It’s my birthday. It’s official. I’m old as fuck. I’m the big 3-1.
When you get old – sorry; when you become more evolved – you can’t help but reflect on what you’ve done, the lessons you’ve learned, and wish you could travel back in time to relay that info to your younger self. Time paradoxes be damn!
Then again, maybe in the future, Future Me will be able to take this post and go back in time to hand it to Younger Me along with advice to cut the green wire when the time comes. The GREEN wire. NOT the red wire. That will unlock the gates and let the tutu-clad werewolves in the compound!
Here are nine things (in no particular order), that I really wish I’d known back in grade school, high school, and even college.
1) Have a plan.
I can’t remember where – there’s that old age again – but a friend of mine recently posted an article on Facebook about production schedules to which others mock thinking it sounds anti-creative. We’re artists dammit! We don’t need no fucking production schedule! The muse will guide us! I’ll get to that muse thing in a little bit, but first: fuck that shit. You need to schedule your time and allocate it like any other finite resource, especially when you’re working a soul-crushing day job. And it’s not just a schedule. Have a plan for everything. Outline your stories. Have goals for projects. Are you going to send that story to a dozen magazines or self-publish that novella on Amazon?
2) Writing is difficult…and time-consuming.
If I were Brad Pitt in a bar basement, I’d go all Fight Club and said the first rule is to plan your time, and the second rule is to plan your time. Seriously, writing consumes time like locusts ravage crops. If all goes well and smoothly, my average writing week is about 35 hours. That’s on top of a 40-hour day job.
3) There is no muse.
Stephen King compared the muse to a fat guy smoking cigars and just hanging out why you do all the hard work, the justification being that the muse does have a bag of magic he choses to share with you from time to time. To paraphrase that creepy kid in The Matrix, there is no muse. Flashes of inspiration are wonderful when they happen, but a lot of times, I have to have brainstorming sessions with myself. I have to sit down (or go on walks) with my ideas and look at them from different angles to see if they work, if they don’t, to find what can go in the trash and what might have the kernel of an okay concept.
4) Start now.
The younger self I’m writing to is in grad school several years ago when I first made a read go of my writing, but this piece of advice goes further back to grade school when I put pen to paper for the very first time. Back in grade school, my writing was derivative as shit, more like me shamelessly ripping off Stargate, but that was the first time I ever thought about putting words on a page. In other words, I was a horse being led to the starting gate. To Adorable 12-Year-Old Me, I say this: you found the medium, now develop it. Start putting your own thoughts down. Or if you don’t have your own thoughts, start building the musculature by mutating your fan fiction until it’s your own. Kind of like 50 Shades of Gray, but without bullshit. Start submitting now too, or in the near future. I knew a guy in college who was already published, and thought it was a terrible idea. He was just a student, and I was under the impression that students didn’t know everything until school was over. Not true. College and an MFA program have their uses, but you don’t need either to have a writing career. You need the guts to do the work. Period.
5) Always learn.
ABL, baby. No, not A Bug’s Life. Always be learning. Aside from an MFA, look for any tips or trick to help you. There are tons of resources. Writing books like Stephen King’s On Writing is an excellent guide, but I’ve found that virtually every book on writing has a take-away you can use to your advantage. There are blogs and tutorials you can find online. Chuck Wendig has a terrific blog counted among Writers Digest‘s 101 best websites on writing. I’m even considering taking James Patterson’s Masterclass simply because I don’t know what Patterson knows, and even he has said the class is him giving his advice and leaving it up to students to take what they will from it.
6) Be good to yourself.
There have been quite a few times when I’ve had to press down on the brake and take a step back from writing, or at least writing so single-mindedly. I research alone. I draft alone. A lot of times, I edit on my own. In short, I’m very isolated when I write, and as I’ve already said, the time I schedule for it comes out to a second full-time job. I actually schedule personal time around work to make sure I have that down time. I do a trivia night each week, go hiking and running, been toying with the idea of hopping back into video games even. The point is that even with jobs people love, there has to be time away from it. If that makes you feel guilty, just remember that you weren’t always a writer. There was a time before when other things interested you.
7) Don’t compare yourself to others.
It’s one thing comparing your work to those you admire. It’s another thing to cross that fine line where you over-criticize yourself. You think everything you write is shit. Everyone else seems to make progress flawlessly while you’re struggling just to get the words out. I’m guilty of this, especially with my writer friends. My writer friends are fantastic, but because we came from the same MFA program, I sometimes look at their successes and wonder if I’ve missed a step. I mentioned this once to my friend Ashley Perez – who’s a fantastic writer and otter enthusiast – and in her wonderfully bullshit-free way, she said, “Stop doing that.” And she was right. Never compare yourself to other writers. You’ll never be better or worse than them. As individuals, they’re in a completely different space of their own even if they write the same genre as I do. Because of that uniqueness, a comparison is as practical as comparing an Altoid to a pencil sharpener to a blow-up doll.
8) Art and craft are different.
So, Young Mario, you want to be a writer? Great. Do you want to be an author? Better. What’s the difference? Writers are artists. Authors are craftsmen. Artists spend way too much time with their heads in the clouds and get bitchy with feedback and criticism thinking it’s an assault on their art. I worked with a film director once (really, a student) who said the worst part of the job was when others told him what couldn’t be done; a lot of times, it was because of budgetary reasons. I know we’ve all heard similar rants. “I am artiste! How dare you try to crush my vision?!” Your story is a product ultimately meant to be put in the hands of readers. If you write garbage in the name of your vision, kudos for your integrity, but shame on you for not being a pragmatist on behalf of your readers. That’s not to say art and craft are completely separate, but it’s not a two-way street. Craft encompasses art like an amoeba swallowing prey. I will never – EVER – call myself a doula of the mind or a shaman of the narrative trying to find peace with my kata. At the end of the day, I’m just the guy writing this stuff.
9) Don’t live in the past.
Did you publish a story? Great. Whether short or long, any publication is a big deal. It’s another stone in the cathedral of your career. Now grab a pizza and a cocktail, do a celebratory dance in your underwear, and then get up early the next day to start the next project. JD Salinger, Margaret Mitchell, and Arthur Golden were all notable writers for The Catcher in the Rye, Gone with the Wind, and Memoirs of a Geisha respectively, but have yet to follow up. As of this writing, with Golden being the only of the trio still living, a follow-up from Salinger and Mitchell is a moot point. But if Golden continues demanding respect for penning Geisha, the logical response is, “You wrote that 20 years ago. What have you done lately?”
9) Don’t lose touch with your inner child.
I’m not nearly as creative as I used to be, and I think becoming an adult is responsible for that. Grown-ups put limitations on themselves. “I can’t go out of town because I have to work this weekend. I can’t get these books because I have to get my car fixed. I can’t have that slice of cake because I’m watching my weight.” The same is true of fiction. “I can’t have this character travel back in time because time travel has too many paradoxes. I can’t have these teenagers be telepaths because I don’t understand how that works.” As a kid, I loved watching Stargate and Starship Troopers, and playing Starcraft. Everyone’s favorite show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Power Rangers before that. Independence Day was the major blockbuster around this time too. All of these had insane ideas igniting the imagination. No writer should lose that. Don’t ever write from your head, write from your gut. Even with an outline. The outline gives a structure and a blueprint to your story, but the story itself comes from the imagination.