On being a late bloomer

I got a late start writing fiction.

It’s something I always wanted to do, at least going back to when I was nine or ten. That summer, I got it in my head to write a story, a Friday the 13th-style slasher story about a maniac named Clay who killed off summer campers (modeled on kids I knew from Roper Day Camp in suburban Detroit) until meeting his own violent end, which I think was electrocution-based.

I had fun writing it, but writing fiction didn’t stick then. I put it aside until I was in high school, working in a library and reading books like Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King (whose short fiction has always, in my opinion, surpassed his novels) and, of course, Catcher in the Rye. These books inspired me to try again; I can do this too, I thought.

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Late bloomer at work, 1981 or ’82.

So I wrote. I wrote through my senior year of high school, my college years, my first couple years in the Coast Guard (that’s when I also started trying to write screenplays, having seen Reservoir Dogs and Glengarry Glen Ross just before I graduated college). What I didn’t do is take a single creative writing class. I don’t say that to brag, because I still don’t know if that was the right decision or not. Looking back, I think a class might have helped, but at the time I didn’t think writing was a talent you could develop in a classroom setting. I am pretty sure I was wrong about that, honestly.

The thing is, I hated everything I wrote. Everything. What seemed brilliant in the moment read like pretentious auto-fellation the next day. Every line of fiction I wrote ended up mortifying me.

But I good enough at writing to write other things. Ad copy. Record reviews. Software manuals. Magazine articles. Scripts. A three-hundred-page dissertation on land use policy in environmentally-sensitive landscapes (yeah, don’t bother with that one). Everything but fiction.

I had no style. And I had no idea how to develop any style. I began to accept that I would never write novels or publish short story collections.

But it was more than that, though, and when I was in a particularly reflective mood I could articulate the real reason I wasn’t writing fiction: I didn’t have anything worth saying.

I’ve always viewed successful fiction, the best fiction, the kind of fiction that endures, as having the ability to show us truths about ourselves and the world around us that we wouldn’t otherwise see. And certainly I had stories I could tell, life experiences that lent themselves to narrative. I’m doing that right now, in fact, with my second novel, which is based on my experiences in the US Coast Guard in the mid-1990s. I recognized a long time ago that I had the makings for a novel in my experiences during those four years of my life. But I had no idea what any of it meant, or more to the point, what any of it could or should or would mean to anyone else.

I’ve been carrying those experiences around with me for more than twenty years now; it took me most of that time to really understand what they meant, what they revealed to me about the world, about other people, about myself. And it took me even longer to decide that I was able to express that understanding through fiction, through stories, through my own creative process. Hell, I didn’t get there until after I turned 40.

So I started to read writing books, on technique, approach, mindset, whatever. Most of them didn’t help. Then finally, one of them did: David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist. I focused on a few specific technical suggestions and applied them to the first eight pages of an idea I’d had in my head for a few years. Then I put those pages in a drawer and forgot about them for a few more years. Then I found them, discovered to my surprise that they weren’t so bad, and decided to finish the book, even though I didn’t know how it was going to end. The result was How I’m Spending My Afterlife, which took me two years and change to write and which will finally see the light of day in October.

Understand that I’m not hoping to justify my late start in this post. For one thing, I don’t need anyone’s permission for or approval of the path my life has taken to this point. But more important, I don’t think that starting late requires justification.

But.

I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t try to measure your own progress in life against anyone else’s. That’s certainly sound advice but is also nearly impossible to put into practice. It’s just human nature to look at someone else, someone who has achieved the success and status that you crave for yourself, and wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you’re lagging so far behind.

A lot of writers who have a career trajectory I hope to achieve are younger than me, sometimes a lot younger. It’s dispiriting sometimes. I sometimes feel like I could have already made it big by now, or at least respectably, if only I’d started sooner.

But would I have? If I wasn’t ready to write, I wasn’t ready to write. Yes, starting late was almost certainly a disadvantage from the perspective of building a real career out of writing fiction, assuming that’s even possible to do anymore. But it just as easily may have been the only way for me to do this at all. If I’d started too soon, before I was confident that I had anything to say, what would that have looked like? I mean, I remember some of the novels I planned to write, back when I was in college and before I knew the first goddamn thing about anything. They were formless, plot-driven, thinly-conceived. If I’d written those under my own name, I’d be calling myself Steve Bennett by now.

