On Reaching the Creative Writing Milestones

Earlier this week, I popped open an email from a friend. She’s an aspiring author like me, and like me, she has her strengths and her weaknesses as a writer. In particular, she does really amazing research; I definitely search for a quick answer or example for an element I want to use, get it and stop reading if I can work with what I found, but she learns all that she can about a topic, records relevant details, makes an educated decision about what she’s going with and why (and then records those reasons as well, I believe).

Anyway, I’m reading her email and spot something that comes up off-hand; she’s actually written a bit–her words (well, tone [whatever]), not mine. She only spared a sentence for this bit of information, but I smiled. Not in a douchy way, but because, in my mind, she hit the third Creative Writing Milestone (or Waypoint? [Tier? Tier! That works… No it doesn’t (not Event [not Phenomenon (not Happening [Got it! Yes!… Milestone!])])]). And just knowing that–seeing where she was in my concept of the writing process–made me want to tell anyone about that concept. So here we are!

Before I go on, I should caution you that they aren’t a defined thing supported by research; they’re the product of my observations and opinions as an aspiring writer and, as with nearly everything on this site, they’re flavored with an implied “fantasy” before every instance of “writing” and “fiction” (whatever application you can take from them as a general fiction writer, for example, is completely up to you).

That said, in my mind, there are Milestones that every aspiring writer experiences. Each of them is an event (phenomenon, or happening) that–while not all difficult–are still steps we have to surmount and experiences we need to have for better or worse. They are events that I believe we all experience, although their prominence in our lives is different for each of us. I should add that if you get nothing from this, you’ll at least have a pretty clear idea of my growth as a writer.

Anyway, enough foreplay.

The First Milestone – The Realization

You realize that you want to tell stories. Specifically fiction. You aren’t sure what or how, but you want to entertain people. Perhaps you’ve read something and enjoyed it so much that you wanted to try doing the same. Or you experienced a story in a different medium that you enjoyed but that you knew could’ve been better, and now you want to figure out how by writing the story you expected. No matter how you came to realize that you want to write, the point is, you know now and it starts to color how you see everything.

However, for a while, there’s only guess work. You fumble with a few ideas as you try to decide what stories you want to tell, but these ideas may never fully take. Eventually, you may either forget these ideas or remember them fondly regardless of your choice (I hope you remember them fondly). At the very least though, you find characters and story elements that you really like during this time, and often carry them with you afterwards, growing with them and eventually finding their stories if you can.

For me, the Realization only came in full after I did two separate things: played Lunar: The Silver Star for the first time and watched Jurassic Park for the first time. I do fondly remember the characters that I found in those days, but I’m not the person to tell many of their stories (although I brought many of them with me, I could not bring them all; oddly enough, one of my current characters is actually named after one of my First Milestone characters who I had to leave behind [because he was literally just the stereotypical noble knight]).

I haven’t met many people who come to this point and don’t continue–this time for a writer is usually exciting, I think, so there’s an uncontrolled, unplanned, and potentially accidental progression to the next Milestone.

The Second Milestone – The Concept

After trying a few ideas, you experience your very first, oddly cartoonish epiphany; there’s a really good chance that somewhere in your timeline, a young you actually stopped what he/she was doing, jumped up with eyes wide and said, “That’s it!”

After the epiphany, everything happens very, very quickly. You start to create a world based on that single, brilliant idea–an idea which can be anything from a particular setting to a social element in your world. It could be the origin for a character or even just the reason why they wear an iconic piece of clothing.

For me, it was a single social detail about a world that I didn’t know otherwise. I thought the element was amazing, and, in my memory, it was immediately followed by countless details about that world and the realization that two of the characters who I’d been drawing for the past year were key players in its story.

Now, the important thing to realize here is that the Concept can be absolutely addictive. It can go on for ages and can ultimately swallow a writer whole. It’s beautiful, pure creativity, but it requires a lot of work that most of us give willingly, which is part of the problem. For my part, I spent at least ten years of my youth creating new ideas for the one fantasy series. In retrospect, it would’ve been a terrible idea for me to start writing that series in high school, but regardless, the point is that I just kept building that world. And when it got too big, I didn’t stop–I remember having countless files on my computer that conflicted with each other (we’re talking about conflicting world timelines). When I realized this, I tried to prune it all down, but in my excitement, I just created more details and piled them on. Ultimately, I never started that first series in part because it’s still an incredible tangle of concepts that I know I can’t use and won’t do justice to until I’ve had experience actually writing and being published. The point is, however, it’s incredibly easy to burn out from all of this; in my experience, in fact, this is the point where many of us ultimately give up. We carefully and meticulously build worlds and then life happens and for whatever reason we forget or we let go. Either way, very few of us actually move on to the next Milestone.

The Third Milestone – Actually Starting

I don’t want to say that anyone who hasn’t made it to this point isn’t a writer–I believe that anyone who meticulously and lovingly builds a world is someone who wants to write.

