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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing

You know what this needs?  Zombies.
WARNING: This article (badly) needs to be re-written into multiple articles.  I wrote this when I was new to blogging and I didn't yet understand the rules of internet attention spans.  It is very, very, VERY long.  Please read at your own risk.

[This is the whole of six consecutive articles, so it's a little long.  Kind of like Emmanuelle Lewis is a little short.]

writ•ing [rahy-ting] noun
1. the act of a person or thing that writes.
2. written form: to commit one's thoughts to writing.
3. that which is written; characters or matter written with a pen or the like: His writing is illegible.
4. such characters or matter with respect to style, kind,quality, etc.
5. an inscription.
6. a letter.
7. any written or printed paper, as a document or deed.
8. literary or musical style, form, quality, technique, etc.: Her writing is stilted.
9. a literary composition or production.
10. the profession of a writer: He turned to writing at an early age.
11. the Writings, Hagiographa.

“Writing?” he asks. “What does that actually mean?”

I pause. What DOES that mean? Because it sure as hell means a lot more than the act of a person that writes. I’m so used to stupid plebs assuming they know what I mean when I say “writing,” and being so very, very wrong about their assumptions. It has literally never occurred to me that someone might actually ask.

“So,” I say. “It has come to this.” I am instantly aware of the dramatic tension. I feel the cool press of the Glock in my hand, and in a swift move and a sharp report, it’s all over. I wonder briefly if it is smoke or steam that rises from the gushing vermillion hole in his chest.

If anyone asks, I’ll tell them he asked me to read his fanfic that he wrote in high school. That seriously happens like twice a week. Bullets are on the monthly budget. But just to be on the safe side, I better work out an answer to the question so no one sees something untoward when they examine the trail of bodies left in my wake.

Part 1-   Writers keep using that word.  They do not think it means what most think it means.

You mean I'll write better essays if I don't just sit down and write them in one sitting?
The problem with the word “writing” is that most writers use that word differently than other people, most creative writers use it differently than other writers, and most fiction writers use it slightly differently than creative writers of other genres. The definition above is from dictionary dot com, and it will not help us. Definition eight, down in the dregs of definition limbo (where angels fear to tread) perhaps comes closest, but even this is woefully insufficient for the kind of damage writers are talking about to psyche and social life when they use the term “writing.” These definitions don’t talk about the caffeine addictions, the muses, the moments of despair, or how writers know they might be writing something good when they have completely forgotten having written the last three pages.

Let’s start with the basics. Forget creative writers with their namby pamby artsy-fartsy crap, running around and trying to figure out if they want to be the kind of writer who does talk shows or gets Nobel prizes for literature before they’ve even submitted to a magazine. Let’s just talk writers in general. They could be professional writers, or they could be amateur writers, but what they are NOT—and let me be absolutely clear about this—is people who only WANT to be writers, dream of being writers, or think they are writers. These people might have some stunning “I don’t do that” sort of stories to share with you after you read them this article. (Or preferably after you send them the link because I REALLY need the page hits.) Some may have fanciful tales and tell you "I don't really see that as part of writing..." and you'll wonder if your old pal Chris has played you false.

However, investigate these fantastic claims a little further, and you’ll find that those people aren’t really writing. I’m not kidding, if you poke at those wildly contrary stories for a good Perry Mason minute, you’re going to discover those people like to think about themselves as writers, but they usually aren’t actually doing much writing that might be put out in the world. You will find that for writers that are serious about writing, and perhaps more importantly, who are serious about making their writing be something that other people would want to read, there’s no real way of getting around a few basics of what is writing, and what isn’t writing. A couple of very special snowflakes might have a talent they recognize is freakishly weird and makes them an X-man, but those people realize almost instantly that they have an extremely odd quirk, that theirs is not a common experience, and that they would be doing a disservice to other writers to try to tell them they should expect the same. In thirty years, I have never met an exception to this. Though I have met a few people who can side step some of the writing fundamentals, each of them seemed keenly aware that this was unusual and did not encourage others to try it.

So what separates the writers from the not-writers? So glad you asked!  I will now write a billion pages about it.

I was told I would be paid by the word.
Bummer huh?
When your basic literate human talks about writing they mean the moment of actual writing. If they have to write a paper (let’s say for a college class) they would say that they begin the paper when their first word shows up on the page at three in the morning, five scant hours before the paper is due. After two break downs, three panic attacks, and a cruise through the university website to see how hard it is to drop a class after deadline, they finally hook themselves up with a Five-Hour Energy intravenous drip and begin working. They write the first line of the paper, and at that moment they consider themselves to be writing. For these people, our definitions up above are sufficient.

“Isn’t this true of everyone?” you ask. Not even close. Writers do this whole thing completely differently. For a writer this entire landscape is part of a larger mosaic. Oh sure they probably still abuse stimulants, often have breakdowns and panic attacks and most of them dick around playing Minesweeper until the deadline is elbow deep up their ass. But a “writer” recognizes that this is all part of the process. A writer wears these moments of panic and distress like old, comfortable shoes. As the panic attack sets in they say “Oh splendid, the panic attack portion of the evening has begun! Things are going right according to schedule.” Such a writer knows that the moment between the first round of vomiting and needing the oxygen mask is when their real work begins. Or maybe they work well when they’re not under deadline and have steadily plugged away. Regardless of what their process is, they know it, understand it, and anticipate it.

And you wouldn’t believe how much fucking mileage you can get out of this. Your boss can burst in, find you playing World of Warcraft and if you have set yourself up right with this whole “process” thing, get quality work in under deadline, and you are VERY good at acting you can totally say “I’m actually writing” with a straight face.

Just slamming out our masters thesis here.
And I do mean slammin.
Seriously. (I mean don’t go around inviting your boss to raid with you during office hours or anything. Just know that you have one last ace up your sleeve if you need it.) This has happened to people I know. It works. You have to have the reputation for on-time excellence first, but if you do...

This is partially because a writer (who knows their process and how it works) will turn around in the eleventh hour and pull it out, suddenly appearing from an office with finger cramps, caffeine psychosis, and a draft that isn’t half bad for what is expected. The other part is because, it’s sort of true. I wasn’t just making up the most ludicrous example I could think of. I wrote a lot of papers while my gnome Warlock farmed Fel Cloth. I didn’t physically write those papers while playing W.O.W. I would have gotten terrible grades if I'd tried that, but when I was still percolating those ideas in my head it actually often helped me to keep part of my brain busy doing something repetitive, mostly mindless, but also kind of fun. Two hours of WOW could probably generate a dozen really good ideas that I would jot down on a notepad next to my computer, and then unpack later when I’d put Esk to bed, and it was time to get some work done.

Writing is a process. When writers talk about writing, they are talking about the whole process, not just the part of the process where ink or pixels actually start to spill.

Our hypothetical student who sits down and writes their paper from beginning to end will probably end up with comments along the order of: “Your paper lacked focus,” “I think your real thesis statement is hiding in your conclusion,” and “Holy BALLS, did you get your introduction off the back of a cereal box, or what?” This is because despite the sleek and sexy depiction of writers in popular media (especially writer action heroes in those summer blockbusters you always see) no one sits down and writes something from beginning to end—even the people that actually sort of do.

Writing is a process, and most of that process isn’t actually what is commonly thought of as writing. Writers know this process. They respect this process. They understand it, and they use it. And even when they can do certain steps of it SO FUCKING FAST that it looks like they just sat down and wrote something from beginning to end, they are actually engaged in this process every time they write.

When writers talk about writing, they may be using definitions 1-11 just to keep you on your toes, but what they are probably talking about is the whole crazy process from beginning to end.


Part 2- The Shoulders of Giants

Missing from this chart are bitter tears, screaming to heaven
for help, and cocaine.
So now that you know writing is a process, what IS the process? I’m not just going to regurgitate the Flower/Hayes cognitive model at you, although I do think prewriting, drafting, peer review, revising, and editing are important. The problem is this is designed mostly for teaching undergraduate academic composition. But just to be clear about it, if you were a student in one of my 98 classes I would be swinging from the overhead projectors like a rabid monkey and jamming sparklers up my ass if I thought it would help you get your attention long enough to learn those five terms, so you don’t sit down and write a paper from start to finish in the three hours before class...so I wouldn’t say it’s useless either.

