March 29th 2014
The Skill List Project: Comfort in Your Own Skin
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. In recent posts, I’ve been winding down, wondering how much I have left to say. However, I think there’s at least one more skill that needs to be on the list: being comfortable in your own skin.
Yes, It’s a Skill
Young children are comfortable with themselves; the youngest are incapable of being self-conscious. Their brains haven’t developed far enough to conceive of any separation between themselves and others. But eventually this changes. We end up filled with fears of not fitting in, and (consciously or unconsciously) asking ourselves, “What would people think of me if I said or did that?”
We censor and restrain ourselves incessantly. Sometimes this is good—if someone makes you angry, no one’s life will be improved if you punch the offender in the nose. But other times, we can tie ourselves in knots for no good reason; we can choke ourselves off from achieving great things, just because no one else is doing it and we don’t want to seem “weird”.
Let me say this clearly: being afraid of being weird is so bloody conventional, it means you aren’t weird. No one who’s afraid of being weird is weird. No one who’s proud of being weird is weird. No one who tries to be weird is weird. Weirdness absolutely doesn’t work that way.
The truly weird don’t know they’re weird. It never occurs to them. That’s why they give free rein to their weirdness: they don’t see that they’re doing anything special. (And now some of you are worrying, “Am I weird and just don’t know it?” Stop it. Stop it right now. Just being capable of that thought plants you hip-deep in Never-Ever-Gonna-Be-Weird-Land.)
The un-weird majority of us have to learn to get past our inhibitions…at least when it comes to the art, craft, and business of being writers. Slowly, patiently, you have to soothe the voices that say, “How does this make me look?” until they agree to go to sleep when you’re wearing your writer hat.
This is a learnable skill. You can (a) learn that you really aren’t weird, so get over yourself, and (b) develop the knack of silencing the censors so they won’t interfere with your work.
Writing Without Restraint
To start learning this skill, create a context where you can write without restraint. This means setting up conditions where you can write whatever the heck comes out, without worrying about its content or its quality.
First and foremost, make a solemn vow that what you write under these conditions will never ever be seen by any other person. Not your significant other(s); not your friends or family; not your writing group or alpha/beta/gamma readers. Nobody. Ever.
If something promising emerges from this writing, you can give yourself permission to let others read it after you’ve done a rewrite. But you’re trying to set up a safe-for-anything space so that your inner censors will chill out. What you’re doing isn’t writing, it’s skill development: you’re building the knack of putting yourself into a certain frame of mind. Just as athletes practice “getting into the zone”, you’re practicing giving yourself a sense of freedom.
So resolve to do “free writing” on a regular basis. Maybe you’ll decide to knock off some flash fiction. (Chuck Wendig throws out a flash fiction challenge every Friday; you might find that a good starting place.) Or maybe you’ll come up with your own writing exercises—you could keep a list of techniques you want to try and pick one at random each week.
The thing to remember is that these are exercises: development, not the basis of publishable work. They’re like pushups. Practically every athlete in the world does pushups: many many pushups. But they’re means to an end. Tennis players don’t do pushups on the court nor do football players get paid for doing pushups on the field. Pushups are prep work, not the real thing. They’re indispensable prep work, but the real stuff is different.
The First Draft
Free writing will help you get comfortable with the sensation of not censoring. That will help when you get to actual writing. There will be a carryover that lets you spill words more freely onto the page, even when you’re in “this is real” mode.
In particular, free writing will help you produce a first draft. First drafts are hazy Schrödinger’s cat superimpositions of free writing and the real thing. On the one hand, you know you’re heading down a path toward a polished finished product; on the other hand, you should accept that first drafts aren’t going to be either polished or finished. Anne Lamott repeatedly talks of “shitty first drafts”. They’re necessary, but they’re just stepping-stones. They don’t have to be great, they only have to exist. If it helps, think of the first draft as storyboard drawings—those crude little sketches made when planning out a movie. Often, they’re not much more than stick figures…but they’re an indispensable starting-point in the film director’s process.
