my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.
Welcome to writing.
I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.
What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.
There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.
“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.
What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.
You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.
- Set a goal.
- Take action.
- Pay attention to detail.
- Practice, Practice, Practice.
- Change if it’s not working.
Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.
There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.
Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.
If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.
To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.
There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.
Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.
As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”
Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.
You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.