Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
I gave a talk at Orange County High School earlier, discussing my experiences as a writer. Being a writer isn't all that hard. You just have to be able to mentally reconcile six completely contrary truths at once:
1. Always be original.
There's nothing new under the sun.
Every story idea you'll ever have has already been told. But, the easiest way to appear to be original is to stuff your head with as many books and stories as possible. Then, you can be aware of how your ideas are similar to what has been done before, and consciously choose to steer your stories in a direction that you haven't seen anyone yet try. New ideas are as rare as new elements on the periodic table. But, a few dozen basic elements can be rearranged and combined into a nearly infinite number of chemicals. You can make fresh ideas from combining and rearranging old ones.
2. Writing requires confidence, almost arrogance.
Writing requires doubt and humility.
You have to believe in yourself to be a writer. You have to think that what you're writing is good enough to stand out from the millions of other stories being written at any given time. You have to be able to ignore your critics and have faith that, in the long run, what you are writing will matter. At the same time, you have to doubt every word you put on the page. Always assume that what you've just written can be made better. And when people are generous enough to offer criticism, listen to it. Don't be defensive. Be open to anything that can help you improve your craft.
3. You have to learn the rules and follow them.
You have to break the rules.
Commercially successful stories follow formulas. A hero you care about has an goal you agree is important, faces obstacles and adversaries in pursuit of the goal, and either succeeds and improves the world or fails but improves himself. 90% of all stories published follow this broad formula.
But, once you know the 'rules' of how a story works, you can figure out how to break them. In Bitterwood, I broke the 'hero you care about' part of the formula by making Bitterwood himself a bitter, hateful man who was very difficult to love. In Burn Baby Burn, I broke the formula by giving Sunday a goal of overthrowing Western civilization, which most readers would agree would be a bad thing. Breaking the formula comes at a price. You're going to turn off some readers. But, you probably won't bore them.
4. The best writing comes from inspiration and enthusiasm.
The best writing comes from long, tedious slogs through draft after draft.
I bang out a lot of my first drafts in a white hot blaze of creativity where I can put a crazy number of words on the page in a very short time. Burn Baby Burn, seven days! Cut Up Girl, four days! It's like I have lightning in my brain. It feels great!
But people rarely see my first drafts. My published work is a result of numerous drafts, probably never fewer than seven. Each pass refines and changes the work a little, and each pass gets both easier and harder. It's easier, because the story takes shape and becomes something you're proud of. It gets harder, because the mistakes you're looking for get tinier and tinier.
Right now, I'm doing my 6th draft of Bad Wizard. I've changed the opening lines from:
George “Grinder” Greer was a little drunk as he stumbled up the steps of the State, War, and Navy Building in the dead of night. He hoped to rectify his situation by becoming a lot drunk.
George “Grinder” Greer stumbled up the steps of the State, War, and Navy Building in the dead of night, a little drunk. His mission was to become a lot drunk.
The second example is tighter. The contrast between a little drunk and a lot drunk is closer. 'Stumbled' is now the first verb you hit instead of 'was.' To my ear, the second version is plainly better. But the first version was perfectly acceptable. It wasn't wrong. It just wasn't as tight as it could have been. These small tweaks take forever to find. The reward for doing so feels small; it's not as if a reader saw the original version and can congratulate you for the improvement. It's tedious, but it's the where the real craft of writing comes into play.
If I wasn't trying to be period accurate, I would just call the building he's going into the "War Building." I may yet change it to George “Grinder” Greer stumbled up the steps in the dead of night, a little drunk. His mission was to become a lot drunk. Then introduce the name of the building later. This will haunt me for days. And it's just two lines, out of a novel with 50 chapters. And I'll agonize over tweaks like this in probably every chapter.
5. The best way to write a good novel is to write a terrible one.
This is similar to the last rule. Your good final draft will grow from an ugly first draft. But it's also true of your whole writing career. While there are writers who write one novel and see it go to print, for most of us, I think you have to write at least one novel that will never be published just to discover all the things you don't know about writing a novel. It might seem demotivational to think that you're writing something that can never be published, but if you look at it in the context of a long career, writing a practice novel makes a lot of sense.
6. You'll know you're on the path to success if you have a lot of failures.
Fifteen years ago, all I had to show for my efforts as a writer was a big stack of rejection letters. I wrote at least fifty stories that I never sold to major markets. I accumulated easily a hundred rejections, maybe even two hundred. Now, I sell probably 90% of short stories that I write. For the sake of using round numbers, let's say that it was my 100th submission that finally sold professionally. If I'd given up at rejection 99, finally admitting to myself that, wow, I'm just not good at this, that would have been the end. Submission 100 would never have sold.
If you're a writer trying to break in, your magic number is somewhere out there. Maybe it's 5 submissions. Maybe it's 50, or 500. Yes, each rejection letter represents a failure. But, if those failures grow into a giant pile, excellent. Stand on top of that pile; you're closer to your goal than ever.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Posted by James Maxey at 6:52 PM