Please note that this series is written in fun. If you don’t like hints of sarcasm and hyperbole don’t read this series. If you find the title offensive, don’t read this series. However, if you understand that this is a great time to be a writer of fiction and feel like a lone happy person in a tsunami of fear, read on.
I recently spoke to an agent interested in a general fiction book I’d written who wanted me to spend five years revising it. Not five weeks or five months, but five YEARS. I thought she was insane. She thought I wasn’t committed to excellence and told me of another client of hers who spent that amount of time on one book and became an Oprah magazine book pick.
I like Oprah, but there’s no way I’m going to spend my creative energy trying to rewrite something just to please the sensibilities of someone else. The problem with the agent’s suggestion was that she was completely clueless as to how stories are created. Many writers fall into this trap. I’ve met numerous writers who will spend months polishing three chapters to enter into a contest or others who’ve spent ten to twenty years on one ‘masterpiece’ because writing is supposed to be painful,
“Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.” Charles Bukowski
“Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Red Smith
“I’d never encourage anyone to be a writer. It’s too hard.” Eudora Welty
(Cue in ominous music and the voice of Vincent Price) Discouragement, pain, heartbreak, obscurity, that’s the writer’s lot so be FOREWARNED. Most of this is baloney because the one thing many people forget is that great writers know how to lie (they’re storytellers remember?) And it serves a purpose because writers need to feel important, which leads me to:
Crazy Lesson #2
Artists believe they can create at their own pace; Writers believe they have to create slowly.
There are three reasons for this insanity—the education system, the industry and writers themselves.
The Education System
Visual artists have an advantage. I’ve envied that advantage all my life. If someone asked to see my mother’s work, all she had to do was go to her portfolio or point to something on the wall and within seconds her work could be seen. Not so with me. First, few people ever ask to see my work and I know why. There’s a bigger investment of time and attention. Even if it is a five page short story someone has to set energy aside to invest in my work. This is why art professors and writing professors view creativity in different ways—time isn’t an issue for art teachers the way it is for writing teachers. Here’s when ‘time’ became a factor in the writer’s creative process.
An art professor can go through fifty art students’ work and give an opinion. A writing professor doesn’t have that luxury. So to help save time and their eyesight, they decided to equate effort (i.e. time spent) with quality. If you were the type of student bursting with ideas and wanted to hand in essays and stories every week they’d likely say: “Are you sure you’re finished?” “Did you really do your best?” “You don’t want to be like those hack writers who type out garbage, go back and take your time.” Somehow the saying “True writing is rewriting” has become the guideline by which most writers are measured.
And unfortunately these statements feed the Doubt Demon in your head and you start to question your process. I know. I’ve been there. But the basic fact is these instructors don’t want to have too many papers to grade. Granted there are great teachers (thanks Mr. D!) who encourage productivity, but most don’t ( and some are struggling and heartbroken writers themselves so they think this is the truth that needs to be taught). So writing slow is an advantage to the education system, but not to the writer who only learns by writing—a lot.
In the past, publishers believed that books from the same author competed against each other so they encouraged writers to produce a limited number–one or two (at most)–a year. (I’m speaking in generalities. I know that in category fiction this isn’t true). Some agents also believed this, but for an entirely different reason: Slow writers equal less work. I have nothing against agents as a whole, but I do have a problem with CCK Agents which I like to dub as Creativity/Career Killing Agents. I once sent four books (with synopses and proposals) to an agent who sat on them for six months before telling me that she was only going to focus on selling them one at a time. Here’s a little secret, the more books you sell the more money you make.
So not only was I having my creativity squelched my income was dropping too. Needless to say, I (amicably) parted ways, went back to writing and submitting (working with an IP lawyer to look over my contracts) and saw my creativity and income level rise again (The first time this happened I didn’t learn my lesson. I had to have two more times of income dropping and creativity flat line before I made the connection). Fortunately, in the new industry (epublishing, print on demand, audio) the reality of the power of creativity and productivity is clearly evident. Numerous books from one author don’t compete with each other and crumble a writer’s career, they build and strengthen it.