The trouble with codifying this process so discretely is that it’s mostly designed to help college students write a paper—an expository essay that probably has a thesis and some topic sentences and stuff and so if you’re doing that you might say to yourself, “Okay, self. I am now done with my pre-writing. What is the next step in the writing process.” It’s also probably designed to help people who haven’t written before not to end up having an “episode” with their hands wrapped around their dorm-mate’s ADD medication and blithering something about “Youth in Asia.” For most writers this would be—in the words of Jeffery Rush—“more like GUIDELINES.” While writers will do these things, they almost always express themselves as individually as the the writers themselves.

A creative writer might seem to do almost no prewriting, but then if you look more closely, you will find that they just wrote a short story based on another piece they did five years ago and that it’s about this topic they’ve been thinking about for five years. So really, they DID do some prewriting. They’re just a long way from idea wheels, T graphs, and “Okay class, let’s free-write for TEN minutes about abortion! YAY!!”

NOT FUCKING OPTIONAL!
Another example would be revision. Someone under deadline like a journalist learns to revise as they're writing. When they finish, their “revision” usually consists of running their eyes down the pagew while they say: “Hmmmyeahlooksgood.” That doesn’t mean they didn’t turn in good copy. It means they have learned their craft well enough to do that aspect of writing almost instantly--often so quickly that it happens within their head as the words are forming. Their reflexes with writing are SO fast they boarder on precognition--they are the Spidermen (and Spiderwomen) of the writing world. "My journalist sense is tingling--oh, I was about to write an adverb!" By contrast a creative writer has different demands and may need to completely rewrite something multiple times.

Also as a writer develops personally, these steps become more organic; they bleed together and mix into a recursive goulash. Some writers (like me) like to sit down and do some revision to get them in the mood of writing before they generate new content. Some pour out new drafts when they’re in emotional phases in their lives and go back and revise them when they’re in intellectual phases. Kurt Vonnegut would rewrite every single page over and over again, until that ONE page was exactly what he wanted, and then go on to the next page.

So it’s not like that model isn't useful...we just need to be sure we give a lot of latitude for different kinds of writing, and understand that Writing About Writing is a blog that focuses on creative writing and specifically fiction. I don’t want all my tech writer friends to hire a prostitute to lure me out into the alley for a a quickie, where I discover that what is really going to happen is the “Tech Writers Represent” smack down. (If any of you would like to chime in on what the process looks like to you, that would be awesome.) I also think that as metacognition, it’s specifically limiting in a few key ways—used primarily in high school and college, this model assumes a certain amount of process has already gone on, and I’ll be damned if that part doesn’t need to be spelled out explicitly. It also seems to be designed mostly to get you to the end of writing an essay with a grade that doesn’t suck. That’s not really the goal of real writers.

So here is my somewhat altered writing process for the real writer with emphasis on the creative fiction writer:

“Hey so what do you like writing?” I ask my next-seat-neighbor.

“Mostly sci-fi and fantasy,” Willbehuge answers. “I totally have three sci-fi books already written. And I'm writing this fantasy epic that I think will be six books--or maybe eight if I milk it. I just need to finish this degree, go clean them up a little, and then I’m good to go to find an agent.”

“Oh cool,” I say. “Me too. Well, not with the practically ready manuscripts. Mine need major revisions, but I like sci-fi and fantasy. Well, I kind of like the classics more than contemporary stuff, but any time there’s a really GOOD sci-fi or fantasy book I am in heaven. Have you read any Murakame?”

“Who?” Willbehuge asks.

“Sputnik Sweetheart, 1Q84, Wind Up Bird…”

“Never heard of him,”

I blink. “Oh…well, I guess he can be a little esoteric sometimes. How about Le Guin?”

“Who?”

This time, when I blink, my eyes have to shift for a moment into anime so that they can be in one of those strange letterboxes with JUST my eyes and make that WK-CHK WK-CHK noise as it happens. “Ursala Le Guin. Probably the best science fiction writer since Orwell. Disposessed. Lathe of Heaven. Left Hand of Darkness.”

“I think I saw Lathe of Heaven as a movie,” Willbehuge says. “It had that dude from Willard in it.”

“Okay," I say starting to feel like I'm in the cheese shop skit. "How about George Martin?

Blank stare.

“Song of Ice and Fire? Probably the best fantasy series since Lord of the Rings? ”

“I don’t really read much, to tell you the truth. I’m not that into it.”

WK-CHK WK-CHK


You think I’m kidding. Or maybe you’ve actually been in a Creative Writing program, and you know the horrifying truth that I’m not. Half to 75 percent of my class didn’t like reading. These are people who think they are writers, want to be writers, dream of being writers and admit quite openly that they don’t like reading. Most just flat out say it, and even though I heard it over and over again, it always just stunned me. The conversation I just showed you happened—with little variation—no less than six times in the three years I was there.

These people are completely baffling to me. People going into film don’t NOT watch movies. Actors don’t avoid plays. Musicians don’t eschew music. And no one would take someone so narcissistic as to only produce those arts, without a constant process of intake, seriously for a moment.  But for some reason in writing it's ubiquitous. What the in the name of Zues’s BUTTHOLE makes so many writers that don’t like reading like they somehow don't have anything to do with each other.

           So....how's that writing career going?                                                                
Actually I think there IS an answer. This is my personal, anecdotal, not-supported-by-my-local-sociology-department theory. Writing is the one art form almost everyone knows how to do with a fair degree of proficiency. It’s the one art form that pretty much every high school graduate has trained in for about twelve years. Think about it--you have to go to a special school to get that much training in any other art form. In a world where everyone wants to do the talk show circuit and be rich and famous, suddenly the DREAMS of being a famous something bubble up. No garage band? Too shy to act? Never were much of a painter? How about writing? You can do that! So it becomes this...magnet. Like all the miscellaneous delusions of grandeur file themselves under "writer." And when you realize how many people have a book idea in their head or a couple of chapters tucked away or really think someday they’re going to scribble out a bestseller, you can feel very cold and lonely also having the same delusions. But believe me when I tell you that if you are actually writing, and reading, you have it all on these guys. These people know how to write like most people know how to sing along with the radio. It doesn't make them Andrea Bocelli. It means they’re literate and they like the IDEA of being a writer. Don’t worry about them. You do what you love, and let them have their garage band that is “totally gonna make it!” Check back with them when they're thirty-five, have two kids and a career and ask them how it's going. You'll feel much better. No REALLY.

Because here’s the insane thing. Most of them don’t even like to WRITE. Seriously I sat next to these people in every class I took. “Yeah, I don’t really do much writing except for class." "I haven't really written for fun since high school." They’re in a goddamned creative writing degree talking about how they don’t like to write very much. What. The. HELL???!!!!

The insane, but ubiquitous proclivity of writers who don't fricken read is why reading is on this list. Now you may be thinking to yourself that reading and writing are different skills. They’re different classes. You do them at different times. What’s wrong with this guy? He’s got to be stopped! Grab your spear and gladius. TONIGHT, WE DINE IN OAKLAND!!!

BOCANOVA'S GOOD RIGHT???  I'VE HEARD GREAT THINGS ABOUT THAT PLACE!
JACK LONDON SQUARE ISN'T TOO FAR FROM HERE!
Photo of 300.  Warner Bros.


Slow down there, turbo. I can defend this argument. Besides, I think if we rethought the connection between reading and writing, we’d have fewer yahoos that think they’re going to be big, famous sci-fi writers without knowing who Le Guin is.

Now I know if you asked people if reading and writing are the same thing, you’ll get some funny looks, but guess what happens if you ask a writer how to be a good writer? Any writer? Anywhere? At any time? Ever? They will mention two things without fail. Oh sure, they will give you some advice. If you ask another writer, they’ll give you some different advice. Write in the morning. Write at night. Get up and dress for work before you write so you feel like it’s a real job. Write in the nude so you feel free. Write upside down with one of those astronaut pens so you're as uncomfortable as possible. Write in the most ergonomically perfect position so you can do it for hours. Looking out the window is totally writing.  Looking out the window keeps you from actually writing.  Write from the heart. Write from an outline. Write only when you have something to say. Write to figure out what is in your heart. Write in black ink. Never write in black ink. Never write about kids. Kids make great fodder. Never write about alcoholics. Alcoholism is a rich topic. Never write about ethics. Dude are you actually TRYING to completely dismiss Russian lit?

