Thank you, Cory Doctorow.

I went to the website I Write Like, and pasted in some text from The Happiest Days Of Our Lives. It did its analyzing thing, and told me…

I Write Like Cory Doctorow

I sat back in my chair, and smiled.

My life is very different now than it was when I started writing in public. When I started my blog in 2000, it was, uh … like this:

But check this out: There is this big thing called “The Television Critic’s Association”. I think there are TV critics in it, or something. Anyway, they get together every year to run up huge tabs on their corporate credit accounts, and see what’s coming up on TV in the next quarter. That’s where I come in. TNN asked me to go to the “TCA” (when you’re a hip, edgy, media-savvy person, you use lots of acronyms, FYI) and be part of this TNG launch-thing. So I went, and it was sooo cool! I got to see some of the old TNG kids, who I don’t ever see anymore since they’re millionaires and I’m living in a refrigerator box, and, the coolest thing of all…I got to take a pee right next to BILLY FREAKIN IDOL!!!

Yes, you read that right. Here’s how it happened: I went into the bathroom, and I’m doing my business, and I notice the guy next to mee is rather dressed up, like in serious rocker clothes. So I try to just glance at him, without getting all gay and weird, and he looks right at me, sneer and all. That’s when I realize that it’s HIM! HOLY CRAP! So I say, “My wife and I just saw you on “Storytellers”. You really rocked, man!” (tap, tap). And he looks at me, and from behind his cool-guy sunglasses says, “Cheers, mate.” And he’s gone.

YES! How cool was that?

So after that, I’m off to New York to do a cool show called “Lifegame” which will be on TNN in a month or so. It’s an improv show where they asked me to tell stories about my life, and then they have improvisers act out scenes based on my so called life, in different styles. Like the time my parents cornered me in the bathroom and gave me “The Talk”—when I was 20, done as a reggae musical. Very funny. And I got to play the Devil in a scene. YES!

While I was there, I got a tour of MTV networks, met Carson Daly (!), and was given a CHIA MISTER T! That’s right. Let me tell you, everything after that was just Jibba Jabba.

We all have to start somewhere, right? So if you’re starting out as a writer, and you’re worried that your voice isn’t quite as developed as you want it to be, don’t worry. As Ira Glass says:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

One of the people who helped me fight my way through, way back in the early months of this century, was Cory Doctorow. I met Cory at an EFF event where I boxed against Barney the Stupid Dinosaur (and I wore the Infamous Clown Sweater). We hit it off immediately, and he gave me a copy of his then-unpublished book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I devoured that manuscript as fast as I could turn the pages, and when I was thinking about publishing some of my own writing, I emailed Cory for advice.

I’d been working on what became Just A Geek for a couple of months. I’d written probably twelve or fifteen thousand words, and I felt like something wasn’t quite right with the work I’d been doing. I was so close to it, though, I couldn’t see for myself what it was. I reached out to Cory because he was a writer who I knew and respected, and I hoped he could help me close the gap between what I wanted to write, and was I was able to write.

He offered to take a look at the manuscript I was working on, and — wow. I am sitting in my office in my house in 2013, in a different physical and emotional place than I was on the day I sent him my manuscript in 2001 or 2002, and I just got the visceral memory of that moment like a flashback in a movie. I’m sitting at my desk, typing away on my Linux machine (which was a gift from the members of the Soapbox), waiting for OpenOffice.org to load because it was so slow back then. I’m tabbing between Cory’s e-mail in KMail, and Fark in Konqueror. My dog, Ferris, is running around the backyard, and I’m listening to Oingo Boingo’s Dark At The End Of The Tunnel on whatever MP3 player was in the version of Debian I was using at the time. (It’s funny, isn’t it, how some details are crystal clear and others of equal importance or non-importance are completely obscured). OpenOffice finally loads, I confirm that I’m sending the latest version of the manuscript (untitled at the time), and I attach a zipfile to a hastily-written reply.

It was a few days before Cory replied, and during the wait, I convinced myself that he would tell me I was brilliant and amazing, and to stop doubting myself. Just finish the book, he would tell me, because the world can not live a moment longer without knowing the story you want to tell them.

It didn’t work out that way. Cory replied to me, and was brutally honest about the quality of my writing. He was never unkind, but he made it clear to me that my writing was amateurish. I didn’t told when I should have shown, rambled about things that didn’t matter to the narrative, glossed over things that did, and generally had a lot of work to do if I was going to take this story to the public. And it was a good story, he told me, but it needed a lot of work.

I was devastated. I sat in my chair at that desk, alone in my house on a hot afternoon, and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach, then punched in the face, and then kicked in the stomach again. I’d spent months working on something that was pretty much crap and my burgeoning career as a writer was done before it had started. At that moment, I felt like I would never be more than that nearly thirty year-old failure who used to be an actor when he was a kid.

