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.

Some Thoughts On Writing and Mental Illness

Every night I take 25 mg of Valdoxan before I go to bed, nudging my brain towards a healthier normal. Every morning I start tracking data on my preferred stress, depression, and anxiety management app, marking hours of sleep and minutes of exercise and whether I’ve had contact with the outside world.

Every week I’m learning to pay more attention to the default narrative in my head, and the defence mechanisms set up because of those narratives, so I can better at identifying which are actually useful and which need to be dismantled. Every couple of months I get a blood test to see if the Valdoxan is doing unhappy things to my liver enzymes.

I still have bad weeks. I was in the midst of one seven days ago. My stress responses still need work, because they’re currently front-loaded with the message: for the love of god, procrastinate to the point of self-destruction. I was stressed last week, but I hadn’t even processed that until the stats on my app laid it all out for me and I was like, oh, that’s why I’m sleeping two hours a night and obsessively playing computer games I hate for twenty fucking hours a day. 

There were very few parts of my blogging gig for Queensland Health that felt personal, but working on this one was fucking hard, for the simple fact that I went through every goddamn thing on the list.

It was about this point, last year, that I first realised things were getting very bad.

I did what I thought were proactive things to deal with that at the time. Some of those were good – including the conversation that eventually led to me going back to university on a PhD scholarship – but some where just slapping a band-aid over a gaping wound. I told myself I could just work harder, do better, and everything would be fine.

It would take another four or five months, a shitload more stress, and some pretty insistent friends and family to actually get me to consider the fact that there was something up with my mental health.

The funny thing about blogging for Queensland Health was the sheer amount of time spent looking at data and statistics that I’d otherwise ignore. When it comes to mental illness, the stats I keep coming back to were these:

  • 45% of Australians are going have some experience of mental illness in their life
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men will experience some level of depression
  • Only 35% of people with anxiety and depression will access treatment

Stigma around mental illness, and a general lack of knowledge, tends to make up a big part of the 65% doesn’t access help. Given my general reluctance to go see a GP when I needed it, or even recognizing I was going through something where help would be useful, I totally get how that happens.

I had the advantage of knowing multiple peeps with depression and anxiety issues, talking to them about what was going on, and still had myself convinced that it wasn’t something I was experiencing right up until the doctor suggested antidepressants and counselling.

And even after you learn about depression and anxiety, there are all sorts of ways the stigma fucks with you: don’t talk about it too loudly; don’t talk about it too often; don’t talk about it with the wrong people. Don’t bore the pants off people with you and your problems.

And really, fuck that shit, because it becomes part of the problem.

Depression is not a light switch that flicks on and off. It’s not a clearly deliniatied line where you go from okay to not okay the moment you step over. Regardless of how it’s used in clinical settings, depression is colloquially used to group together a whole bunch of mood-related disorders, of differing levels of intensity, that affect people in different ways.

Part of the reason I wondered around without looking for help for so long was the relatively lack of exposure to people whose experiences mimicked my own, or who experienced symptoms at levels of severity I didn’t quite relate to.

Beyond that, I’ll admit to another slice of foolishness: I worried about writing and depression. Not in an I’ll-never-write-again way, ‘cause hell, I got this far, nor in a I’m-a-writer-and-I-cannot-work-if-I’m-not-depressed, ’cause…well, I can tell you how much work I did while depressed and anxious and it pretty much amounts to fuck all.

No, I worried because my brain was wired to worry. I worried about getting treated the same way I worried about that stupid thing I said when I was eleven, or the same way I fretted about saying something stupid in that email I just sent, and the same way I obsessively rehearse conversations with people I’ve hurt or pissed off, as if I’ll somehow be able to make it all okay by taking back that conversation and inserting the one in my head instead.

Which is, I worried to the point where worry filled 90% of my waking moments, because worry felt like control to me.

And when my GP suggested that I was actually not okay, I worried in a what-will-this-actually-be-like-and-how-will-depression-affect-things way that sent me looking for other writers who talked about their experiences. Reading about other writers talking about their shit helped a lot back then, which is why I occasionally pop up and talk about my experiences here.

So let me be clear: Shit went wrong. I got help. I’m still getting help and working shit out. It’s an ongoing fucking thing.

And writing is better because of it.

But I am just me, and let’s be clear, in writing terms I am small beer. Since I’m an rigorous bookmarker of useful links, here the short list of folks who write a hell of a lot more than me (with a hell of a lot more success), whose posts about their own mental illness helped a lot when I went on medication last year:

Note the incredible diversity of conditions, experiences, and coping mechanisms out there. Mental health is not one-size-fits-fucking-all.

For all my resistance to getting help, and my occasional nervousness about medication and frustrations with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, going to my GP and letting them know I might not be okay was the best goddamn thing I’d done in about ten fucking years.

Don’t talk yourself out of getting help if you have even the vaguest suspicion you might need it. It’s really not worth it.