Well, you get the idea.

But here’s what you’re going to notice after you’re done giggling at the process of ritual/fetish focused writers who think they aren’t really good writers but their special pen is doing all the work because Edgar Allen Poe touched it once, and Gary Gygax used it to sign a fan’s t-shirt. As you look down your list, all these writers will not have agreed on anything. Not that water is wet or the color of the sky, and especially not about what it takes to be a good writer.

With two exceptions.

Yep.  Totally writing.
Suddenly, these writers who agree on almost nothing, agree on these two things. Every single one of them will have mentioned these two things. Write a lot. Read a lot.

All writers read. Every one of them. I’m not just talking about creative fiction writers. Tech writers. Academic writers. Professional writers. Journalists. All of them read like mad crazy. They all have 1337 reading skills that you wouldn’t believe. And now I’m going to tell you one of the worst kept secrets of all of writerdom that somehow continues to need to be screamed from a megaphone into the ears of every young writer: those that read the most...write the best. Almost without fail or question. And while some writers read far less than others, almost any successful writer reads a lot. A tech writer might not read a lot of fiction, and a journalist might not read much beyond other journalists, but it is impossible to become sensitive to what is good writing without reading, and reading a lot. You have to have that practice seeing the difference between good and bad writing, and it’s not something you can sit down and do in an afternoon. It takes developing an ear. It takes reading great writing. It takes reading horrible writing. It takes reading enough that the difference between great and horrible is something you can intuit within your own words.

Joe and Jane Averagehead can pick up a writing instrument and write without reading a lot. In some cases, if they've had practice, they can write a competent piece of prose. But anyone who wants to be a serious writer, certainly anyone who wants to move others with their writing or scratch out a living with creative forms, must read. They must read like words are water, sipping and drinking deeply throughout every single day.

Reading is as much a part of the writing process as learning the alphabet. Writers read so much that a casual observer wouldn’t be able to tell if books or oxygen were more important to them. Maybe people want to say that it is an extremely open ended way to look at prewriting or something, but it desperately, desperately needs to be said over and over and over again. Reading is part of the writing process. And skipping this part of the process makes for some extremely mediocre writing.

Writers read.

And we can't just read our own stuff over and over again?
This writing stuff blows.

Part 3-  Sponging

“So what’s your story about?” I ask.

“Oh it’s about this TOTALLY insane party,” Willbehuge says, “and this guy who gets so totally wasted on weed and jello shots. And he’s, like, wandering around, looking for his girlfriend but he can’t find her. And there’s all these really fucked up things going on like people going down on each other RIGHT THERE and stuff. And then he finds out she sneaked off to one of the bedrooms. With another GIRL! Isn’t that just insane?”

“Is it autobiographical?” I ask.

“Well, I mean…yeah. But I totally write it in third person, so I can describe what happens in the bedroom.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I can’t decide if I should have the guy join them or not. I mean…I totally did in real life, totally—I’m not even lying—but, I mean, I want it to be realistic.”

“A plot might not hurt either.”

“What do you mean...?”

When a high school or college student is talking about prewriting, they’re doing things like “talking with your partner for five minutes” or “making an idea wheel.” This is great if you are writing an expository essay on something you haven’t thought much about before, and expository writers may even continue using some of these techniques. However, I must admit that I shudder to think of some PhD drawing little circles in colored pencils with main ideas written in them before pounding out a literary essay for a peer reviewed journal. It’s just too horrible to contemplate.

For a fiction writer, things are a little different. Prewriting might involve having written a similar thing before, having a life experience, months of research, reading extensively, and of course doing stuff...as a writer. That’s why we’re going to call this “sponging” instead of prewriting because it’s part of a larger mosaic of what might loosely be called prewriting. If it helps you to think of this as a protracted form of prewriting, go right ahead, but I might make a few jokes about calcium deposits in your brain.

I returned to college at thirty, and I had to work to pay the bills, so I wasn’t able to take 15 units a semester and knock it out in four years like some of my classmates. I also wasn’t out on my own for the first time in my life. By the time I got through junior college and was sitting in my creative writing classes, I was in there with people literally half my age. And while they were fun to look at—especially in boots—and especially in skirts and boots—their writing often focused on their own penultimate experiences, which involved things like drugs and getting drunk. They thought it was very edgy to have their characters get high and say fuck a lot—some even (*gasp*) wrote about kissing same sex partners and the funny feelings that gave them in the pants. Oh my. The risqué edginess of it all. (It’s best if you read the last sentence like Ben Stein.) Mostly though, the instructors, me, and the one other returning student in the class would get glassy eyed whenever someone shared one of these stories. Not that there aren’t great stories about getting drunk and high and kissing same sex people, but they don’t rely just on the shock value to be interesting. These things don’t shock people over about 23 because they’re old news. I’ve been to Burning Man; in order to even get me to BLINK, your story would have to be about taking a wrong turn because you’re too high off a Hippy Flip to think straight, and walking into a tent with a full-blown gay orgy, and having a man insist on massaging your package while he gives you directions to where you are actually trying to go.

Willy's not impressed.
The problem is that most instructors don’t really understand how to deal with this type. Somewhere between "Get over yourself!" and "This isn't actually a STORY," is what I think they want to say, but they don't quite know how to articulate it nicely. They end up giving crap advice like “Go live life!", thinking that by twenty-five this shit should be out of the students' systems; however, this is forgetting that their job is to teach writing instead of passing judgement on content and that there are marvelous examples of great fiction about washing dishes or cleaning the house or the most banal of activities. Worse, the 20 year old who hears, “This is blasé; go live a little” thinks, “Shit, what do I have to do, get hooked on heroin??

Of course getting hooked on heroin makes it tough to actually write.

What the instructors aren’t sharing is that it isn’t the events that are important. The student needs to return to life with the tools of a writer and soak in life from that entirely new perspective. Yes, we may have to wait to have our first real break up, or the first death that really hits us where we live. But these experiences don’t MAKE us good writers; they merely enrich the perceptions of those who already are.

Here I come to save the day!
Fortunately Dorothea Brande can come to our rescue (again). You don’t have to have particularly extreme experiences, you just have to have them while absorbing the world as a writer. You don’t need to scale Kilimanjaro, become a raging alcoholic, or have a threesome on crack cocaine...while driving a jet plane...into a mountain...with bears...that are armed with lasers in order to have “experienced life” and thus be ready to write. What you have to do is be like a sponge, soaking up the world from a writer’s point of view. No one cares about another college freshman at their first frat party, but a writer can make that a literary masterpiece. Pulling a poignant moment from something banal or finding beauty in its opposite is why we read writers—we delight in their ability to see the world from a completely different perspective. That’s why artists are so WEIRD!! And that’s why we love them. We revel in how they make us look at something we’ve passed a thousand times a day with a sense of beauty and wonder. Yes, we will probably read someone’s account of their Russian Roulette orgy atop of Mt. Everest while having their teeth pulled without Novocain and fighting Ugandan rebels on crack. We will read that because it’s a new perspective on life. A party with “hella weed” is not a new perspective on life.

However, what a good writer can do is create that same sense of wonder from the Everest dental slaughter orgy while their character is doing nothing more interesting than cleaning out a cat box. THAT is what you have to do. Go absorb the world through a writer’s eye. Sponge every last detail up and look for things no one else can see in the most ordinary of circumstances.

Working in cannery isn’t interesting. But John Steinbeck made it a masterpiece. You don’t have to go work in a cannery to be a writer, but you do have to experience the world through a writer’s eyes and sponge up the experiences. You can work a manual labor job as a writer. Go to a party as a writer. Watch a movie as a writer. Virtually anything you can do, you can also do it by walking into the situation like a big writer sponge. As you accumulate these moments, you become better prepared when you sit down to write something. You collect a pool of meaningful experiences to draw on that can be reconfigured, recombined, and redesigned to fit what you are doing.

