|The Write Stuff
|"Writing the best
stories of which you are capable."
The Write Stuff
by Barry B. Longyear
Contents and Sample Chapters:
PART III: What Is A Story? 154
PART IV: The Research, 263
V: The Writing, 360
PART VI: The Rewriting, 432
We’re going to look at wrong stuff first for the same reason that instructional courses in fungus appreciation begin by identifying the varieties of mushrooms that will kill you. If you’re dead, there’s not much point in taking the rest of the course. If you are nibbling some of those career killers right now, this will be your opportunity to stop. Similarly, if your original choices in approaching a writing career take all of the creativity, fulfillment, meaning, potential, communication, importance, and fun out of it, you’d be better off taking a well paying job that you really hate. The bars, back alleys, and graveyards are filled with men and women—published writers—who achieved the goal of publication, made money at it, cranked out yards of middling to good writing, and hated every minute of it. And that constituency is minuscule compared to the endless multitudes who wanted to write but were ground into nothingness by misdirection, frustration, paralysis, and self-sabotage.
like fun, doesn’t it? So, let’s get
started identifying the fungus that will kill your writing.
I want to write like So-and-so
This is the trap that catches the greatest majority of those suddenly inspired to write. Perhaps you’ve just finished reading J. R. R. Tolkien, Alex Haley, Guy Sajer, James Baldwin, Harry Harrison, Jr., or Agatha Christie and a tiny little spark ignites in the back of your brain. You don’t poke at it or examine it—it might extinguish. But it seems to be drawing you toward blank screens and keyboards, and many of you interpret this feeling as a “need to write.” Time after time we have uncovered such in workshops and writing seminars, and when they are forced to examine their motivations for writing, much of it boils down to “I really want to write like So-and-so.”
It’s actually a compliment to the author. “I really liked that book. That author really spoke to me.” Why is this a problem? Aside from the troubling fact that So-and-so is already writing So-and-so’s stories, even if you did rip off some characters and ape a certain style, setting, and structure, about the best you could do is to turn out mediocre similarities. So-and-so’s writing is appealing to you, probably, because that author was writing his or her own stories—not someone else’s. Even if you do avoid the legal and critical entanglements, writing to emulate another author completely misses the point of writing. You’ll be trying to write stories you’d like reading. You won’t be writing the stories you need to write: Your stories. At the end, even if you do manage to drive yourself into publication and financial success writing someone else’s stories, which almost never happens, you’ll be a failure as a writer, and you’ll know it.
Whatever You Want
suppose the one thing sillier than
modeling your writing after a writer you like is modeling your writing
writers you don’t like. Who would do a moronic thing like that?
thousands of aspiring writers, that’s who.
“Guideline Wisdom.” You’ve seen it in writing books, heard it in creative writing courses, and pondered it when it appeared in magazine and publishing house submission guidelines: “Read several issues of our magazine (or check out our publishing line at the bookstore), see what we’re buying, go forth and do likewise.”
From aping writers we like to aping writers we don’t like much, the next step down to gut-wrenching obscurity is to mold our efforts after the opinions of persons who don’t write, edit, publish, or even read much, and putting all of our personal relationships at risk at the same time.
Creativity. Everyone has it to one degree or another. If parents, peer pressure, and teachers haven’t crushed it by the time we get through the compulsory education system, we continue the process ourselves by following the poisonous recommendations mentioned above. You don’t need creativity to get published. There are those who actually do make it into print writing other persons’ stuff, doing just what writing teachers, friends, editors, and editorial guidelines tell them to do. A very few even make a pretty good living at it, if all you look at is money. The ending, however, is bitter. As one writer late in his career once put it, “I did exactly what they told me, and I never got to write my own stories. Now I don’t think I can.”
Assignment: Why Write?
This truth may not set you free, but it might save you from wasting what time and talent you have. If you find yourself putting down, “I need to write,” throw out your list and start over. Why do you “need to write”? What exactly will the writing get you? What change will it make in you? Write your list, rewrite your list, throw it away and do it over again and again until you know you have been honest with yourself. In the next chapter, we’ll see if you managed to come up with an answer that won’t destroy you.
