Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Joyce (Clippership) Alton

All professions have a learning curve and writing is no exception. Yet in writing more than other professions, you're on your own. It's a solitary job after all, which means important aspects of the task sometimes get missed. These posts will be a chance for writers to mentor other writers through their confessions of lessons they learned. Lessons that might have been as painful as a pencil poke in the eye.

I'm excited to kick this series off with the moderator of the Speculative Fiction Forum at AQC our leader, Joyce Alton. You might know her through her mod name of Clippership. Joyce blogs about speculative fiction at Yesternight's Voyage and you can find her on twitter.

Not All Ideas Are Strong Ideas

I’m a cautious person by nature. I’m not reckless, seldom spontaneous, and I like to do my research before sticking my neck out. So I had to sit and stew a bit about the topic of Lessons Learned the Hard Way. I’ve learned plenty over the years in regards to writing craft, dealing with others in the business, and I know I have lots more to learn. The thing is, it’s not as bad when you have that “duh!” moment alone than when someone else points it out or you’ve stuck your foot in your mouth publicly. Most of my learning moments are privately experienced, therefore, not so horrible to fix. One of the hardest realizations I had to come to terms with is that not all stories or ideas are worthy of publication or to put in front of others.

Like many of you, I began writing when I was very young. I was also an avid reader and I loved movies. You know how it goes: you read or see something and your imagination catches on fire. You’re thinking up your own spin on an idea, or meshing several unassociated ideas together. I filled notebooks and 3-ring binders with stories. I also kept several idea journals, an index card file, and a cross-referencing name and place file for every story. I drew some outrageously large maps. And I dreamed – a lot.

Years went by. One day I picked up my master list and read through the almost 200 completed and semi-completed story titles I had amassed. Life is finite. I had other dreams and goals aside from writing. Polishing and publishing that many stories? – um, probably not possible.

The list needed to be trimmed. You’d think that only the completed manuscripts would make the cut. Not so. When deeply analyzing and thinking about each story, I realized painfully, that some of these ideas filled a niche for me personally, but they weren’t for the public eye. I also had to consider the number of likely years a person gets and how long it takes to go through the writing and publishing process. Which ideas did I feel the most passionate about? Which ideas had beta readers loved most? Which ideas had more commercial appeal? The best characters? The most unique worlds?

I cut the list down to thirty-four. That was still being overly optimistic. Letting the other ideas slide into the back of my filing cabinet? – hard. I’d loved those ideas. Time, energy, and imagination went into each of them. Some of them were full drafts, others short summaries. The list is currently down to twenty-nine and I’m sure I still won’t get enough time to do those. I’ve had to prioritize, pulling up one of my strongest ideas to work on first.

I think there comes a time in every writer’s career where they have to face the fact that maybe it’s the story that is the problem. That maybe, it’s not strong enough for publication. Maybe it won’t have wide audience appeal. Maybe there’s not enough to it to make it stand out.

It’s been an eye-opener to research the publishing world. There are thousands of writers out there, each jostling to have their stories noticed. There are millions of rejections. Sometimes it’s because of subjectivity. Sometimes it’s because the story should be shelved. I’m not saying people should give up on their ideas, but there is a disillusionment that comes with being a writer. We grasp our stories with the fierceness of a pit bull and growl if anyone or anything points out the story’s weakness. We don’t want to hear or see that someone else thought of the same thing or something very similar. And certainly, everyone puts their own spin in their own fashion. As much as we hate to admit it, sometimes the difference isn’t that big.

Being a beta reader has helped me learn this as well. I can’t tell you how many stories and characters I’ve seen that sound too much like what someone else is doing, or which don’t stand out from what’s already been done. It’s not that the story’s execution was horrible or the writer has no talent. It’s the idea that is weak or underdeveloped. Sometimes a complete rewrite fixes the problem. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Not if the idea is weak.

I’ve had to face this myself. And since I’m a cautious person, I can promise you that I’m cutting the weaker ideas now before mentioning or showing them to anyone else. There’s nothing quite as humiliating and horrifying as having several people conk you over the head to break the disillusionment.


  1. Wow..that is insightful. Giving up on a book is hard and I can't believe Clipper's written that many! Maybe when I write a few more, I'll be able to discard the not-so-strong stories.

    Great post and series Michelle!

    1. I can still pull the discarded ones out of my filing cabinet to read for fun, or to mine out the really good bits to put into one of the surviving stories. The filed ones never really die. The live like good memories.

  2. Awesome post, and AWESOME series! I can't wait to read more!

    1. Thanks, SC. And I think Michelle's onto something really good with this topic series, too.

  3. Michelle is definitely onto something here :)

    I feel the pain, Joyce. *sigh* Before starting the current WIP, I went through all eighty something ideas, trying to find the one to hit next. I'd just trashed the SciFi because I'm not yet ready to write it, and needed something else. So many ideas. Half of which - well, they weren't that great :)

    You hit the nail on the head. *applause*

    1. I think it takes a good 50 - 100 not so good ideas before the really good ones meld together. The hard part, most of the time and for many writers, is being patient until that happens.

  4. It gives a new spin on: murdering your darlings. Some ideas written just shouldn't be for the public eye. The question is: which ones?

    Great idea for a series Michelle, I love this type of brain food!

    Clipper, How the heck did you manage 200? I've written a lot of different ideas, but I don't think I could get out that many. WOW!

  5. Almost 200. Almost. lol
    The realization hit me with a ?! too. But I've been coming up with ideas and writing for a long time now.