“The chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.” ~ Harlan Ellison
I believe a writer must have the courage to:
START IN EARNEST: Not in fits and starts, but as if your life and world depended upon you taking this path. This could be the hardest thing you have ever done, because the need comes from some unspoken, ancient, and deep.
Harder still, because you must cast aside every day any voice in your life that says that this is not your destiny. No one will really understand you – that is, except the audience who await your arrival.
It’s just one step into the darkness.
So . . . take a breath, center yourself . . . and begin.
DO INCREDIBLE EXPLORATION: Talent is important and wonderful and amazing and – in the end – is not enough to make you a success. But exploration matters, because writing is more about being REAL than being right. Being authentic in what you say gives power to your words and makes it easier to finish each piece.
80% of all writing happens before you type CHAPTER ONE or FADE IN.
At least half of THAT writing is done out of the chair.
Inspiration and discovery combine when you commit to doing this deeply and well.
SAY WHAT OTHERS WILL NOT: I know you have seen things in the corners of Creation.
You have felt and done things that have changed your life. And you stand now – in this place and at this time – to testify – to tell YOUR TRUTHS to others through the greatest vehicle there ever was for truth: Story.
These things are often dark and byzantine and intense and uncomfortable and some of them frighten you. But it is because of this that you MUST say them because they are the very things that make vital, personal, and spiritual the connection between you and your readers.
You have to go deep every time. That means taking the risk of making your readers uncomfortable because you’re making them think and feel. So write the passages that will cling to your readers, the ones that will return to them sudden and unbidden in years to come.
It’s what writers like Ellison have done for me. You can do it for the next generation.
MAKE MISTAKES: Mistakes are the only way to know that you’re pushing yourself beyond whatever your limits are right now. Later, you won’t make these same mistakes anymore… you will make new ones.
And that’s how you grow.
But if you are not regularly making mistakes, if the writing is coming out “perfectly” in first draft all the time, it’s not because you’ve finally become the consummate professional . . .
It’s because you’re not trying hard enough and you’ve set the bar too low.
Reach farther. Write harder, faster, deeper.
And when in doubt – always take the risk.
KEEP YOUR TALENT IN CONTEXT: I had my first public success in writing when I was 13. As a result I became prideful – and even a bit stuck up – because I thought I could do something that others could not, and do it well.
Years later, a day came when I called upon that talent to get me through and it failed me. I came up empty – literally – and thought I was done for sure.
I felt like that, lost in an ever-increasing dry spell, for 11 years.
After trying everything I could to create again, I started doing research and setting deadlines and disciplining myself to produce good work on a regular schedule. Eventually, my productivity and quality came back and I got back in touch with my abilities once I realized that talent works best in harness and under the thumb of a good work ethic.
I never took it for granted again.
BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR IMPACT: This is not meant for you to be careful about what you say for fear of offending someone. Your words are yours alone, and people will react to them as their own lives, desires and circumstances dictate. “Offensive” is a label, not a critique.
But regardless of what you say, you must consider carefully the deeper meaning of your particular truths, and then have the courage to stand by what you say.
“You are either master of your spoken words or slave to those best left unspoken.” – A. Lincoln.
SACRIFICE: Writing is more about choices than most people realize. It’s not just the choice of what to say and when, but the thousands of choices you will have to make to give your writing a fighting chance.
The image of the gentleman (or woman) writer at ease, working two or three hours a day and then lounging by their pool or living the life of ease has always been a myth.
There are things every serious writer, musician, and athlete must give up every day to afford them the time to learn and work their Art. Writing, especially, is a lonely journey, even in the midst of a crowded coffee house, and to do this day in and day out is the active choice we make – moment by moment – as we each fight for our own relevance.
Recognize and celebrate that sacrifice in yourself. Respect and celebrate it in others.
SET AND HIT DEADLINES: This is the great secret to a successful career as a writer.
But it is at the same time both the most dreaded aspect of a writer’s life and the absolutely best tool you have in becoming a successful writer. Because any open-ended writing project – with no concrete due date – is a project that will never be finished.
I learned that while writing my first monthly comic book series in 1993.
The prospect was very attractive: a completed comic book with words and story by me and art inspired by my ideas, in my hands published EVERY MONTH!
Of course, if that were to actually happen, if artists were to have pages to draw, inkers and colorist to have pages to fill, a printer to have pages to print and my publisher to have a profit with which to continue paying me, I had to complete a new 22 page script with new story and new ideas each month!
Since I very much enjoyed writing and eating, I learned to do it.
Since other people were depending on me, I had to make sure those stories were done and done well. There was always another deadline and always another challenge and soon I realized that this was the only way to create a body of work.
I now apply this to all my projects, setting a deadline for each phase. It’s how I must work to be successful. It’s how Larry must work to be able to manage all of his many projects and achieve his many successes. Best learn to embrace it now.
I like the way Chuck Wendig (the incredible prolific novelist-screenwriter-game designer) says it:
Write as much as you can…
Write as fast as you can…
Finish your work…
Hit your deadlines…
Try not to suck.
FINISH: And Chuck is right about this too. So simple a concept, it lies at the heart of most writing failures. The secret saga of every unpublished writer is their embarrassment of unfinished work. There should be a law that says that you are not allowed to call yourself a WRITER until you actually finish something. Until then, you are an apprentice.
This is not to penalize those learning their craft, but there should be a benchmark by which to measure yourself. Because you will never get an audience until you publish and you cannot publish until you finish.
SUBMIT: In a world of e-publishing and blogging, the concept of submitting your work to another for acceptance can seem a bit alien. This is because both these institutions have devolved into their own forms of vanity publishing.
But such format denies the most basic tenet of a writer’s development: the crucible of critique.
It is vital to the artist’s life that he knows directly how another well-informed person perceives their work.
It is both feedback and benchmark.
It is a way to tell how well you are reaching your audience.
It is vital to growth as a writer.
Without it, you can inadvertently join that unfortunate subclass of the writer: the dilettante. The person who lives their life as much as a work-in-progress as the pieces they cannot finish. People can delude themselves so easily such writers can toil away at a piece for years without every submitting it to scrutiny, living in the mindset of a writer without accomplishing anything.
At best, it is the literary version of Sisyphus and the rock.
At worst, it is a Siren’s song, trapping you in your own desire.
Are you that person? Are you still writing something that you know is done but cannot seem to move past? Just decide to send it off and start something new. Take a chance.
Remember: courage isn’t really just a virtue.
Courage is a decision.
OPEN LETTER OF APPRECIATION
This post marks my 12th appearance and my one-year anniversary with Storyfix.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for the kindness you have shown me, Larry. It has been my honor to share this time with you and your readers and I appreciate this wonderful opportunity to give voice to my often peculiar thoughts. I have found as I travel and lecture and meet other writers how Storyfix is well known as the home for writers passionate about their stories and their development as professionals. I believe our ability to meet here and discuss both the fundamentals and the finer points of writing has made a profound difference in the lives of so many.
I know it has in mine. I am very grateful.
Art Holcomb is a produced screenwriter and a published comic book author of such comics as Marvel’s X-MEN. He consults and teaches screenwriting and comic book writing for the UC Riverside Extension Writer’s Program and elsewhere.
His most recent story is ALWAYS WINTER BUT NEVER CHRISTMAS and is currently working on a book for writers entitled Perfecting Your Premise.
He lives in Southern California