I got a question via email once, asking whether I’d ever posted anything on how to become a better writer, especially with the long-term goal of being published or self-publishing. I had a lot of thoughts about it, which ended up in an essay of about four thousand words. This essay was posted to my livejournal in 2011, but never made it to the Extribulum blog, so I thought I’d rework it as a series here.
I’ve generally shied away from writing about “how to write” or how to be a “better writer”, in part because I don’t really see myself as any kind of authority. Sometimes I think, well, I do write a lot, and I’ve sold books, so maybe. But then I look at actual writers who have contracts and such, and I think, putting yourself up a little high there, aren’t you, Sam? Plus there’s always the little voice that goes Shit, really? How do I fix that? when someone calls me an unflattering name.
The other reason I haven’t written much about it is that the process is different and personal for everyone. Communicating creativity is difficult, and offering you a structure that is useful to me is at least halfway to being pointless because it might be useless for you. You cannot take a whole system from one person as gospel. At least, not unless you’re extraordinarily lucky.
It’s also difficult because these are my opinions, and when you have a large readership and you post an opinion, at least a few people are likely to disagree. So when I post something like this, I am in essence stepping up to argue with the entire internet, which is exhausting and scary.
So this is not my descent from the mount to hand you commandments. I’m going to talk like I know what I’m talking about, and you can pick and choose what (if anything) you find useful. It’s just like college!
The general advice that people will give you about writing breaks down into basically two parts:
- Write a lot
- Get all the feedback you possibly can from everyone you can pin down
I’d like to argue with those and augment them a little and make some additional suggestions, so let’s see if I can do it coherently. This isn’t a deconstruction of those ideas, just an occasional acknowledgement that they exist.
Today we’ll be talking about writing — not just writing a lot, but how to get into writing, and how to survive there.
Writing a lot is good. It’s practice, of course, and it also teaches you commitment. When you know you have to write something you really don’t want to, in order to get to the bits you do want to write, commitment is what allows you to whip yourself through it. But that’s really the bulk of what repetitive or continuous writing teaches you. You will not learn to be a good writer by writing all day long. There’s just plain more to it. But it has its benefits.
I’ve long thought that National Novel Writing Month isn’t about writing a book, but about committing to getting a book’s worth of writing done — and even then, it’s not about the writing. It’s about learning how you work and what you need to do in order to finish something. It makes a difficult thing into a comfortable habit. I can’t really do NaNo anymore because I know my systems and they don’t respond well to enforced word counts and timelines; I’m capable of writing a novel in a month but it has to be the right month, and the right novel, and the two rarely collide, almost never in November when any sensible person is spending their time having snowball fights.
Still, not to be down on NaNo; writing for the sake of writing does help. You learn not to get tied up in details you can fix later, and you learn not to worry too much about research until the thing is done. Stephen King, in On Writing, devotes a lot of time to what you shouldn’t get bogged down in. He uses as an example his process for writing From A Buick 8, a story about a group of Pennsylvania State Troopers:
It was a grand idea and has developed into a strong novel […] of course there were a few minor problems — the fact that I knew absolutely zilch about the Pennsylvania State Police, for one thing — but I didn’t let any of that bother me. I simply made up all the stuff I didn’t know.
He goes back later and does the research, but the point of writing a lot or writing fast or under pressure is to get the frame built. A lot of people are down on NaNo because they assume writers think at the end of it they’ll have a publishable book, but both the haters and the attitude they hate (frequently mistaking the attitude for the entire system) are wrong about the ultimate goal: to prove to yourself that you can get some god damned words on the god damned page.
Commitment is what gets books written. Patience is what gets a good book written.
A common problem I see, especially in beginning fanfic writers, and a problem I had myself as a young fanfic writer, is that they have one scene, one concept, that they desperately want to convey. Or they have a story they breathlessly want to tell. Look at any cross-section of fanfiction.net and you can find this: a sloppily written story with one gorgeous scene, one brilliant concept, or one driving idea.
There’s an urgency about storytelling that makes you want to be the first to get there, or makes you want to skip the boring stuff to get to the meat. But patience is what enables a writer to build a story, to write it with care, or to revise it until it doesn’t suck. The urgency can drive you on and make you write, but tempering it with patience allows you to write it better.
I once sat down and began to play with the concept of a story I’d come up with about superheroes. I got about two thousand words written, but those two thousand words were pure exposition. When (if) I write it as a book, those two thousand words will probably be the first ten to twenty thousand words of the story, written properly. It’s the difference between saying “Lisa had green hair this week, because she liked to change her hair colour a lot” and an entire scene where some friend teases Lisa about how often she changes her hair colour, while she gets bashful or defensive or evangelical about it.
It takes time. Sometimes you have to jump ahead to write the scene you want, then go back and work up the rest of the story.
It’s absolutely one of the most annoying things ever that the story isn’t just REALLY GOOD RIGHT NOW. That’s why I sometimes post “stories I’ll never write”, because really I don’t want to write the whole thing, I just want to get a scene or a concept out there. I make sure what I post is still good, still conveys meaning, but I know that the decision is between spending a week writing five interesting scenes or three months writing five interesting fanfics.
Cultivating patience is, for me, a requisite of good writing.
“But I’m not a patient person!”
This is one of those things that’s up there with “but the muse told me to do it” on my short list of Dumbest Excuses Writers Try To Pass. I have had fights about that second one which have got me banned from certain portions of fandom, but I still believe creativity is a matter of personal responsibility. You control what you write and to a larger-than-expected extent you control how good it is. You’re responsible for it, and you don’t get to blame a) a failing which can be corrected, such as patience, or b) an imaginary friend. (Can you tell the muse thing pushes my buttons.)
This isn’t an essay about how to have fun writing. That comes naturally if you like doing it, and you don’t need me to tell you how to have fun. If you just want to write to get the idea out there, or because it’s fun, that’s okay. Frustrating to me, but I’m not the reason you’re writing: you are. If you like what you’ve done and you had a good time doing it, godspeed. If you’re happy with the result, that’s fantastic. People should be happy as often as humanly possible. But you can’t necessarily expect praise for it, and you have to be willing to walk on by whistling “haters gonna hate” if someone doesn’t like it. (Technically you have to be ready to do that anyway; no writer is universally beloved. It’s just easier to do if you know you did your best.)
There is, I think, a fairly common transitional phase where writers want to be better but aren’t willing, or don’t know how, to put in the work — to write with discipline and patience, to revise before posting, to listen to betas. It’s difficult and troubling, and it’s where a lot of excuses get made. “Oh, I just had to write it” is fine, but you can’t tag “why don’t I get comments on it” onto that if you know you didn’t do your best work, or haven’t put in the effort to learn how to make it better.
Writing that enchants, captivates, and entertains takes work. Nobody does it effortlessly. The work can still be fun, but won’t always be. I find it worth it, because the end result gratifies me.
So those are my opening words on writing — commitment and patience are the keywords of the day. But there are other tools which don’t involve directly writing original work, and those are something I’ll be discussing in part two of the series, so stay tuned.