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“Your academic accolades do not determine whether you can be a writer or not. “

I want to introduce myself to you, and by doing so, I hope to at the same time show you that there is no right way to be a writer. There is no set path, no particular switches to turn in some specific order that if you deviate from even a little bit, you will not be good at writing.

I have seen many new writers who fear that they have somehow been marked as inferior since they missed out on expensive college courses or literature degrees or exclusive writing workshops because they did not have enough time or money to attend (particularly in the U.S. where higher education is frequently financially prohibitive). I would like to help negate this fear.

This is not a knock on academic achievement. Far from it. I merely wish to show that there are many paths to becoming a better writer.

This is not meant to be a template for how to do it. This is proof that you can do it.

THOMAS HOWARD RILEYThis is an origin story.

I used to spend a lot of time in school not doing schoolwork. One tenth of the space in my backpack was actually devoted to real textbooks, the rest of that volume being dedicated to the ten novels or RPGs or gaming rulebooks or copies of Games Workshop White Dwarf Magazines I was simultaneously reading just for fun.

A large percentage of my school day was spent daydreaming and doodling (mostly fields of dead bodies impaled on stakes, with burning villages in the background—this is normal because I say it is) I also frequently wrote little stories to pass the time.

I read Dune, Lord of the Rings, and every Star Wars book I could get my hands on. I devoured every book from the Dragonlance Saga, and everything that said Forgotten Realms on it. I obsessed over the X-Men, and Space Marines, and I read the Silmarillion from cover to cover when I was 11 and liked it. (Let the horror of that last bit sink in for a moment, why don’t we?) I could list out for you every book, every RPG module, and show you my handwritten notes and charts and geneologies and hierarchies for each of them. But let’s summarize for brevity’s sake.

I loved worlds filled with magick. (Oh, I spell magick with a K, by the way. We can still be friends.)

I spent grades 1-8 in classes with slightly advanced reading curriculum, what they labeled honors classes, a fact that was in part due to the side benefits of my having synesthesia (oh, by the way, I have synesthesia, but let’s stay on topic here). Let us also not blow this out of proportion. I would not exactly be qualifying for any academic scholarships or anything, merely that the odds of me failing a course were slightly less than the average.

Now this was mostly fine. Words and numbers were fun to me, the assignments easy enough, and that left all the more time to read my fantasy books instead.

But as high school approached, the theme of the “advanced” classes changed from simple assignments in grammar, writing, and rhetoric, to focus exclusively on “classic” novels and “classic” authors. The “right” people. The ones that people with fancy PhDs held up as the pinnacle of artistic expression. The ones you had to look up to if you wanted to play the game.

This soon-to-be future on the horizon presented a problem of motivation for me. I had read most of those books already…and hated them. Let me restate that. I started most of them, and discarded many very quickly. Reading and discussing the themes of Charles Dickens was stiff competition for watching paint dry. One can talk about the important allegories in Moby Dick, but have you ever actually read it? Holy shit. It’s…a lot.

And there were, among the classics, some notable absences.

Where were the swords? There was, as far as I recall, very little magick in Huckleberry Finn. Where were all the orks in A Tale of Two Cities? And the dragon in Of Mice And Men was not very convincing. (I have not read it in a while, so some of the details may be fuzzy).

I loved Shakespeare though, and I LOVED mythology. That was as close as ‘the classics” came to actual Fantasy. Gods and monsters, magick and spirits, swords and ghosts, petty villains and desperate, imperfect heroes. I was all in for that stuff.

One problem: that curriculum was only a part of the standard course. The regular one. The one I would not be going into when I became a freshman.

So, genius that I am, always with one eye on the future of my education, I naturally determined the best course of action would be to intentionally flunk out of the advanced course. Which I promptly did, with great celerity and much aplomb. I whimsically failed to turn in projects, show up for speeches, read the assignments, do literally anything that was asked.

Believe it or not, this worked splendidly. I was demoted to the regular old english class, so that I could spend all day palling around with Othello and Macbeth, Achilles and Zeus, Shiva and Kali, Thor and Loki, Quetzalcoatl and Ishtar and Manannan Mac Lir. That was my wheelhouse. I reveled in my schoolwork because it was finally fun. I even wrote my own little myths and legends to pass the time.

This worked well until senior year. Because the senior standard course material looked suspiciously like the advanced ones. Only here were the very same books I had tearfully vomited over as I tried and failed to enjoy reading years before.

Luckily for me, there was an escape hatch.

So, like all soon-to-be famous and important authors, I took a Creative Writing course in high school for the sole reason that it would count as a senior english credit so that I would not have to read books by famous and important authors.

This should have been a dream scenario for someone like me. I wrote little stories on my own already. I was a creative person dammit! I should have been oozing A+ after A+ grades on those assignments, and looking down my nose at the teachers and student aides with casual disdain for daring to try to grade my magnificence.

There was only one teensy little problem.

I never scored higher than a C on any assignment. If fact, on many of these assignments I scored resounding Fs. Getting an F in Creative Writing was like being slapped in the face. It seemed absurd. How was it possible? How could anyone fuck up being creative?

Then I realized what was wrong.

Example. Our midterm assignment was to write a 10 page short story, complete with a beginning, middle, and ending, with certain themes represented. I looked at the assignment I had handed in, the one with that big red F on the top, so red I could smell the ink. I looked at it and I realized I had written a 40 page prologue for an epic space opera. A nonexistent space opera. With none of the themes from the assignment represented.

