Friday, August 10, 2012

Post 101 - Where I Speak Honestly About Writing

Good rainy afternoon (well, it's raining here as I write this),

I'm feeling a little frustrated today. It's the kind of head-shaking frustration you feel when you catch a glimpse of someone else making not just mountains but Himalyas out of molehills. It's the kind of frustration because it's the sort of thing you know you're guilty of too, but at least this time you're observing it from afar, rather than experiencing it.

What I'm talking about today is a few bullet points about writing and editing. I will disclaim in advance that I may get a little vulgar, and that I will very likely make statements that rankle a few readers. I'm not doing either of those things to be malicious, I am doing both of those things to express how I feel.

Here now are those thoughts on writing and editing

Quit making it harder for yourself. Viewed from far enough away (zoomed out) writing can be scary. You have to tell a complete story, use characters, have a plot, show some talent, find an agent, get the story edited, get the story published and hope that people like it enough to pay money to read it. That can be A LOT of stress and A LOT of anxiety.

By that same token, if we look at another activity: cleaning a room in your house, we can just as easily find ourselves overwhelmed by the amount of mess, the perception of how long that's going to take, and how tired that will make us when we're all done -- we have to clear a path to the garbage can, take out the garbage, clear the counter, wipe the counters down, fold clothes, put away clothes, probably have to vacuum or wash the floor, recycle papers, take out the recycling, and then still have the energy to do all that in other rooms in the house.

Or we could change our perspective and do all in our powers to act like writing is just the act of putting one word down after another, and that cleaning a room is working in one 2-foot radius after another.

There's a lot of things you can worry about when you get into writing. You may even believe that some of the terms are serious and you should devote a lot of energy into warding them away. You may needle yourself into a panic attack over just how third-person your third-person point-of-view is, you may give yourself a headache because some blog somewhere said you can't use "of" more than thirty times in a chapter.

It's all bullshit. Horsefeathers. Nonsense. Overthinking, committed to pages and screens.

Burying yourself in jargon or "terms you totally read on the internets" and then hiding behind them as a shield or a crutch is just one more of the many ways NOT to get any writing done.

Seriously, do you think the reason a book got published is because they used a certain word a certain number of times between pages 30 and 47? How reasonable does it sound that a story sold thousands of copies because there was a very crafty application of gerunds in the middle of the book?

Conversely, do you think the reason your story didn't get published is because you split a few infinitives in chapter 6? Or because you have (gasp!) used a "filter word"? (we'll get there in a minute).

Your story likely didn't get published because:
1. The story itself is weak.
2. The characters are flat, uninteresting and fail to present the author's desired lens on the world
3. The market is saturated with stories of similar ilk.
4. The writing (the specific words on the page) is of a poor quality.
5. The story is fraught with errors big and small that an editor should have examined before you went ahead and submitted it

Yes, there are other reasons, but those are the big five I keep telling people about. They are NOT in any particular order (other than the order I typed them).

Basically, writing is sort of a test. Authors/creators test themselves to see if they can complete a goal - it takes time, discipline and skill...and at no time should they complicate that efforts. You don't see marathon-ers suddenly adding hurdles to the last six miles do you?

Tell the best story possible. Get help when you need it. Get an editor. Practice your craft (that means improving your writing as well as writing regularly).

Don't make this harder.

The problem isn't the finer points, the problem is what you do with them. Show of hands - how many people know what "filter words" are? Or "Deep POV"? Or "Sustained suspension?" Does anyone know if they're good or bad in storytelling? How about why they're good or bad?

The answer, by the way, is that those things AREN'T GOOD OR BAD. Filter words are just words. POV is just how the story is told. Sustained Suspension is how well you tell the story. That's all.

It boils down to what you do with these things, whether or not you let a weak story be told because of poor word choice, inconsistent or weak point of view, and weak commitment to world-building.

I edit what seems like ALL THE THINGS lately. My editorial calendar is dense, my schedule is so packed I don't even update Google Calendar so much anymore (yay for handwritten desk calendars), and there's conventions and panels to be at (GenCon in less than a week!). And not once in the 18 years I've been editing things has anyone (publishers, agents, other editors, writers, librarians, consumers) ever asked me one damned question about filter words. When I go out to a meal with other editors, they don't double-check my work to see that I've correctly flagged errors with suspension or point of view.