However, there is ultimately a huge difference between building that world and actually writing a story in it. Put simply, no matter how much you love your world and your characters, no one will ever find out about them until you start putting pen to paper. Actually doing it–actually starting to tell your story–is one of the most important things you can do. Because, to vastly understate a fact, it’s the hard part. This is the point where you challenge yourself to do this thing you’ve wanted to do for years but were afraid of. This is where you actually try to give these characters you love their voices.

And if you’re anything like me, this is where you suddenly realize that among all of the elements you created, all of the tense dialogue you outlined between characters and all of the plot events you lovingly polished until they were all shiny with epicness, the one thing you didn’t actually do was write out a full, detailed, logical plot that your stories follow. There is a first scene or a first chapter that you work through, but you eventually get tired and stop because you find that there’s no chapter 2 outlined anywhere in all of those notes.

It’s important to say here that this Milestone isn’t all failure though–it’s a victory. You’ve actually started to write and that’s awesome. However, it’s another, strong opportunity for an aspiring writer to stop. Suddenly things don’t work and, at best, you struggle to make them work. You start to let go of some projects while focusing instead on the best you have because you start to realize that what you considered a collection of awesome stories is actually just a group of ideas that require execution to be completed (and enough logic to be executed).

But at the same time, the experiences that come with this Milestone are synonymous with actual, successful writing, and for some of us, the entire process can stop here. Over the years, you can figure out everything about a story, finish a novel, get published, continue writing, and be happy. But again, that’s for some of us.

For the rest of us… there’s the Fourth Milestone.

The Fourth Milestone – Realizing that Everything You’ve Been Writing Is Complete Shit: The Reckoning

<sigh> So… every Milestone is important. But for a lot of us, this is the final, terrible hurdle. Like I said, not everyone experiences this one.

But for the majority of us, there comes a reckoning. It will have been coming for years, and when it finally hits, you’ll melodramatically realize, “I always knew.” It may come out of nowhere or it may come from finally and honestly trying to accept harsh criticism you’ve received for a sample you sent out. Regardless, it is, officially, the point at which criticism stops being inherently harsh in your mind. Not because you’re suddenly zen, but maybe because your third eye opened, and through it you realized that when someone said they didn’t like x and y about the excerpt you sent them, it wasn’t because they were assholes (unless they were actually assholes about it)–it’s because your excerpt actually sucked. And why? Because when the Third Milestone came, you realized that “things don’t work,” you spent the last few years struggling to “make them work.” And in the process of trying to force things to make sense, you took shortcuts and made tenuous, odd ties between conflicting elements. You held onto original concepts you liked (i.e. the magic flute that lets the one character talk to animals) even though they no longer worked with newer, more logical angles you created (i.e. it’s silly how unnaturally useful this flute is). Put simply, your brain and your heart have been fighting on paper and you stepped in to force a settlement between them. And that torn up battle ground? That story that doesn’t make the sense you thought it did? That’s what you’ve spent the last few years writing.

You were too close–that old creative writing adage you’ve heard and used so many times without actually knowing what it meant. In short, the answer was never “make the magic flute less useful.” The answer was, “You honestly think this fucking magic flute is stupid, just like everyone else. Why aren’t you seeing that? Why are you so afraid to delete that stupid flute?”

But, it doesn’t matter. As harsh as all of this is, the point is that you realized you were too close. You finally saw what you were doing and you stepped back and honestly reevaluated your writing. You actually took the criticism and looked at it instead of just glossing it over and telling your friends, “Thanks. I’ll definitely keep this in mind.”

Now, I’m probably biased because I just got to this Milestone a few years ago, but I cannot help thinking that it’s something every writer should look out for. If you’ve been writing for a while now and you love what you write to the extent that you’re sure everyone’s opinions about your work are wrong, you need to stop and very openly and honestly reevaluate yourself as a writer. If you have friends who have told you that your work is great but you have a hard time tying scenes, character motivations and plot events together in a simple, logical, and compelling way, then–as harsh as it sounds–you need to consider that your friends are being nice and that your story / characters / writing in general is missing something.

Something, by the way, that you can absolutely provide. At this point, you will have already worked on your craft for years, and despite how bad this sounds, this is not a reckoning that you won’t understand. When you get here, you’ll realize you’ve been ignoring issues with your writing for ages. Whether it’s because you’ve heard it from others or because you’ve made excuses for clear plot holes, you’ll know what’s wrong.

But when you get to this point, you’ll have found a solution. And maybe it won’t be clear (maybe you’ll have to figure out exactly what you need to change about your writing to produce quality stories), but finding this solution–admitting that you can always improve as a writer and that you always need to try harder–is synonymous with producing quality writing. If you reach this Milestone, you haven’t been defeated. For lack of a more melodramatic phrase, you’ve been set free.

~

Well, that was an incredibly long post. If you read through, I hope you enjoyed and got something out of this. Either way, thanks for reading.

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