Today in the Dojo: Some hard-won lessons from 30 years of the writing life.
So, kick-ass blogging buddy JT Eberhard is beginning a story. I started reading it expecting the worst, then got sucked in, then decided I will murtilate him if he doesn’t continue. But beginning is hard, and continuing even harder. And I know he’s not the only person who’s got a story begun and is terrified that a) it sucks, b) it’ll be impossible to write, and c) he’ll never, ever have the writing chops to pull it off.
Just wait ’til you hit the “ZOMG this is sooo not original!” phase of your young writing life. Let me just nip that one in the bud right here, right now: No, it’s not. Everything people think of as original is, when boiled down to its essence, an idea that a billion other people have had before. It’s how you execute your ideas that matters. That’s where originality comes from: combining disparate elements and adding your own particular twist to what, on the surface, seems to be a tired old idea done to death.
Right. Now we’ve got that dispensed with, on with it. Let me give you folks who are just getting started a little bit of friendly formerly-Southwestern-but-now-Northwestern advice. Hopefully, by the time you’ve hit the end, you will feel yourself prepared to tackle this beast that is storytelling.
However. There is one question that must be answered before we proceed: must you write this story? Is it forcing its way out of you, rip-claw-tearing away at your brain, keeping you awake at night? Do you find yourself filled with a sense of dread when you contemplate dying before having written it?
If the answer is no, consider carefully before you proceed, because it may not be worth the effort you’ll have to put in.
If the answer is yes, go below. You have no other choice.
Right. Nuts and bolts, then. What’s stopping you from getting that story out? You’ve got a world, you may even have a plot, a few characters, and you’ve got no idea what to do with them. None of this is a problem. It’s what being a beginner is all about. We were all there once. So herein is contained my condensed advice, my crash course, on getting the fucking story from brain to page.
1. Read your ass off. Yes, you’ve been doing that, you read all the time. But this is a different kind of reading, in which you pick up your favorite books and/or stories, and tear them apart. You pay attention to how the writer handled elements like plot, description, characterization, theme, mood, dialogue, suspense – everything.
2. Read books on writing. Not just the nuts-and-bolts how-to stuff, but books that follow specific writers, showing their techniques, exploring how they wrote specific books. I started not sucking by reading Writer’s Digest how-to books. Elements of Fiction Writing, people, I lived by those. I read arious how-to books specific to SF. And then, when that was no longer enough, I turned to books that talked about how Tolkien created Lord of the Rings, and how LOTR had impacted the literary world, and by the time I got done reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, I was a far better writer than before.
You will have noticed that’s a shitload of reading. You are not wrong. This is what being a writer requires.
3. Follow Livia Blackburne on Twitter. Seriously. That woman points to some incredible resources. Oh, and download her book right now. It’s short, it’s $2.99, it’s about the neuroscience of writing, and you need it.
4. Write. Stop looking at me like that. You want to write a novel, but I’m not telling you that yes, obviously, you should write it. I’m telling you to write. Character sketches, wherein you just babble about a character, getting to know who and what they are. Scenes, in which there’s no beginning, middle or end, but you’re working out relationships between people, practicing description and other elements that you’re not certain you’re good at. Short stories, in which you write something with a beginning, middle and end, hopefully with a plot, dialogue, description, and perhaps even a theme, set in the world of your novel or even outside it. Keep a writing journal, in which you can place all those fragments of thought, those disparate bits of research, work out sticky problems, and explore various and sundry without the pressure of the Inner Editor watching over your shoulder.
Write every day. You don’t have to write stories every day, necessarily, but you should be working on your writing every single damned day. That can include reading. It can also include watching movies, watching teevee, playing video games, studying people, doing research, as long as what you’re doing during all of those activities is pulling it apart for your writing, learning the craft. And you must absolutely must set aside time for the Actual Writing, in which what you are writing is Fiction, and not watching teevee et al. Because if you don’t, you will never, ever, get that story out. And that’s the point of all this work, isn’t it?
5. Find Wise Readers. Find people who will read your words and tell you more about them than, “That was nice, dear.” Find people who have good taste in reading, who read the kind of stuff you write, who are not afraid to tell you where you suck and where you shine. Make them read your shit and be honest. And then stick all of their advice in a folder somewhere and walk away from it. Take it under advisement. Don’t do anything to the story based on their feedback until you are done writing, unless of course you agree completely and must fix that bit least the story fall down while you’re building it. The thing is, if you start tinkering too soon, the story will fall down anyway. And what people don’t like when reading it apart from the rest may work wonderfully well when the whole thing’s done.
You might want to withhold your work from other eyes until it’s complete. But if you can’t wait, learn how to handle advice without letting it dictate your story. My rule is that at least three people must agree before I’ll give their criticism close consideration, unless what one or two people have said gels with what I thought was wrong, in which case I’m grateful for the outside confirmation.
6. Don’t Post Publicly. Yes, your work is copyrighted the instant it falls from your brain to the page. No, that don’t mean jack diddly shit on the intertoobz. Lock it away behind an invite-only wall, because that will keep it safer, and make it easier to prove it’s your darling if some idiot tries to sell it as their own. However, you shouldn’t get all paranoid. It happens, but do not let those few instances make you into a miserable suspicious person who runs around screaming, “They’re gonna steal my ideas!!!” They’re probably not. You should just make it a bit harder for anyone to do so, just in case.
There’s a better reason for this: publishers sometimes consider stuff you’ve put on your public blog to be already published. You don’t want them to do that.
Snippets, on the other hand, aren’t a problem. Entice people to your writing blog with a few public goodies. Just enough to get them hooked. “Would you like a scene, little kid?” Heh heh heh…
And that’s enough to get you started. But here’s what you need to keep going:
Trust your characters. Get to know them well enough, and they stop being bits of you and start being themselves. Then they know what they want and need and how they’re going to react in specific situations. They go from being puppets to people, and your job is to frantically write down their doings, then polish the result.
Trust yourself. Put in the hard work, and you’ll get there. You’ll develop those writerly instincts. You’ll know when things are going right and when they’re going wrong, and what to do about both situations.
Give it time. You need time. Your stories need time. Take the time to practice and perfect and grow and learn. Take the time to get it right. Don’t think you have to succeed right fucking now. You don’t. There’s plenty of time to fall before you fly. And we all fall. But so many of us end up soaring on the convection currents after that freefall! Even if you don’t, just remember a wise Japanese proverb: fall seven, up eight. Get back up. You’ve got time to do it again. And again, and again, until you soar.
Get to it. Make the magic happen.