How to Become a Writer

It starts with the question you get asked when you’re young, and the answer that comes into your head is something to do with books, maybe?

It starts with being shy, and moving around a lot all through your childhood.

It starts with the trinity of SF from your childhood: Star Wars, Buck Rodgers, and G-Force. It starts with David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, which you saw far too young because you liked science fiction and there was no home video back then, so it wasn’t like you could just watch Star Wars again.

It starts with hearing your dad read The Hobbit in his classroom. It starts with the soundtrack of your pre-teen years, inherited from your father: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, Queen singing Flash, the Rocky Horror soundtrack.

It starts with your first William Gibson short story at fourteen and having your mind blown. With Neil Gaiman comics at sixteen, which blow your mind again. With Enid Blyton books all the way back when you first started reading: Mister Galliano’s Circus and The Magic Faraway Tree and The Adventurous Four and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.

It starts the first time you think consider that mind-blowing feeling and want to be responsible for inducing it in others.

It starts with your mother accidentally buying all seven of the Narnia books, when you were only supposed to be picking up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, because the bookstore only had them in a boxed set and you didn’t really understand how money worked at nine.

It starts with getting angry with The Last Battle, because you understood allegory at age nine just fine.

It starts with years in country towns, away from movie cinemas and arcades and other distractions. It starts with growing up without the internet. It starts with Dungeons and Dragons, and your halfling getting eaten by a carrion crawler. It starts with picking up Dragon Warriors, ‘cause you couldn’t find a copy of D&D to purchase. In your head, goblins will always be fey, wyrd creatures who stab people with icicles and dance on moonbeams. When you finally run D&D, years later, it’s disappointing to discover that goblins are just smaller, weaker alternatives to orcs.

It starts with moving away, learning to run the game yourself even if there’s no-one to play it with.

It starts with hitting the limits of your school library and deciding there should be more books to read. It starts with your dad tricking you into reading Lord of the Rings at age ten. It starts with seeing artists portrayed on eighties TV sit-coms, that weird blend of creativity, heavy-metal, and punk rebellion. It starts with Nick of Family Ties – not belonging, but slowly accepted. A nice, safe version of being the outsider. You spend years with bad hair and a single, dangley earring your ear because the character of Nick Moore is imprinted on your brain.

It starts with realizing you’ll never be metal, or punk, or an artist, but fuck it – you can create things. You do okay with words.

It starts with realizing there’s something wrong with the world, and the best toolkit you have for reshaping it into a world you can handle living in are all narratively driven.

It starts with Spiderman and Iron Fist and X-Men and the realisation about how little you knew about appropriation as a kid.

It starts with figuring out how to pass IT at school. You can’t code and have no interest in learning, but you’ve grown up with computers since the days you loaded files off tape and you can get pretty damn good project partners by agreeing to write the documentation.

It starts with getting told all the things you’re pretty shit at, which should preclude you from making a career as a writer: you can’t spell worth a damn, and your grammar is fucking horrible. Your handwriting is abysmal, chicken scratch filled with random capitals just because you started a new line of the notebook. You get by in English because you read fast, which gives you plenty of time to bug the teacher with questions. Mostly, about communism, because Russia’s iconography is on goddamn point through most of the cold war.

It starts with reading Wuthering Heights in school and recognizing the metaphorical significance of the hearths before the classes even started, and suddenly you’re hooked on this shit forever.

It starts with wanting to do an arts degree, because you think it will be a place you finally feel at home. It starts with realizing how wrong you are about that, and spending three years avoiding classes because you can’t quite get over your crippling shyness around people more interesting than you are.

It starts with doing okay in some classes, despite your lack of attendance. Poetry, and script-writing, which gets you seconded into a theater to work as a playwright on a project that comes closer to getting you sued than you’re really comfortable thinking about.

It starts with a few years writing poetry, because you need to figure out who you are and being a poet seems safe enough. You win a poetry slam and people pay you. You publish poems and people pay you. You finish your degree. You do an honors year. You write a terrible thesis and a not-quite-so-terrible poetry collection, which earns you a spot as a PhD student.

It starts with slowly realizing there are other people in your degree who are interested in speculative fiction, and having awkward conversations about it.

It starts with getting invited to tutor in your writing program, and having to explain how writing writing to other people in ways that make sense.

It starts with marking assignments. Hundreds and hundreds of short stories and poems and essays which start to illuminate just how much you’ve learned since you were eighteen.

It starts with getting some freelance gigs writing for gaming books. It starts with hitting the point where you can an article published in Dragon magazine. It starts with seven years as in a PhD program, teaching and lecturing and writing things, without ever feeling like you’re any closer to getting published.

It starts with Clarion South, getting locked away with sixteen other writers and a host of instructors who actually know things about making a living as a writer, and suddenly learning that there’s a way to apply all the skills you’ve picked up while teaching for seven years.

It starts when you figure there’s nothing to lose with writing SF, just like you intended to when you first went to uni: you’re thirty years old; your relationship is ending; it’s becoming increasingly apparent that academia is not your thing, not when the other option is getting things published. You write and you write and you write some more, and suddenly the publications appear.

It starts the first time you realize how different a writing career feels from the inside, compared to things other people assume are markers of success.

It starts with fucking up, and realizing that this will not stop you. You’ve built up a profile as a writer once, which means you can do it again.

It starts with starting over. Building from the ground up. Getting back to writing again and again. And it’s not about a burning, unyielding passion for writing – you’re well aware that you can walk away, get your kicks from playing computer games instead of writing stories or books. You can get your kicks out of writing a blog, if that’s really your thing.

Besides, there are plenty of gigs out there that can use your felicity with words. You’ve worked a few of them, over the years, all of them considerably more job-like than the gigs you dreamed about as a pre-teen. You can make a comfortable living, if you’re willing to commit to them.

It starts the first time you think, fuck that, I’d rather be writing the things I want to write about.

It starts right now. ‘Cause, hell, there’s so many starting points. So many things that feel like they’re the thing that really got you started. You can build a nice, clean narrative about what really made you want to write, but you’re painfully aware of the differences between narrative and reality.

Reality isn’t clean. Reality isn’t linear. The moment you start shaping a story, you’re manipulating experiences to generate effect. To make the point you want to make, make the reader feel the thing you want them to feel in that moment.

So yeah, fuck it, it starts now. It starts with writing something, and finishing it, and putting it in front of an audience.

Then it starts when you finish, and move on to the next thing.

  2 comments for “How to Become a Writer

  1. 22/03/2017 at 6:51 AM

    Lovely. Most “how to be a writer” pieces are trash. But a trusted writer friend posted this on FB so I read it. So glad I did. Thank you.

  2. 22/03/2017 at 7:31 PM

    This had me in tears.

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