Why do you want to be a writer? The most common answers to that question are: "I don't know; I just do," "I don't know, I just want to," and "I don't know; I just need to write." They're all half right: they don't know. More accurately, they are not aware of their reasons. One person takes a need for approval and hides it behind "I don't know." Yeah, that person knows, and so do you. In an intense workshop environment it takes some time but with some prodding it is often possible to poke through the smoke and find the actual reasons.
In "Why Write?" in the previous chapter, I asked you to write down what it is you hope writing will do for you. If every fantasy about your writing were to come true, what would they be? And, of course, that's exactly what you did, right?
Someone didn't do the assignment. Astounding.
For those of you who did the homework, skip to the next heading, "Becoming Somebody or Nobody" below. For those who didn't do the homework, continue with "Self-help and self-delusion."
Self-help and Self-delusion
If you simply read through the materials in this course, you will come out the other end feeling better about yourself, as well as more knowledgeable about fiction writing and career writing, as well as more hopeful about your own writing future. This feeling will last for perhaps a couple of hours, or a couple of days if you are really delusional. However, you won't be even a micron closer to achieving either the possibilities that are open to you through writing or achieving the goals you are so reluctant to commit to paper.
Feeling good feels good, and I have no objection to it in moderation. But to get in touch with those pieces of yourself that make up you, much less assemble and tune them into becoming your personal writing dynamo, it is first necessary to get in touch with those pieces of yourself that make up you. It is not a comfortable process. It is, however, the foundation upon which the remainder of this edifice that is your publishing future is to be built.
The first pieces of you we're going to look for are your expectations, your hopes, your dreams about writing and what creating the best stories of which you are capable might do for you. Write them down. If you don't, you might ask yourself what the point is in working a course whose author/instructor you don't respect enough to perform the assignments. That's how all those lazy fungus appreciation students keep winding up dead. Do the assignments. Write down what you hope writing will do for you.
"Well, my reasons might sound silly or selfish."
It doesn't matter. Write them down. You don't have to show them to anyone. This isn't something you're putting down for generations of future literature students to ponder. This is information for you.
Writing is, among other things, a lifelong process of self-discovery. If you don't want to know who you are, you've just thrown away your main writing and story-telling machine as well as your fuel supply. You're embarrassed to write down your reasons, even for yourself?
Cut the lace off your panties and do the work!
"Oh, but I'm afraid it will look so self-serving or pumped up."
No kidding. Look, here are the reasons I had when I began writing many years ago: I wanted approval, fame, and success. Success for me meant money and more approval and more fame, for should I at long last become a success in my own eyes, all of my problems would be solved, this great wound I have in my soul would be healed, and I would live happily ever after. I wanted to get laid, too. Now, was that so hard?
Write down your expectations or you might as well stop reading here, because going farther would just be a waste of time and eyestrain.
Over the years I have asked writers, pros and beginners alike, what their personal expectations of writing were when they first started out. Their answers fall into the same four general categories. The first, and easily the largest, category was the one I was in when I first started out. By becoming writers, by being regarded as writers, this will somehow make up for some deficiency in their lives. The discarded, the lost, the troubled, and the tortured flock to writing hoping that by filling blank sheets of paper with enough words someday they might hit the jackpot, achieve writing success, and that will take care of everything. To quote a few of those who have gone before you about their secret and not-so-secret fantasies about what a writing career might bring them:
"Applause. I want to hear some applause in my life."
"I want to become somebody."
"Money, babes, fast cars, and more money!"
"Respect. I would get the respect of the persons I admire."
"I want to see my name in print wherever I go."
"My family would be proud of me."
"I'd get to rub elbows with famous people."
"I want what I do to influence people."
"I want never to be forgotten."
"I want to become a part of something—to belong."
"I want to entertain people, make them laugh."
"It would be, when I speak, everybody listens."
"I'd finally be able to prove to everyone that I'm not a loser."
