Short but sweet, this post is brought to you compliments of special guest James Maxey. James has posted here on MW before, and if we’re lucky he’ll post again; he’s one of the smartest writers I know and he spends a lot of time thinking about what makes things work. I’ve learned quite a bit from listening to him and I know you will too, so without anymore blathering on my part, here’s James.
These are the most important truths of writing I’ve learned to date. At various points in the past, I’ve posted all these rules in various configurations, but, these are my writing mantras, and the whole point of a mantra is that it’s something you repeat:
1. The worst novel you put on paper is better than the best novel you have in your head.
Suppose you sit down and bang out a manuscript that is, in your judgment, utter crap. Guess what? Other people can read crap. They can go through your manuscript and tell you what they like and didn’t like. On the other hand, that golden, gleaming, perfect novel that exists only inside your skull is completely unreadable by anyone other than yourself.
2. Here. Now.
These words have saved me time and time again. When I get the most lost in a story it’s often because I can’t see the trees because of the forest. I’m getting distracted by the big picture, worried about whether I’m sharing enough information about what happened twenty years before the story began, or properly laying the groundwork for what will happen ten chapters from now. Screw the past and the future. When you sit down to write, focus on the immediate spot in time and space that your character occupies in the scene at hand. Make the moment concrete, and when it’s done, move on to the next one. Do this a couple of hundred times, and whoah, you’ve written a book!
3: To write a good novel, you must first write a bad novel.
First drafts aren’t supposed to be great all the way through. You’ve got to just slog ahead and write some stuff wrong so that you can later go back and write it right. Or, maybe you’ll never get it right; a bad novel is still priceless. I’ve written nine novels to date. I’ve sold and published four, two more will either be sold or published this year, and three of these will never be published because they aren’t at the level of craftmanship I now demand of myself. But, I couldn’t have written the six good novels if I hadn’t written the three bad ones. I had to write the bad novels A: so that I could prove to myself I had the discipline to finish the tasks I started B: so that I could inflict them upon critique groups that went on to give me useful advice on plotting, character development, style, pacing, dialogue, etc., and C: so that I could learn more about the types of stuff I was lousy at writing so that I could better understand the sort of stuff I was good at.
4: Never look back.
When writing my first novel, I kept getting caught in the trap of changing my mind about stuff I’d already written and going back and revising and reworking before I got to the end. Then, when I did get some forward momentum going, I’d change my mind on something and have to go back and revise again. It took me two damn years to finish that first book. I got better on my second and third books, gaining the willpower not to go back and revise while I was still writing, but lacking the willpower or wisdom to not go back and read what I’d already written, or to show what I’d already written to other people. By book four, I hit the formula that has worked for me on all subsequent books: I don’t show any of the novel to anyone until I’ve completed the first draft. I don’t even show it to myself; I forbid myself to go back and read the previously written chapters, since I can’t read without editing them. I’ve never reached the end of a book without gaining a dozen insights in the last three chapters about the kinds of stuff I should have put in my first three chapters to make the book feel like a closing circle. You aren’t going to know every thing that you have to include in your first chapter until you’ve written your last chapter. The surest, fastest way to get to that last chapter is just to keep pushing forward, keep working in your newer, better ideas as if you’ve been writing with them in mind all along, and keep that hunger to show the book to someone building until you write “the end.”
5. Little by little, the work gets done.
For the most part, when I set a word count goal for a week, I meet that goal. But, it’s also definitely not unheard of for me to blow a word count goal, sometimes severely. Inky black pools of despair open before me during these times as I wonder just what ever made me think I was any good at this game.
Almost always, I’m not missing my goal due to some internal barrier to creativity. I’m missing it because there are 1,000 things in this world that are more fun and/or vital to do in my “free” time. I’ll skip a night of writing because a friend wants to go out to dinner, or skip a Saturday because one of my neices is having a birthday party cookout and the whole family is invited. I’ll miss a Sunday afternoon in the spring because the sky is flawless blue and the air is a perfect 72 degrees and it’s been months since my girlfriend and I have gone bike riding.
So then I start feeling guilt. I’m skipping writing to go to dinner? I’m skipping writing to enjoy sunshine? Are these such rare events that I should toss aside my pursuit of art? Is the sun slated to stop shining tomorrow and this is my last chance ever to enjoy it? Well, maybe it is. Who knows? So when all my big blocks of the time disappear, for happy reasons or sad, I start making bargains. I take my laptop and type 500 words while my girlfriend drives us to Asheboro. I get up 10 minutes earlier than normal and type two foggy paragraphs. I sneak back to my room between panels at a science fiction con and type like a demon for 45 minutes. The more moments I steal, the easier it is to transition back into stealing hours.
Steal the moments.
Little by little the work gets done.