A Young Brandon Sanderson

I used to have a series on here about writers’ early years, when they were still starting out and facing mountains of rejections, for motivational purposes. I’m planning on still posting a few of these, and to start out, here’s one about Brandon Sanderson.

Mr. Sanderson went into the details of his struggles trying to break out into the fantasy publishing world almost 10 years ago in a blog post:

https://brandonsanderson.com/euology-my-history-as-a-writer/

I usually write these things out myself, but I figure no one can tell Sanderson’s story as well as Sanderson. Enjoy! And stay motivated!

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A Young Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction. His minimalistic stylistic innovations won him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and are still influential almost a hundred years later. Not only that, but his first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, established him as a major force in literature and some consider it his best work today. I recently read two volumes of a Hemingway biography, The Young Hemingway and The Paris Years by Michael S. Reynolds, and was struck by just how motivational a figure Hemingway was. Even if you dislike his social views or his larger than life persona, there’s a lot to learn from his discipline and early failures.

After serving in World War 1 as an ambulance, driver falling in love with a nurse, he returned to his family in Illinois and tried to piece back his shell-shocked life. Overseas, he had mentioned to the nurse that he was a writer, and he was determined to professionally publish something so that his lie would become reality.

But as their relationship fell apart, he continued writing and sending off his stories to places like the Saturday Evening Post. Although he wrote voluminously, all were rejected. They were, for the most part, non-autobiographical tales written in imitation of the popular writers of the day like Kipling and Sherwood Anderson and bad poems. He also started a novel based on his life in the war and with the nurse and worked on it intermittently. At the same time, he found work as a journalist, honing his skills for papers, but he considered this hackwork.

Eventually, he found another girl, Hadley, married her, and soon after attracted the attention of Sherwood Anderson. He advised the young writer to go to Paris, where the cost of living was a lot less, and where many artists were shacking up. He gave them a couple of letters of introduction to people like Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and then the couple was off in 1922.

Hadley had a trust fund that would have enabled them to live, albeit just above the poverty line, with no work, but Hemingway refused and kept doing journalism, and traveled to Germany and Turkey and Greece to cover stories. All the while he kept writing–until tragedy struck.

While traveling, Hadley was supposed to meet him, bringing with her a valise filled with his stories, but somehow, somewhere in the crowded train and station, she lost it. Hemingway was heartbroken: other than on story (Up in Michigan) and some juvenilia he had outgrown, every story he had written along with his novel had vanished. He revised Up in Michigan a bit, but due its sexual content, it took a while for it to see print.

But the good news was soon after he finally got a book deal. It was not a glamorous publishing house, in fact, it was practically a vanity press printing, and the book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, sold less than ten copies in Paris. His next book, in our time, received similar press. And although he was starting to make a name for himself in literary circles in Paris, few magazines would take his work. His first big story publication, Indian Camp, was published in The Transatlantic Review, where he sat on the editorial board. Another short story collection followed, entitled In Our Time (with capital letters this time), and while it won praise from critics, the day when Hemingway would be able to earn decent money from his writing was still a few years away.

His break out novel came out in 1926, 8 years after 1918 when he had returned to Illinois and begun toiling away almost everyday. Although he is falling from critical favor now, he still provides a good lesson on staying motivated. If you don’t quit writing, one day you’ll see publication. Just don’t get discouraged when it takes you multiple years.

A Young William Gibson

Wouldn’t it be great to knock the ball out of the park with your first novel? Write a revolutionary novel that goes on to become a classic? That’s the dream. And while some writers do cement themselves with their first book, their number must rank in the decimal percentages. And it’s nowhere as easy as that infinitesimal number might make it appear.

William Gibson is one such writer. After falling into writing almost by accident and a few acclaimed short stories, he wrote NEUROMANCER, a novel that changed scifi and brought about the cyberpunk subgenre; while Gibson has written a lot of other novels, it was this one that secured his legacy. And it’s not just his first published novel: it was his first attempt at a novel.

But in reality it wasn’t such a straight line to success.

As with any good writer, Gibson spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years reading: J.G. Ballard, Henry Miller, the Beats, science fiction pulps. He lost his father in childhood, and after his mother died when he was 18, he decided to dodge the draft and travel to Europe and Canada, where he would eventually settle. There, he suffered weeks of homelessness before scraping together a living from working at a hippie drug store and appearing in a documentary film, with his little extra cash going mostly towards psychedelic drugs. And it was there that he met his future wife, with whom he again traveled to Europe.