They are all different ways of saying the same thing: becoming a writer will make up for what I am not to myself.
The second category is made up of those who would use writing and writing success as escapes; as though being a writer is some kind of drug through which awareness of one's own demons can be dulled or, perhaps, even driven away.
"It's where I hide from the world."
"The monsters I deal with in stories are a lot less frightening than the real ones out there."
"If I can write well enough to keep my head filled with detail and pay for locks on the doors, it'll be all the success I'll ever need."
They are all different ways of saying, if I hide beneath my blanket at night, keep my eyes shut real tight, and whistle my tune really loud, the monsters can't get me. Before we go into the third category, a word about monsters:
What To Do With Monsters
Understand that there are no good reasons or bad reasons to become a writer, and there's nothing wrong with having problems. As a matter of fact and long experience, every problem you've ever had, all the scars you've ever acquired, are literary treasures in your piggy bank to be drawn upon when needed for story inspiration, writing, and characterization purposes. It's the individual who never experienced adversity who is in big trouble. What can a person who has never had any problems write about that would be of any use or interest to me? Computer manuals? Pillsbury Doughboy commercials?
Getting down on the mat and grappling hammer and tongs with outside obstacles by vanquishing your inner demons is the stuff of great fiction. And real demons and monsters are always the best because so many of us carry and have to deal with similar critters. Cherish your monsters, get to know them well, and then put them to work for you writing stories.
Monsters, however, make terrible career counselors. They are not in touch with the real world. My little demon told me that if I became a writing success, all my problems would be solved. My conception of success became focused exclusively on things outside of myself: sales, contracts, reviews, awards, and even Hollywood. And I actually achieved them all.
There is no devastation quite as profound as achieving all your goals and finding out you read the rule book incorrectly—that all those sales and awards haven't changed a single thing inside. And, as to using a writing career as an escape from mental monsters, there are real monsters stalking the halls of publishing that make even the gods tremble.
Your demons? There are only the facts of reality; Fire plus water equals fizzle. If you aren't already somebody to yourself, taking on writing isn't going to change that even if a Nobel Prize for literature drops in your lap. Every round of applause you get as a writer feels really good for awhile, and then it wears off and you discover to your dismay that nothing's changed and you are still you. As a special treat, when you at last realize that all you have accomplished hasn't made you into a whole person, you discover that the hole you are standing in is deeper than when you started.
For the escape artists, as you're being eaten alive by the cannibals of publishing comes the realization that not only is being a writer no protection from your own demons, believing so left you wide open for monsters who have put criminal indifference on a short-term cash-and-carry basis. I'll never forget when it finally got through to me that in publishing we all really aren't in this together serving a sacred mission to place my exquisite little stories before an eager readership. Strange. As I wrote that, I blushed. It still bothers me to have had that particular scale scraped from my eyes.
The Strange Ones
The third category of reasons for writing are put forward by a highly peculiar minority who are apparently healthy and well-adjusted.
"I am so full of love I simply want to share myself and my good fortune with others."
"I like to play with my imagination and I want playmates: readers."
"I love entertaining."
Of course, my first reaction to seeing the like in a seminar is to judge such persons to be extreme escape artists so far down the hole of denial that there is no conceivable hope of turning them back. But it turns out there are healthy, well-adjusted persons in the world and a number of them choose to write. The ones I think I've met professionally and in seminars are interested mostly in inspirational stuff, how-tos on everything from gardening to getting your head screwed on straight, rose-garden mysteries, some academic tomes, and children's stories. There is at least one science fiction writer I know who fits into this category.
By and large this group looks upon writing as a means to further ends that have nothing to do with therapy. The physical and mental act of writing itself is not important. It's "okay," or "fun," or even "a bother," but they can take it or leave it. Although I can't relate to this group myself, their approach appears to be grounded in reality and relatively risk free. These are the folks who, upon receiving a rejection in the mail, turn around and send the piece right out to another editor without smashing a window, going into a funk, getting into an argument, beating themselves up, or anything. I don't know how they do it. They may be from another planet.
Kunta Kinte, Where Are You?