I walked my dog, as I so often did in those days, to clear my head. While we were out, I let the emotional punch fade, and considered the underlying message in Cory’s email: I had a good story to tell, but I needed to develop my skills as a storyteller. He had included examples from his own life and writing, and encouraged me to keep working at it.

So that’s what I did. I rewrote everything I had, cut out thousands of words — entire chapters in some cases — and kept at it. Months later, I finally had something that I genuinely thought was better because of the advice Cory had given me, so I emailed him again and asked if I could send it. He told me he would look at it again, and when he did, he told me that it was much better. He enjoyed it, and he commented on my growth as a writer.

I finished the manuscript, pulled an entire book out of it that became Dancing Barefoot, and eventually had Just A Geek published. Since then, I’ve written for dozens of magazines and websites, self-published a bunch of other books, written comics and manga, and tens of thousands of words on my blog.

I owe a significant debt of gratitude to Cory Doctorow for taking the time all those years ago to read my work, critique my work, and give me guidance and advice. Cory could have said no when I asked him, but he didn’t. He could have said “this is crap and don’t waste your time” but he didn’t. Cory didn’t need to help me, but he did, and he did it more than once. I remember more than one time when I had a crisis of confidence, or felt like I just couldn’t get words to come out of my head, and every time I bugged him about it, he listened and gave me advice that kept me writing.

So today, when I saw that this writing analysis tool thinks I write like Cory Doctorow, I couldn’t help but feel honored and grateful, and I wanted to say this in public: Thank you, Cory, for giving me a hand up when I needed it most. I love my life, and I don’t know if I’d be where I am right now if you hadn’t given me the gift of your time and wisdom so long ago.

30 thoughts on “Thank you, Cory Doctorow.”

  1. That’s a neat tool. It says that my technical blog writing is like Cory Doctorow, my theological academic papers are like H.P. Lovecraft, and my theological/philosophical blog writing is like Dan Brown.

    Not sure how I feel about that mix ROFL.

    Good reflections though. It’s always hard to keep persevering in the face of our own need for growth. When we’re young we often believe that we are at the pinnacle of our intellect and ability. Oh the delusion of youth.

    1. I decided to sample until I hit a repeat: Dan Brown, Cory Doctorow, Arthur Clarke, Stephen King, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chuck Palahniuk, and Dan Brown again. I am *very* inconsistent. :)

      Perhaps it means I choose a different “voice” based on the subject at hand? Either way, it was a fun tool.

  2. That’s a cool tool and a cool story.

    I threw in some blog text the some prose. Apparently I blog like Cory Doctorow and write prose like William Gibson!

    I can live with that. :-)

  3. If you ever feel down about who you were back then, remember that even then you were able to listen to reason and good advice instead of ego. This post makes me think one thing:

    Respect.

  4. Apparently, I also blog like Cory Doctorow. Oddly, so does John Scalzi; I pasted one of his longer posts into the tool. I’m in good company :)

  5. I blog sometimes but I really need Wil”s help with something that will only take 2 minutes it’s for a special person in my life please help!

  6. I tried this, I got “Douglas Adams” Which I am very happy about.

    But shouldn’t it have given you “Wil Wheaton” since he is the writer your writing most closely resembles. :-)

  7. Feeling bad about what you’ve written and not knowing straight off how to fix it is one of the hardest things about writing (actually I guess it’s the same for pretty much any creative endeavour when you’re starting out) . It’s very easy to feel as if this means that you shouldn’t try any more and should give up, rather than accepting that this is just part and parcel of the process of improving, whether you are writing or playing guitar.

    Part of the problem is that it’s all too easy to compare yourself to people who’ve got past that stage, which is foolish, even though it’s incredibly difficult not to. When learning all those regular day-to-day skills – walking, talking, eating dinner – we don’t give up because we aren’t as good at them as our parents. It’s just that when we’re older we are more self-aware and willing to compare ourselves to others unfairly. Really we should be comparing ourselves to how successful people were when they were learning too, and so posts like this are helpful. Learning to write is hard, but it was hard for published authors too, but they stuck at it and improved and reached where they are now.

    From the sounds of it, that struggle doesn’t entirely go away either. I was lucky enough to be able to ask Neil Gaiman to tell the audience at a reading about times that the book he was writing just wasn’t working. If Neil Gaiman can end up putting Coraline to one side for years, but then crucially still come back to finish it, or spend three months grumpy because Anansi Boys has taken a twist that he didn’t expect and hasn’t yet worked out how to deal with, then struggling with my writing doesn’t seem like a problem that shows that I’ll never be able to write something worth reading. It’s just a case of putting in the hours, not just writing, but re-writing and deliberately working to improve rather than just throwing something like this comment out onto the internet as the thoughts whizz through my brain and down to my fingers.

