Writing advice from someone who’s been there
I think about it, and I think what ego I must have to write down my thoughts about writing. I’ve had less than a half-dozen poems published; I’ve never had a short story published despite numerous attempts, and the one novel I’ve had published so far was, under the terms of the contest it won, an ebook, and thus doomed to obscurity. Why should you, dear reader, care what I might have to say?
Here’s why you should read this: What I’ve learned about writing, what I am still learning about writing has been hard-won. If I can help even one person avoid a pitfall, it’s worth writing this. Because what this is really about is helping a writer stay sane. Sane and productive, but mainly sane. And if this eventually helps someone write a best seller, well then I hate you. I mean, good for you and all, but I hate you.
I’ve arbitrarily chosen to call these five bits of wisdom rules. Be assured, they aren’t my rules, any more than gravity was created or upheld by Newton. They’re inherent to the writing universe.
And anyway, if at the end of writing this article I think it’s rubbish, there’s always the Delete key. I suppose you could call it rule number one. In fact, I think I’ll do just that.
Rule #1: There’s always the Delete key
Writers are almost always their own worst critics. It’s a fact. It is this fact that can strangle a budding writer before he or she ever begins. It can undermine even experienced writers. By writing crap, you see, you leave visible, irrefutable evidence that you are a writer of crap. It can be debilitating, this foreknowledge. It can have a paralytic effect on creativity. Ultimately it is fear, pure and naked. In large part it stopped me writing for almost three years after my first novel was published. It was a near-classic example of writer’s block, but more about that later. The point to remember here is that no one ever has to know how terrible your writing was today because, say it with me, there’s always the delete key. Or the trash can or the fireplace, if you’re still killing trees. You don’t have to use it, but it’s always there. It’s always an option.
Some may shudder at the thought. All that writing, all that effort vanishing in an electron poof (or whatever). I guarantee you, it’s better that than experiencing snow-blindness—my own personal term for staring at a blank white simulated page, unable to write, unable to think of one single thing to say that doesn’t suck. If resorting to the delete key horrifies you, then likely you are (1) able to write regardless of quality concerns, or (2a) you’re so mired in thinking about writing or (2b) thinking about being a writer that you haven’t put much writing time in yet. In any case, you can move on to rule number 2. Lucky you.
Rule # 2: Only writing is writing.
Yes, it’s a truism. Bit it’s a very powerful, often ignored truism. Richard Rhodes calls it the Knickerbacker Rule, subtitled ‘Apply ass to chair’. Whatever you choose to call it, it boils down to this: The more you write, the more you will write. The more you don’t write, the more you won’t write. We are creatures of habit. When you write, you build up momentum that makes continuing to write easier. When you avoid writing, you very quickly find yourself fighting against the sickeningly powerful influence of inertia. Any book or article on writing will tell you that you must write every day, or at least have a fixed schedule, and you must stick to it, however sparse or disjointed your writing time may be. Guess what? They all say this for a reason. It’s true.
Are you going to suddenly develop writer’s block because you skipped your writing session today? Very doubtful. But it makes it that much easier to skip tomorrow’s writing, and so on, and before you know it you’re at your kid’s wedding telling your new in-laws how you wanted to be a writer once upon a time, and they’ll ask why you didn’t become one, and you’ll mutter something about the lure of the wholesale plumbing supply industry and then wander off to drown your broken dream in hideously overpriced sparking wine. It will all be very tawdry and sad.
Another way to look at this is to realize that thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Wanting to write is not writing. Only writing is writing.
The work is work, no kidding. I hate writing. I’m essentially lazy, and writing takes up time that could be spent napping or playing video games or listening to my son go gurgle-gargle-coo. I sit here tap-tapping and a thousand distractions beckon. But like an alcoholic, I know once I fall off the wagon, it’s going to be that much harder to catch up to it again and clamber back aboard. The only thing worse than the writing is the not writing. When I write, it’s me who suffers. When I don’t, it’s everyone around me.
And as much as I dread writing, I absolutely love having written. There is no feeling in the world quite like finishing a perfect poem, or a short story that said exactly what I wanted it to say, the way I wanted to say it. Nothing matches the high of typing ‘The End’ at the end of a novel. Nothing. Humans are made with the need, among many other things, to create. Writing can be the most fulfilling _expression of that need, the most self-validating experience anyone can have. You just have to sweat blood to get it. For me, it’s the closest thing to childbirth I’ll ever experience, and I was right there in it when my son popped out in a rush of bodily fluids.
Rule #3: Writer’s block is real
I say this not to scare you, but to make you aware that there is a disease out there that affects only writers. Nobody likes to talk about such unpleasantness, any more than they like to talk about cancer or AIDS. But pretending it doesn’t exist only makes things worse. If you don’t take the necessary precautions, you might well fall foul of it. And you may never recover.
Every time I read some writer opining smugly that writer’s block doesn’t exist, I have the uncontrollable urge to hunt them down and taser them in the genitals. (For those of you not up on your personal defense weapons, a taser is a nifty little device that sends a frightening amount of electricity into the body of a would-be attacker.) What stops me is that I now live in Singapore, where tasers are illegal. But even if I got hold of one I would probably have to fly very, very far to mete out this punishment, and also I’m not particularly good with weapons, and would likely end up tasering myself in the genitals. Also, as I mentioned above, I’m lazy.
But it never fails to turn my crank. I suffered from very real writer’s block after the publication of my first book. Not for a few days, or weeks, or months, but for almost three years. Imagine being diagnosed with some horrible, debilitating disease, only to have someone tell you that, essentially, you were a hypochondriac. Or just lazy. Exactly. Just because you have never come down with it, Mister Literary Prize Winner or Miss National Bestseller, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I suppose you’ll tell me next that psoriasis doesn’t exist because your buttocks have always been baby soft.