Fourth and last, there is this group who have just enough of a grip on reality to know where writing successfully fits in. By itself writing is not going to fix anything in your physical, mental, or economic life. It can, however, begin to fill that bottomless pit in your soul sometimes referred to as a "need for creative fulfillment," or "expressing yourself." Actually, it's neither. The things we write, the things we publish, are like marking trees or leaving sign in the forest. We are urging the other members of our pack, our tribe, our nation to track us down and find us. The first member of the tribe we want to track us down and find us is ourselves.
Self-discovery. In this last, select little group, the primary purpose of writing is not to communicate with "the reader," whoever he or she might be. The primary purpose of writing, particularly fiction writing, is to communicate with yourself. If enough of the other members of your tribe pick up on the vibes and want to go along for the ride, that is the part of this occupation called an economically viable career. It is not, however, the purpose—the reason—for the writing.
If you focus on increasing the numbers of tribal members who are going along for the ride, instead of focusing on finding yourself, you wind up writing for other tribes and never do get around to writing your own stories and finding your own tribe (go ahead, call it a "readership" if it makes you feel better).
You have to earn your way into this fourth group. Turn your emotional issues over to those who can do something about them (but take plenty of notes). Shake out your expectations and fantasies until all you have left for reasons to write are: writing your own stories and having endless outrageous roller-coaster rides doing so.
If approval, fame, applause, and riches follow, then that will be nice, but not necessary. It's choosing to make those things necessary that changes our focus and sets us up for failure.
"So, instead of finding out what people want and then producing that, you're telling us to find our own unique stories, then run them up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes?"
Not exactly. Write your own stories. Running it up the flagpole is the job of the publisher's marketing department. And the reason for doing it? As one writer put it to me: "It's a ride, man. It is a ride."
Which Bus Did You Take?
Is this an exciting vision of a meaningful and rewarding future, or is this a prescription for flaming ruin and humiliating failure? I mean, it says it right there in the editorial guidelines: "Read several issues of our publication to see what we're buying, go forth and do likewise."
Editors wouldn't say that if they didn't mean it, would they? Would they?
Early in my career, I cornered a science fiction book editor at a party and put that very question to him. He didn't say yes or no. Instead, he talked about a story by a new author that he had recently purchased that he thought was terrific. It wasn't in an area he particularly liked—an awful lot of medieval sword swinging and such—"But," he said, "I had to buy this one." Then he looked at me and said, "Barry, you know what I'm really looking for? I'm looking for different."
"Different how?" I asked.
"If I knew the answer to that, it wouldn't be different."
With that cryptic comment, I figured he must be getting into Zen or some killer weed. What he was saying, though, finally became clear to me after I had been working with this same issue with beginners at writers workshops.
Every human is incomprehensibly complex and unique. The difference between any two humans is greater than the difference between any two species on this planet. Everything you have ever experienced: the hurts, the joys, the defeats, the victories, the loves and hates, the lessons, the anti-lessons, the dreams, the lusts, and the universe of surrounding events and how you have filtered and processed the information, all of this has contributed to making you a freak in a world of freaks.
While the other freaks are attempting to hide their differences and be like "everybody else," your advantage is that you know you are different. If you become that difference, embrace, explore and utilize it, you will be playing to your strength: You are, after all, you. The others, attempting to dress up the stories they want to tell to make them look like another Star Wars or another Harry Potter or another something else, will be playing to their weaknesses, because they are not the storytellers they are attempting to imitate.
Working The Story Mines
For a moment, pretend you are an editor mining the low-grade sameness of the slush pile, looking for stories to buy. After you've opened and scanned a couple of hundred submissions, you can usually pick out the writer the author of a particular piece is attempting to emulate. It all gets very discouraging, especially when the authors being imitated weren't all that hot to begin with. You develop a rhythm after awhile. Open an envelope, scan the first couple of pages looking for something to hang a rejection on, stuff it in the return envelope along with "We regret your submission doesn't meet our current requirements," and so on.