Who Am I and Why Should Anyone Else Care?
So you write your loose first draft. Then you rewrite to tighten things up. And at some point, you’re bound to face the second way in which you can get uncomfortable in your skin. You start asking yourself, “Why do I think this is worth reading? Who am I to deserve someone else’s attention?”
These may seem like difficult questions, but they have a wonderfully simple answer: they aren’t your concerns. Your concern is to make the story as good as you can make it, using all the skills discussed in the previous posts of this series. Once you’ve done that, you send the story to an editor. The editor then decides if the story is worth somebody else’s time and money.
That’s what editors are for: to be experienced judges of what will please their readerships. They get paid the big bucks (*cough*) to save writers from having to make their own (uninformed) decisions on such matters; and when a story is close but not quite there yet, an editor will offer feedback to get you past the finish line.
It is not your job to judge your work…at least not in the sense of “What is this worth to the world?” Writers have to critique their own work to make the stories better, and that may involve questions like, “Is the story honest or does it cop out? Does the plot make sense? Is this about something I care about?” But judgment on behalf of the world? You can ignore that burden. Send out the story and let editors decide.
(Note 1: Send out the story. Seriously. Do not say, “This is lame, I’ll forget I ever wrote it.” John W. Campbell, legendary SF magazine editor, once had a would-be writer tell him, “I don’t want to send you my stories; they aren’t good enough.” Campbell replied, “How dare you reject stories from my magazine? That’s my decision.”)
(Note 2: Self-publishing is a whole other thing…and I know nothing about it. So I have nothing useful to say about writing in the absence of an editor. Perhaps someone knowledgeable will offer advice down in the comment section.)
Putting Yourself Out There
Finally, we come to PR. Many (perhaps most) writers are introverts, so actively putting ourselves forward is a challenge. The common phrase “shameless self-promotion” carries the subtext, “Actually, I am ashamed, because this makes me feel dirty, as if I’m tricking you into buying something inferior.” (See also Impostor Syndrome.) On top of that, we’ve all seen people who come across as smarmy/needy/creepy when they blow their own horns. We don’t want to be like that, so instead we shy away and do nothing our own behalf.
I plead guilty to this on occasion—I’ve ducked opportunities that I should have leaped at. Whenever I’m tempted to chicken out, I try to remember a line from Havi Brooks: “You are not serving anyone by keeping yourself small.”
You aren’t helping yourself.
You aren’t helping the people who might enjoy your writing. In fact, hiding your light under a bushel means you’re robbing them of an opportunity.
And you aren’t even helping people who won’t enjoy your writing. Grant those people some respect and assume they can make their own choices.
After all, what does PR entail? Things like having an attractive web site…maintaining a presence on social media…occasionally attending conventions…eventually doing readings, signings, etc. You aren’t holding a gun to anyone’s head, nor are you trying to fool anyone. Admittedly, the image you project should be (lightly) controlled by professional considerations: think twice about every tweet you post.
But isn’t that true for everyone? Every second of every day, people in social situations manage to interact with each other, finding a cordial middle-ground between unthinking blurts and calculated manipulation. Humans are social animals; this is what we do. We guard ourselves a little, open up a little, reach out a little, polish our halos a little.
PR is just doing that on a larger stage: presenting yourself as a real human being, interacting with other human beings. Yes, you end up talking about yourself and your writing, with the hope (conscious or not) that people will be interested enough to buy your stuff. But what’s wrong with that? You are, after all, doing your absolute best to make your writing worth reading. (You are, aren’t you?) So letting people know about your work is helping the world, not hurting it.
That Really Sounds Like an Ending
If this turns out to be the last posting in the Skill List Project, it’s not a bad note to go out on. But am I really finished? Heck, I don’t know. Check back next month and we’ll see.
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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