Thursday, June 09, 2011

How to write a book - Part One - Managing Expectations

(Since the move I know I’ve been neglecting this blog, so I thought I’d finally get around to writing this series…it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while and hopefully some people will find it helpful. Let me know what you think.)

One of the weird things about writing is that just about everyone thinks they can do it right out of the gate. People assume that because they know how to write (with a small ‘w’) they assume that they can Write (with a capital ‘W’).

The thing that everyone seems to miss is that while ‘writing’ is a skill 99.9% of us have had since the age of six or seven… being a storyteller is completely different. Becoming a ‘real’ writer is something you really have to work at.

It’s strange because we all accept that the ability to hold a pencil and make marks on paper doesn’t mean we can draw… but we somehow think that just because we can put words on paper means we can write. We get our big idea, sit in front of the computer and expect to churn out a masterpiece on our first attempt. If you think about this objectively, you realize that this is about as likely as grabbing a chisel and a lump of marble and creating Michelangelo’s David on your first go.

The simple fact of the matter is that the first time you try anything you’re going to be bad at it.

Now you may be wondering why I’m telling you this. Believe me, it’s not because I’m trying to discourage you. I’m just letting you know, from my own personal experience, that giving yourself permission to suck is the most important step in any artist’s career.

For example, Stephen King was 27 when his first novel was released and it was an absolutely massive hit. In fact, from the outside he appears to be the perfect example of an overnight success…except for the slight issue of his writing career beginning around twenty years earlier when he wrote a short story for his mom. Like 99.9% of all successful writers, he spent a couple of decades working in obscurity, learning his craft and collecting masses of rejection slips before he hit it big with Carrie.

That’s what writing is like. You don’t crap out a masterpiece the first time. You don’t even crap out something ‘passable’ the first time. Put simply, it’s just about impossible to be competent, never mind great at something if you’ve never done it before.

I wrote my first story when I was around seven years old. Since then I’ve written literally millions of words in a mixture of terrible short stories, embarrassing novellas and abandoned novels. In between, I went to College and got my A-Level in English Language and then went on to University and got my Bachelor’s degree in English Language, Literature and Writing Studies.

In other words, I have about twenty years writing experience under my belt, including six years of formal instruction… and all that really did was move me from ‘terrible’ to ‘mildly competent’.

Most of learning to write has to be drawn from personal experience. Sure, you can become technically competent from writing classes and ‘How To’ books (and I highly recommend going to school for writing if that’s what you want to do)…but you learn to write convincing characters from studying people. You learn to write good dialogue by listening to people talk and, above all, you learn how to structure a good story by reading thousands of good ones.

Most importantly, you write.

Now, I’d say that at least 50% of the people reading this are thinking I’m full of shit, or nodding sagely because they agree, safe in the knowledge that none of this applies to them because they’re the rare genius who knows exactly what they’re doing. One or two of them may even be right…after all, a literary genius like Dickens or Shakespeare does come along once every hundred years or so… but most of us mere mortals don’t have genius level talent dropped into our lap.

Put simply, we have to suck.


Because when we write something that’s really bad…and, most importantly acknowledge that it’s really bad…we can figure out why, so the next thing we write is a little bit better. Once we repeat this a few thousand times, we may even produce something that someone will actually enjoy reading.

If we don’t allow ourselves to suck, best case scenario, we’ll write a few chapters and give up. Worst case, we convince ourselves that the bilge we’re writing really is genius…and then we get to be one of those ridiculous internet blowhards who’s only skill in storytelling comes from justifying why everyone else thinks their work is awful.

… because the real problem is that it really is that easy to convince ourselves that we’re geniuses, that we’re just way ahead of our time and the reason everyone else says we’re shit is because they obviously aren’t smart enough to ‘get’ our amazing work. After all, it’s a comfortable place to be… why accept that you’re a novice and still learning your chops, when you can be a genius surrounded by morons who wouldn’t know good literature if it dropped into their lap.

If you’re one of those people…enjoy playing the tragically misunderstood artist and enjoy your time in obscurity.

The rest of us will do things the hard way. While you recline in your turtleneck, cursing the world and churning out crap no-one will ever want to read, we’ll accept that we’re novice writers and spend our time actually working on our craft and learning all we can, so that, hopefully, one day we’ll be good enough so people will actually want to read what we write.

There’s an easy way and a hard way… and the difference between the two is the hard way works.

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