The Other Authors

Writing is a lonely business. This does not come as a surprise to you. Whether you write in the midnight quiet of a room lit only by the glow of your laptop, or in a crowded coffee shop exploding with sound and color and scent, you do it alone. No one shares your headspace when you’re trying to choreograph the tapping of fingers on keyboard with the spin and leap of ideas.

A writer, while writing, dances alone.

There is exhilaration and debilitation in this truth. That a man, woman or child can organize words gathered from a thousand places into a story that exists in no other place is nothing short of magic. That it is among the most challenging of tasks to turn that story into something another can love is nothing short of soul-defeating.

We write alone because there is no other option. Yes. I know about collaborative writing. Two heads better than one and all that. [Hi Tosca and Ted. Hope the third book is going well.] But even if you share the process with another writer, you’re still the only person who can live in your head at any given time, multiple personalities notwithstanding. This means that you and only you are responsible for taking what’s in that head and making it presentable for the rest of us who don’t live there.

This is where you take all the knowledge you have about writing, – all the education and experience and earned intuition – and pour your story through it. As you press the words through that sieve, you pray what drips to the final draft is as pure, perfect and lovely as the idea that sparked your writer-brain in the first place.

When you hand the story to an editor, you find out your fingers missed a few things that your brain meant. When you hand it to a copyeditor, you discover your editor missed a few things that your brain meant, too.

And then you’re done. The story is as good as it’s going to get.

Except it isn’t. You’ve forgotten about the other authors.

Some people call them readers.

But they are authors, too. They write between the lines. They hear the characters’ voices. The protagonist sounds like Hugh Jackman. Did you know? They taste the wine on page 37. It is surprisingly sweet. Like the wine they had that one time in that restaurant. They see the freckles on her neck. How had you missed this?

The other authors aren’t as skilled as you. They haven’t studied the craft. They haven’t wrestled the demons of writerly doubt. They don’t know there’s a civil war raging between the semi-colon apologists and the semi-colon abolitionists. But if you’ve done your job well – if you’ve given them enough – theirs is easy. Because they don’t have to write it down.

They write only in their heads, and it’s only there that the story you started in your own finally finds completion.

The other authors finish what you started. And if they call you brilliant, it is their fault, too.

Thank God for the other writers.

 

 

 

Better Than You Think

The first time you ran into a wall it came as a surprise. Not because you didn’t believe in walls, but because you didn’t know they could appear in the middle of a sentence.

But you broke through it like the Kool-Aid Man, with the same broad smile, the same blatant disregard for plaster and paint. Because you were a writer and that’s what writers do. They persist.

And persist you did. Through the next wall and the next, until one day you hesitated.

Do other writers run into this many walls? you wondered

Writing used to be about ideas and dreams. Once, you were an architect with an empty skyline and a pocketful of girders. But something happened along the way. You were demoted to demolition. Oh, you found certain strange satisfaction in the power to destroy with the press of a button. But it didn’t last. Before long you were staring at ten thousand craters where a hundred buildings should be.

On that day, and with dust-choked despair, you thought The Thought That Must Not Be Thought.

“Maybe I’m not a writer after all.”

In that moment, the earth stopped spinning, the Walden woods grew dark, James Patterson put down his pen. Everything and everyone waited.

Would you walk away? Would this be the wall that defeats you? Would you give up your dream? Could you?

You sighed in resignation. No, not yet. Every other writer sighed in relief.

And the world resumed its spin.

You took stock.

This is not as easy as it once was.

You are not as good as you thought you were.

You have a lot to learn about writing. About re-writing. About trusting your instincts. About breaking bad habits.

You do not yet suffer in brilliance; you suffer because you’re not yet brilliant.

And so the wall looks at you. You look at the wall.

You lift your fingers, set them gently on the keyboard. And you begin again to write.

Meanwhile someone is watching from a little ways off. She looks a lot like you, only older. She smiles, then whispers, not quite loud enough for you to hear…

You’re better than you think you are.


Good Advice/Bad Advice

Most people will tell you there are two kinds of writing advice: Good Advice and Bad Advice. I’m here to tell you they’re the same thing.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with that ol’ “Kill Your Adverbs” chestnut. This is Good Advice. Adverbs, more often than not, are redundant. You don’t need to tell me the monkey screamed loudly. Screaming is, by its very nature, loud. Just let the monkey scream. We’ll cover our ears. Adverbs also tend to be evidence of lazy writing. If your context doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s anxiety, simply stating that he’s “pacing anxiously” because that’s what you want readers to imagine him doing will invariably feel like a cheat. “Kill Your Adverbs” is also Bad Advice. Some adverbs are actually quite pleasant, mannered and eager to please. Some writers (maybe you?) know how to wield adverbs in smart, clever ways. If you indiscriminately cut every word ending in “ly” out of adverbial fear, you might just kill your writing voice along with them (not to mention unintentional victims, such as the appropriately ironic, “ally”).

Surely “Show, Don’t Tell” is Good Advice. Right? Absolutely. Showing gives the reader a role to play in the story. Showing makes detectives of readers, providing them with contextual clues that lead them to discovery. There’s nothing more satisfying to a reader than discovery. When you engage readers in the space between the words, you tease them into an intimate relationship with the story. This is a Very Good Thing. Telling, on the other hand, steals the process of discovery. And stealing is a Very Bad Thing. Then again, “Show, Don’t Tell” is also Bad Advice. Simply stated – sometimes telling is exactly what’s needed on the page. It may be a matter of style, or a matter of voice. Perhaps telling is the best way to bring readers up to speed with a character or plot element. Telling isn’t inherently evil, and if you suddenly believe it is because someone on a blog somewhere said so in ALL CAPS, your writing might just suffer.

Let’s talk about prologues. Ugh. “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary.” They are. You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to say. You don’t need to tell me what happened a hundred years ago. Just get to it. Throw the reader into the middle of the action. (And you can forget the “Famous Author Uses Prologues” argument. Famous Author is already published. You’re not Famous Author.) Besides, we all know that most agents hate prologues. Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get one in the door? “Prologues Are Totally Unnecessary” is also Bad Advice. Your novel may be ten times better because of a prologue. A prologue might provide exactly the sort of tease or historical context to make the rest of the story shine. If your novel suffers without it, you need one. Cutting it simply because someone told you prologues are bad is a bad idea.

I could go on (even “Love Your Readers” can be bad advice), but I’m sure you get the point. Sometimes good advice is good, sometimes good advice is bad. So how do you know the difference? Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Here’s a clue – if your primary goal is to be published, you’re in a precarious position. You’ll be tempted to follow any ALL CAPS advice that claims to increase your chances of publication, whether or not your writing benefits. However, if your primary goal is to become a better writer, you won’t feel quite so much pressure to follow that advice, because you’re still discovering your voice, you’re still sorting through who you are on the page. This takes time, by the way. There may be shortcuts to publication (hey, it happens), but there are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. There is just writing.

I suppose I should close this post with some kind of summary. Fine. Let’s play with the original statement a bit. Feel free to put this on a t-shirt:

There are two kinds of writing advice: the kind that works for you and the kind that doesn’t. Listen to the former.