you a lesson: even, and especially, the failures. To fail is to try. To try is to do. Most people write one book every never. Most people never even manage a paragraph, much less a scene, or a chapter, or a finished manuscript. The best thing I can tell you is to keep on keeping on. The tragedy is not in failing. The tragedy is in quitting. Persevere. And as I said before: persist.

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DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

Indiebound / Amazon / B&N