It’s sometime around eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning and my girlfriend is trying to be patient with me. A few minutes ago, she handed me a sheaf of wadded papers and asked:
“Is any of this stuff important?”
I told her I wasn’t sure and now I’ve got them spread out all across the bedroom, which she just spent an hour or two cleaning. Various, cryptic messages are scrawled across each one – Some are several paragraphs long, while others are mere sentences, or fragments of sentences. Some are just plain nonsense. I’ve zeroed in on the papers that fit the latter category first, as they are the easiest to sort through, and now I’m holding each one up to the light and squinting at them with exaggerated caution.
Dog dump tea kettle whistle
Aliens observe roller disco mating rituals
Leprechaun CSI: Sex Crimes Division
This last piece I hand back over to her with great reluctance. “I’m pretty sure I don’t need this one anymore.”
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Here’s a mental exercise for you: Imagine the contents of every blog on the Internet as components of a series of paperback books. For every twenty some-odd lines of type, that would be a single page. With most paperbacks utilizing both sides of a sheet of paper that would be forty lines – are you with me so far? Good.
Now, visualize theses forty-type lines filling stacks of paper until you have 300 sheets, and then bind them in some colorful cardboard until you have one book, then go on filling up the next book and so on, and so forth…
It is my belief that if you were to restrict this exercise to folks who blog about their own approach to “the writing process” you’d be able to completely fill every Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in the Continental United States with these imaginary paperback books.
(Note: I have no actual scientific base for this belief)
(Supplementary note: I also believe in the Loch Ness monster, so use that as your base of reference for how seriously you should ever take me.)
For my own part, I’ve tended to shy away as much as possible about “the writing process” for a number of reasons, the most important one being that I’m still not a hundred percent sure how the whole process works. However, in the interest of keeping any sort of vaguely worded threats from my publishers at bay, I’ve agreed to keep any blogging I do here limited to the subject of writing itself. With that in mind, here’s a list of five things I have managed to figure out about putting thoughts into semi-coherent print.
#1 – You have to work at it every day.
Okay, seriously I wasn’t even going to touch this one because it’s been said so many times it should just be common fucking sense, like telling somebody “Don’t look directly into the sun,” or “Take your hand out of your pants.” (Really dude, you’re freaking out everybody else on the bus right now. Be cool.)
But it bears repeating, if for no other reason than it’s the most important part of actually getting a book written. Now, assuming that you’ve read Stephen King’s excellent treatise On Writing, and you’re following his mandate of 2,000 words a day, allow me to put my own spin on the Master’s edict…
#2 – Most of what you write is going to be pretty crappy the 1st time through.
Or at least: Most of what I write is pretty crappy the 1st time through. I’m at a place in my life where I spend about 4 hours a day working on this stuff, and usually at first glance, it’s not a pretty sight. I’ve churned out stories that were so bad I won’t even let my own family look at them, to say nothing of the ones that I went ahead and submitted, only to have editor after editor look at them, chuckle ruefully, and say: “Nice try.”
The stories that are somewhat good were not good the first time I wrote them. Nor were they much better the second time through. And a lot of the time, the finished product is something far, far removed from its original intent. The best thing you can do is work on something until it reaches its natural conclusion, and to let it evolve on its own, naturally. When the changes come, don’t fight them. Welcome each new transformation and allow the newer stuff to refine the earlier attempts. And remember Rule #1.
#3 – Make friends with poetry.
The written word has a flow to it, just as surely as its spoken brethren. Be it iamb or trochee, spondee, dactyl or anapest, each word is gifted with a given rhythm. Poets (at least, the good ones) have an innate understanding of this and use it to their advantage when crafting their product.
Also, poetry by its very nature seeks to express the same clarity as prose with fewer words. As a writer, find some work that resonates with you and internalize that stuff, man.
#4 – Research, research, research…
…And then research some more. The thing about fictional stories is, well, they’re made up. Telling a tale is basically sculpting a well-crafted pile of bullshit, and the best lies are the ones that are made up of mostly truths. So if you’re setting a story in Dogpatch, Texas, then you’ll lend a lot of credence to that story by virtue of knowing everything there is to know about Dogpatch, Texas. If Dogpatch is a made up place, then figure out where it would be on a map and get to know the surrounding areas as well as any local historian.
Likewise, if your main character is a cop or a gynecologist or a truck driver, then your best bet is to learn all you can about that respective profession. A good rule of thumb is if you could trick a group of strangers at a cocktail party into believing you are your protagonist’s profession, then you sir, are well on your way (don’t do this).
#5 – Write what you love.
This might even be as important as Rule #1, on account of a couple things:
First off – if you’re batshit crazy enough to seriously undertake writing a book in the first place, congratulations. You’ve signed on to at least 2 years where every waking minute of your free time has now been accounted for. If you don’t absolutely love your subject matter, you’re going to have a lot of bald, bloody patches where your hair used to be. (Actually, that’s probably going to happen regardless.)
Secondly, no matter what sort of genre you aim for, be it Horror, YA, Chick-Lit, Steam-Punk, Zom-Rom-Com or whatever the fuck flavor you choose… Guess what – it’s already full to the point of busting with other writers who are clamoring for a paid gig in that particular slot. If you don’t love it (and I mean full-blown, to the point that you’re a little weird about it), then you better be one talented cow-puncher, or your insincerity will stick out like beard-stubble on a cross-dressing hooker.
On the flip side, thirdly (I know… that doesn’t make much sense, just bear with me – we’re almost there) everybody has something that they are just completely insane over. We all do; that’s just part of what makes people who they are. So, if you can take that one thing, and spend a couple years telling its story, and you do the work, and you do the refinement and the research and you make that motherfucker sing, then that’s truth, man. And it works – it’s the reason people like Jonathan Franzen can make a story like The Corrections, where a whole bunch of depressing shit happens to some superficially unremarkable characters, or Stephen King will introduce you to an entire town like Derry and then level the friggin’ place, and a bajillion people will go nuts over these events that didn’t even happen, and for good reason. Because really good writing, at its heart, is an act of love.
And I truly believe that it’s something anybody can do, once they decide that they can.