For those of us who have ideas for writing novels, I’m almost certain most of us have been apprehensive on our ideas being stolen if we share them online and talk about it with other people. I can’t be sure how many of us grow out of this notion, but I did after some time. Eventually, I came to realize this was just a conceit on my part to think my ideas were so unique or interesting that they were even worth stealing. We all dream of having the next best-seller when we think of writing a book, but it’ll most likely be a dime-a-dozen snoozefest lumped in with the rest of them. I learned this the hard way. In terms of revenue, my non-fiction book Faith in Doubt has indeed been my best-selling book, but in terms of amount of copies sold? A short pamphlet-style ebook that I wrote in less than two weeks has sold more copies. With respect to my “first” self-published Fantasy novel, I haven’t made much of anything. I’ve come to accept that most of anything I do will simply result in a complete failure at this point, because there is no real audience for anything ambitious anymore. Most fantasy readers – in particular, book review vloggers – make complaints about love triangles, mary sues, the story being generic . . . but do they really read anything ambitious? Would they even like anything ambitious or would they detest it even more than generic stories? Even most of the people whom I talk to that made complaints about generic stories, when offering their own ideas, provide equally generic stories as their preference. In the end, it seems to boil down to people preferring certain tropes over others in their stories and not anything particularly groundbreaking.
Is the Era of groundbreaking books over? With the coming of AI technology that can write books, I sometimes wonder. Yet, when I think of the types of people I met in forums, I wonder why it took so long.
Tropes aren’t unique, but they can be utilized in a unique way within stories. However, when I took time to participate in subreddits and IRC Chat forums about writing many years ago, I found that most people seemed conditioned into reorganizing any aspect of a fantasy story into a Tolkien clone. This was particularly the case with the r/writing subreddit that I had tried to take part in. I explained how I wanted to make a fantasy story with a steampunk theme for a technologically advanced nation-state where the story would begin and I think I asked how I could more effectively give a steampunk atmosphere beyond fast-moving locomotives like trains. Immediately, I was beset with arguments that I wasn’t writing my fantasy story “correctly” because it needed to be medieval with swords and sorcerers. The overwhelming majority of the arguments were about how I should just drop the trains and Steampunk atmosphere because it wasn’t “fantasy” at all. When I pointed out how it didn’t make sense to say the Fantasy genre was limited to medieval European fantasy and that I was going for Steampunk with some American and Asian elements, there was aggressive insistence that I was wrong for believing the fantasy genre was anything beyond medieval European fantasy. There was also a repeated argument that I shouldn’t use any Asian elements because that would be “offensive” and “controversial” to some readers. When I spoke of creating class divides with a religiously authoritarian society, there was an insistence that I add prostitution as an element of poverty because otherwise the poverty wasn’t “authentic” or didn’t make sense. I tried to explain the concept was a religious authoritarian society that had effectively clamped down on such behavior, but there was a repeated insistence that I have bars full of drinking, vulgar language, and prostitution. One individual in particular was very adamant that prostitution should exist in my story because it existed in all societies because they believed sex was regarded as evil in all societies everywhere, when I brought up some ancient customs which showed sex as sacred and positive, they continued to insist they were right about it being prostitution without really understanding the contextual differences between different ancient societies… simply because the Wiki listed it as prostitution. Some people in r/writing also didn’t seem to understand basic English definitions; one angry poster ranted about how their belief in Jesus Christ wasn’t a worldview when I asked for advice on creating a fantasy religion and establishing different worldviews between countries. I proceeded to show him the definition of the word “worldview” and I couldn’t stop myself from inquiring on his or her education because it was so annoying to have all these topics derailed by people either saying to not bother, to change it to medieval fantasy, or to just drop the subject altogether. Most of the r/writing community insisted that I avoid the subject of religion altogether . . . despite the fact that I made it clear I was talking about creating a fantasy religion for a fantasy world and how I wanted it to be different or even separate