Where were we? Oh, yes. Precautions. Allow me to extend the infection metaphor a little further. Depression has been called the Writer’s Disease. For some reason, it seems creative people in general are more susceptible to depression than your average bear. It just comes with the territory. So does an increased risk of alcoholism and drug dependency. For me, depression was a bit like HIV, and writer’s block the AIDS-like outcome. The depression came first. In hindsight, where I screwed up was in not seeking help earlier for my depression. I waited until I had lost twenty pounds and was lying on my apartment floor, crying for no apparent reason for three days straight before I said to myself ‘hey, dude, you might want to get this checked out’. Do as I say, not as I did. Seek professional help if you are consistently depressed for more than two weeks.
Anyway, I stopped writing. And when I tried to start again, the well was dry for a very, very long time. So refer to rule #2. Never stop writing. Keep the pump primed. It may be awful, awful stuff that comes out, especially if you’re depressed. It may well be the crappiest crap anyone has ever crapped onto a page. That’s okay. That’s what rule #1 is for. You just have to write it. You don’t have to keep it lying around, stinking up the joint.
Rule #4: Birds don’t tell other birds how to fly
And wouldn’t bother even if they had language. You can read all the writing books in the world (I know, I have) but they won’t mean a thing until you start writing, and won’t mean all that much more once you do. Writing is about creating, and only you know how to create what only you can create. You just don’t know you know it, probably. Clear on that?
Look, I could tell you how to write just like Shakespeare. Word for word, as a matter of fact. The problem with that method is not just that it’s plagiarism, it’s also that you learn nothing and create nothing. Like somebody should have said once, you’re the only you there’ll ever be. Your unique experience of the world will uniquely shape the people and worlds you create on paper. You can’t think of books on writing as you would a car repair manual or a cookbook. At best, advice on writing can be a roadmap; it isn’t the road and can never be. Most writing advice, including this, is just that—‘this is how I got from here to there, and watch out for that Buick-eating pothole’. At worst, books on writing can be a roadmap that’s just plain wrong, and will wind up getting you lost. Or worse.
It’s better to think of writing advice in terms of zen buddhism. There’s a story about a guy who was seeking enlightenment. He goes to this old enlightened dude who lives in a cave. They talk all day and into the night, by the light of a candle. Old enlightened dude waits for just the right moment and then he snuffs out the candle, and poof! his chatty visitor becomes enlightened. After all the talk, he finally, suddenly gets it.
The point is, read all the writing advice you want, but don’t take anything as gospel. Keep an open mind, try various things, and wait for something to click. What you’ll experience may not be true enlightenment, but when and if it happens it can sure feel that way. That eureka moment is almost as satisfying as finishing your first novel. Which leads me to rule #5.
Rule #5: Eventually, you have to finish something
Do you know the ratio of projects I start to ones I finish? Five to one. I just checked my files. For every writing project I’ve actually finished, there are five that are nowhere near the end, and probably never will be.
There’s lots of reasons. Some I started half-baked. Others started off sound enough, but somewhere during the writing I changed, and what seemed so important to express is no longer relevant to who I am today. Some I ignored rule #2 while writing, and they withered on the vine. The reasons don’t really matter. Ideas are easy. Lots of projects should never get started, and if they happen to, don’t deserve to be finished (the numerous examples in all media are so abundant that I won’t bother to name one. Okay, one: Tenchu by Graham Masterton. Never heard of it? My envy is palpable.)
And that’s okay, really. Even Papa Hemingway had manuscripts sitting in his desk drawer that he never intended to finish. But at some point you have to finish something, lest you never finish anything.
The point of writing is communication. In today’s world that probably but not always means publication. You can write up a character study, do little sketches much as a painter would. In fact, you probably should. It’s good for you, like broccoli. Some writing, like broccoli, isn’t supposed to be fit for human consumption. But can you imagine if Da Vinci only ever did sketches, and never moved on to the final piece of art or invention?
Lester del Rey once said something like ‘any writing that isn’t intended for publication is literary masturbation’. I happen to think he was right, though in this enlightened age, we realize there’s nothing inherently wrong with a little solo pleasure, unless your aim is to make babies. If it is, then it behooves to try and hook up with the opposite sex of the writer, generally known as a publisher (not, unfortunately, a reader as you might reasonably expect). If that’s not for you, just enjoy the process and perfect your technique.
And that’s it. Five rules. Half of what Moses brought down from the mountain, but then I think I mentioned I was lazy. And besides, I’m not commanding anyone to do anything. I wish there were more; then I too could crank out a book on writing and snuff candles in my cave. But there you have it.
These rules are intended to tell you how to write and have a greater chance of staying sane, after all; I can’t tell you what to write or how to write well. Nobody can do that. Anybody who tells you they can is selling you literary snake oil, and should be tarred and feathered. Or tasered in the genitals. But that could just be me.
I can tell you that you’re more likely to be a happy writer if you write what you read, what you love. I can tell you that, if you’re just beginning to write, imitation can be a fine teacher, so long as you discard it when its usefulness is through. I can tell you that you learn more from mistakes, both your own and others’, than you do from flawless writing. I can tell you that your writing will generally be more suspenseful if you keep putting your characters into ever-hotter water. But then any writing book can tell you these things and more, and all of these little nuggets have exceptions.
And I can tell you that I wish you nothing but the best. Writing is a hard, lonely business. Take care of yourself, don’t fight gravity any more than you have to, and laugh whenever you can.