And then, once every blue moon, the editor is on page thirty of a manuscript, sitting on the edge of his chair, and has no idea how he got there. The story—well, it's not exactly what they've been buying. In fact, it's not exactly like anything the editor has ever seen before. A nugget, though. Usually the editor hates this particular kind of experimental sub genre, and look at the verb tense for crying out loud. And these characters—what darkness! In fact there is not a thing about this story that fits within the publication's editorial guidelines. That decided, the editor sees he's on page fifty and begins making a note to bring this story into conference for possible purchase—and he might just resign if it isn't accepted!
Different. That doesn't mean to be different for the sake of being different. All it means is being yourself: writing your own stories your own way. A fellow I knew back when he was publishing short fiction, when it came time for him to write a book he wanted to write something unlike anything that had ever been written before in the genre. He was extremely well read, and he knew what had gone on before. When I was sent my copy of the unbound galleys of his novel to read for a blurb, I began reading and had to admit after thirty pages that he had come up with something unique. I was totally lost.
Not doing anything like others is the same as doing everything like them: they are still controlling what you are doing and how your are doing it. You are not being you. You're attempting to operate a machine designed to be run on high-octane gasoline on spit and dish water.
A manuscript skillfully written by a human doing his or her own story, utilizing that unique filter of that human's own imagination and experience, will always stand out. But there is a price above and beyond that of finding that you are brown shoes at a tuxedo convention. To be yourself is a risk like no other. It can be very frightening.
I taught writing for a couple of horror-filled semesters at the local branch of the University of Maine. There were several bright moments, however, and one of them began when one of the students called in to say she couldn't make it to class. No explanation. A week later, she came into the tiny office I shared with about a hundred other part time faculty, handed me a sheaf of typewritten pages, and commanded, "Read that."
No fool I, the reading commenced. In brief, the reason she hadn't been able to make it to class was because she had gotten the results on a blood test her doctor had ordered a few days earlier. The doctor had called to tell her that my student had only weeks to live. The ride is over. The ref is about to blow the whistle.
She was crushed. A recovering addict, she had cleaned up her act, turned her life around, gone back to college, and up until that doctor called, she had a future bright with promise. After all she had struggled through, after all she had accomplished, this. After hanging up the phone, she did a very wise thing that I recommend to you for your next distress: she grabbed a keyboard and began putting her feelings on paper.
Brothers and sisters, I am not exaggerating when I say those pages crackled with outrage at the unfairness of it all. Then, all of the might-have-beens, the sadness misting me up several times, and I have a high-mist threshold. At last she reached a turning point: what to do with the time she had left: Wallow in self-pity or become what she could in the time left? Acceptance.
I was emotionally drained as I handed the document back to her. She took the manuscript, smiled, and said, "Right after I finished that, the phone rang. It was the doctor. My blood test had gotten mixed up with another one of the doctor's patients. I'm fine."
Ohmigod! All that and a happy ending, too!
I insisted that, when class started, she read this out to the class. She was reluctant, and I insisted until her arm cracked and she agreed. She read it out and absolutely stunned every one of the students. That young woman had taken herself, her vulnerable, raw, twitching self, and put it on the paper with her own words, her own way. It was one of the few pieces of writing I've ever come across that actually moved me to envy.
Of course, we all insisted that she act to get the thing published, and she said there were a few things she wanted to polish up in the story first. We couldn't wait.
A week later she read the revised version to the class, and it was one, long, solid slab of utility grade spruce. It was less than ordinary. It was tedious. Boring. What she had done in her effort to "polish up" the story was to take every single honest expression of emotion and either eliminate it or couch it in terms she considered less revealing. The result was the death of a great story.
takes guts—real courage—to put your very own self on those pages where
anyone can look at them and drop hasty criticisms, make unkind remarks,
issue a flat indifferent rejection. Do you have what it takes? No one
until it's put to the test, but here is the price for not being
writing your own stories: You will never do the best writing of which
capable. Even if you do sell your stories, they won't feel right
won't be right. The pieces of you that were supposed to have been on
pages will be missing. . . .
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