Ten Years Writing: A Cartographic Description

Map for We’ll Tell Happy Stories (2016).

I’ve been writing for ten years now, and writing about that has proven to be quite the challenge. I’ve taken several cracks at writing this post, but I think this is the way to go—this, and another much much shorter post I’ll put up next week.

The reason this is so difficult is that it’s hard to describe what ten years of writing looks like in a post. It’s difficult to reduce it into something snappy, sharp, clear, because it isn’t. But that’s exactly why I want to write this post. In the day-to-day or week-to-week of writing, it’s easy to lose track of progress. It’s easy for me to believe that I’m not getting anywhere, that I’m not getting closer to any of my goals, that the story I’m outlining right now is actually worse than the story I wrote a month ago. Because as I move forward, my goals do too. For years I was eagerly awaiting the day when I would’ve written 1,000,000 words of fiction. I obsessively kept track of the word count of everything I wrote, updating the figures to reflect the latest revisions as I made them. But by the time 1,000,000 words neared, I’d become more focused on being able to write lots of distinct short works, rather than just lots of words in general.

Likewise, my idea of when I started writing is kind of nebulous. I’ve really been writing all my life, but when asked I usually say that I started at eleven. I say that because at eleven (actually a few months before I turned eleven) I started writing the first novel that I actually completed, and eleven is the age when I started writing regularly, usually about once or twice a week. I’ve stuck with this idea, because at a certain point I just had to stick with something, and recognize that if I let myself constantly redefine when I began my  r e a l   w r i t i ng,  I’d eventually be saying, “Now 2018, that’s when I reeeeally started writing.”

Zooming out helps me appreciate the progress that’s been made. Looking at all the fruits of my ten years of labor together, and looking at how many phases I’ve gone through, how many times I felt like I was plateauing and unable to improve my writing, when every single time I managed to get better, it helps break me out of the rut of the present. It can also be useful, in the rarer moments when I need humbling, to remember all the times I thought I pretty much understood writing, and how there was always much more to learn.

I also enjoy reading other writers describe their careers. Although everyone is different, it does provide the closest thing to a map that you can get for a writing career, which is a career without one specific Way to Do It.

So here we go. A cartographic description of the landscape of my first ten years as a writer. It’s worth noting: my first ten years coincide with my teenage years, so your mileage may vary if you’ve started writing later in life (that’s to say, you will probably do better than me, because you’ll be starting out better read than eleven-year-old me. Writing is a sport for all ages!) Also worth noting that I haven’t had to work a job in all this time, except a few part-time summer jobs, though I have been in middle and high school and college, which takes up a fair chunk of time. So factor that into your reckoning, map-readers.

I am afraid.  There’s been a talk about it on the news, and in the streets.  Our destiny to rule the earth.  It just wasn’t enough for Americans to rule two countries.  Each country has a sub-president.  Now, we have three sub-presidents, and I am one of them.  But anyway, as I was saying, they wouldn’t settle for two countries.  No, they needed more, much, much more.  I keep on saying they, because I’m avoiding saying we, although, in truth, it should be we. We need to rule the Earth.

The Bravery of Harris Scripler (2008.)

Things were in quite a state in 2007 and 2008. The Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan still loomed large, and had done throughout my childhood. For all the years I could remember, George Bush had presided over this nation. I had a dismal view of my own country, and I had recently learned about Manifest Destiny in school. I’d like to say that I intentionally set out to write this great anti-war novel at the tender age of 10 going on 11, because that’d be pretty amusing, but really I started The Bravery of Harris Scripler only as a four-word story—that is, a short story which must make use of four words randomly chosen from a dictionary. And out came this story narrated by the sole surviving veteran of World War VII, worrying about World War VIII. This short story must’ve captured my interest, because I kept working on it, spinning it into a 66,000-word sci-fi war novel. Really the most remarkable feature of this pretty terrible book (which is so distant to me now that I’ve cycled through loving it, thinking it’s flawed, thinking it’s the worst thing ever, and then back around to just finding it kind of amusing) is the manner in which I wrote it. Each Saturday morning, I would sit down at my Power Macintosh G3 and put in an hour or two writing. Before, I would only write when I felt like it, but now I made it a ritual. I would still goof off a lot, but I at least tried to write some more each Saturday.

Concept art for The Bravery of Harris Scripler (2008).

