5 Harsh Truths That Will Help You Be a Better Writer
Right now I've got a ton of friends on Facebook currently plugging away for National Novel Writing Month, the annual contest where people are encouraged to pen 60,000 original words of written work. Though I don't join in myself due to increased obligations at my day gig during November, it always warms my heart to see so many people taking up the art of creating with words.
However, writing is probably the most self-deluded art out there. I have never found a single person who didn't think they could write a book if they just sat down and put some time in it. Stephen King always used to have a great quip when people told him they always wanted to be a writer. "Really?" he'd say. "I always wanted to be a brain surgeon."
Today, I'm here to pop that bubble. Not because I want to dishearten aspiring writers, but because I want what you write to actually be good.
Your Idea Is Meaningless if it Isn't Realized: What's the worst novel ever written? If you asked a few years back the public's general answer was Twilight, while now folks are more likely to say Fifty Shades of Grey Neither of these answers are correct.
The worst novel ever is the one that you're "thinking about writing." Say what you want about Twilight, but for all the fact that it is indeed a Mary Sue-riddled piece of disposal pop trash that also vaguely serves as a metaphor for conversion therapy at least it exists. Hell, by the time The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner was published Stephenie Meyer proved that she was actually capable of turning out a pretty damned good story when she wanted to.
You are not a writer if you do not produce. That is the long and the short of it. It doesn't matter how well a plot is sketched out in your head, how unique and amazing the characters you've dreamed up are, or how quippy and immortal your dialogue is. Until it exists in written form it is worth infinitely less than the worst novel you have ever read. That step towards actually writing is what trips a lot of people up because they discover...
In my case I wrote terrible songs, then wrote a terrible book ABOUT writing terrible songs
Most of What You Write Will be Terrible: I mean really bad. Like you honestly consider reformatting your hard drive to eliminate the taint of your terrible words from your computer in a literary exorcism. Even after you manage to put out something that other people are willing publish or pay for it will still in all likelihood be terrible.
It has nothing to do with your innate talent or potential. It has everything to do with the fact that writing is really freakin' hard. It just looks easy. I joke to my wife that me working my ass off looks exactly like me doing absolutely nothing useful, but it really is true. Turning ideas into concrete concepts others can understand is a monumental task.
Over the last five years I have published somewhere between one and two million words worth of material. With a few notable and completely accidental exceptions, those first 100,000 words or so are garbage and the second 100,000 not much better. That's what I meant about your ideas in the first entry being meaningless. What really counts is learning how to sharpen those ideas on the page so that they cut like knives when people read them instead of bouncing off like a balloon sword. How do you sharpen your pen?
You Need Someone You Can Trust to Tell You When You Suck: My favorite interview of all time is when Kurt Loder was talking to Jewel about her book of poetry, A Night Without Armor. In it, Loder pointed out that Jewel had misunderstood what the word "casualty" meant in a poem, and she lost her shit... well, as much as you can imagine Jewel losing her shit.
The reason it was awesome is because Jewel was one of the hottest acts in the world at the time, and no one was correcting her for anything since she was uber famous. It's the sane reason that after 1986 or so all of Stephen King's books are the size of Bibles. At some point in the process of creating art you get well-known enough that you find yourself surrounded by people more interested in being friends with you than helping you produce good work.
I have an editor here at Houston Press I refer to as The Onion because at least once a quarter she makes me cry in the bathroom. It's not because she's just mean. It's because she points out true flaws in my output that are amateurish, lazy, inelegant, and that need to be corrected. When someone asks if I'll read their work I always reply with, "Do you want to know what's right with it, or what's wrong with it? 'Cause I'll tell you." Colleagues and peers that have the sense to know good writing and the balls to tell you when what you crapped out ain't that are extremely valuable. Keep them around at all cost and do your best to learn from their input.
Even If It's Good, Many People Will Hate It That scene is from Rocky Balboa and it's one of my favorite things in the history of film. I would program my alarm clock to play it every morning if I could figure out how because it has the secret to success. To quote Rocky, "It's not how hard you can hit. It's how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done. Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth, but you've got to be willing to take the hits." Fuck. Ing. Genius.
Let's look at a selection of quotes from Amazon users, shall we? I even left the misspellings in because it adds to the hilarity.
"This book is very boring and the only reason I bought it was because I needed it for school-related things. Horrible book."
"With so much good American literature around, I really can't understand how someone can call this a classic. The book is pure cliché and melodrama, from beginning to end."
"There isn't a single insighful moment in this overrated piece of drek, and frankly it is an insult to intelligent readers everywhere"
What book are they talking about? To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that has been scientifically proven to be the greatest American novel ever written. It's the book I would send out into space in order to convince Daleks to spare humanity. I'm sort of surprised that the reviews I quoted weren't written backwards since they can only have originated in the Opposite World.
No matter what you write, someone somewhere will find it not only bad, but take its awfulness so completely personally that they will declare that you should never have been born. As my old guitar player used to say, "The worst part about writing a song is that someone has to hear it."
You Will Do it For Nothing For a Long, Long Time: My personal pet peeve is "authors" on Kickstarter because I meant what I said about the level of self-delusion involved with thinking you can write. I've seen people ask for everything from $50,000 to pen a fictional version of their own life story to $400,000 to put together a graphic novel. Yes, the picture I led this entry with? The author wants almost half a million to do more of that.
Why it irks me is that writing does not cost you money for the most part. It costs you time. It costs you energy. It costs you giving up moments spent consuming what others produce in order to join their ranks. Money, though? No. You can set up full distribution through CreateSpace that will get your book on Amazon for less than $50 per title, and barring that you can always put it up for free on any number of forums and blog templates. Hell, John Dies at the End was available for free for almost a decade before it got published in real-book format.
That's honestly how you can tell the writers from the people who just don't get it. A writer writes because the act of not writing kills them, not because of a paycheck. I'm not saying you shouldn't get paid, of course. God knows I do almost nothing myself without drawing a few bucks from it, but that's on the other side of over a million words!
One of my favorite writers is Carmilla Voiez, who mostly pens smutty gothic horror stories. She's been doing it for four years or so now, and has published three novels and a handful of short stories. She doesn't make any sort of significant money from this work yet. Not even minimum wage, really, but every year her author page on Amazon gets a little deeper, a few more reviewers say nice things about her, and several more doors open up.
That's the true journey of being a writer. You constantly write and produce content over and over and over again until you get good enough at it and cast a big enough shadow that they can't ignore you. There are few shortcuts and fewer lucky breaks. It's not easy, and you've got to be willing to take the hits. You do that, then you can look down of Twilight all you want.
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