You can totally watch TV all day and be a great writer.
Oh I promise....
Now, I want to warn you…you are coming close to a place that is strong with the Dark Side of the writer-force. Be careful you must. You can do things as a writer that will make you a better writer, including watch movies and stuff, but a writer deals in words. A writer deals in the combinations of words and the reorganization of those twenty-six letters that create beauty and meaning. Your universe is words. So even though you can derive intense benefit as a writer from watching a movie or TV, if for one moment you think that you can become a good writer by ONLY watching movies and TV go back and read the last part of this essay until such wanton stupidity is expunged from your brain. I see a lot of young writers trying this. They don’t read much and instead basically just watch TV. Guess how much good writing they’ve done? Did you guess none? You have learned. You may learn something about dialogue, dramatic tension, characterization, plot arcs, and these are good lessons to learn. But writers peddle in words, not imagery and sound, so those lessons are lost if you can’t convert them seamlessly into language. They are lost if you don’t know what WORDS will put those lessons to the page. Watching a movie “as a writer” is not your “out” for reading. Read you must young Jedi writer.

Once you get really good at doing this “...as a writer” stuff, you can actually comb back through old memories and reevaluate them with that lens. You can make that first kiss tingle the top of your readers’ scalp like the touch of a dozen tiny fingers, or make your readers feel the pain of teen-age rejection burning at the pit of their stomach like they swallowed a hot stone. Common experiences become extraordinary in a writer’s hands. It takes training that part of you for a good long while in your moment-by-moment existence, but as it becomes second nature to look around the world and notice things that would make for good writing, you can then plug that rubric in as you sift through the memory trunks of your own mind for moments from your past. Now you’re cooking with gas!

The reason this is like prewriting is that each of these memories and events experienced is like a Lego block. Each is a small piece of something bigger that can be recombined and reconfigured to build a moment entirely different from the one it came from. A bit of heartache, some rejection, a sense of loss, and you can describe a break up even though you’ve married your high school sweetheart. Once you get enough blocks your bucket, you can think of any moment, and all you have to do is build it. You don’t need to have lived the fall of the Narkarnian Battlecruiser Fleet to describe it in a way that puts a lump in a reader’s throat. You don’t need to have slain dragons to get a reader’s heart pounding through the scene. You don’t NEED to experience a plane crashing into a mountain of ill tempered bears to have lived enough to write. You can create a world scintillating kinds of details that can slice eyeballs and pierce eardrums once you’ve sponged enough.

This is why sponging is much like a long period of prewriting. Once you’ve done enough of it, you may be able to sit down and write, right off the cuff about something—even something you’ve never personally experienced. It’s also why writers never stop sponging in much the same way people rarely stop collecting Lego blocks. It's why they enjoy new experiences. It's the writer equivalent of getting a new pack with the specially designed folding wing piece. And this is what instructors are trying to say when they say "live life. "Go collect more damned Legos. You're trying to build a Star Destroyer with nine blocks and a flat piece." It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write until this point—there’s lots to be said for training and practice. But it does mean sometimes you might find you don’t quite have the right sized Lego block for what you’re trying to do. That’s where the beauty of those who’ve gone before you comes in because you can always do research, which is its own form of prewriting.

I need more little pieces.
Clearly it's time to brush my teeth while paying close attention.

Part 4-  Research—Don’t be a stranger

Sponging may not cover it for prewriting. Sometimes you hit something you just don’t know enough about, and no amount of the life YOU’VE lived is going to make you able to portray something you don’t know about. You have to do some research.

You have to do SOME research.
~gumtoothed voice~
Back in my day we had to look up articles in gillions of massive tomes.
And don't even get me started on that strange woman with the thin mustache
who seemed to work inside the magazine room at every library. 

You’re going to have to accept something that might be hard right now. Repeat after me: “I do not know everything.” Now go find a mirror and say that fifty times. Go ahead. I’ll wait. A lot of writers really have trouble with this one.  They think they’re too good for research. They “would rather actually write.” Noble...but bullshit. I’m here to tell you that your actual writing will suck rocks if you don’t take the time to learn the things you don’t know about a subject. And unless you want to spend your life writing about personnel meetings and TPS reports, you will probably eventually write about a culture, place, era, activity, or something that you don’t know about. Having emotional Legos won’t help you with this because you need to portray your topic accurately. I don’t care how poignantly you describe a character’s angst, if you’re ascribing a Catholic burial ceremony to your Inuit characters, you’re going to come off like a moron.

I know a lot of people break out in hives at the mention of research. If you’re picturing the lonely stacks of some giant library’s twelfth floor or a montage of pouring over first edition tomes with rubber gloves, you’re probably over thinking this. That was my parent’s generation. I mean I could go all gumtoothed voice and tell you about something called an Index of Periodical Literature, little slips of paper, and a weird smelling guy in a back room who handed you tattered magazines. We didn’t have the newfangled Lexus Nexus. But seriously, computers have been streamlining research more every year since I was about twenty.

Not that a stern librarian in boots would be unwelcome—one who undoes her hair from a tight bun when she tells you how hot she finds your dedication to knowledge.....You know what? This is probably more MY thing, really. The point is unless you like trolling for librarians by appearing erudite, you probably won’t have to do much of that kind of research unless you want to.

This process is as involved as you want it to be or your type of writing requires it to be. If you don’t like to do a lot of research, you can just do the kind of writing that doesn’t require a lot of research. Or you COULD go raid the most esoteric volumes on being a fifth century seamstress in order to have such a character in something you write, especially if that’s just the sort of nerdgasm thing that would really turn your crank. Remember this is your art. If you’re getting pleasure out of it, then you win. Other people can suck an elf.

If you’re not into deep research, don’t sweat it, but you still can’t get past this aspect of pre-writing completely. Now I am going to say something that I’ll say again and again, so pay attention because these are words to live by when it comes to setting and character—which are, you know, elements of fiction and sort of important and stuff.

Don’t be a stranger.

I like this better than “write what you know,” because “write what you know” is a cliché and it doesn’t even begin to touch the full range of writing that matters to me. We can recombine and reconfigure what we know into what we don’t if we take some time and effort to do so. I’m pretty sure Orwell didn’t KNOW 1984 since he wrote it in the forties, nor do I think he ever met a talking pig. I’m pretty sure Tolken had never had a conversation with a dragon. Most people use their sponged experiences like Legos to recombine and rearrange what they do know into what they can’t know. So “Don’t be a Stranger” seems to cover much more accurately what it means to be a fiction writer. You only KNOW what it means to be your gender, your age, your race, your age (or younger), your social status, and dozen other things, and while this will always inform your work in ways you should be aware of, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want all your characters to be exactly the same as you lest you end up in a world like when John Malkovitch went into his own brain tunnel. I don’t think that would hold up well for a whole novel.

“Don’t be a stranger” also carries with it the keys to the kingdom. “Write what you know” has sort of been perverted into a flip, dismissive way to say “Sorry, you can't know that, kthxbai.” People who are tired of bad portrayals of their life experiences sometimes make claims like “you can never really KNOW what it’s like,” and honestly, there’s some truth to that, but a fiction writer has to break out of essentialism unless they only every want to write a journal. Plus, it’s the sort of thing that leads to writers doing damn fool things like trying crack cocaine so they can describe it. A writer in today’s social landscape is going to have to navigate minefields like “appropriation” and avoiding stereotypes, and it can be intimidating as fuck when you realize you don’t know how to do that. Don’t be a stranger is how.

Yeah, but instead of a pier, I put in an extensive network
of underground tunnels and a seedy downtown area.
You don't think anyone will notice, do you?
If you’re going to set a story in Santa Monica, you better know Santa Monica. Describe the shops, the air, a corner people will recognize, and the great pizza place near the pier because if you say “this is Santa Monica” and then describe Walnut Creek, bullshit detectors will go off in your readers. If you’re going to describe a culture that isn’t your own, you better understand that culture, how they look at death, what they think of life, marriage, morality, religion, and not from YOUR outsider, sterotype point of view either—don’t be a stranger. Go find out from them.