Probably the most important thing I learned from writing TBHS was that I could finish writing a book, a real full-length book, and that I could enjoy such long projects. So next I wrote something twice as long which I never really finished. Beyond the Valley was a fantasy adventure book, focusing on a large cast of characters hired as mercenaries by a technologically superior civilization, then escorted beyond the valley to fight in some morally gray war. Unlike TBHS, I actually outlined (very sketchily) this book, did research on how guns work, introduced multiple different viewpoints and thus different subplots, and even had characters who changed throughout the book—all of this new territory for me. As I reached the climactic chapters I put the thing on hold to write some short stories, planning to eventually come back to it, and never doing so.

I started writing short stories when I learned that there were magazines that would actually pay you (wow) for your writing (what now?). I learned this in a very happenstance way. On the way to the 90th or 80th birthday of some relative I’d never met, riding with my dad and his cousin, we stopped at the house of an old high school friend of my dad’s cousin. That friend was Susan Abel Sullivan, a speculative fiction writer who, on hearing I was an aspiring writer, advised me to go to Ralan’s Webstravaganza to find market listings. Before I’d had only a vague sense of how books got published, and figured it was something that happened to very lucky people?(?) I didn’t even realize that there were magazines that published short stories, let alone that there was such a direct and easy way to submit your work to these markets. Just send an email, and if they like it they buy it? Incredible! So Spring of 2011 I wrote a batch of short stories. I wasn’t reading much short fiction at the time, though I did fall in love with the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine, and even slush read for them for a short period of time. I found I quite liked writing short stories, and I took inspiration from the stories I listened to on the Dunesteef podcast. I began to develop organizational systems to delineate different drafts, keep track of submissions, and store notes. I learned Standard Manuscript Format, and standard format for plays.

If Maya had closed the door even a few milliseconds later, she and the rest of her friends (Georgia, Shelby, Hector, Karen, Allen, Dennis and Trevor) would’ve been killed by the robot.  But he managed to close the metal door to the bunker soon enough, and so his body was completely devoid of bullets.

“Need a Hand?” (2011)

In this early period of writing, I was very focused on trying new things—on at least dipping my toes into every kind of writing there was. This was the main way I sought to better myself as a writer: to write diversely. So I wrote flash fiction, I wrote a novelette, I wrote a one act play, I wrote horror, and when I settled on a new novel-length project to write, I decided to write it as a serial.

In 2011 I started Mr. Anyone, which would become a three-season, fifty-episode series about a shape shifter trying to hunt down his brother during the end of the world. It was still prose, but it was all episodic, procedural even. Each episode was short-story-length, and focused on the eponymous shape shifter Mr. Anyone pursuing a different lead on his brother (at least, that’s how it started. I changed stuff up in the second and third seasons.) With Mr. Anyone I really began to think about long-term character arcs, and how to plot them. The project also did a good bit of work in training me in how to outline, how to introduce new characters and settings, and how to shape broader arcs out of smaller, discreet stories. I have a kind of fondness for Mr. Anyone, and may one day return to it.

Concept art for Mr. Anyone, Season Two (2012).

I wasn’t writing only Mr. Anyone for three years straight though. I learned that I enjoyed alternating between longer projects and short stories, in what I came to think of as “seasons.” I would have a serial season, then a short story season, and maybe a playwriting season somewhere in there, then repeat it all. I continued pushing myself by exploring new formats—novellas, realistic fiction, dramas and comedies—but I also finally started seeking external sources of writing education. Sometime around finishing season one of Mr. Anyone I listened to a few episodes of the Odyssey Writing Workshop podcast, and was devastated to learn all the things I’d been doing wrong without even realizing it (viewpoint errors being one major offense.) After feeling shitty about my writing for a few days, I decided that learning this all was actually good, because at least I’d be improving now. I shortly discovered the Writing Excuses podcast, and I listened to all of it, some 50+ hours of writing advice on everything from pacing to outlining to productivity. Then I listened to it all again. I’ve continued listening to it ever since.

On top of this podcast education, towards the end of 2012 I got a subscription to Asimov’s Science Fiction, one of the “big three” sci-fi and fantasy magazines. I figured that having the actual physical thing would pressure me into reading it more than just an arbitrary self-set goal to read a magazine that was available online would. So I would read every issue cover-to-cover, and doing so I discovered a lot about how much wild shit authors could get away with, how plot and character could be bent, and the importance of good worldbuilding.

