“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
– Stephen King
Often, I suspect the wisdom we gain in life is only applicable to our own lives.
Most people never figure that out. Most people learn things in life and feel the need to forcefully impart their wisdom on everyone, as if their personal lessons were universally pertinent.
Can you indulge me for a moment? Let me be an armchair philosopher?
Life is like a river. But we’re not sharing our rivers with other travelers. Each individual person on earth is flowing down their own personal stream. Nobody accompanies us. We’re in kayaks. We’re on our own. We have rocks and rapids and obstacles in our way and we have to deal with that. Now, if someone else meets us on the shoreline, and they have successfully navigated their own river, and they wish to divulge some of the lessons they’ve learned, they need to be careful in how they advise us. Remember, all our rivers are different. What works to save your life in one set of whitewater might not work for a different person, on a different river, where the rapids are a lot bigger and there are bears along the rocks.
What’s more, we all wish we could go back and sail our rivers again. Oh, man, if only I could apply all the stuff know today, back 100 miles upstream! Knowing what I know now, those challenges I faced back there would have been so much easier to overcome! I wouldn’t have said that stupid thing. I would have talked to that person sooner. I never would have talked to that person at all! If only I knew then what I know now.
Ah, youth is wasted on the young.
We lament the wisdom it took us too long to gain and feel foolish when someone else says, “You big dummy. We’re the same age and I learned that shit 15 years ago.”
Well, hoo-fucking-ray for you. That does me no good whatsoever. Want a cookie? Asshole?
Allow me to reiterate something I have said before – after nearly 30 years, I know far too little about the craft of writing to presume to give advice to anyone. Therefore, the thoughts I am about to share are not advice for other writers, rather they are gentle reminders for myself, of what works for me. Perchance if such reminders benefit you and inform your writing, all the better. But I’m not like those other jackasses who presume their personal truths are universal truths. Wise insights in my life could prove nothing but foolish naivety if applied to yours. These are things I’ve learned along my own river. Attempting to follow these suggestions may give you smooth sailing, or it may dash you against the rocks. I urge you to follow only with discretion.
Remember, the wisdom I have gained in life is only applicable to my own life. Be smart in what – and whom – you choose to emulate.
The oldest advice in the book. Remember the line in Rocky Balboa – “A fighter fights.” Well, a writer writes. I have often tried to explain to non-writers that a great deal behind the act of writing consists of thinking. Perhaps “thinking” is a poor choice of word. “Visualizing” is more accurate. Sometimes, you just need to sit quietly and imagine the story. See it unfold before you. Listen to the characters. Watch what they’re doing. Ask them what happens next. Talk to them. Don’t write down anything. Just observe. Visualize. Imagine. Dream. But, sooner or later, you have to stop quietly visualizing the story and actually start the physical action of getting words on paper. When I first dreamed of being a writer, I spent far too much time daydreaming stories and far too little time actually writing them down. My ambition in life was to be a “writer of novels” not a “daydreamer of novels”. Want to be a writer? Stop daydreaming and start writing. Real fucking simple. A writer writes.
2. Don’t Struggle to Emulate Your Idols
This is a big one. “Struggle” is the operative word. When you are learning to write (a process that should be lifelong and never cease) it is fine to look up to writers you admire and attempt to emulate their writing methodologies, but never follow anything if it’s a struggle. Remember, the whole point is to learn how to write with ease. When you are “on the right path” the writing will be effortless. It will flow and undulate and roll gently down the creekbed like a gentle stream. If it’s moving like tar and sticking to everything and making a huge mess, you’re not on the proper path. When I started writing, I was very guilty of this. All writers have little idiosyncrasies to help them write. Some people like to outline first. Some people like to write in loud places like coffeeshops. Some people have to use a typewriter. Some people write best with a pen. Some people have to have a specific brand of tea and sit in their den at the same hour everyday. Whatever it happens to be, we all have our quirks. Many authors, when they are starting out, discover these little habits by finding interviews with their favorite authors, and they try to mimic those things. That’s fine, if those habits help you out. But most of the time, they won’t. They will only hinder you. So, find your own routines. If you are struggling to emulate someone else and it’s not working, let it go. Find your own voice. Find your own customs.
3. Structure is Everything
Notice that I did not use the word “outlining”. I used the word “structure”. My choice of words was careful and deliberate. Outlining is the basic framework. Outlining is the overview. I equate the outline with a blueprint. The “structure” is the actual rebar inside your concrete. The “structure” is the framework of your house. Blueprints are important. Outlines are important. But the rebar, the framework, the structure is where the construction of a story really begins to come together. Structure is everything. Build that right. Have a solid structure or all the beautiful work you put on top of it is going to collapse. In storytelling I equate structure with things like plot holes, the flow of the story, knowing what scenes to write as exposition and which to write as action. These things are the structure. Get them correct! Just like in architecture, building out those details comes after the outline, but before the writing.