Access to knowledge-wise, you are the most empowered human beings ever to walk the face of the Earth. I’m not just fellating you with en-vogue self help slogans either. You’re reading this blog, so I assume you have a computer with Internet. That makes you able to find more information in five seconds than your average surf had to absorb in their entire lifetime. Most of you can do this from a device that's smaller than a deck of cards. Seriously, the only thing slowing down your acquisition of knowledge in our era is how fast you can read and the 10 terabyte estimate of ultimate human brain storage capacity. You almost never have to go on some first edition book safari unless you kind of want to.

Let me share a story with you that is almost completely unrelated. As Will and Grace finished up its run they had a bloopers episode as part of their Will and Grace last night finale two hour event. My ex-wife was a huge fan so I ended up watching. In one of these bloopers Grace has a bottle of something, and they tell Debra Messing (who plays Grace) they want the bottle to be more empty for the shot. She goes to the kitchen and pours it down the drain. And then all hell breaks loose. She screams and laughs and says she’s sorry. See, the sink wasn’t really a sink. They weren’t in a real kitchen. She was on a set. The drain probably went to where they stored paint thinner or something. Everything “on camera” looked real, but it wasn’t, and Debra had just ruined some set designer’s day. How does this matter to you as a writer? You may not need to be some deep expert to reveal enough “on camera” to make a good story. You just need whatever you’re writing about to look like a real “kitchen” for the confines of your story.

There’s an element of "Hollywood magic" in what writers do. A writer might become an expert on just enough of a subject that their story is going to need. That’s why a lot of writers are strangely well informed about the most bizarre and random stuff. They needed it for some story. But you don’t have to find out everything on a topic to be able to write anything about it. You just need a few significant details to make sure you know what’s up, and to check yourself.

I constantly have a search engine open when I’m writing. I look up all kinds of things all the time. Who starred in this movie? What’s that word? What does an archery stance actually look like and what kind of advice would a coach give a beginner? How is this city laid out? I’m not doing a marathon session in a library (and I would probably personally eschew a character or setting that would require me to). But if you add up the amount of times I change my window over to Google something or other, you probably end up with hours of research.

As I wrote one story about a character in the mid 21st century involved in a water war, I realized that I was going to need more details about the setting to fill out some of the trouble that the story was having in its third draft. I didn’t really know much about water wars. So I spent an hour or two on Google learning where they were likely to happen and why. I picked The Danube, but I didn’t know much about eastern European geography so I had to look at Google maps. It was kind of fun really—if a little alarming and scary about the future of war. A couple hours and I had enough detail not to be a stranger for what I was doing. It doesn't have to be a big deal, but just think of how vague or misinformed that story would have seemed if I hadn't done that.

Having everyone speak Polish might not be....accurate.

Be careful. One of the really important places to not be a stranger is when you deal with writing a character who is experiencing some of the difficulties of their own culture or group. You can’t use Hollywood magic here. You have to try to really understand with all the writer empathy you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Google “cultural appropriation” if you want to see the epic insensitivity and resulting shit storms that can develop if you don’t take this very, VERY seriously. Some people out there are basically going to tell you that you can’t successfully write "their" story. And they’re right if you sit down and write it from your point of view about what you think their point of view would be. You’ll end up with something like that travesty of well-intentioned idiocy about what the middle class white guy would do if he was a black kid from the inner city. Oh. My. God. Don’t be that guy. Do your research. Instead be more like Jeffery Eugenides. He did enough research on five alpha reductase deficiency syndrome that people who read Middlesex assumed he HAD to be intersexed to have described it so well. He is not. And there are fantastic examples of fiction of people writing from perspectives that are not their own in ways that are so convincing that people didn’t realize they weren’t from that group. So don’t lose faith because P.C.-ness makes your job a little harder. Just don’t be a stranger.

The thing that is particularly cool about fiction writers and research is that “don’t be a stranger” can lead back to one of our core tenants. Research for academics and non-fiction writers can be an arduous affair taking months and even years depending on the subject matter. Fiction writers usually aren’t going for that level of detail and precision, and all we need is the right “Legos” for the job from a culturally accurate viewpoint so we have this totally awesome option of reading a few great stories on the topic. When I say "hear it from them," I don't mean you have to do a cultural ethnography. The voices of this culture (and almost certainly of this struggle) already exist--you just have to read them. And you thought this was going to suck! Imagine reading the great literature of a culture to try and get the sense of it. That doesn’t sound like unpleasant research; that sounds like someone just said “Okay, I need you to taste test the final products for my gourmet chocolate and tell me which one you like the best.” Only a stern librarian with a very healthy respect for a dedication to knowledge could be more fun.


Part 5- Minecraft Has Nothing On Us

"If you have technology as sophisticated as androids, you probably don't need to hook them into USB ports for updates. Wireless will be pretty established by the time we have that tech level." I say.

Willbehuge glares at me. "Dude, it's my world."

"Okay, but you might want to explain that if it's an aspect of your world," I say. "It wouldn't make much sense if it's just 'the future.' Maybe wireless viruses are prevalent or android technology has progressed a lot faster than wifi technology for some reason, but there should probably be a reason that your indistinguishable-from-human android doesn't have the technology that my iPad has today."

"Your iPad wirelessly updates?? Dude, that's dope!"

*headdesk*

World building! Dramatic huh? Sort of sounds like nothing short of launching a Genesis torpedo at your word processor could possibly do it justice. It’s certainly more involved than, “A thoughtful T graph is a good prewriting exercise for a compare and contrast paper.” Building worlds follows much of the same process as not being a stranger—you just have to not be a stranger in your own creation.

And as much as this seems like it should be pretty common sense, believe me when I tell you it is not. All the more so because this is not among the skill sets that are taught in most academic writing programs. There is very little time spent on setting--at most a single chapter in a book or a week in a fifteen week course.

By contrast there are entire classes devoted to narrative voice and to characterization. (At least at SFSU—given the pedagogy’s continuity with what is considered “high art” I seriously doubt many writing programs contain a world building class, though I admit I haven’t done enough research into some of the speculative fiction friendly MFA programs that exist.) Because most writing programs have made up their mind about what is “good” fiction, and which of fiction’s elements are worthy of their consideration, examination, study, and dedicated emulation, they eschew teaching a viable writing skill within fiction. Even though most writing program instructors will throw a (grudging) bone to U. LeGuin.P.K. Dick, or K. Vonnegut as literary writers, they will spend exactly no time teaching the skills that those authors had mastered so well.

Almost seems like they’re just paying lip service doesn’t it? (Remind me some day to tell you about the instructor who I discovered was just dropping names of authors he hadn't actually read, and claimed LeGuin didn't write political allegory.) You're not the only one who thinks so.

This is sort of the third part of prewriting, but it bears its own scrutiny within fiction writing, a world where an author can change anything and everything to suit their needs. Especially when we’re dealing with speculative fiction and the power of a writer to create places, races, and things that have never existed and events that have never happened.

But if you’re sitting there, reading the last two parts of this about looking around at the world as a writer and research and thinking to yourself: “I’ll just write sci-fi.”

Oops—you have auto-failed. Better restart from a previously saved position because you can't possibly win from this one.

Let me make this clear, if you think world building is a way to avoid research, ur doin’ it wrong. If you think it’s a way to avoid having to have experience the world as a writer, ur doin’ it wrong. If you think the endless bounds of your unbridled imagination are so compelling that people are going to want to stop by for a while even though you don’t have characters they relate to or events that resonate with them, ur not only doin’ it wrong, but you’re being a n00b by thinking ur NOT doin it wrong.

Building a world from scratch in which you have to keep track of details can be just as hard, even harder if you plan to stay in your world for an extended length of time, than doing research. You not only have to create the world, but you have to retain the integrity of the world. You may be in a universe with totally different rules, but you have to abide by those rules once established. JK Rowling (one of our generations most creative and successful world builders) may have had an awful lot of hand waving magic that just allowed things to happen at Hogwarts, but she worked within the rules she had established, and she made sure that the integrity of the world remained intact. No one got to pull off more than uncontrolled wild effects without a wand in their hand. Rowling spent YEARS deciding what the limits of magic were. She’s quoted as saying the following: "The most important thing to decide when you're creating a fantasy world," she said in 2000, "is what the characters CAN'T do." The minute you disrespect your own rules, you’re in trouble.

