anghara (anghara) wrote,

Common misconceptions about writing

Here's a baker's dozen for you.

1 I'll write that book as soon as I have some time er, bzzzt, no. You MAKE the time, if the book wants written. It will eat you alive from the inside if you don't. If you aren't writing because you can't "make time" for it, you probably aren't meant to be a writer at all - because people who want to, need to, write stuff have been known to write ten words while stopped at a traffic light, type with one hand while trying to burp a toddler with the other, stay up until all hours ro finish a scene even though they know they'll pay for it in the morning, write during their meager lunch hours while working the second job as the third janitor on the left in a 104-floor skyscraper all of whose floors you have to clean by closing time. No, I am not saying that you aren't a writer if you don't do all of these things. But blaming "time" - here's the thing, even if you're the world's busiest CEO you won't suddenly "find the time" when you retire. If you're a single mom on benefits... remember Harry Potter's birth. If you're a student who's cramming for finals... speaking from my own experience, I was writing fairy tales WHILE I HAD MY BUOCHEMISTRY TEXTBOOK OPEN IN FRONT OF ME and my finals were two days away. You write because you can't help writing. It's like I've said before - if you don't really want to write, nobody can help you. But if you do... nobody can stop you. Nobody, and nothing. Not even "lack of time".

2 Everything I write is perfect - or ought to be First drafts suck. By definition. THat's what they are FOR. They are there so that you can blurt the story you want to tell onto a pernament record, so that it's there, so that it doesn't turn all evanescent on you and vanish away like smoke as soon as you stop thinking about it - and yes, it happens. But now that you've written it down - it's there, it's there for you to MAKE it perfect. The basic story is there to be tweaked, and polished, and played with. All the best writing, much as I hate to admit it, is probably RE-writing - the thing that you do with that first draft once you've got it down. No. It does NOT need to be perfect out the gate. NOTHING is. Give yourself this golden opportunity to make your mistakes - because it is here that you will have a chance to correct them.

3 Everything I write is terrible - well, yes, it is, because in YOUR HEAD it's different, it is already in the process of improving itself and fixing errors and infelicities, and then you look at what's actually on the page that you have in front fo you and still have to DO all these things that you were thinking about and so what you are suddenly seeing in black and white is the already old and superceded terrible version of the new shiny better thing you're planning on doing. Oh and also - write this down and put it on top of your computer monitor so you don't forget it - YOU ARE NOT THE BEST JUDGE OF YOUR OWN WORK. Not ever. Before you condemn it as the world's uttermost crap, run another pair of eyes over it - no, not your mother's, nor your best friend's, a cold reader who doesn't know anything about this story other than the thing they've got in their hands and before their eyes. They will inevitably see things in your work that are too deeply buried in there for you to notice. THis second look gives you a chance to fix the things that may TRULY need fixing. It will also serve to show you that you aren't necessarily writing the complete drivel that you think you are. Distance yourself from your work. It's freeing. (But DO be prepared that there will be some out there who wil gneuinely NOT LIKE IT. This is nothing to do with how good or how craptastic it is. It's subjective opinion. Don't take it personally.)

4 I have to start at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop - and indeed, that is one way of doing it. If you are that kind of linear thinker. If your story is that kind of linear story. But now hear this - IT DOESN'T HAVE TO WORK THAT WAY. One of my own novels started with a disembodied scene which I rather liked, so I started writing the novel that the scene was a part of - and it took me nearly 2/3 of the resulting book to get back to it. That's hardly starting at the beginning, though, is it? If your story insists on being a jigsaw puzzle that's fine too. Write the scenes that scream to be written, and then see how they fit together. The only true way of writing is the way that works for you. Everything else is true, too - it just isn't YOUR truth. And your truth can, and often does, change depending on the sort of story you're grappling with. Accept this with grace.