I think I did myself a big favor, honestly. I may have lost 20 years of back catalog, but I think the odds are good that I’m much more likely to remain proud of my work for years to come.

A brief recap of last week’s event

First of all, I’m not great at blogging in a timely fashion. I get to these things when I get to them, so apologies for the fact that I should have posted this a week ago.

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So yeah, The Basement Series last Friday night. It was pretty great actually. I hadn’t performed at a reading in two years, almost to the day (that one was to support the publication of City by City, in which one of my essays appears, and which was held at the fantastic Green Apple Books on the Park), and outside of the fact that Muni took so long getting me to the Sports basement that I almost missed the cutoff for check-in, it went quite smoothly. I was the fourth reader of the evening, right before the intermission.

Of course, I was a little worried about how my piece would be received, especially after hearing the three writers who led off the evening. The theme of the night was “strange travel suggestions,” and the first three readers – and everyone other than me, as it turned out – all went with straight-up travelogues. I … hadn’t prepared anything like that. For years I’d had the idea in the back of my head that I would eventually write a story about a boy who could only communicate via maps. I thought the theme of strange travel would be a decent approximate fit, so I decided to finally write that story. Because the deadline was approaching rapidly, I had to do it on vacation, but I managed to find several hours spread over two or three days in Lucca to get something down.

Thing was, I wasn’t sure if I actually had anything when I was done. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a terse, perfunctory rejection email in my inbox at the end of the week. And I still wasn’t sure about it when I stepped up to the mic to read last Friday night.

I guess I shouldn’t have worried. The story – which I called “Fantastic Atlas” – seems to have resonated with a good chunk of the audience, so I will be working on adding some meat to its spartan, 500-word frame and seeing what else I can do with it.

Overall the evening’s program was thoroughly enjoyable – I particularly enjoyed work from Karolina Connolly and Naomi Marcus – and if you are in the SF Bay Area, you should really try to get yourself to a Basement Series reading one of these months.

Cover art makes it real

It’s amazing how, after three years of writing, editing and attempted publishing, it still takes cover art to make this novel seem, well, real.

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One of the good things about being old is that I have a pretty extensive network of creative people who are capable of professional-quality work, and who are (for reasons that escape me) still willing to actually work with me. This design is courtesy of Luke Murphy, who was the first art director I ever worked with when I got into the freewheeling world of software marketing back in the day. I’m really excited about it, and it’s helped spark the enthusiasm I’ll need for launching this book myself (which is a ton of work – you should see my marketing plan, for example).

What do you think? Love it? Hate it? Got a better idea?

Would your character really do something like that? Or, when not to listen to people in your writing circle.

 

Ever since I’ve started writing fiction and creative nonfiction, I’ve sought out feedback and critiques from readers and other writers alike. At the beginning, I used to take every comment to heart – almost no matter what it was – and at least try to incorporate the feedback into the next draft.

I don’t do that anymore, for obvious reasons. A lot of feedback is little more than noise. Some of it can be downright harmful. Experience is the only way to hone your instincts for separating good criticism from useless.

In the critique groups I’ve participated in, a common note relates to the implausibility (to the critic, anyway) of a character’s actions at a key point in the story.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” a well-meaning critic might say about something your protagonist did. “Why would he do that?”

Be careful here. This can be valuable feedback. But it can also weaken your character and undercut your work. Which way it goes depends on what the speaker is actually trying to say.

If she means that your character’s actions seem inconsistent with what you’ve established as the character’s personality, motivations, abilities and obstacles, then pay attention. That means you’re allowing the needs of the plot to dictate what your characters do, instead of having your characters’ actions drive the plot. You’re making them reactive instead of proactive, and in the process, forcing them to behave less like humans and more like puppets. Or robots. Whichever you think is worse.

If, on the other hand, what she really means is something like “well, I would never do that (or would have made a different choice) myself, so I can’t believe that your character would either,” you can probably safely ignore her.

Your characters don’t have to be rational. They don’t have to be prudent. They don’t even have to be smart. They do have to be interesting, and they do have to be consistent. If your character’s behavior is consistent with the personality you’ve established for them, and with the conflict that is at the center of your story, then you’re good.

This is the first in what may or may not be an irregular series on the writing craft and what little I know of it. I hope you find at least some of it useful.