If you ever, even for a moment, think your readers are stupid, or they aren't following along VERY carefully, quit now. Just quit right now. Stick to non-fiction. That scene in Galaxy Quest where the kids ask the incredibly technical question is so funny because it actually happens. All. The. Time. And while you might be forgiven your inability to realize that in book two you made a passing reference to an event that should have happened after the flashback in book six but the item wasn't there or some such thing, if you do something epically stupid like having your prequels involve characters who have actively stated that they don’t remember each other in your originals, you’re going to be the subject of no small amount of ridicule. *coughobiwancough* I once read very thoughtful article online about how Rowling was remiss to have Voldemort be completely unaware of some of his ideological contemporaries given when he grew up. (England during the rise of the Third Reich.) I’ve seen a high fantasy author taken to task because their depiction of archery was comically uninformed. Your readers are paying attention…and if they’re generally paying a lot more attention than you are, you’re going to look a little bit foolish.

Now you may get lucky and be George Lucas foolish and he gets to say tripe like “I totally had Han shoot first even back in ’77; you just couldn't see it...yeah, that's the ticket” and we’re still going to go on Star Tours and buy lightsabers and ensure that he can retire with three blistering hot escorts on permanent retainer, but most of us are just going to be told our writing is kind of unconsidered and not very well thought through.

Prewriting is a frappe of techniques. Almost every bit of fiction requires some world building and some research. Even the most painstakingly accurate historical fiction involves some creative license or it would simply be a non-fiction history. You must delve into those experiences you’ve had as a writer to recombine and reconfigure what you know into moments you don’t, but world building never EVER absolves you of that. Even the most well built science-fiction worlds may require a writer to investigate current understanding of physics to explain propulsion or building technologies. The most fantastic settings may demand a writer understand a social nuance that they want to weave in as allegory. And a character, whether marching off to slay a dragon or flying a space fighter into battle must be, familiar enough that a reader can relate to them.

If you try to build worlds that aren’t somewhat researched you get worlds that don't make a lot of sense. While we forgive sound in space for our space fantasies, it bugs the hell out of us if you're writing something that gives a crap about physics. If you just fill built worlds with cardboard characters, you get a result about boring as you might expect. You’ll write the book equivalent of The Phantom Menace—without having George Lucas’s reputation and a generation of established fans to lean on. (We all wish he’d taken his own advice that a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing, but at least if he isn’t paying attention to himself, you can apply this wisdom to your writing.) You’re not dodging the bullet of research or of living life as a writer by world building because a story has to be rooted in what a reader can understand and comprehend, and that requires the WRITER to understand and comprehend. You’re only adding a delicious, wonderful, level of complexity to what should already be a rich and compelling story. You’re taking your reader on a voyage where nothing is the same as what they left behind, but also where everything has an eerie familiarity to it and resonates within them.

Ultimately the Genesis torpedo is not a terrible analogy because it did not create something from nothing, but rather it rearranged the existing molecules at the atomic structure into a planet capable of sustaining life. If used where life already existed, it would “destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.” That’s what you do when you build worlds because you can’t REALLY create anything. You have to build a new world out of what is already there, and that means you can’t duck the other aspects of prewriting.


Part 6- Earning the "ER"

"Isn't this the same story you're using in your other class?" I ask.

Willbehuge looks at me and nods. "Yeah bro," he says. "Actually it's something I used in a bunch of my classes last semester too."

"Nothing new to turn in?" I ask.

"Nah I don't like writing the stuff they want us to write," Willbehuge says. "I have about three or four stories I wrote as my first year. One of them usually fits the prompt."

"So you write your own stuff?"

"Yeah. I've got this novel at home. It's about vampires being humanities savior against the zombie apocalypse."

"That sounds neat," I say. "How's that coming?"

"Well it's mostly in my head right now, but the wheels are turning. I'm always, like, thinking of things I can add to it."

"So what are you actually writing?"

"Well...I don't do very much writing. I don't have much time..."

"You mean because of all the parties with hella weed?"

So writing is a process, and so far all we've talked about is the part that happens before the actual writing, but I want to say one thing that needs to be said.

Writers write.

You might be thinking to yourself that there's no way I could have possibly had a conversation like the one above in a Creative Writing program. Holy flaming cow testicles on toast do I wish that were the case. In fact, I had almost exactly this conversation, with a few minor variations, no less that five times. I noticed a LOT of my fellow classmates were "double dipping" with their assignments. (Turning in the same thing across multiple classes even though the assignment was to generate something new.) When I asked them about it, most of them said some variation on this theme. It's almost like they thought writing didn't involve much more than thinking about writing. Like they would wake up one morning and just casually splat out the novel in their brain if they only thought about it enough.

The halls of creative writing programs and the legions of would-be-writers have so many among them that think about stories, imagine being writers, and picture their Leno interview before they ever really sit down and write. At best you'll discover that they write for a few hours a week when they have to for school or when the mood strikes them. They've been noodling on that one story for nearly a decade. One of the reasons for so long I never called myself a writer was because I was standing in a sea of such people and I was painfully aware of how pretentious it sounded. I was among a group of people who were usually saying things like "When I'm a best selling author..." or "Once I make it..." and I didn't want to be lumped in with them.

It might seem like the stupidest, most inane, most obvious thing I could possibly say about what writing means, but if you take the time to start talking to people who want to be writers or identify as writers, you will come to a rather shocking conclusion: most of them don't actually write very much. They kind of think they're going to sit around and think about writing and that will cut it. ("Hey, Willbehuge? This is Leno. Listen, I know you haven't actually written anything, but I heard you've got some great ideas in your head that are like Firefly/Dawn of the Dead crossovers, and I simply MUST have you on the show.") So even though it should go without saying, at some point when we talk about writing, we are talking about the actual physical act of doing it.

Eventually, at some point, with pen, pencil, typewriter, word processor, voice recognition technology, chalk on sidewalk, or chisel on wall you have to actually write.


I had an instructor that called this "earning your ER". If you want to be a "writer" you have to write to earn the "er." But today I'm not even talking about the thousands of hours a writer puts in that don't ever even see a peer review let alone submission. I'm not talking about the endless hours spent clacking (or scribbling) away that probably won't ever see the light of day. I'm just talking about how that is part of the writing process.

For many writers struggling to find success, the problem is they simply write--without any regard for the other parts of the process, and they sort of expect the flotsam and jetsam of their brains to be spun into gold because they rock fucking hard it hurts. But for many other writers, and the obstacle they are actually dealing with in the writing process is the writing itself. There are a lot of reasons "writers" don't write, but many of them involve not respecting the process. One of the most paralyzing effects can be expecting the first words out to be good. They won't be. You will write shitty first drafts, and you will do it in good company. Don't be afraid to write them. Ironically the inability to write comes most often from the unwillingness to revise extensively--which is the next part of the process.


Part 8- Revision= Re+vision=to see something again

I look at Willbehuge. "I'm not really sure how to give you the sort of feedback that would be useful for the assignment. This isn't a revision of what you wrote for last class. It's like a totally new piece."

A bashful smile creeps onto Willbehuge's face. "Yeah, I don't really like writing things again. It's like once I write something, that's it man. It's out. That's as good as it's going to get. I start revising, I just see a totally new thing, and I just write that."

"Doesn't that mean that everything you write is a first draft?" I ask.

"Sure, but I mean I clean up the spelling and stuff before I print it."

So we've talked about writing as a process, and the parts that come before ink is set to paper (or pixels to screen), and about how writing involves actual writing. And while there are "writers" out there who think they don't have to read, or worse that they don't have to actually write, one of the saddest problems is not either of these things.  These people are just comical in their naivete. They are like those pimply teens who dream of being rock stars, but don't listen to anything but two bands over and over and can't play an instrument, but totally think they're going to make it on an image since Willie Nelson "had no real talent."  (Yeah, I know...don't even get me started.) However, what is actually distressing is when a writer is reading and is writing and can't seem to figure out what they're doing wrong.