religious faiths amongst my fantasy setting of different countries. The posters who didn’t respond with all these demands to change it into a glorified Tolkien clone or to just drop the subject altogether didn’t have much advice, but wished me good luck. While that was nice of them, eventually I realized it wasn’t really serving my interests either since it wasn’t actually helpful. The only person who actually was helpful throughout this doomed escapade was a single post by Brandon Sanderson (Yes, that Brandon Sanderson, he was active on that subreddit at the time) who offered me some good advice about why active voices are preferred to passive voices. This was good and I enjoyed learning why my views on passive voices had been wrong because I couldn’t understand why people were reproachful to using passive voice in novels when the Lord of the Rings – probably the best-selling fantasy novel series of modern history – had extensive portions in passive voice. Nevertheless, despite the one positive of having the Brandon Sanderson directly comment on a criticism of mine, the rest of the community was such a complete waste of time. Looking back, a lot of my frustration had to do with strict formatting and length guidelines where if a post wasn’t lengthy enough with large blocks of text, then it would be automatically closed and removed from the subreddit. This made conversations particularly difficult to even start and led to a lot of frustration for me because I had to constantly rewrite large paragraphs for these arbitrary and frankly unhelpful standards that did nothing to help me as a writer or novelist. Another irritating aspect is that no matter what I asked or how I carefully worded it, there was always some random poster who went on an angry diatribe about me not appreciating the “advice” I was getting, even in circumstances where I hadn’t yet responded to any posts in the topic I created. I initially thought it was someone pulling a trick, but I was surprised to see it was always a different username every time and they all had varying degrees of Karma and years spent in Reddit (varying from 2-3 years to even 5 years), which meant that this seemed to be some weird and hostile norm within the r/writing subreddit that only compounded my annoyances in the end. Lastly, I want to make note of the fact that these people who gave all these terrible suggestions were not some SJW cult as is the norm nowadays. Most of this occurred around 2012 – 2013ish, so it was a couple of years before the SJW cultural wave in the West. It had no relation to Social Justice issues and most of these people weren’t pressuring to support ethnic minority representation or LGBT representation in books; they wanted to avoid all mention of anything related to the LGBT or non-White ethnic backgrounds and seemed to lack ideas of their own beyond making Tolkien clones.
If all of that hadn’t been bad enough, then probably the first major red-flag that I should have paid attention to was their lack of notions regarding themes they wanted in their fantasy stories. I had expected something akin to chivalry or good versus evil, but instead these people didn’t seem to fathom their books having themes at all. Whereas they told me philosophy and politics were touchy subjects to stay away from when writing, their response to my question about what themes would be recommended or popular within the subreddit gave me asinine responses. These people in the r/writing subreddit had no idea what themes were in a book or why themes would be important to a story. They had nothing to offer on this subject matter either and I was legitimately confused because I was taught about the importance of themes back in tenth grade in high school English class. Themes are a very basic concept and yet these people didn’t even seem to understand what they were. So much of my interest in writing; politics, themes, cultural differences, religion, or different philosophical views were seemingly unfathomable to these people. Even basic comments, when I talked in a discussion about a novel I was working on for over a year, were met with insulting comments about not being “serious” about writing. When I showed evidence of new award-winning authors commenting on a Huffingtonpost article that it took an average of four years for them to finish their novels, the responses by commentators on the r/writing subreddit ranged from astonishment, confusion, and overwhelming alarm at the process requiring serious dedication that took more than a year. Needless to say, even as I reflect back on it after all these years, I’m further reminded of the stark differences between my approach after reading through various blogs and watching vlogs to take into account all the suggestions and what seemed to be neophyte approaches by the rest of the subreddit. Apart from Brandon Sanderson himself offering some helpful advice, I don’t believe I received anything but annoyances and partial headaches from the people on that subreddit and I have no inclination to ever return.