4. Follow the Tone
This is a hard lesson to learn. I still struggle with this one from time to time. Never fight the natural tone and cadence and poetry of your story. There have been stories I’ve worked on where I imagined them with a certain tone, but as I began to write the story, it took on a life of its own and the characters began to speak and react and as I observed their conversations, I began to realize the tone I envisioned was all wrong. Maybe you are picturing a comedic tone and the story ends up adopting a more rollicking adventure tone. You think you’re writing the Muppets, but you’re actually writing The Goonies. You think you’re writing Hamlet, but it turns into The Crow. In other words, you may find the tone is close to what you thought it would be, but it’s not quite what you expected. When that happens, go with it. Don’t fight it. Follow the tone. Yes, it can be frustrating because the story is not conforming to your “vision” of what it was meant to be, but that’s not the fault of the story. That’s your fault for not paying attention when you discovered the idea! Don’t punish the story by forcing it to conform with your misguided vision. Trust the story. Have faith that it knows where it’s going. It knows how it should sound. It knows what it needs to be. Give it the tone it is telling you it has. Don’t attempt to dictate a different tone and wrangle something else upon it.
5. Writer’s Block Means you Wrote the Wrong Thing
“People are always saying ‘Well, what do we do about a sudden blockage in your writing? What if you have a blockage, and you don’t know what to do about it?’ Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, isn’t it? In the middle of writing something, you go blank and your mind says: ‘No, that’s it.’ Okay. You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying, ‘I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.’ If you’ve got writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.”
– Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury was so correct about this simple idea. This advice was so profound to me, that it’s really the one idea that inspired me compose this entire commentary in the first place, because it so beautifully applied to my situation. I always say I never get “writer’s block” I get “writer’s branch” – meaning I never get blocked on moving forward, instead I have too many ideas, to many branches of the river, and I don’t know which one to take. Remember the river analogy? Well, if writing is like a river, then writer’s block is like taking the wrong branch of the river. When you go down a deadend fork in the stream, you don’t start paddling against the sand, trying to push your boat up and over the riverbank. No. You circle back. Go upstream and figure out where you made that wrong turn and start over from there. For years, when I would have difficulty in writing something, I’d try to plow my way through it. Writer’s block isn’t caused by where you are, it’s caused by where you were. The mistake isn’t right in front of you. The mistake is 3 pages back. Where did you go wrong? Where did you start to drift off track? That’s where you messed up. Backtrack a little and find it. Go back to the last pages where you felt, “Yeah, this is really good.” The part of your story where that feeling stops, is probably where you made the mistake. Of course, if you obey the previous two rules – Structure is everything and follow the tone, you’ll never go down the wrong branch in the first place.
6. And with the Power of Conviction, There is no Sacrifice
“It’s a do or die situation. We will be invincible!”
– Pat Benetar
That’s a song I always loved, but I never truly understood the lyrics until recently.
“And with the power of conviction, there is no sacrifice.”
I realized that line embodies what it means to have devotion to your writing. Many writers will tell you that you need to make “sacrifices” in order to write. Come to terms with being a hermit. Accept it. Your social life is going to make Yoda’s hovel on Dagobah look like the heyday of Studio 54. Remember that you’re going to have to say, “No.” No, you can’t go to that concert with your friends. You need to stay home and write. No, you can’t start dating that person. You need to stay home and write. No, you can’t go check out that movie. You need to stay home and write. No, you can’t go out drinking. You need to stay home and write. I’ve never been drunk in my life, so that’s not a sacrifice for me. Turning down these opportunities requires a commitment and dedication and discipline that few people possess. You need to come to terms with those sacrifices. You need to accept the fact that you have to sometimes disappear for weeks or even months at a time. You are not doing it right until your friends start looking for your name in the obituaries instead of their phone books. You’re not doing it right until everyone stops calling altogether. But I suddenly realized, by definition, a “sacrifice” is something that is difficult to give up. When you are truly dedicated to writing, those things are no longer sacrifices. When you transcend those desires and you reach the point where you love writing so much, you don’t want to do anything else. You no longer perceive yourself as giving things up. The power of your conviction to your writing becomes so dominant, that you no longer care about the things you are tossing aside. There is no longer any sense of sacrifice. And with the power of conviction, there is no sacrifice. You will be invincible.
7. Compose Poignant Verisimilitude
Doesn’t matter if it’s an entire paragraph or a single sentence, peppering that writing with poignant verisimilitude is vital. Those are the moments that resonate long after a book is shut.
There are other things, to be sure. But, those seven things are the big ones. Those are the ones I wish I had understood when I was 14 years old. Notice I didn’t say I wish I had been told these things when I was 14 years old. Being “told” something is useless without understanding. I chose the word “understood” very carefully. We often spend our lives being told bits of wisdom or insight, but it may require years before it finally sinks in and we understand it. Being “told” something and “understanding” something are very different things. I had already heard a lot of this advice at the age of 14, but I never fully understood the meaning until many years later. Thus, I reiterate, I wish I had understood these things when I was 14 years old.
Why didn’t I think of that sooner?
“There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal’, the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally.”
– Harlan Ellison