There's a crucial part of writing that is so often missed by young writers that it is almost a force of nature. It is like a plague that afflicts almost every writer--a horrible, debilitating plague. They lie in bed as their loved ones go to fluff their pillow and the doctor leans over them shaking their head. They say "I've read. I've written. But my work just doesn't get any better. I have a thousand rejection letters. No one likes what I write. I can't go on. I have antirivisionitis...and it's gone into my lung. Life force....ebbing....  I feel so....cold."

For various forms of writing, no extensive drafting process is needed. Most forms of non-fiction can be slammed out in one, maybe two drafts. I've written A+ expository essays with little more than a cruise through to make sure I didn't have any run-ons or fragments. I know journalists, quite quickly, develop a skill to revise their copy AS THEY WRITE. I know most bloggers would rarely draft.  Hell, I usually find and clean up typos AFTER I've posted. I'm pretty sure most web content is actually just a bowel movement onto the keyboard that is then proofread for comma errors and run through a spellchecker. In most forms of writing, a solid draft can be successful, and no more than a rough draft and a final draft would ever really be necessary.

This is the world in which most writers cut their teeth. It is the world of "Oh. My. God. I totally just wrote that paper at four in the morning before it was due and got an A." If you stay ahead of the curve with writing, this can be true all through grad school even. My mother used to brag that she would write one final draft in her writing program at Iowa (and this is the days before word processors so you had about two or three liquid paper mistakes before you had to rewrite the whole page). The demands of certain kinds of writing simply never go beyond a draft or two and a good writer--a professional writer or just a practiced writer--can word things effectively on their first try.

This is a dangerous place for writers to think of as "reality" if they're contemplating fiction. It's dangerous because it sends the wrong message about what it takes to write well. Writing essays well or writing blogs well and writing fiction well is very different. (One of the reasons this blog can be so shitty sometimes is because I'm still pretty low on the learning curve for fixing mistakes on the fly. I crutch on revision, because I'm used to writing fiction, which then doesn't happen because of the blog's time constraints.  I'm hoping to improve this skill, but it's a work in progress.) Writing fiction well takes lots of revision.

I don't want to say that other forms of writing are easier than fiction, chiefly because I know lots of writers who make a good living doing other forms of writing and they work very hard (and they would kick my ass), but I will say that they have vastly different demands. Fiction has a higher effort to page ratio in its finished product. At least any kind of good fiction does.

However, when one can write good, clear, effective writing on a first draft it can sometimes seem like that should be the end of the story. Combine this with the myth that writers have this mystical talent that they either have or they don't, and which simply can't be taught, and suddenly you have a recipe for a lot of dejected writers who think they're either going to spin gold on their first try or they're not really writers. Nothing could be further from the truth...except maybe that Dan Brown is a literary genius.

No one writes brilliant fiction on their first try. No one.  They might write clearly and effectively, but it isn't really art yet. Everyone writes shitty first drafts. Look they've even found Hemingway's first drafts, and the stuff is atrocious--embarrassing really. If anyone thinks his final drafts (whether you like them or not as a matter of taste) is an embarrassing example of craft, you should probably get off at the next stop.  Writers shouldn't expect that they're somehow better than all the masters that came before. That's just hubris, and while writers need to cultivate a sense of ego that can stand up to attrition, thinking one is above revision is going way too far. If you think you're  only going to have to clean up the grammar and send that puppy to an agent, you have crossed the ego/hubris Rubicon, and it's time to pull over and let someone else drive for a while. Even in rare cases where people simply write something in a final draft (a notable example would be Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a novel written from cover to cover with few changes) but if you ever talk to a writer about these sorts of miracles (Robinson included) you find that they had been percolating their ideas often for years. In a sense, they did do revision after revision; they simply didn't use paper when they did it.

Notice what happens as the demand for higher and higher quality of writing occurs.  A peer reviewed journal--an essay that will be read by thousands--creative non fiction blogs with massive audiences.  Suddenly, if you ask the writer, they reveal that they have more drafts and more revisions. If you want to develop character, tease out theme and have good fiction you will have to work even harder. How hard? Well, there's a quotation of a writer I can't find, and a meme of sorts that wanders around writers workshops, and even a collection of essays named after an idea of "The Eleventh Draft."  That at 11 drafts--not eleven quick polishes for grammar mistakes, but genuine, careful revisions something sort of magical starts to happen with a piece. I know even most writers would rather cut off a pinky than write something 11 times, but it keeps one humble to remember it when the idea of a third draft seems daunting. Besides not every draft has to be the major rewrite of the first two or three, and modern technology can make the later revisions as easy as a cut and paste.

Lastly let me make two things (slightly related) about revision absolutely clear. Revision is not proofreading. It's a lot more. Revision focuses on content, and not form. Early revisions might change an entire point of view, or bring a minor character into the limelight, and later revisions might be as small as altering the word choice in a few sentences, but this isn't about proofing.  I know an awful lot of people who think revision is little more than making sure their clauses are joined correctly, and it breaks my heart to see them thinking that the only thing standing between them and Stephen King caliber fame is a coordinating conjunction.

Secondly, vision is not a verb (even though revision has become one). Vision is a passive state; the ability to see something. Literally speaking to experience revision, you must look on something "with different eyes."  This is why your crazy English teacher in high school always gave advice between drafts to wait as much time as you can--even if it's just a few hours.  They actually weren't crazy--they were giving you the best advice EVAH. You must give your eyes a chance to forget. When you are fresh from writing something, you are in the worst possible place to revise. But if you've ever looked back at old writing and immediately seen the problems with it, you know that once you forget what you MEANT by something, you can be more objective about what you actually said.  Give it some time--even if it's just a day or two or several hours.


So we've said that writing is a process, it involves several aspects of prewriting, reading, actually doing the writing and revision.  What's left?  When writers talk about writing are they really talking about anything else?

Part 8- Peer Review

Writers get (and give) feedback.

"I don't get it," Willbehuge says.  "I've sent out like three hundred stories, and they just keep getting rejected."

"I'd be willing to take a look at them if you want," I say.  "I kind of like giving feedback."

"Nah, that's okay," Willbehuge says.

"Got your own peeps?" I ask.

"I don't really show people my work," Willbehuge says.

"Uh...but you said you submit it," I point out.  "Isn't that showing someone."

"Yeah, but I don't know them."

"I mean how do you know if you need to clarify something or if there's a problem?"

"I read it several times.  I'm sure it's perfect.  I just can't figure out why no one wants to publish it!"

"Maybe because it's not actually.....  Forget it."

If you think about writing for a second (and I just mean normal ol' "writing" not the three hundred part opus I've been writing) it's pretty incredible.  I have at my disposal forty symbols.  Twenty-six of them are letters and fourteen of them are punctuation.  They consist of curves and lines and dots in recognizable patterns. By laying down these 40 symbols in different combinations, I can take an image in my head, and put it into yours.  We don't have to even be in the same time zone, hear each other, see each other or anything.  That's pretty incredible if you think about it.  But there is a problem.  Let me make a tech nerd comparison, but please understand that I'm usually flummoxed if using a computer requires something more complicated than pushing the button on the front of the case.


If you think about how much information you absorb in a given moment, through all your senses it is GB's worth of data.  The uber-high def movie upload of your life in surround-cam, surround-sound, smell-o-vision, tactile display would crash your 3 terabyte drive after about ten seconds, so unless it was some pretty steamy action with two southeast Asian cheerleader nurses, it really wouldn't be worth it.  Now if I wrote a hundred pages about those same ten seconds, in addition to being the most boring thing you've ever read--including your first exposure to Hawthorne--the information would be measured only in kilobytes.  That's a huge gap of data.  We fill in those gaps naturally with our imagination and our own world but there's really no way to ensure that the writer and the reader are filling in the gaps the same way. Pretty much we never do.

If I describe a red balloon to you, an image pops into your head.  If you were raised about the same time as me, it's probably an image of a French indie film about a sentient balloon.  I must have seen that movie in school about thirty times.  But what if you meant a hot air balloon? And you start describing people in the balloon, and it's obvious to you because you know what you meant, but I would read that and wonder if these were like little tiny people living in some fucking sentient balloon, and suddenly I'm confused as all hell whether I'm reading some experimental piece that is an allegory for the benefits of communism or something, and you're just talking about a hot air balloon ride you had as a kid.