My Own Failings as a Writer
That being said, I must acknowledge major flaws in my approaches over the years, which has been to be too sensitive in failing to make an appropriate writing schedule and dropping the stories too quickly due to perfectionist tendencies. The original novel idea with the steampunk nation-state was a story that I had really wanted to write, but I soon realized it had far too many flaws after I had sunk 30,000 words into it. I dropped it both for pacing issues and too much of the passive voice existing in the story. I tried writing a more compact fantasy novel only for the ideas to expand like crazy, I tried using the commitment effect on myself by spending my own money on a cover design, and I eventually dropped that too because I didn’t have a good focus for Part 1 of the story like the latter two parts. I no longer knew whether I wanted it to be stand-alone or a series, but I think the main reason was my insecurities of not being able to write a very good or coherent novel since the protagonists kept changing. I had dozens of concepts come at me since then, which I’ve written in Idea Folders as that’s generally recommended when a good idea latches onto a writer. After finishing Faith in Doubt, I decided to try another crack at it and after watching several Youtube videos by ShaelinWrites, I tried to forgo using an outline. I had realized an outline created analysis paralysis with all my previous attempts with copious outline notes but not much in the way of writing an actual story. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long and I began writing an outline, and then another outline, and then reorganized them into a third more complete outline. This was supposed to be the novel where I didn’t plot much and just went on writing. Yet, unfortunately, I’ve dropped this story too. Now, I’m beginning yet another outline for yet another story idea and I feel like a fool. I’ve already spent money for research and the general concept behind this one is adding all the ideas that I hate in real life altogether into one story. However, I couldn’t really think of a good fighting system, so the fighting and magic system in this story is generally suppose to be the positive and fun part while everything else will consist of concepts and materials that I hate being the motivation to write. Since concepts I liked didn’t work, perhaps this’ll yield change. Also, I was thinking of just writing a separate “idea” style folder for “Future Novel Ideas” since they keep popping up in my mind relentlessly.
Having a Friend who Understands
A friend of mine who is also a fellow novelist, although he seems more interested in making a comic-style novel, has been far more helpful than that horrible subreddit. When either of us have particular issues or don’t know what to do about a theme, a specific character, a story direction, or a setting; we ask each other for advice and it is more straightforward, offering the best that we can think of or perhaps finding a helpful Youtube video to recommend, and the advice given is to the point. What I particularly like about this friend is that he will bluntly tell me the truth no matter how painful. When I messed-up and didn’t even realize how much I had messed-up in my first discussion with Armin Navabi, my friend took time out of his day to watch it and bluntly told me that I had completely screwed-up because I was held to a standard that Armin Navabi didn’t hold himself to when the question of evidence for beliefs was repeatedly raised throughout the video. When I asked for his opinion on my behavior in the Secular Jihadist podcast, he told me I had done much better because I held both Armin Navabi and Ali A. Rizvi to the same standard that they held me to regarding evidence for beliefs. He gives me just as much harsh criticism and blunt honesty with my fantasy novel insecurities, issues, and problems. Likewise, he praises me when I tell him that I have worked out something. Unlike the worthless r/writing subreddit that tried to tell me what I should write and how, my friend and I ask each other specific questions and we offer advice regarding that specific question such as how to avoid a mary sue or giving a specific character a believable motivation for the journey. We never tell each other to quit writing our respective plots, settings, atmosphere, and so on in order to cater to a specific idea that we have; that’s not how we converse. We just bluntly tell each other the truth regarding specific challenges with what we’re respectively writing in as helpful and as honest a manner possible. It more immediately and effectively serves our respective interests and needs. That’s why I highly value his input and wouldn’t replace it for anything. Most of my other close friends don’t have much in the ways of offering advice and others who do either aren’t writing novels at the moment due to life circumstances that need priority or they’ve just lost interest. Most others have no meaningful input to give besides a good luck and other well wishes. Those are nice, but as I writer, I need someone who can kick me into gear and help with issues specific to novel writing itself. Self-loathing, laziness, and feeling like it’s all a waste are probably the worst issues and keeping focus on the novel is all the more paramount because of that. So, if you take anything away from this post and you’re interested in novel writing, consider finding a close friend who is a fellow novelist, who preferably is blunt and honest in their criticism, that you can communicate with on a daily or weekly basis for helpful advice for specific issues with novel writing. Don’t have people who soften the blow, I ended-up with a bloated non-fiction book that way. Have someone who is forthright and honest in their criticisms regarding the positives and negatives of your story. Hopefully, in this manner, my writing and concepts improve and I can finally complete writing a novel.