    Knowing this isn’t a magic feather. It’s not going to change my world overnight. I’m still going to struggle with my own inhibitions, with my time management*, and with the vulnerability that comes with letting others see and judge your work. But it’s a start, and all the best adventures start with leaving your front door and seeing where the journey takes you.

    * I spent a while submitting a science vlog to Geek & Sundry. I still wasn’t entirely happy with the final results, but perfect is the enemy of done and with a deadline for submission and a job and friends and other commitments, done was very important.

  8. I put in a few things and all but one gave me a J. R. R. Tolkien badge. One piece gave me James Joyce.
    It must mean “If those writers were crappy – you’d write like them.”

  9. I can actually see your voice in that early entry. It’s rough, but it’s there.

    As for the rest of this, well, it just brings a smile. I’m glad you’ve come full circle, Wil, and I’m grateful to Cory for helping. No matter who we are or where we go, someone helps us, and that is often a debt we can never repay. Good on Cory for stepping up to help a fledgling, and good on you for acknowledging it. One internet to both of you, for this and for entertaining me with your words.

  10. OK, so either everybody writes/blogs like Cory Doctorow, or this isn’t a very good tool.

    Still, it made Wil think about someone who helped him out earlier in life, so all’s well that ends well (turns out, I blog like William Shakespeare!) ;-)

  11. Congrats!

    What if you’d have entered the writing sample and it told you that you write like Wil Wheaton ? :-)

    Andy

  12. That was super classy. If everyone gave such nice props to the folks who came before them, and helped them get where they were headed, the world would be a much better place. Respect.

  13. I am glad to hear you are still thinking about your writing. I very happy that your other endeavors are taking off, but I miss Wil the book writer. I love your written (and read) works. I have even got my girlfriend hooked on your works. We have been traveling a lot together lately, and we do not have the same taste in music (her The Elders, and me Doctor Demento and and Weird Al). As a compromise I put on your audio books I bough back at Lulu when they were still available there. For the record, best money I ever spent. I started with The Happiest Days of Our Lives, and she loves it. She cried on “Let Go- A Requiem for Felix the Bear” and I had to punch myself in the arm to keep myself from crying even though I have heard it before. It whole book was such a hit that we are now up to chapter 3 of Just a Geek Audiobook. I plan to have her go through the other books/chap books when we get caught up with Just a Geek.

    I have been waiting for your next written work, so please don’t try to compete for the “time between books” record with George RR Martin! :)

    1. P.S. Is there a list somewhere of audio books by other author’s that you have narrated? I think I remember seeing something about you narrating the The Merlin Cycle of The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. About to Google that, but was wondering what else might be out there.

      1. Check out Audible. I think that’s where most of the books I’ve narrated are sold, so you can search my name and find them.

        1. First Neil Degrasse Tyson mentions Audible on his podcast, then you point me there for your work. I guess when a science geek and an alpha geek who both are kicking it with facial hair tell you to go to Audible, you go to Audible! Do you have an Audible offer code?

  14. I pasted in a bunch of comments I’d made on G+, mostly about tablets and their uses, and it said I write like Cory Doctorow, too. I thought for a minute it was telling everyone that.

  15. Thanks Wil for sharing this story. I was very much at the point of giving up on the travel book, I have been writing because of some negative feedback that I had. However reading your post has motivated me to get back to the writing saddle!!!!

  16. So from time to time I read this blog by some guy named Wil Wheaton. Last night I started reading Homeland by Cory Doctorow. Who’s a character in the book? Wil Wheaton. Then today I get home from work and get the mail. The latest issue of Beer Advocate has arrived and who is on the cover? Wil Wheaton. Dude, you have really hit the big time!

  17. Your post made me wonder what your early post would read as–apparently lauding Chia Mr. T makes you write like Chuck Palahniuk.

    …I would’ve figured more violence would be needed.

  18. I pasted a full chapter from my recent novel, and also got Cory Doctorow.

    This poor novel…It’s been sitting on a shelf for months while I debate self-publishing. I’ve been told to try taking it the traditional route, but I’m afraid no one is going to want an apocalypse comedy from a female author. I mean, look at all the women who were asked to use their gender-neutral initials instead of their names. And Dorothy Parker’s classic prayer, “Please, God, make me stop writing like a woman.”

    I don’t know. What do you think?

  19. Five paragraphs of Lorem Ipsum and it comes up with “James Joyce.” I’m not so sure that tool actually does anything.

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