It never ceases to amuse me the way we have to be reminded over and over again of things we should have already learned a long time ago.
For example, there’s no doubt that the ancient Delphic maxim Know thyself—know yourself–holds true today as it did when it was first uttered.
Indeed, there’s no doubt at all. And such a maxim holds true for everyone, writers included. In fact, if you know yourself you can avoid a lot of stress and useless worrying about your career as an independent writer.
Just think of it. If you spend some quality time thinking hard about what makes you happy, what your values are, what is your definition of success, how hard you’re willing to work to attain certain goals, and so on, you can build your personal road map from here to whatever destination in life you choose.
Besides, having chosen and defined certain basic principles from the very beginning you won’t have to make the same decisions over and over again in the future.
At least, certainly not on a daily basis.
What follows is a brief list of the way that knowing yourself can help you as a writer to be way more productive and effective.
I decided a long time ago to disregard genre and read pretty much everything I could set my eyes on. Of course, provided it was written in a decent style.
That decision gave me the opportunity to enjoy works that have nothing to do with horror, thriller, or SF, but that taught me a lot about how to write powerful stories. And also taught me a lot about the things I want to stand for in life, in real life.
Of course, these days the number of books being published in any genre is so vast that the same holds true also if you enjoy reading only in a couple of genres.
But what matters is that, having chosen a genre, or decided against any genre-based restriction, you can instantly makes your search for a book to read much more easier. In my case, I know I’m going to choose the first book with an interesting plot and that, judging from the sample, is well written.
I mean Middlesex isn’t exactly a horror novel, but the way it’s written can teach a lot to any writer, irrespective of genre conventions. Besides, it’s fun.
Someone else might decide to read every book featuring werewolves. Or any romance featuring a damsel in distress. You get the idea.
As for writing, the same applies. If you have chosen to write in a particular genre you might find out that it’s easier to turn your everyday experiences into material useful for your stories. Because your mind will be, though unconsciously, on the lookout for ways to relate your experience of the world with the genre you enjoy writing so much.
For example, a simple bunch of flowers can lead to very different associations:
An initiation ceremony
A way to hide a knife –> crime, jealousy….
A way to infect someone with lethal alien spores
A death. A funeral
A hospital –> Mental illness, aging parents…
Maybe the bunch of flowers has been stolen –> poverty? envy?
The list could go on indefinitely. And, of course, genre by itself isn’t going to discount any of the above mentioned options. However, it does help to approach the options from the most productive angle.
I mean, if you’re writing a romance, then an initiation ceremony is going to be quite different from the one you would set up if you decided to write about mental illness.
In the first case the ceremony might sanction a pact of never ending love. Instead, in the latter the ceremony could even be the source of the mental illness. And here I haven’t even taken into account the possible settings.
The know yourself mantra is good also when you approach issues about style.
For example, I can’t stand convoluted writing. Those texts where you have to read through a long series of subordinate clauses, and when you get at the end of the sentence you don’t even remember what it was all about.
As a result, I don’t read writers who use this style. Also, I try hard to keep my style as far away from it as possible.
Illuminated by a pale sun, the old house, that sat in the middle of the meadow, and whose windows were all cracked and looked like black and malevolent eyes staring back at me while I approached, driving slowly on the unkempt gravel road, was like the one I had seen in my darkest dreams.
Sorry folks, but I can’t read more than half a page of this. My brain falls prey to seizures if I force it to read on. No kidding.
The old house sat in the middle of the meadow. Its windows were all cracked and looked like black and malevolent eyes. They stared back at me while I drove slowly on–the gravel crunching under the tires of my car. It was midday and a pale sun shone through scattered clouds, but the house looked like the one I had seen in my darkest dreams.
I don’t know why. But after reading this second version my brain is just curious. About the place. About the dream and the house. For me, here the style is transparent. It lets me read on. It doesn’t force me to operate any deciphering.
Of course this is a strictly subjective claim. What matters is that you decide what you like and why, and that you know what your choice might entail in terms of potential readership.
There are many other ways that knowing yourself can help you greatly. But one I want to mention has to do with reviews. In particular bad reviews. Caustic reviews.
These are hard to digest, no matter what.
But at least for a writer with millions of readers, bad reviews are a customary part of life. In any case, he or she can always look at his or her sales to find some reassurance–writers need a lot of it. No matter how successful they are.
Instead, for new writers having decided what to do and how to do it, can help them to accept the simple fact that no matter what you write, there will always be people who think you can’t hold a pen.
But if in your heart you know you’ve followed your road map, all you have to make sure of is that you wrote to the best of your ability, and that you told the truth.
Beyond that, you can be pretty much sure that most of the bad reviews are the result of your targeting a type of readership that isn’t a good fit for your fiction.
Then there is bad luck. About that you can’t do much. Of course, you can use amulets if you want to. But, be reassured, you can be pretty sure that most of the bad reviews are the result of your book ending up in the hands of the wrong readership.
So, instead of trying to change the way you write, the way you express your voice–things this that usually end in disaster–you can focus your attention on marketing. Remember with 7 billion people around you can always find your niche.
Know thyself – a never ending process
It’s essential to understand that this know yourself mantra isn’t a task you carry out once for all. Not at all. Life is a journey, a continuous change. So it’s important for you to take some time now and then to update your inner profile, so to speak.
Take my case for example. I used to dislike chess. As a child I had played only on a few occasions. But my matches were all against a friend of mine who had been tutored by his elder brother. As a result I lost each and every game I played and soon ended up linking that burning feeling, the loss, with the game itself.
Yet some twenty five years later, when computers made playing chess and learning it easy and much more private I discovered I actually enjoyed the challenges chess posed.
For a couple of years I played quite a lot, in face-to-face games and even some tournaments. I learned a lot. I also discovered that chess is incredibly time consuming if you want to get to play to a master’s level.
So I turned down my involvement and these days I have a couple of applications on my mobile to practice chess when I have some spare time, and play blitz games online only sporadically.
Rinse and repeat
And know that, no matter how well you think you understand yourself, if you’re willing to push the envelope, you’ll discover how much enjoyable it can be the simple act of stopping a minute to redefine what you think you know about yourself.