At Natcon this year I had the opportunity to be on two panels dealing with religion, and to say I was nervous would be a major understatement. I had no idea how they would go, or how they would be received. Thankfully, though, they seemed to go pretty well and I received a great deal of feedback over the weekend relating to them. One of the people who took the time to come up and chat about them, and say some very kind things both about the panels and my writing, was Pete Aldin. Aside from the nice words, it is always wonderful to meet someone who shares similar beliefs to you, and doubly so when they turn out to be a great guy. Not only is Pete a talented writer, but he is also extremely humble about his achievements. If I hadn’t checked out his website I wouldn’t know how well is he is doing with his writing, and I had to nudge him to mention some of his achievements in his post. Such humility is most definitely not the norm! It’s things like this, as well as his many other sterling qualities, that make it such a pleasure to welcome Pete to Wednesday Writers today.
Antagonists in a Writer’s World
I can’t express how “freaked out” I was by David’s invitation to contribute to Wednesday Writers. “Who am I to post writerly stuff alongside authors whose stories I’ve enjoyed, and sundry other wise persons?” I asked myself. As I tried to come up with ideas for a post here, the background buzz of anxiety expressed in that question eventually gained my full attention long enough for me to realise that it held a clue, an indication of something I could write about (and with full expertise): those things which hold us writers back…
I started writing as a young bloke, churning out a fair amount of cute-but-crap scifi and war fiction between the ages of 13 and 20. During early high school, my friends were my fans as I filled a procession of exercise books with a post-apocalyptic saga set in Melbourne. The saga involved teenage boys battling “mutoes” and other dangers. None of it was great, but it was a start. And writing was a passion.
Somewhere in my early 20s, the wheels fell off. The typewriter (yep, I’m that old) and the notebooks got mothballed or trashed. I stopped writing.
During my 30s, I thought about writing speculative fiction a lot. I wanted to. But I didn’t. And I kept on “didn’t-ing” until I hit my midlife wake-up at 40, whereupon I decided to back myself and have a go. At 46, I’m now officially new to this author-thing, with a mere four notches on my short-story-sales-belt and a novel under submission. I’m at the very beginning of the life that 13-year-old Me always wanted, and I regret those missing decades where I allowed myself to be sidelined as a writer.
I’m not alone in being thwarted as an author. Just as the fictional hero of your favourite novel faces hurdles and battles along his/her journey, so the author who created them faced their own barriers and thwartings in bringing that hero to life. We-who-write have our own story arcs. We face obstacles, handicaps, try-fail cycles, small successes and painful setbacks – even enemies – as we forge ahead on our quests to publish stories that resonate with other people. Here’s just a few of the ogres we battle…
“I’m No Good”
Self-doubt is the most common hang-up and obstacle I hear other writers saying they face. And I suspect it bullies many budding authors with amazing talents into keeping their talents in a metaphorical box beneath their bed. It certainly plagued me enough when I first said, “Dammit, I’m gonna be a writer”.
But I’m finding that these days I face it far less often than I did a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s because seeing your name in Andromeda Spaceways or Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show feels validating. Maybe it’s a practise thing – the more you do it, the more confident you feel. Perhaps it’s because I have great writing buddies who keep things in perspective for me, journey-friends. Or maybe it’s because I’m a closet Cognitive-Behaviourist and work hard at keeping my self-talk healthy. Different things will work for different writers in overcoming the demon of self-doubt…but they will only work if we utilise them to oppose that inner enemy.
Having said that, sometimes when a writer hears that inner voice uttering those words, well, maybe there’s a reason to pay attention. No, I’m not saying that when the writer reads over their first draft and it’s clunky, cheesy and crass, they should abandon their entire writing dream. I am saying that perhaps the voice of disgust is just their Inner Editor nudging them to fix something. That’s not a cause for depression; it’s an opportunity to improve.
“I should be doing something constructive”
I hate this one. And the main reason I hate it is because it gets me with embarrassing frequency. There’s always something more important or pressing that I “should” be doing with my time. Life is full of “shoulds”, of demands and desires that accomplish diddly squat. Fortunately I have a wife who tells me “Writing is constructive. Go write”. I don’t think I’d have stuck with it if I didn’t have her. Not all writers are that lucky.