On Organising Shoes and the Failures of To-Do Lists

So I used to have a problem with shoes. Not a problem with owning them – although you could argue, at the point where I had twenty-odd pairs of converse sneakers, there was a problem there as well – but a problem storing them. I’d wear a pair of sneakers out for the day, shuck them off after arriving home and sitting on the couch, and then I’d forget to move them to the cramped box of shoes in my wardrobe after I finished watching TV or reading.

This cycle would continue over a week or two, until all twenty-odd pairs of sneakers were residing on my living room floor and I’d trip over them in the morning when I wandered to the couch with my coffee. It wasn’t terribly efficient, but it was the path of least resistance.

Two months back I acquired a shoe rack. It spent about twenty-four hours living in my wardrobe, which was not a good place for it, then migrated to the spot beside my bed where I’m most likely to get dressed in the morning. I haven’t left my shoes on the floor since. I get home, I shuck them off, and they’re either on the shoe rack immediately or they get moved there the moment I’m done with whatever urgent thing distracted me (usually, at this point, new episodes of Riverdale).

The thing is, I always  knew what I had to do do – put my goddamn shoes away – but I’d never sat down to tackle the problem of why I wasn’t doing it until the middle of January in my 39th year on the planet.

And really, this is the core principle of every productivity system I’ve ever come across. I’ve spent a large chunk of this year talking to people about systems, from Accidental Creative to Bullet Journal to my ongoing obsession with tracking every aspect of my life with white boards and spreadsheets, but no-one I’ve talked to has ever sat down with a system and been unable to think of all the things that should go on their to-do list. They know what they’re meant to be doing, just like I knew that life would be immeasurably better if I put my shoes away every day instead of tripping over them while ferrying my morning coffee around.

A good productivity system isn’t about looking at what you’ve got to do and putting it on a to-do list, it’s about looking at how you’re going to do it and why you aren’t currently getting around to it. Sometimes the problem is process, sometimes it’s mental; more often than you’d like, it’s a combination of the two.

The problem with putting shoes away wasn’t the desire to do it – it was having a place for them go that made sense and fit with my lifestyle.

I’m basically spending 2017 looking at a bunch of problematic parts of my house that are just like my shoes. They were the January project, my desk became the February project, and March has become all about my kitchen where the places I stored things really failed to mesh with the way I’d actually cook.

The end result was a lot of cheese sandwiches and take-out orders, but a weekend spent hacking the shelf space and reorganising the pantry has made it a hell of a lot easier to convince myself I should cook things.


New Story At Daily Science Fiction

My latest story, Counting Down, went live at Daily Science Fiction on Friday.

There are all sorts of reasons to write a short story. Sometimes you write them because you have something you want to say, or because you’re trying to chip away at a problem that you can’t seem to tackle any other way. Sometimes you write them because you want to entertain one of your friends, and you think there’s a good chance that you can write something you think they’ll like.

Sometimes you listen to Release the Bats on repeat, and after the fiftieth time you’ve shrieked HORROR, VAMPIRE, BAT BITE! you start getting nostalgic for the time you were stuck in Brisbane, overnight and without a place to stay, because the DJ dropped the Birthday Party at a goth club you were at and you decided that dancing to Release the Bats was more important than catching the last train back to the Gold Coast.

There were four or five of us who made that decision. We did not regret it.

The gulf between conception and execution is wide and stories change as you work on them, so you do not need to be familiar with the song to read the story. That said, it cannot hurt, so…

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).


What am I working on this week?

i’m kicking around a new story draft about boxing, crime-lords, and French colonies on a Burroughs-esque mars around 1920 or so. I’ve already got the first few scenes down and just started winding my way towards the real meat of the story, which means it’s probably going to be on the long side.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I spent a good chunk of Saturday inhaling Caitlin Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland novella, which is fricken’ incredible in the way that about 99% of Kiernan’s short fiction work tends to be. It’s basically Lovecraft filtered through layers of conspiracy and espionage paranoia, but that sort of description never really does Kiernan’s work justice. It’s less about what the story is about, and more about the mood that’s being evoked.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

I really need to do a final sweep of the short-story rewrite I did last week and get it into submission shape. . I’ve had the final print-out sitting on my desk, needing to be proofed, for about two or three days but just keep scheduling other things ahead of it.

CS Pacat on how to rock the Aaron Sorkin approach to dialogue

I was going to show up here and write a long post about dialogue this evening, given that I’m rewriting a story where I’m trying to do things I don’t ordinarily do with dialogue, and that’s seeping into the new story I’m trying to draft.

Then I remembered that CS Pacat already has one of the most kick-ass posts about dialogue structures that I’ve seen on the web, so I’m just going to link to her post about manipulating topic patterns instead. Or, as it should be titled, a quick primer on how Aaron Sorkin does all those Aaron Sorkin things in dialogue.

Go forth and read, peeps. I’m going back to my story.