Show up. Sit down. Write.
Time-honoured writer’s advice. For the nine months I did exactly that. Whenever I had a spare moment, I booted up the word processor, sat down, and wrote. Between blogging and fiction I must have churned out hundreds upon thousands of words. Going by word count alone, it was an unqualified success.
Of the hundreds of thousands of words I spilled on the page, I only produced two stories that I can reasonably hope to publish.
Just ten percent of the words I wrote.
In the profession of writing most people only see the successes. The marketing copy, the press releases, the interviews, the blog and Facebook and Twitter announcements of the Next Upcoming Bestseller by Another World Renowned Author.
They don’t see the uncounted hours at the keyboard, banging away against the keys, squeezing every spare second from the clock while simultaneously wishing that the session was over. They don’t experience the joy of visualising something transcendent in one’s daydreams and the agony of watching it turn to clay on the screen and the horror of knowing that you are not good enough to fix the story and elevate it to that rarefied state in your vision.
It’s tempting to give up and walk away. But the difference between success and failure is often determined by how long and how well you stick to something.
The old-time SFF greats and the pulp masters of the early 20th century could sit at their typewriters and churn out ten-thousand-word short stories and hundred-thousand-word novels in the sure and certain hope that publishers would buy them, no questions asked. They had to: with their livelihoods on the line, they couldn’t afford to waste a story.
And they only got to that stage after innumerable hours of toiling at the keys.
Jerry Pournelle advised writers to be prepared to write and throw away a million words of material. I suppose at this stage in the game I’m still paying the toll. Eliminating nine in ten words sounds horrible, but it’s better than ten in ten. And I still have stories that have turned out well.
Up to this point, I’d been reliably turning out at least one novel and one novella every year. I was limited not by output, but by how fast publishing platforms, editors and artists could act. So I wanted to try something new. New genres, new concepts, new tones, new stylistic choices.
And found the difference between my ambition and my ability.
Coming up with ideas is easy. I can recite from memory at least five dozen story ideas at any time. But in this business only completed and published stories count.
To get published stories you need completed stories. To get completed stories you need to write. But in the course of writing or editing you may find that what you thought was literary gold was little more than dust.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. I don’t think it’ll be the last either.
It’s easy to chuck failed stories into the recycle bin and forget them. When you’re churning out words and discover the story isn’t what you think it is, it’s easy to give up and do something else. But the better approach is to approach it as a learning experience.
You have to write through the churn. Even if the story feels like it’s falling apart, if the prose you produced doesn’t come anywhere near your standards, if your characters don different masks and become other people, if your own writing voice metamorphoses into something else, you have to keep writing. You have to keep going and see the story through. In the worst case scenario, you’ve found what doesn’t work. In the best case, you can come back to it later and fix it, when you’re no longer so emotionally invested in the prose, or recycle the key concepts elsewhere.
But there is a time to know when to give up.
You can’t count on your feelings. Emotions matter in the moment when you’re writing. When you take the long view and read a story from an editor’s or reader’s perspective, how you feel about the story while writing it doesn’t matter. What matters is the bones of the story: the worldbuilding, critical plot elements, underlying assumptions about characters and organisations. The only reason to give up on a story is when you realise it is fundamentally flawed, and by fixing the flaw and following through you have to change the rest of the story. At that point, you’re basically writing a new story from scratch. No sense spending time and energy on something that has already died; better to refocus your energies on a better concept.
Even then, you shouldn’t give up on the idea of the story. The manifestation of the story may be fatally flawed, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the idea itself is wrong. If the core themes, character traits, technology or magic systems, or other aspects can be salvaged, then they must be retained. One should never throw out the baby with the bathwater.
When I was 17 years old I came up with an idea of a secret organisation that travelled around the world dispatching monsters. Its distinguishing feature was that its members were directly supported by supernatural entities, and would be drawn into an epic battle between good and evil.
That story didn’t work.
Even so, I kept at it. I generated idea after idea, smashed them together, blended them in different ways, discarded the ones that didn’t work. I created and destroyed plots and technologies, characters and critical historical events — and I finally got to writing stories to see how well they would work.
I had a story about a civil war between factions of a religious organisation — it didn’t work. I had an arcanepunk story with energy blades and teleportation and rogue agents — it didn’t work. I had a story that mixed Final Fantasy and Task Force Talon with Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon — it didn’t work.
Yet over the years, I kept going back to the core concepts, refining them, thinking about the setting and characters, contemplating what else might work. Even as I focused on other stories this one was still in the back of my mind. In 2015 I tried again, and I produced a novel.
And that novel, No Gods, Only Daimons, will be published soon by Castalia House.
Writing is a long game. It took 11 years to turn the original concept into reality. And over the course of 11 years, I developed a basketful of ideas that be recycled into other worlds, if or when the time is right.
My latest works haven’t panned out so well, but that’s nothing to get upset over. Now I think I know what works for me and, more importantly, what doesn’t work. I have a better understanding of where to focus my energies to manifest my ideas and deliver maximum impact. And I’m going to keep writing, always.
Treat every story you write as a learning experience. Whether you’re riffing off familiar concepts or doing something new, you should strive to do better than your last. You have to write through the churn and see stories to the end, whether it be bitter or glorious. You can always go back and fix things, and even if you can’t, at least you know what doesn’t work. For now.
The secret to writing success is simple. Show up. Sit down. Write.