Whether it’s the washing up, playing xBox with the kids, the vacuuming, ringing your poor old mum, doing your tax…it’ll wait! If we live balanced lives, we have to carve out time for our writing. We have to say NO to stuff. We have to honour the commitment we’ve made to ourselves and our (future) readers.
I have to be honest that one of the things stopping me from pursuing writing in the past was the fear of what other people would think of me.
I haven’t mixed with a lot of spec fiction fans over the decades (thankfully, that’s changing). So when I first began to write, friends would look askance at me – especially when I told them what I was writing. (They would have been okay with it if I’d been writing some political or religious or self-help tome). Even now, when I tell a stranger I write scifi/fantasy/horror, I can see the panic creeping across their face as they scan the room for the closest escape route…that or their eyes glaze over until we return to talking about something “normal”, like football (shudder) … or politics or self-help books.
I work in a high school. When I was scratching out a first draft for this post on a school excursion (on a train), the student sitting next to me turned around and said, “Watcha doin’?”
“I’m writing an article for a friend’s blog,” I replied.
Slowly she uncurled an index finger, levelled it at me and said, “Nerd.”
I said, “Thank you.”
Why on earth should someone else’s negative opinion define me? And if it’s important that I feel “normal” as a spec fiction writer, then I should spend more time with other people who read and write it.
Because it is normal. And it’s cool.
This is a little like the weirdo one, only stronger. When you come from a strong faith background like I do, the power of opinion (read judgment) can be all the more hobbling when it’s levelled by those who share your basic belief system. Now to be sure, there’s a massive spectrum of attitude amongst Christians toward scifi-fantasy-horror (everything from “Beam me up, Harry Potter!” to “That’s of the devil!”) and unfortunately many of those who think it’s a little suss denounce it loudly.
As an ex-pastor, I’ve found it most difficult to come clean about my passion, my dreams and projects with the very people with whom in some ways I should feel most at peace.
There’s a whole other story there, but basically it’s been a matter of reminding myself that while the perspectives and ideas of others are valuable, in the end I define myself. And I define myself as Writer. I can write about dark deeds and still be devout in my faith (Sheesh, just read some Old Testament stories! Young hoons call a prophet “Baldy!” and a bear comes out of the forest to tear them apart? Tell me that’s not horror).
Anyone who thinks I can’t be a Christian and write this stuff is merely ignorant on that topic. And that’s okay. And it brings me to my last writer barrier…
Sheer Unadulterated Ignorance
I suffer horribly from the syndrome of “I dunno what I dunno”. It struck me first when I finally completed my first novel only to find from two interested agents that it was 80,000 words too long for the industry. (“If you could cut it back to 100k, Mr Aldin, we’d be happy to take another look”. “Er, it’d be easier to write a whole new novel to the 100k word limit, but thanks for the heads up.”)
Ignorance can waste your time, it can waste your efforts. It can make you bark up the wrong tree or walk past the tree up which you should be barking (Did that make any sense at all?).
Ignorance can discourage, because you don’t know answers that are a mere Google search or Skype call away.
And the answer of course is to learn, to become a student of spec fiction, of the craft of writing, of the business of publishing, of the world of other wonderful writers and ideas that surround us and remain at our fingertips in this amazing age of globalisation and information. Ignorance is no excuse.
As I conclude this rambling string of ideas, it suddenly hits me: the obstacles and enemies we writers face also provide areas we can mine for wonderful conflict in our spec fiction tales…
Seeking to combat a galactic-scale threat, an alien comes to earth to forge an alliance. Doing this means going against his own orthodox religious precepts which teach that mingling with other species is evil. For his decision, he is treated as weird by the earthers he’s come to negotiate with and now he’s wondering if he’s good enough to pull this off, while his clan-wives back home keep telling him there are far more constructive things to do with his time if he wants to save his race…
Bam! Angst. Obstacles. Conflict.
Like all good narcissists, Pete Aldin writes about himself and his writing at http://www.petealdin.com/. He occasionally blogs about parenthood from the male perspective at http://freakedoutfathers.blogspot.com.au/. He lives in Melbourne Australia with his wife, two sons and a small yappy dog. His addictions include Strongbow sweet apple cider, Medieval Total War and the FIFA franchise on Xbox. He doesn’t like pina colada or taking walks in the rain.
When he’s not writing, Pete works with GenYs and high school students as a tutor, life coach and social worker. He is a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association and Codex Writers Forum.