Earlier this year, I kicked off Operation: Awesome, a multi-phase attempt to reprogram myself as a writer. I had spent far too much of my life under this delusion that the traditional rules of writing and story didn’t apply to me. I thought I could just riff and my stories would work. Most often, I didn’t finish the stories. My initial excitement and momentum ran out before I got the car down the road. A lot of the time, before I’d even left the garage. I didn’t understand how stories worked. I didn’t do the pre-production on my ideas to see if they were actually stories or just ideas or hooks with nowhere to go. I would talk a lot about a story I had when I actually had no such thing. I had a premise, maybe, but most often I had a character or a starting point or a scene. And those are not stories.
After a lifetime of saying I was a writer, I decided to actually do the legwork and become a writer.
I needed to push myself. I needed to learn my process and establish good writing habits. I knew I worked well with an outline (another late discovery). I’m a lazy person by nature with a history of feverishly writing down 1000 words then abandoning the story or jumping from one great idea to another without settling on one and doing the work to get it done. A big part of Operation: Awesome is fixing that. Is fixing myself.
You’ve heard this cliche numerous times: Being creative for money is a business. If you’re rolling your eyes at that, go somewhere else. My intent is to make a living from writing. To do that, I needed to be more than just creative. More than just a guy with good ideas. Everyone else you’re competing against, for an agent, an editor, a publisher, for the audience’s time and money, is creative. They all have good ideas. Being creative and having good ideas just isn’t good enough. You need follow-through. You need discipline.
At least I do. And I didn’t have it. But I was going to get it. I came up with Operation: Awesome and immediately started putting it into motion.
Phase One was learning the craft. For a guy who had spent the past ten years in publishing, in writing and game design, I knew frighteningly little about writing stories. I had the mechanics of writing down (spelling, punctuation, paragraphs) and an ear for dialogue (still my strongest suit) but no concrete idea about construction, payoff, character and story arc.
I studied screenwriting, particularly the late Blake Snyder‘s wonderful Save the Cat! series of books. It’s not a book of theory, it’s a book based of codified observations. Blake’s humorous and insightful approach to story construction was an eye-opener. I put Blake’s ideas into practice in late 2008 with a screenplay I’ve recently entered into competition (wish me luck!). I use his ideas in every story I draft. It’s my first step once an idea has taken shape. It’s my test as to whether an idea is actually a story yet.
Phase Two was laying out what type of writer I wanted to be. If I couldn’t define and sell myself, I couldn’t expect anyone else (agent, editor, publisher, reader) to. I needed to be honest about genre and market. I needed to hone my abilities and direct the other phases of Operation: Awesome toward that genre and market.
I know some writers hate defining themselves or, worse yet, think they defy definition. Yet, the successful authors I know, those who produce and sell, can tell you their market. They may branch out (or wish to) and may struggle to accept it but they know it.
I am aware of my interests and strengths and they are not burdens. They help me focus, help me sell myself, help me be a better writer.
Phase Three is research. As a creative, my life is research. Observation and experience is research. But I had a huge gap in my research process: reading. I read a lot as a kid but hadn’t made the time in recent years to get back to it. My life had leaned more towards games, particularly video games, so I spent my time with them. My reading had suffered.
Once I knew what I wanted to write, I needed to read. Lucky for me, what I like to write and what I like to read are the same thing. (Is this true for other creatives? I do not know.) I’ve been on a reading bender, having finished seven books in the past three weeks, with more waiting.
Phase Four is writing. Without this step, the other three are for naught. And by “writing” I’m not just talking about stringing words together. A big part is pre-production: mapping the beats, growing the characters, writing the outline. All of this is necessary for my process. Without them, stories either don’t get done, get done poorly, or need a lot of back and forth (which I could have prevented if I’d done the pre-production). Once that’s done, I do the writing. I don’t miss writing without an outline. It’s not more romantic, the stories and characters still have plenty of surprises, and I can lean on the pre-production when the muse doesn’t show up to work which means I can finish what I start.
Obviously, I go back through Phases Three and Four. They’re not dead ends or one-ways. Reading is an important part of the writing process. (Yet another old chestnut I ignored at my own peril.) Sure, Phase Five is probably selling books and a series or two but I’m not worried about that yet. My goal is to become a better writer. To become the writer I want to be. Once I’m there, I’ll think about getting published.