5 Beginnings are difficult Yes, they are. Beginner writers often start way too early and drone on and on and on until the readers' eyes glaze over and they cease to be interested at all - or they will start way too late, in the middle of a situation the reader doesn't understand the significance of and full of characters they haven't been given a chance to care about yet. So yes, beginnings are difficult, and it isn't necessarily a misconception - but it is also somethng that is curable by practice, and by that I don't necessarily mean write a million words of beginnings of your own. Read and re-read the books you love. See how THOSE writers led you in and made you want to stay. Beginnings are difficult, but they are not insurmountable. But once you begin something, the next thing that you're going to say is...

6 Endings are difficult Yes, they are. Again, beginner writers have their problems because they don't know that their story ended three chapters ago and they are still doggedly soldiering on riding a horse that is more and more skeletal in nature - or they just stop, in the middle of something, and leave a reader screaming for closure. The perfect ending is, well, perfect, and elusive... but once again, this is achievable. Practice. Read. Become familiar with what an ending needs to do in order for your story to remain in the reader's memory - because, never forget this, it is an ending that the reader sees LAST and which therefore remains in their mind's eye. Make sure an ending is satisfying - it doesn't have to be neat and all deus ex machina but it has to be satisfying - you have to give emotional truth and closure. It is difficult, yes, but it is only impossible if you give up.

7 Middles are impossible - and there's the rub because in between those difficult beginnings and endings you have to TELL A STORY THAT MATTERS. Have you ever heard about the EIght Deadly Words of Literature? They're these: "I DON'T CARE WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE PEOPLE". WHoever your people are, whatever happens to them, your reader HAS TO CARE. ANd yes, this does makes middles an almost impossible achievement, if you're looking at them purely from that point of view. They can paralyse a writer because they don't seem substiantial enough or important enough or even just worth telling. But here's the thing. A good story is a good story - and a good writer can make almost anything into a good story. I once wrote several pages on the fate of a leaf stuck on my windhshield, clinging doggedly on even through freeway traffic and speeds, as though it was bound and determined to get somewhere and it would take any punishemnt necessary to achieve this end. You'd think there's no story there - just a leaf in the wind. But I saw the story. And suddenly the middle wasn't impossible. It was a path through the wilderness, and it was hte only way to go. Learn to recognise these trails. They're worth following.

8 You start with short stories and then graduate to novels - that's how you build a career - rot. Novels and short stories are two very different animals indeed. I've known exquisite short story writers who have NEVER made the leap to novel-length works - and I've known amazing novelists who can't write a short story to save their lives. SOme can do both,but it isn't a given, and it certainly is not the career stepping stone that it's been touted as. Short stories and novels require completely different skill sets, and they are not training for one anothher. So if you want to write novels but can't write a short story to save your life and have despaired of ever reaching the "heights" of novel-writing peaks without being able to grapple with the lower rungs of shorter fiction - don't worry about it. Some people reach those heights through vastly different means. By all means write short stories if you want to but you don't HAVE to.It is NOT obligatory.

9 Your work is done when you've finished the first draft Oh, Hell, No. Like I said before, your first draft is going to suck by definition (unless you really are a bona fide certified genius (tm) in which case why are you reading this screed at all seeing as you already know everything in it...?) Your first draft is there so that you have the story in front of you. The real work doesn't END here, it begins. You have to tease that first draft monstrosity into shape. You have to hack at the rough edges. You have to mould corners. You have to make sure the light falls on it JUST SO. You have to buff and polish and fine-tune (Are you SURE there isn't a better word for this? are you SURE this is the character's real motivation? Are you positive that nothing at all in here can't be made better?) And even then you aren't finished. It goes out to editors, and comes back with THEIR comments and corrections, and no, you don't have to accept them all, but a good editor is worth their weight in rubies and you at the very least pay attention. Often their best comments arent specific - they just tell you that they feel that there is a problem here somewhere and it is UP TO YOU to find it and fix it. And even then you aren't finished. You return the editorial MS and it gets published (if you're lucky) and people read it (if you're even luckier) and then you have to deal with their reactions and responses and reviews... and then... and then... you have to go on and write the next thing. What, you thought writing was a destination? It's a JOURNEY, my friend,, and while it is one you can always quit at your pleasure if it becomes too hard - if you do - you're no longer writing. The only way to stay on the road... is to stay on the road. This is not always as easy as it might sound. SOmetimes you just have to believe there still IS a road, and don't let your steps falter. But all the while you're carrying it with you - THIS manuscript, or THAT one, or the one after that - you're always thinking, working, dreaming, researching, pushing words around to make new and pleasing patterns. Call yourself a writer? Your work is NEVER done. You've just given yourself DIFFICULT homework to do every night. For the rest of your life.

