General Writing

Wannabe Writers

Few people would dream of becoming a painter or a musician without lessons and practice. Yet wannabes writers, the dilettantes who dream of becoming writers as opposed to those who are working to improve their skill, do so all the time. You can find thousands in Facebook groups, as well as an entire industry to support them in their daydreams, ranging from hybrid and vanity publishers and conferences to freelancers who design and animate covers and even sketch characters or produce lead figurines. Some of these aspiring writers will eventually self-publish, yet only a handful will ever write anything worth reading, and almost always for the same reason: a lack of the basics required for their chosen art.

Many, in fact, lack so much as a basic knowledge of grammar. I am not talking here of the crude prescriptive concept of grammar taught by inadequate teachers (although even that is frequently lacking), but of descriptive grammar that recognizes the multiple alternatives of the English language depending on the class and region of the speakers. Nor am I condemning the courageous adventurers who write English as a second language; I am confident that I could not do half as well as many of them. I am simply pointing out the obvious fact that grammar is a writer’s basic tool. Unless your sense of the multiplicities of grammar has become instinctual, you are not prepared to be a writer, any more than musician who has to watch their fingering can be more than accidentally competent. At best, thanks to both the grammar snobs and the lack of preparation, you are likely to be haunted by a sense of inadequacy, hoping vaguely to find hard and fast rules that simply don’t exist.

Nor do many have any sense of the history of literature. That is especially true in fantasy, in which the knowledge of wannabes rarely extends beyond the last five years or so of publishing in their genres. So far as they have any context, often it tends to be other forms of storytelling, such as film, gaming, or graphic novels — all of which are admirable in themselves, but can teach only a fraction of what a writer needs to know. You may not like the books in the canons of academia or genre, but they are important to an aspiring writer because they are shortcuts to learning. The canons show what has been done, which means that you do not need to experiment for yourself.

Besides, the classics can be fun. And yes, that includes the ones you dislike — sometimes nothing can be as entertaining as pinpointing why a work repels you. If you are not a reader, why would you care to be a writer in the first place?

Sadly,with countless wannabes, the answer is disheartening. They are not in love with words, living for the joy when they put together words in just the right way, a way that nobody has ever done before. They want success and fame without making the effort. In Facebook groups, they are forever asking for help naming a character, plotting their stories, and generally asking someone else to do their thinking for them. A few go so far as to look for a cheap ghost writer, who can do the first draft for them, which they hope to edit into a fortune.

These queries would not be so depressing if they contained any indication that the asker had made some effort themselves first. Even posting a poll would show some effort. Instead, though, the queries are asked of strangers and easily satisfied, suggesting that what is wanted is a shortcut, rather than the sounding board that might be asked of a trusted critiquing partner.

Accompanying this unwillingness to work is usually an overwhelming sense of ambition. Wannabes regularly boast of writing several thousand words per day, and while I haven’t seen most of these results, I have a suspicion that the results are low-quality, because they claim these results day after day — a level of production that is almost impossible to sustain by accomplished writers. If they are writing fantasy, they have already plotted a series of a dozen novels or more. Some actually claim to have written such a series, although samples are not forthcoming.

However, in contrast to these extremes of ambition, the wannabes seem strangely short of things they want to say. They are surprised by suggestions that they observe people, or make notes of how people talk. Instead, they borrow from the little they have read, calling their borrowings tropes — as though renaming can hide a cliché. Nothing is truly original anyway, they reassure themselves, absolving themselves of any responsibility to come up with something new. If, as happened recently in one Facebook group, a wannabe wants some sort of monster to inhabit the beaches, they turn to the D&D monster manual for inspiration. Instead of creating a character of their own, they use an elf or dwarf, whose characters are already delineated by their species. The inevitable results are a copy of a copy of a copy, at best with a small twist or two that is not enough to hide the essential blandness. At times, more effort seems put into the social interaction of NaNoWriMo than in the everyday effort of putting publishable words on the page.

Not everyone, of course, intends to write literature. Nor is there anything wrong with writing a genre novel with clean and competent hands, or a piece of fan-fiction as a learning exercise. In fact, both genre and fan-fiction novels can be sometimes be respected as decent pieces of craft, and, sometimes as art.

However, the combination of a lack of preparedness, an unwillingness to put in the effort, and imitative ambition makes the writing of most wannabes depressing. When their works are finished at all, over-earnestness and a lack of humor or perspective generally sabotage them beyond any hope of redemption or success. I can only hope that the wannabes enjoy their hobby, because for the majority, that is all their writing can reasonably be expected to be.

General Writing

What sort of writer do you want to be?

“”I always wanted to be something, but now I see I should have been more specific.” -Lily Tomlin

Years ago, I met another would-be writer at a workshop. I remember that he praised several phrases in my submission, and that the presiding professional – who obviously did not want to be there – pilloried both our offerings. We commiserated, and discussed our writing ambitions. From time to time, we encountered each other at other conventions.

I turned out to be the most timid. Instead of pursuing my ambitions, I detoured into academia and technical writing, producing next to no fiction for years. Meanwhile, I watched with undisguised jealousy as the other writer gained a reputation for editing and started publishing fiction regularly. He was prolific, regularly publishing a novel per month, and frequently doing movie adaptations and theme anthologies. However, I rarely read his work; I couldn’t stand to. His success emphasized my shortcomings.

Last week, I downloaded a collection of ebooks that included one of his. Steeling myself, I made myself read his first. To my surprise, his work was no more than adequate. Background and characters were paper thin, and the plot thinly connected to the premise. I saw no sign of the literary ambition he had at the start of his career. Even allowing for my envy, his work was ephemeral and completely forgettable.

For all I know, he is perfectly content with his career. After all, he is probably making a living as a writer. He gets to deal with fiction daily, and if he goes to conventions, he can claim a place in the privaate room for professionals.

All the same, if I ever meet him again, I would like to ask: was where you are what you had in mind?

More importantly, my envy has drained away. I am in no way contemptuous, but I realize that I do not want what he has got after all. I realize I am more ambitious than him. I don’t just want to make a living writing fiction – my ambition is to be recognized as a writer. In my conceit – maybe in my naivety – I want to write something of value, something that will last. Granted, in today’s market, most works are here and gone in a few months, but I suspect that putting in the effort he has, only for each book to be forgotten in turn would only leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. Now, instead of a jealous chorus of voices whispering, “That could have been you,” when I think of this writer and his work, what I hear inwardly is, “Be careful what you ask.”