Being a Better Writer: Setting Sights Higher

Today’s topic, despite its lateness, is one that I feel is important. It’s not a long topic, nor do I think it will take much time to discuss, but it’s something that needs to be said.

Set your sights higher.

In fairness, that’s a good statement … but it’s also pretty vague. So, what am I actually talking about? Let’s start with a little backstory.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a common trend with new writers, young writers, those who come into writing classes or want advice on their stories: They go right for the first thing that enters their minds. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we have to start somewhere, and that’s how a lot of writers get started. They think of an idea, and they want to write it, so they do.

This isn’t bad. At least, not necessarily. Like I said, everyone has to start somewhere.

The problem is that for many of these writers, they don’t see it as the start, the first stepping stone. They see it as the end goal. Not as their end goal (ie, I want to do this as a hobby and hey look, I did it, so I’m good), but they see it as the end-all. All they need to do is write that one story and everything will be good. They’ll be done, and they’ll have a hit one their hands, a gold standard story.

And the truth is, it really isn’t like that.

You see, there’s something else that I’ve noticed about all these young writers. Their stories? The go for what I would call the low-hanging fruit. They pick what they think will be popular to write about, or what sounds easiest, simplest, or (and here’s a common one) “the most attention-grabbing,” thinking to their misfortune that they’re the first one to pick that particular topic. Or that because it’s a popular topic, somehow their take on it will pan out.

But the truth is this often isn’t the case, as a lot of these young writers discover. They write out what they believe is a new idea, or an amazing idea, or just plain will be popular because—after all—everyone else seems to be writing about it, and then they discover that they’ve been lost in the morass, their work swamped under all the other eager young writers who are creating nearly the exact same thing.

Now, look, this isn’t all bad. Like I’ve said, everyone has to start somewhere. But that’s half the problem—many of these young writers are assuming that this is the destination, not the start of the journey. And then they can’t understand why they’re swamped in obscurity or why their work is only getting the same attention as those around them (with the possible exception of the one or two who get lucky and become a brief fad).

The other half of the problem is that these young writers don’t see how common, cliche, or straightforward their idea actually was. They went for the first thing that popped into their mind—they picked the low-hanging fruit—and rolled with it, not realizing how many before them have  picked that exact same fruit and thought it something new. That they’ve merely rewritten Twilight, Harry Potter, or a popular anime character (this one is so common it makes me cringe).

Now look, I can already hear some of you saying “There’s nothing new under the sun.” And to that I respond that it simply isn’t true. Saying that there’s nothing new under the sun is just an excuse of those who don’t want to look past the low-hanging fruit and find the higher-quality oranges or whatever up at the top. Star Wars as a collection of tropes may not have been new, but the spin and the presentation? That was certainly new.

And I’m not saying that authors should worry about starting with the low-hanging fruit. We all start somewhere (myself included, but you’ll never see those). What I am saying is that regardless of where you are at the moment, resolve not to stay there.

Set your sights higher than simply making a story that is merely “there.” Aim for something better. Polish your craft. Take the time to move past the branches with the most common, cliche’s of young writers, and start challenging yourself. Give your story a critical look. Ask yourself why you’re including elements. Why are you making a character “dark and mysterious?” Why are you writing a “bad boy saved by good girl” redemption story? And most of all “What makes yours unique or any different from any others out there?

You can write a great story about any one of those things, cliche as they may be. But to do that, you’re going to need to look past the young writer’s mindset of “here’s a void, let me fill it as quickly as possible.” Set your sights a little higher. Don’t handwave, think about a way your characters could actually solve the problem. Don’t go with the answer you saw in a TV episode, reason one out for yourself.

Simply put, push yourself. Look past the quick and easy. Past the short-range plans and platitudes. Write something with meaning, something with dedication, something with careful thought and precision.

You can still have fun. And you don’t have to get to the top immediately. In fact, most authors (myself included) will tell you that you never can. It’s a neverending tree. But by keeping your sights set above, you can keep yourself moving up. If you always look to the low-hanging fruit, you’ll never have a reason to climb toward the top of the tree and really push yourself and your craft.

Aim higher than the common denominator. Create something that’s wholly your own. Produce something that rises above the simple, the straightforward.

Aim high. Keep your sights elevated.

And keep writing.

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