10 Only books on bestseller lists are worth reading - well, if you think that, we don't have much to discuss, do we? DO I need to tell you that sometimes bestseller lists are self-fulfililng prophecies? Do I need to remind you that sometimes you can fidn a rack of books for sale which are labelled #1, #2, etc - but they're the ONLY books for sale, so of course every sale goes to boost that number? Do I have to remind you that often the best and most satisfying reads are too complex and too "difficult" for the herd who just follows the bestseller lists - and those people NEVER read the REAL good books because they havne't sold enough millions to hit The List? DOn't read only the things eveyrone else reads. Go wander in unfamiliar groves and pick strange fruit on occasion. And wait for the amazint taste of it to burst inside your mouth as you bite into it, the kind of taste that doesn't always live on bestseller lists where everything is in some way shape or form a Red Delicious apple - good but bland and after a while it ALL TASTES THE SAME...

11 Showing and telling "Show, don't tell" is a dictum often levelled at beginners - and it's true enough, in its own way, because quite often it IS a problem - a problem where the story was started in the wrong place and too much background is missing and needs to be supplied somehow, or you've got the wrong POV for the story and your poor character is flailing while trying to understand things that (s)he could not possibly have known in the circumstances which you have set up... But all that being said, sometimes TELLING something is precisely the right way to go. Once again, it comes down to practice - and honestly, I'm sorry, but there really is no way to learn writing except to WRITE. And you really do have to write your million words of crap before you start having an educated enough sense of what you're doing to KNOW that it isn't the right thing and to begin to have the ability to reach for the right thing through all the mess that you've got on your hands. In other words, feel free to tell. Sometimes description MATTERS. Just know when it's enough telling, and sweep us forward into what happens next. It's like cooking with salt. A little goes a long way. TOo much, and you spoil the broth. Use a light hand.

12 ALL the research I have ever done on this subject needs to go into the book Oh you've all read those books, haven't you? The ones where it's obvious that the writer has REALLY done his or her research because the book rings with it hollowly like a bell every time you strike it. The author had to learn all these things, and by gum, YOU WILL KNOW THEM TOO, or at least you will know that the author knows them. Dammit all. Too much work has been done for the author to let you think that it hasn't been. But here's the thing, there is a little thing called the Iceberg Theory of Writing. Think of an iceberg. It's beautiful and imposing and you can admire and appreciate it while you're floating past it (unless you're the Titanic but that's another story). But NINETY PERCENT OF ANY GIVEN ICEBERG IS BELOW THE SURFACE OF THE WATER. Where you never see it. Sure, it gives the iceberg stability and balance and presence. Without it, there wouldn't be an iceberg. But you don't have to know precisely its shape and size and position and how much of it there is and how heavy it is and all the relevant physics and chemistry of it all in order to know that it exists, that it needs to exist, and that the iceberg knows what it's about. Do thou likewise with thy research. Make it the basis for your world. Don't make it YOUR WORLD.

13 All it takes is talent Sure. And also persistence. And perseverance. And luck. And a thick skin. And a coin whose heads is humility and whose tails is pride (yes this makes sense. THink about it). Many things go to make a writer. Sure, an ability to sling words is important. But JUST that... is not nearly enough. You have to have talent, and you have to have all those other things, and you have to have faith.

Now go. Write. Believe.Good luck.
Tags: writing advice

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