“What type of boat was it?”
“Small yacht.”
“And what happened to it?”
“Attacked by pirates, sank.”
“Leaving you and Johnny there in the water.”
“That’s correct.”
“What time of day was that?”
“You asked me all this—”
“So I should shoot you right now?”
“Gheron and Nora, noon, it was noon.”
“Why would a pirate attack in broad daylight?”
“Because it was too fat to fit into thin daylight.”
“You’ve made that joke before.”
“You’ve asked these questions before.”

Season Two, Episode Five of Mr. Anyone (2012)

My sophomore year of high school I decided to do NaNoWriMo for the first fifty thousand words of Mr. Anyone, as I’d begun to care a great deal about productivity, and about writing more and more each year. I finished NaNoWriMo by the skin of my teeth, and was truly astounded at how much I could push myself. Although I discovered a lot about how I work, and how to jumpstart my productivity, during that November, the most important thing I learned was that I could do it, that I could be very productive if I wanted to.

Concept art for “Psychic Malpractice” (2013 I guess—I didn’t even finish this one.)

2013 and 2014 I suppose I was at that perfect point in my career where I knew enough to know that all the short fiction I was writing was bad, and that I was not writing fast enough. Of course I was no worse than I’d been before, I was a lot better in fact, but back then I hadn’t been aware of it. And in the future my awareness would continue, but I would get better at writing, so I really was at the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger effect’s trough. Of the six short works I wrote in 2013, I only deemed two of them salvageable enough to even revise and start submitting places.

One of those works was The Trial of Adbot 579, a one act play about an old android bartender whose manufacturers want him scrapped for parts, but who may have become sentient in all his years of service. I submitted the play to the Thespian Playworks Competition, a national playwriting competition for high school students I’d been submitting to since freshman year. I actually wanted to submit a different play, because I’d already submitted Adbot to my District Thespians Festival, but I struggled terribly to write another one act that year. I came up with a dozen ideas, outlined many of them, even started writing three, but none of them worked. NaNoWriMo rolled around, and I used it to write the first fifty-thousand words of the final season of Mr. Anyone, and that kind of put the kibosh on any new plays. So I just used Adbot for the Playworks Competition, and in the meantime continued slugging through Season Three of Mr. Anyone, the longest season by far, with more numerous and longer episodes.

And then I learned that I was one of the finalists for the Playworks award (there are four each year.) Winning this award, seeing my play produced, meeting fellow writers my own age, seeing my play published (!!), all of these were wonderful moments of validation and belonging in a process that had otherwise been incredibly solitary and unrewarding (externally. There’s plenty rewarding in meeting your own goals, in managing to pull off some trick you didn’t know you could, etc., but external rewards are important too.) Up until that point, my greatest points of validation had been one or two personal rejections, so being chosen as a finalist was wonderfully empowering for me—and empowering for me as a playwright, coming as it did at a point when that aspect of my writing had been less and less a priority for me, and seemed more and more difficult.

PIKEMAN. Alright, you can cool it with the histrionics, his life is not at stake because robots don’t have lives and nothing is actually at stake. No trial has ever found a single robot to be “indistinguishably human,” as the law goes—a law written, by the way, by sci-fi fans who just wanted to live out their childhood fantasies. All it means is anytime we want to scrap an adbot and some bleeding heart tries to stop us, we have to go through this whole song and dance about what it means to be human, so why don’t you just play along, and we can get out of here sooner.

The Trial of Adbot 579 (2014).

And then I returned to the grand slog of finishing Mr. Anyone. I completed the first draft sometime in September of 2014, rode that high for a while (truly, I felt like a god for a week or so), and then struggled to write anything for the next several months. Senior year was a rough combination of tons of work, few opportunities to spend time with friends, and a general, deadening depression. I dual-enrolled at FSU and managed to squeeze out a short story for a Creative Writing class there, but that was almost all I wrote that semester.

Spring semester was better, both in terms of not feeling like a lump of stone in a rock tumbler, and in terms of getting writing done. I finally got back in the habit of editing, and after quite a long time of having no stories that I could submit anywhere, I slowly built up a stable of works that I could feel good about sending out. I was climbing out the other end of the trough.

I started college at the University of Iowa, and (re)started this blog around the same time. Fall semester of freshman year, I sold my first short story to a small genre magazine, Kzine.

Cover for “Grumbles” (2017).