She had a teaching position. Gibson, rather than get a real job, first went to thrift stores trying to find items marked way below their value and then selling them, before returning to college as he felt maintaining a high enough GPA to qualify for rich student loans was easier than work. Here he took a class on science fiction and wrote a short story in lieu of a final paper. This turned into his first published story, FRAGMENTS OF A HOLOGRAM ROSE, which saw publication in 1977.

His next story got published in 1981, but during those years he was still working: JOHNNY MNEMONIC was started the same year as FoaHR. Not too mention the inevitable false starts and stories that didn’t measure up. A few more well-received stories flowed from his pen, earning Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and eventually he was commissioned into doing a novel. And rather than summarize the unease and anxiety Gibson felt while writing this, I’ll let him do it for me.

The best writing advice I ever heard was to go out and see the world. If you stay indoors reading and writing all day, you’ll eventually become a great writer but have nothing to write about. Gibson embodies this principle: a well-traveled homeless hippie. No wonder most of his work deals with those rejected by society. It took him a bunch of years to try writing, and a bit of encouragement and practice after that to really get the ball rolling, but once he was ready, there was no shortage of material for him.

So remember, as the weather grows warmer, to put down your books and pens and get out of the house. The inspiration for that break out story might be one block’s walk away.

A Young James Joyce

When it comes to writing (or almost anything that takes practice), no matter how much I want to deny it, inherent talent definitely plays a role. The question is, how big of a role does it play?

Some writers, like Stephen King, have said that if you do not have talent, it is not worth attempting to become a writer. I disagree. It can give you a leg up but it is far from the end all be all, and besides, even talent won’t get you too far.

Today’s subject is James Joyce. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was him. Between the ages of 22 and 25 he wrote all of the stories contained in DUBLINERS. His first published novel, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, is a classic, still widely read, and then there’s ULYSSES. All of this, along with a play, some poems, and the occasional essay and journalism, published before his 40th birthday. There are many other writers who don’t begin publishing quality pieces until their late 30s or early 40s; Joyce had burst on to the scene at the age of a college senior with short stories that would become canonical. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was Joyce.

But he also worked very, very hard. At age 9 he wrote a poem about the death of Irish politician Charles Parnell that his father thought was good enough to be published. Though there is little else recorded from this time in his life, it is quite likely he continued writing. He also began to read voraciously, to the point where his English teacher at school let him sit quietly and read during class as he had already gone through everything they were teaching and could answer questions about the texts with ease.

At 18 he had his first official publication, a review of a Henrik Ibsen play, and wrote a number of other articles as well as two unpublished (and now lost) plays. The next few years were quite eventful for Joyce: he travelled to Paris to try and study medicine and failed, his mother died, he met Nora Barnacle, his life partner, and his first short stories were published. He also wrote an essay dealing with aesthetics, entitled A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, which was rejected by magazines, and which he decided to revise into a novel.

He and Nora soon eloped to continental Europe, where Joyce took a bunch of jobs as a teacher, tutor, singer, and bank teller to support themselves while he continued reading and writing voluminously. His career as an author had run into some problems: none of the printers wanted to publish DUBLINERS, deeming some of the stories obscene, and Joyce refused to censor the offending passages. He finally had them brought out in book form in 1914, after approximately 8 years of attempts at publishing them. The novel he was fashioning out of his essay, STEPHEN HERO, was never published during his lifetime; he later started over from scratch and wrote A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

From there, Joyce would become a celebrated figure of Modernism, one whose works still enjoy renown today. Clearly he was talented when it came to writing, but more important than that were the hours he spent reading books and authoring various texts. Publishing classics when you’re in your early/mid 20s suddenly becomes a lot more understandable when you’ve read enough to know more about literature than your teachers and write a number of articles and plays before attempting prose fiction. And even then, it still took a number of years to publish his books. Had he been talented but not determined, Joyce could easily have given up after a year or two of rejection.

So talent is obviously important, but not nearly as much as hard work and determination. So to anyone feeling depressed because of rejection, just remember, even the greats had to deal with plenty of it too. The problem is that many short biographies online gloss over these rough early periods for many famous writers.

A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.