There's no reward, there's zero "bonus" for touting that you've eliminated such jargon-y traps from your work. The goal isn't to find alternatives to "touch" because "touch" is a filter word...the goal IS TO MAKE YOUR WRITING BETTER BY PICKING BETTER WORDS, WORDS THAT MORE CLOSELY RESEMBLE AND REFLECT THE WORLD OF THE PROTAGONIST OR CHARACTERS INVOLVED.

Here's where I get all rage-y.

Do you know why there are blog posts and blogs and podcasts about these little nuances in writing? Because people have to fill webspace and audiospace with words. Because repeating "Tell the best story the best way you can, taking the rules you need and discarding whatever doesn't serve you" would be a pain in the ass to hear over and over again (although it would totally help).

In the course of spitting out tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words, one of the goals you're trying to accomplish is to create a world where these characters exist, and the reader will follow one or more characters more closely than the others and see this created world through their eyes and experiences. (Those characters are protagonists and that created experience is the reaction to the plot). The method on how you accomplish this goal is ENTIRELY UP TO YOU.

There are authors who don't use a lot of punctuation or capitalization. I know this, because I've bought their books at my local bookstore -- so somehow they got published.
There are authors who (gasp!) use sentence fragments. I know this, because I've bought their books -- so somehow they got published.
There are even authors who break EVERY single grammatical rule I talk about and some I don't -- and I've bought their books at stores, so they've been published.

Forget the bullshit coward cop-out of "well those people are the exception to the rule, I'm not like them, I'm not special enough, waah waah" and seriously look at your writing. YOU CAN MAKE IT BETTER. THERE EXIST PEOPLE AND SERVICES YOU CAN AVAIL YOURSELF OF TO GET BETTER AT DOING THIS.

It has nothing to do with you sucking ass while other people are special. We're all capable of getting published. It might take some people longer, and they may have to work harder, but IT CAN BE DONE.

You're going to face critics, bullies, jerks, haters and idiots. What you do in response to that is what matters. Sometimes people aren't going to like what you do. There are LOADS of people who don't like this blog, scores of people who think I'm still a lying douche, quite a few professional people who find me obnoxious, heaps of folks who don't like my edits, and I'm sure an assload of people who don't like what I say on Twitter.

Prior to about three weeks ago, I'd totally let their vitriol and commentary keep me from writing, out of fear that every time I'd be doing something, they'd be upset. And I...didn't want to upset them, because I wanted everyone to approve of me, like me, and tell me I was doing a good job.

And then I had a few really intense things happen to me, and I got a big dose of reality mashed into my face. Now, I'm not seeking that approval (because in many cases, I'll never get it), and I cannot control if other people are upset over something I do or said - so long as I know I didn't write or do something intentionally to upset them, all I can do is accept that their reaction is their choice, and it's on them to own it and be with that.

While there is no shame in backing down, hanging up your typewriter ribbon and ceasing to dream of writing professionally (hey, it's hard and not everyone is cut out for it), there exists an equal amount of potential that you can succeed. Not to spite the haters or prove them wrong, but just because YOU want to succeed.

Personal story -- I spent YEARS (like 2 decades) doing things because I thought other people wanted me to. If I go see a doctor, my girlfriend won't leave me. If I curb partying, people in my life won't hate me -- I was doing these big huge tasks so that other people (who I couldn't control or influence) would make some kind of invisible decision (that I thought they were making, even though they weren't) and I'd get the happy results I wanted. 

And then I did those things, and didn't get the happy results. 

People were still upset, I was angry and resentful, I still lived in this pattern of shitty behavior. And yeah, I thought that made me a bad person. It's only recently that I've begun to do EVERYTHING for myself. The important distinction here is that I'm not being selfish, I'm not doing what I do to put down others, I'm doing what I do to make me the best me possible, because that's what I want. I'm sick of the pattern of shit, I'm tired of the fear and the doubts and the approval seeking, so what would happen if I'm the only approval I need? And what would happen if I didn't have to fall into that pattern, what's that like? 

Everything changed, that's what happened. I'm doing things for myself, and I'm benefiting. Yes, the haters still exist, but I don't go out of my way to bait and engage them. They...just cease to be the source of where I'm seeking approval. I approve, and therefore I keep doing what I doing. 

I think that empties my thought jar on the subject. This is very likely the last post I'll write before GenCon starts up. It's possible I'll have the ability to write something during the Convention, but I'm not expecting random folks to say "John, do you need a laptop?"

So we'll talk post-GenCon. You can follow me on Twitter if you want.

Have a great weekend.