Tuesday, October 02, 2012


Writing fiction, like any activity that needs a smidgeon of talent and a bit of skill, requires practice. You start wherever you are and you learn what you need to learn to get better, and then you do it until it gets better. 

(Pretty much that's how you approach almost anything, but today, we are talking about writing.)

Yes, there are naturals who have so much talent and innate ability that they hit the ground running and are leagues ahead of the rest of us; they are the exceptions to the rule. For every one of them, there are hordes of us, and those of us with lesser abilities have to do the work. Might not take the ten thousand hours, but it will take more than a few. 

You hammer out a skill, you sharpen it, you learn how to slice and dice with it, you add it to your tool chest, and then find another skill, and so on until you get enough tools to build a scenario that works.

There might be a may to skip this part, but I never found it. You have to put ass in chair and  hands to keyboard–or pencil or pen or chisel–and transmit words from your mind into your chosen medium. And the more, the better. 

How much is enough? I can't say, it's different for different people, but you'll know when you are getting closer. I realized I was putting enough words through my hands when I knew that I mis-typed something because it felt wrong under my fingers. 

I'm probably written nine or ten million words by now, and starting to get the hang of it.

You also have to keep practicing or you lose chops, but there comes a point where you have done enough work so it starts to pay off. 

Until then, it is time in grade. You have do it. 

And you have to be willing to look bad in the process, because that's also part of it. When you are a newbie, you don't know what you don't know, and more often than not, the way you find out is when somebody points to it: Hey, dumb ass! You just reinvented the wheel, which, you know, didn't need to be reinvented. Or: You do realize you can't hiss the word 'damn,' don't you? Or: What, you got exclamation-point poisoning ... ?

No way around this, I ever found, either. Been there, said that, looked ignorant. Because I was ignorant. No crime in that, but there is a cure.

It's not enough to take classes, get a fine leather notebook, or associate with writers. Knew a woman once decided she wanted to be a writer. She hung out with writers, was married to a writer, and she sat down and cranked out a novel. With more than a little ghostly help from her husband, it was good enough to get sold, but when she took it to one of her writer-friends and asked for a cover quote, the response wasn't what she wanted: I'm sorry, but I can't put my name on this book and say I loved it. Because I didn't, and face it, it's not very good, is it ... ?

Ow! Ouch!

She wanted to skip that part and be good from the git-go. And don't we all? Not how it works. So many of the so-called overnight success stories come from years of effort. That's the rule. If you are the exception, I got nothing for you, have at it.

Eventually, the writer who wasn't very good learned what she needed and got better at it. It's not rocket science, but in her case, it was kind of like learning only a tiny bit of a foreign language, and developing a terrific accent in the process. You sound like you know more than you do when native-speakers hear it, and you are apt to get overwhelmed when they respond. Fake it until you make it sometimes works, but you can get caught out, and that stings.

I'm a writer because I hang out with writers? Not so.

You are a writer because you write. You have to do the work.

Here's the trick, such that it is: Figure out what you want to do, what kind of writing, then set out to learn as much as you can about how to do it. Practice, practice, and then practice some more, and eventually, if you keep at it, you will get better. Maybe you get to great, maybe not, but the willingness to do the work will let you improve and maybe get to where you can be as good as you can be. It is true that perspiration makes up for a lack of inspiration, at least to a degree.

And do have fun. Because if you can't, why bother?

1 comment:

Justin said...

You hit the nail so hard, it's been reduced to a bunch of metal shavings.
Thanks, as always. You've deleted more words than I've ever typed out, Steve, and your choosing to pass on wisdom is such a gift to young writers like me.
Okay. Now I'll take my lips off your ass.