The slow writer has to depend on luck (and we all know how promiscuous that lady is). The prolific author doesn’t have to worry about luck, because as they improve their craft they build an audience by planting many seeds. The more work they have available the more opportunities they give readers to find them. The one book method means you must be discovered and loved immediately.
Now I’m not saying you have to write fast (do whatever makes you happy). I’m just saying that if you do, don’t feel bad or try to change for anyone.
Yes, we’re to blame too. We’ve created our own madness. Why?
Because many of us are desperate for validation because we’ve lost our mystique. When my mother says I’m an artist or a trained medical illustrator, people are impressed.
When I say that I’m a writer, people say things like:
“My five year old writes stories too.”
“I have an idea I could give you to write and we could split the profits.”
“No really. What do you do for a living?”
No one is impressed because ANYONE can write. To gain back some semblance of respect many authors have to make writing appear as something difficult and IMPORTANT. They have to make it sound like a tedious job. To their detriment many aspiring authors will feel guilty and work hard until they hate writing and think ‘Ah yes! This is what being a writer is all about.’
That’s insane. Let me tell you what’s hard. I’ve had many interesting experiences in my life and I’ll share a few. Telling someone that his daughter is going to die is hard; wiping up vomit from three sick kids in a hot camp latrine is hard; listening to a woman screaming on the other end of a 911 call as her husband beats her is hard. I’ve done all three and believe me I’d rather be writing.
How to Regain Your Sanity
Thank goodness there’s hope. Here are four options.
Keep the Curtain Closed
Don’t let anyone tell you what your process should be. Are you a plotter or panster? Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you outline or use a spreadsheet? It doesn’t matter. Do whatever you need to so you can get the work done. If you write fast, that’s fine. If you write slow, that’s fine too. Either way don’t feel superior or inferior because your method is not important. Your ideal is whatever works for you and helps you to speed past the Doubt Demon, gives a rude gesture to the Critic and gets you to keep your creativity fresh and fun. All that matters is the finished product.
Don’t Allow Trespassers
Only work with people who will keep their filthy paws off your creative process. It’s none of their business how you work. That means family, friends, critique partners, editors, agents, publicists and other writers. I trust my editors and a beta reader because they know their place. They make comments on the draft(s) or final product, but that’s it. If anyone tells you how you should work, what your process should be or puts you down in anyway, move on.
Realize it’s not important
I’m sorry, but the process of creation doesn’t matter as much as people want it to. All professional writers know this. Whether you feel brilliant or stupid you can come up with great scenes. I’ve written novels when I was under the weather, during family crises, deaths, stress and times of great joy. Thankfully, my readers won’t be able to tell which book was written when. The final product doesn’t depend on your moods, your process or your environment.
It’s true in all arts.
My mother is not a desk artist. She doesn’t like sitting too long at the drafting table and easel. A friend of hers could spend two hours drawing a single line, but their work is comparable. You wouldn’t be able to tell which took two months and which took two weeks (I’ve never seen them comparing notes). Each of them do their work in their own way and that’s it.
Creativity is a mystical thing. Let your subconscious take over and let the magic happen.
This is the best way to keep sane. Lie with a smile. Give people the stories they want to hear. Tell them the struggle you experienced trying to come up with a plot, how you cried when you killed off the turtle, how it took you two years to get through a scene. I don’t care what you say, as long as you’re happy and entertaining people. Lie, like the rest of us. If you’re asked to do a rewrite don’t send it in the next day, let it sit for several weeks, then hand it in. Life will be easier that way.
Lie, lie, lie to everyone, except to yourself. You know the truth; you know your process and what works. Keep the magic alive—you won’t regret it.
Copyright © 2011 Dara Girard