See what I mean about moving the goalposts on myself? I was excited to make the sale, but if I’d been accepted by that market a few years prior I would’ve been over-the-moon ecstatic. And now, looking back on it, I see it as even less of an accomplishment, which, like … yeah? Of course it’s not going to be as exciting now that you’ve done it.

Anyway, I wrote a half of a novel about my stuffed animals, and started really focusing on filling every day with work. In years past, during the summer, I had tried to write for set periods of time in the day. Now I tried to do some kind of work—school work, writing, editing, even just reading—from when I got up around eight a.m., to around nine p.m., with half-hour breaks around lunch, breakfast, and dinner, every day of the week except Saturday—which was a break day where I could do whatever.

I also learned to recognize when I was burning out, and give myself a longer break at such times. I’m still navigating the practicalities of this system, the unhealthy aspects of it, etc., but it works fairly well for me.

Since freshman year, I haven’t written any new novel-length works, as I’ve become less interested in hitting large word count goals, and more interested in just writing lots of different types of stories, and getting those stories published. I didn’t want to write a new long project when I had literally four and a half written already that were completely unedited.

In these past years I’ve also spent a lot of time on projects that are writing adjacent, though not actually writing—and in this way I have managed to become more productive overall, while not actually writing more and more each year. A lot of that extra productivity I’ve devoted to things like The Absolute at Large, The Only Series that Matters, and The War of Paraguay. And I’ve spent time self-publishing, as I and my writing have finally reached the point where I feel confident putting works out there without the stamp of approval of a publisher.

I like doing these other projects, I like learning new skills, but I also know that this is pulling away from my writing time. It’s difficult to evaluate if this is a good thing or a bad thing. When my rubric for progress was word count, that naturally encouraged longer works. Now that my rubric is some sort of combination of word count, quantity of distinct fictional works, and quantity of fully edited works, those other projects are definitely devalued (I don’t count blog posts in my main word count inventory, for example.) This is all a matter of framing, and you can tell that we’re getting closer to the present by how uncertain my description of this all is. In a decade I’m sure I’ll know how better to explain this moment, and how I grew from it.

In Indonesia the IAP was shelling Jakarta, in China the PLA navy was scouring the eastern seaboard for survivors, in the UK Londoners were lining up at WFP stations for groceries, and, just twenty miles from Felix and Anya, in Muscatine the combined forces of the Louisa, Muscatine, Scott, and Cedar County police departments were performing rescue missions and responding to bouts of looting throughout the flooded riverfront of the city—but in Greatland, Iowa, it was a quiet first day of winter break.

“Fuck You Pay Me” (2017)

In 2016 and 2017 I started to feel the weight of ten years of writing, and started to get impatient. I’ve been writing for almost ten years, I’ve written over a million words—there is an old saw in writing that you must write a million words of crap before you write anything good—why are none of my stories being published? And feeling so painfully close to being published, I fell into the syndrome of believing that every story I wrote had to be the one that sold, which meant I tried to showcase all the things I was good at, represent all the things I desired to represent, in every story. Which is not super helpful.

Still, even throughout that, I’ve gotten better at editing, and managed to salvage a few projects that looked like they would just be total disaster nightmares (looking at you, Tallahassee Ca. 2045.) Towards the end of my sophomore year and the beginning of my junior year, I came to realize the enormous resources I had before me, in the Iowa City Public Library and the UI libraries. With the wealth of audiobooks at ICPL, and the almost magical way in which these two libraries seemed to always have the books I want, no matter how obscure, I’ve managed to read or listen to loads of terrific works over the past couple years, learning more about what can be done with writing, what I love in writing, and what I myself want to do with it.

Color-coded notes for Tallahassee Ca. 2045 (2018).

Besides being able to check out books for like, frankly, an irresponsible amount of time without incurring late fees, UI has helped my writing in many other ways. Lit classes have been great ways to become immersed in an author or genre in a short period of time, and learn a lot that I can take forward as a reader and writer. I’m double majoring in English and Spanish, and that Spanish major has taught me about language in general, especially representing language in secondary worlds.

And then there’s just the odd, unexpected things I’ve picked up from non-major classes—political analysis, international relations, history of Japan—which have ended up being useful in stories.