I went back through my other assignments and it was all the same. Everything was a giant intro to an epic fantasy realm of magick, or a prologue for a space fleet war of ten thousand worlds, or character introductions for the seven members of a crew that would eventually, 600 nonexistent pages later, form up like a Lord of the Rings Avengers.

I was even given an assignment to create a journal (handwritten in an actual journal) of a fake person somewhere in actual history. So I made a journal of a knight on the ill-fated 2nd crusade (the one that belly-flopped into failure, because the 1st and 3rd are too easy of targets).

After a terrible battle, my intrepid made-up character and a ragtag group escape annihilation, only to be pursued by death-cultists of the Elder Gods, before befriending some locals and trying to escape back home, only to stumble into a Lovecraftian terror sandwich of cosmic horror on land and at sea, complete with sketches and unreliable narration, and a new obsession with summoning the Great Old Ones when he finally returns to his family manor, and his hubris leads to his inevitable destruction. (WTF? Who even am I?)

Of course I failed the journal assignment…..because 2/3 of the grade was adding an “introduction”, a “bibliography of works cited”, a “timeline”, and use of “primary sources”.


I did not have any works cited because I had unfortunately memorized all the events of the 2nd Crusade years before. (I was obsessed with the ones that failed in particular, yay Schadenfreude) I was a bit of a history buff. (I am also a bit of an understatement-maker). I would not have known what books to cite. It was all just in my head. And there was no wikipedia back then.

So there went another project. (I still have that journal to this day, and it is still crazy to me that some high school kid wrote the absolute madness inside it, even though I was that kid)

Long story short, once all the grades were tabulated at the end of the semester, I was staring at a pleasant little F. For the semester.

So, to ensure my actual graduation, I had to retake the course instead of having a free period during my final semester. This time I followed the stupid rules. I managed to pass it by the skin of my teeth.

This should have, one might think, been a moment for self-reflection.

But in the end, the one thing I took away from it was how…arbitrary it all seemed. We were graded on how well we adhered to a pre-selected format. We were judged against other work made-to-order with identical thematic elements.

We were permitted to exercise creativity only in a single narrow way we were allowed to. We could be creative, as long as we did not stray from the chosen framework. Like being told you will be able to design a car, only to find out that all you were allowed to design was the paint color, the seat cushions, and the wheels.

Well, I wanted to take apart the whole car and start from scratch.

I wanted to write outside the lines.

This inability of mine to write short stories will sound very familiar to some—nay, obvious—but it was this very same obsession that resulted in me flunking Creative Writing that also made me realize I should just be ignoring arbitrary criteria and writing what I want instead.

So instead of teaching me how to write the way they wanted me to, Creative Writing taught me to ignore the expectations of others and just go ahead and write the other 600 pages that went with all those prologues. It taught me that I did not need to mimic “the classics”, or follow the educational tracks of people who had certificates on their walls. That I could choose my own material, that I didn’t need a PhD in writing to write.

I discovered that I only needed dedication, and a library in order to learn how to be a writer.

So I did.

So can you.

That is the moral of the story. This was a weird (and I hope at least marginally entertaining) way to say that there is no specific way to become the writer you were meant to be. Papers and certificates and awards and grades are all helpful things for a future writer. But it is important to know that they are not requirements. You are not excluded from the game because you are missing any of those, Or all of those.

All that matters is knowledge and practice, and you can get both of those for free.

You don’t have to have an A+ in Creative Writing (though it doesn’t hurt if you do, of course).

You don’t need a formal declaration from any authority to be allowed to make art. Find sources of knowledge for yourself wherever you can. Talk to other writers about the craft. Find videos and books that talk about storytelling. Study the topics you want to write about. Learn the rules of writing and the formulas of storycrafting, and then laugh as you break them all.

Above all, READ. Read as much as you can, of as many different styles as you can (even if you only read one genre, branch out into different authors so you can see many examples of prose and storytelling). Find all the things that fascinate you. And dive into them until you understand why they do. See how other authors do it, and you will find things that ring true for you, tips and tricks that you can add to your repertoire.

These days you can learn all you need to know from watching free tutorials and visiting your local library.

Above all, never feel discouraged in the presence of someone with the Appropriate Academic Accolades. Because, even if they are a great writer, and even if their fields of study contributed positively to their writing, none of those pieces of paper alone is what made them better.

Curiosity and dedication did.

Some people study the classics, pass creative writing, and obtain a masters degree. Some people flunk out, never graduate, and learn the craft by reading and studying and practicing and creating on their own. Or anything in between.

You do not need credentials to be a writer.

All you need is a writing device and a page to put words on.

And to trust yourself.

And to never give up.

That’s it.

That’s all it takes.

Write what you want.

They don’t get to decide. You do.

Thank you for taking the time with me today.

Check Out Some of Our Other Reviews

Review –  Risen by Benedict Jacka

Review- The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Thomas Howard Riley

Thomas Howard Riley is a purveyor of thicc Rated R Epic Fantasy books. He currently resides in a secluded grotto in the wasteland metropolis, where he reads ancient books, plays ancient games, watches ancient movies, jams on ancient guitars, and writes furiously day and night. He sometimes appears on clear nights when the moon is gibbous, and he has often been seen in the presence of cats. He always wanted to make up his own worlds, tell his own stories, invent his own people, and explore both the light and the darkness of human nature. With a few swords thrown in for good measure. And some magick. Awesome magick. He can be found digitally at THOMASHOWARDRILEY.COM On Twitter he is @ornithopteryx, where he is sometimes funny, always clever, and never mean. On Instagram he is ThomasHowardRiley, where you will see books, and cats, and mayhem.


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