One of the most confounding pieces of writing advice that gets thrown around haphazardly is “write what you know.” On the surface it makes sense: draw from personal experience so that your familiarity with the material lends a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude. However, when you think about it a little, it would seem to preclude a vast amount of possible stories. If you’re supposed to “write what you know” then how are you supposed to write fantasy, sci-fi, or even historical fiction. Moreover, many of those genre writers seem to do just fine without having personally experienced their own settings; Tolkien never set foot in Middle Earth.
In a recent post, I talked about flow and the effort it takes to achieve it. Today, I want to talk more about that, specifically about making your writing space “sacred” and creating a “closed-loop system,” particularly with regards to distractions, vis a vis your phone.
In that post about flow, I discussed the pomodoro technique, which helps me focus. To quickly recap, I work for twenty-five minutes then take a five minute break. The problem is that I was using my phone to do this, and during my five minute breaks I’d usually check social media or any messages. Seems harmless enough, right? I’d briefly check my phone for a few minutes then set it aside and work, and then repeat.
This January I was commissioned to write two short articles. It had been awhile since I did the freelance thing, and these pieces were outside the niche that I’d been carving for myself recently, but I said yes because it was an opportunity to make some quick money after Christmas. Also, the publisher has always been a pleasure to work with. And, I mean, it’s pretty hard for a writer to turn down a paying gig. However, I soon realized that taking on these sorts of projects was holding back my career. I was chasing the quick nickel instead of the long dollar.
When I first started my writing career back in 2013, I didn’t understand the value of specialization (among many other things). My passion had always been to write novels, ever since I was little kid, but I didn’t have a voice, didn’t know where to start. So I decided to follow the path laid by many other writers before me that I’d admired: journalism. I did a six-month internship at The Walrus magazine then embarked on a brief freelancing career.
I was interested in a lot of different things and figured it was all just writing. I chased after every possible pitch. I wrote articles about food banks, homelessness, women in the Canadian film industry, Newfoundland traditions, food, and immigration. I said yes to any opportunity.
This taught me two important lessons: 1) in order to be a great writer, or anything really, you have to focus on one very specific thing, and 2) to do that, you have to say “No” a lot.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown shows very simply the power of focusing on one thing vs several things. You can try to do ten things to the first degree, or you can do one thing to the tenth degree. Doing the former means you’ll spread yourself thin and only really nibble around the edges. The latter means you’ll end up actually mastering your chosen field.
There was no way I could write about immigration one week, food the next, and somehow find time to write novels in the meantime without my work suffering.
This begs the question: How do I find my niche? It’s easier said than done. Some people know from the start what they want to do. For example, you may have always wanted to be a sportswriter and every step you took from high school was in that direction. On the other hand, like me, you may have a lot of interests and can’t decide. In that case, I’d suggest doing a lot of things until you find your niche. After writing enough things that I wasn’t interested in, I managed to deduce what I was interested in.
Once you’ve reached this point, you’re ready for step number two: Saying No.
Focusing on one thing means that you’re gonna have to say no to things that don’t contribute to your long term goals. And you’re going to have to say no a lot. Like a lot, a lot. What’s more, as you gain success and notoriety in your niche, more opportunities will come your way. You’re gonna need to parse which ones are right for you.
This is difficult for two reasons. 1) Turning down opportunities feels wrong. Like you’re being lazy and unappreciative. This requires discipline and focus. And 2) Knowing the right time to say no requires sound judgement.
Warren Buffett, who is worth an estimated $82 billion, says that the thing that separates successful people is that they say no to a lot of opportunities. Buffett owes approximately %90 of his wealth to just ten investment stocks. Therefore, there is a tonne of value to be found by drilling narrowly and deeply.
Or, consider Stephen King. After Carrie, he had to a choice to publish either Salem’s Lot, which would cement him as a horror writer, or Roadwork, which was more literary. King wasn’t afraid of specializing so he went with the former. I think that’s worked out pretty well for him.
So, whenever an opportunity comes your way, you have to ask, “Does this contribute to my long term goals? Am I chasing the quick nickel or the long dollar?”
That was the mistake I made when I said yes to those commissions at the start of the year. It wasn’t a bad opportunity, just not the right one for me. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or snobby, like it’s beneath. It just didn’t fit in with my long term goals. I was chasing the quick nickel.
This weekend I will be launching my debut novel, After Dark Vapours. It’s obviously a very exciting time for me; publishing a book has been a dream for me ever since I was a little kid reading Goosebumps. Likewise, I’ve been lucky to have experienced an outpouring of support and enthusiasm from friends and family. Perhaps the most common refrain I hear, especially from bookish friends, is that they too have always wanted to write a book. If you’re reading this and also feel the same, believe me when I tell you that if I can do it, you can do it. So, with that in mind, I’d like to give you all some advice that I wish someone gave me when I started writing:
And here we see the elusive ‘Writer’ in its natural habitat… Be careful – we don’t want to scare it off…
Speaking for myself, I tend to do some weird things when I write. Usually I do this in the safety of my own home, where other people can’t witness these oddities, but sometimes the weird cannot be contained and spills out into the rest of the world…
As we can see, sometimes the writer’s face will suddenly contort into strange expressions, as if warning unseen enemies not to get too close…
When I’m writing a scene between two people, I’ll often find myself trapped in dialogue, so I’ll toss in some descriptions to break it up a little. If I want to describe how someone’s face looks, it’s easiest for me to make the face I want and go from there. If a character’s conflicted, I’ll pretend I feel that way and then I’ll notice how my eyebrows come together and the left corner of my mouth tightens. If you ever see me making weird faces for no reason, it’s probably because I’m working on a story.
If we get a little closer we can hear the writer talking to itself, repeating words over and over, as if invoking an ancient spirit…
I like my dialogue to sound natural (well, as natural as something entirely scripted can sound), so I’ll say the lines to myself – sometimes acting out entire scenes. If a line’s not working, I’ll try saying it a few times to figure out what’s not working. Do I need to find a better word? Rearrange the sentence order? Start from scratch…? What sounds better?
Sometimes, the writer will sit still for hours, not moving in the slightest. We suspect that this is some kind of strange meditation, and yet they do not seem very relaxed…
Yeah, I’ve been there. Staring at the screen or page in front of me, willing words to suddenly appear – afraid that if you move you might scare the words away. I’ve found this to be one of the worst ways for me to get over writer’s block, and yet I cannot stop doing it. I did it at least 5 times while I was writing this blog post…
Here we see the strange, awkward dance of the writer. Although there are no other people around, notice as they move about in strange ways, dancing to music that only they can hear…
Confession time: I like to act out fight scenes. It gives me a better idea of what’s going on and how the characters are moving, plus I get a better idea of tension and momentum and pacing. Also, it’s really fun to act out fight scenes.
I’m sure there are many other odd habits I’ve failed to mention, but I’ve got to go stare at my computer screen for a few hours and will some words to appear.
Do you have any strange writing habits you’d like to share? Any habits here seem familiar to you?
And remember, if someone sees you doing something strange and confusion clouds their eyes, just say “I’m a writer” and that should be explanation enough.