I’m hoping to use this post to create a regular, but intermittent, feature about writing that starts an ongoing discussion between me and any other writers/creative types–published or not–who want to jump in. (I’ve given myself permission to write whatever interests me every week which is why this won’t be a serial series but, if the response opens the door to writing issues, I’ll of course follow up.) Nothing would please me more than a back-and-forth so we can learn from each other. If you have anything you might want to say, suggest, or share, please do. Writing has always been termed “solitary,” and it is. But that doesn’t preclude confabbing about what we’ve discovered during all those secluded hours, which has the potential to enrich us all.
There are a million things to say about writing, but good writing always starts with the same two things: time and effort.
You have no idea how often people would come up to me when I did book tours for my Matt Jacob novels and say, “I have a great story, but I just don’t have time to sit down and write it.” Worse, some would suggest that they tell me their story and perhaps I could write it. I usually nodded sympathetically or politely demurred but, at the same time, thought fuggetaboutit. Wasn’t gonna happen. Not only was I not going to write their story, I knew they weren’t either.
The first thing any aspiring writer needs is a good chair and the guts to keep his or her ass stuck to it. That doesn’t mean all day, every day. But it does mean carving out a regular time to focus and think and dream. A regular time to write. This is true for pros as well as neophytes. From where my ass is parked, it’s the only way to actually learn the craft and keep it sharp. Though, if other people found other ways, I’d dearly love to hear about it.
Gotta read too; it’s the key to understanding what kind of book you want to write. Although reading a variety of types of books can only enrich and help, it makes sense to eventually focus on the ways different authors work in the type of writing you’re interested in.
From an early age, I loved mysteries. Started with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, which, of course, evolved as I grew older. And while I enjoyed what is often termed “literary” fiction, Updike’s Rabbit, Malamud’s depressing take on the world, the comedic genius of Heller’s Catch 22, for example, I kept returning to mysteries, honing in on the “hard-boiled” version of detective fiction.
So, when I decided to leave counseling to try my hand at writing, I already knew what I wanted to do. I understood the parameters of detective fiction well enough to try to push its boundaries, while still maintaining the basic form. Kinda like grammar; you have to know the rules well to break them artfully. When I began writing, I also stopped reading all mysteries because I was terrified of unconsciously plagiarizing. And, I’ve held to it. Do any of you out there do this too? And for the same reason?
A good example of someone who works differently than I do is a musician friend who asked me for feedback on his manuscript. After my usual caveat of “Sure, but I have to be free to tell you what I really think without any bullshit,” I read the work. It was a fictionalized memoir that, frankly, wasn’t all that good. Its underlying premise could have made it truly interesting, but the tradecraft was weak and I thought he had missed the forest for the trees.
I line edited, noting where I thought he hit or missed the mark, where characters weren’t drawn well or their voices distinct enough. We set up a time to meet and I was pretty nervous about it. Basically, I was suggesting going back to the drawing board.
We met for hours and, much to my relief, he was eager for feedback and undaunted by the task ahead. After this meeting, he began voraciously reading many different types of memoirs while he began his rewrite–something I wouldn’t have done but no two people are the same. A few more extensive revisions over the next couple of years and the book is now in the hands of an agent. I don’t know if it will sell, but I do know the quality of his story and work is outstanding.
I started to tell his story as an example of someone who felt comfortable reading in his genre or area of writing, while trying to do it himself. But my buddy’s experience actually confirms both points I’m really making in this post. You have to commit to the project. Despite working full time, he put in the energy and effort on a regular schedule and accomplished his goal. Of course he wants it to sell (as do I), but at the least, he has completed something he is proud of and should be. Plus, he has subsequently gone on to write other stories (which his agent also accepted). He has turned himself into a wonderful writer by understanding and accepting the hard, time-consuming work it takes to create something special.
Writing starts with this commitment–and hopefully, our discussions where people relate their own experiences will too. Then, in upcoming weeks, I’ll talk in detail about various aspects of my personal approach to writing books, hoping others will chime in at those posts as well as now. Please don’t leave me talking to myself.
Meanwhile another dedicated, talented artist needs some help: A good friend of mine, Jim Ohm, an independent film maker who embodies all the qualities I mentioned above and many more, is raising money for his new film Pretend. I’ve read the script, think it’s really, really, good, and hope each of you visit his site (http://www.indiegogo.com/pretendthefilm?c=home&a=1733151) and listen to what he says about the film. Well worth the time.
Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day.