Spring Semester of 2018 (hey we’re almost done) I managed another first—writing in Spanish! Of course I’d written essays in Spanish for classes, but last semester I wrote a sort of travelogue, the first part of a two-part memoir I’m still working on, as I was studying abroad in Spain. Otherwise, I didn’t write any fiction that whole semester, and I wrote almost nothing in English. The whole study abroad experience has no doubt given me lots of inspiration for worldbuilding, for characters, and for language—but just as importantly, it’s served as a reminder of how important to me writing fiction is. Towards the end of the semester, as I finished up all my final projects, I became obsessed with revising Mr. Anyone, writing pages and pages of world-building, and long plans for re-structuring the plots of each season.

I was positively ravenous to get back to writing fiction.

And that takes us up to this present moment, this summer where I’ve written a ton of short works, and been editing a short novel I wrote senior year of high school. This is the first summer since summer before college that I haven’t had some non-writing-based project taking up time. I’ve also been writing stories that don’t really require research—they either make use of subjects I’ve already researched a lot, or they’re just fantasy, not reliant on specific scientific concepts—which has allowed me to maintain a quick turn-around time for these stories.

If you’ve ever seen the wide sweeping marshes of purgatory mixed with Floridian ecotechture, then I guess I don’t need to describe Casa Maddox to you. For those of you who maybe don’t know what that looks like, I want you to imagine a pristine marshland, then add fifteen hundred drones, a fleet of automated dredgers, and some kinda hellspawn combination of a neocolonialist mansion and a godless marketing exec’s idea of a natural berm. Whatever you’re picturing is not garish enough, cause I didn’t even mention all the hatcheries and fish farms around.

“The Harrowing of Casa Maddox” (2018).

There’s no clean way to say this next part, no anecdote or neat little x-causes-y relation I can draw, but in the past year or two I’ve gotten so much better at writing. That is, the actual act. I’ve realized that being a good writer is not entirely about decision making or accumulated knowledge or strength of voice—although those things are all there, a large part of it could be aptly compared to performance. It is about being able to know where a scene is going, what tone you want to express, when you are losing the reader’s attention, what information you need to establish, and being able to execute on all of this stuff simultaneously.

This is why it takes so long to get good at writing. Actually consciously thinking about all that stuff is an impossibility, but if you’ve been writing for ten years, and reading constantly, that stuff internalizes. Just like an accent—if you have to learn all the sounds and think about them consciously, it’s going to make it very hard to do that accent. But if you just immerse yourself in people speaking with that accent, if you learn the general vocal posture of those speakers, it will come naturally, without thought. Knowledge is useful after the fact, diagnostically, for editing (or beforehand, for planning), but writers are incredibly skilled improvisers as well, not just repositories of tips and tricks. I’ve only really started to internalize all this stuff in the past three years.

This summer has been a combination of me:

  • Finally getting a handle on how to turn an idea into a story, a real story that functions as a story, that doesn’t have big holes in it
  • Internalizing lots of things that I’ve known consciously in the past, and would’ve previously had to work a lot on during editing
  • And, not forcing every story to be everything, not being so ravenous for publication.

I’m in one of those times where I actually feel good about where I am as a writer, and where I’m going, even as I approach my senior year of college, and the inevitable shitload of work I will have to do to mitigate student debt, get honors credit, and just graduate in general I suppose. My writing career (such as it is) has been peppered with moments like this, more often composed of moments where I feel comfortable enough though vaguely dissatisfied and wishing I could write better and write more, and peppered again with moments when I feel like I am going nowhere or even going backwards. In the week that I wrote this, I’ve experienced all three.

Concept art for “We Are the Backwater” (2018).

Despite the hard-edged, weighty reality that all of these moments bring with them when you are in them, I hope that this post has given a broader impression that, in truth, they are all part of a constant, slow progression. There are ways to speed that progression up, to a certain extent, and there are for sure ways to slow it down—but even the moments when I haven’t written for a while have only made me that much more eager to return to it when I finally do. You never go backwards. You can never write a story so bad that it unwrites a previous story.

MAGGIE. Not just the magazine. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do that—though nothing’s a thousand percent sure. But everything. Am I going to stay here? At Marietta? In Marietta, the town? In the southeast? In the US? Am I going to keep going by Maggie? Am I going to dye my hair? Am I going to write a song, or a play, or a novel? Would it be in English, or Spanish, or Swahili? Do I want to stay with my friends here? Do I want to make new friends? Do I want to keep my friends here, make new friends elsewhere, then come back here and rejoin my old friends? Should I just make a decision and do something before I die?

Monastery (2016).

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