So finding out how a few people are filling in your gaps is probably a damned good idea.  That thing you think is SO obvious, might be really confusing.  That plot twist you think is SO clever might be really obvious. There's one thing you can't avoid bringing to your writing no matter how deep into the voice of your narrator you are, and that's yourself, so it's worth it to make sure you haven't written something that has the blinders you have.  And don't even TRY to say you don't have any.

It's good from a pragmatic point of view too.  You will make mistakes in writing--you will dangle your modifiers or split your infinitives or miss a comma or just describe something in a confusing way.  The problem is you know what you meant.  You really need someone who doesn't know what you meant to take a look because there the ones that can say "Dude, the 'they' in this sentence looks like it means the giant robot French Maids and not the attack porcupines."

Mostly though, you just need to know what's working and what isn't.  What's good.  What isn't.  What's popping off the page.  What is a bit boring.  Writers usually have two modes: "Fuck I am awesome!" and "Fuck I suck!" and it's basically the hardest thing in the world to find that middle ground between invulnerable god of writing and own worst critic, so get some peeps you trust and have them help.  You know why?  It's not really a hard one.  You are emotionally invested in your work.  And if you AREN'T emotionally invested in your work then your art probably has other problems that have little to do with feedback.

This doesn't have to be painful.  Find peeps you trust, peeps you like, peeps who give feedback you respect on OTHER stuff.  It doesn't have to be some USA Movie writer's group where the dude with the unidentifiable Euro accent says "This is shit.  This is worse than shit.  If I wiped my ass with this, I would worry about what it was getting on my ass."  It can be a kind, gentle process with two or three of your good, close writer friends.  But it really needs to happen.

Just think about it this way. Someone is going to give this feedback and "review" it. Do you really want the first person to give you an opinion to be some total stranger with a form rejection letter already filled out in their desk?

Tons and tons of starting writers want to neglect this step so bad.  They really really want to believe that their contemporaries are stupid fools who can't see their genius, and that they will just submit to someone who can appreciate how brilliant they are and become a sensation. They believe that some editor assigned to them from Random House is going to do nothing but make six minor suggestions and correct their spelling.

And if that's your thing, let me just say this:  GET THE FUCK OVER YOURSELF. If you hire a professional editor (or a publishing house hires one for you because you're ideas are just so unique and awesome and....yeah get over yourself), they're going to show up with a big red pen and an smile that seems to have just a few too many teeth, give you 90% of the same feedback your peers would, and charge you about $100 an hour for it.  If you want them, hire them after you've gotten everything you can from peers and things are as good as you can get them.

With peer review, you get to pick who's giving you feedback from among those you trust and who know when you say "be brutal" you really mean "you tell me one thing that didn't quite work before I cry like a three year old."  You get to pick whether or not you want to take or ignore each bit of feedback they give you. But what you really don't want to do is ignore this step.  There are certain forms of writing that are informal enough or immediate enough that you don't always absolutely NEED this kind of oversight (like blogging), but even a journalist hands off to an editor before it goes to print.  Most writers writing things that matter get feedback.  And most bloggers I know (including me) have a group they trust to show an entry to before posting when they know they really have something important to say.

Writers also GIVE feedback, and though I will talk about this later more extensively (since it's not strictly a part of the writing process) you should understand something pretty fundamental: most serious writers are going to be excited to give you feedback if you're willing to reciprocate.  Because serious writers know that you will gain much more from GIVING feedback about what makes for good writing than you will from getting feedback.  You should also, if you intend to be a serious writer, give feedback. Reviewing someone's work that you're not emotionally invested in is like a gold mine of craft advice.  What not to do.  What to do differently.  How to reword this. And what totally works.  If a starting writer took a class where they only gave feedback and never got any, they would improve remarkably in only a few months.  I've seen it happen time and time and time again.  Most of them walk into the class way too cool for feedback, and walk out understanding that it is a fundamental part of the process that really can't be neglected.

It's not glamorous to have someone tell you that the part you really like isn't working.  But you really need to hear it.  So if you're in this for the glamour, and you want to just keep writing away in private, sequestered from the world, enjoying your fantasies of grandeur, that's totally cool, and you're in great company.  Writing doesn't have to be about publication to be cathartic and meaningful and wonderful.  But if you want to go beyond that point, get some feedback.  You are not as wonderful as you think you are.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, you are a lot better than you think you are.

Part 9- Final Bits


Most writers use most of these steps in the process most of the time. A writer of academic essays doesn't do much world building, a hobbiest blogger might not do much revision, and a journalist's peer review might happen in the office of their editor.  For a writer of creative fiction there is a strong emphasis on revision to smelt out the dross and refine the elements that weave together.  But for most writers, this is how it works.  It's not a clean process.  It's not a paint by numbers process. It's not a process with clear, well-defined boundaries. It's a mush of switchbacks and recursion.  For some writers (like me) a little bit of revision on something I wrote the day before is a great way to get back into my head for continuing a first draft, so I'm constantly tooling what I have, and I've been known to get feedback and then revise five or six times before I hit a draft I thought might be workable. Journalists and freelance writers work under such pressure that they often develop the ability to revise on the fly.  But if you ask most writers they can identify the steps in the process. And often when they use the word "writing" they are talking about this whole process.

What is conspicuously absent from this process list?  Editing and proofreading, for one.  Now before the legions of people far better at grammar than I am grab pitchforks and torches, and march on Oakland with cries of "clear meaning," and "learn to write," let me say this.  I did not say that grammar and spelling and vocabulary were not important TO writing. They are very important.  Anyone who has puzzled for half a second over a sentence with a missing comma, and in that half a second they were totally pulled out of the writing knows that even "you knew what I meant" is no excuse.

There are a lot of people for whom writing is nothing but learning to construct grammatically perfect sentences.  I teach many such people English as a second language.  As I do cartwheels around the room and strap myself with C-4 to try to get them to listen when I tell them that a paper without a single error that has no thesis or topic sentences is going to get a terrible grade, I regularly confront the fact that writing is so much more. Also, as important as editing and proofreading is, it is the one job that a writer can farm out to another person. Even someone who edits a manuscript extensively won't get a co-authorship billing, and if anyone asks "Who wrote suchandsuch book?" no one would name the editor. If they're lucky and the editing process was akin to The Battle of Waterloo, they get a mention on the vanity page. Not to be a snotty little asshole, but there's a reason a lot of editors end up remaining editors for the rest of their lives.

However, even though it might not be part of the process, but it actually IS what people talk about when they talk about writing. Ever see someone whose grammar is like a train wreck?  They get you're and your wrong all the time.  They don't use commas.  Everything is spelled wrong.  The thing you whisper under your breath isn't "Wow, if I were prescriptive about grammar, I would find the expression of your obvious dyslexia to be disconcerting, and as it is I am having to expend more effort than normal on the communication process."  What you whisper is: "Fuck, dude, learn to write!" Even the most descriptive and forgiving linguist recognizes there are conventions that make written communication feasible.

I'm a pretty descriptive guy.  I teach my students not to use stative verbs in the present progressive, and then walk out the door of my class to see a big sign that says "I'm lovin' it," and I can't remember the last time I didn't understand a paragraph that was nothing but a sentence fragment, so I know a lot of rules exist on a continuum of formality--with academia being at the formal end and text messages at the other, but I'll be damned if I need to explain myself when I leave a room and say "Bee Are Bee," so somewhere there's communication going on.  4|\|D d0|\|'7 3\/3|\| 937 /\/\3 574R73D 0|\| L337 5P34|<.  But despite all my fluffy liberalism when it comes to language, I still know that you only get one shot in writing.  Your reader doesn't get to say "Wait...what?"  So you better make it count. And that means you better make it clear. If you break a rule, it better be because you bloody well meant to (which means knowing you're doing it, by the way) or because it is an obscure rule that it would take an editor to catch.

Every writer needs to learn the rules of grammar and how to proofread. Absoposofuckinglutely. I carry around a tire iron, so that I can beat writers who think they're going to send a manuscripts chalk full of errors to a major publisher and simply be assigned an editor who will fix everything for them like a magical grammar faerie. What is actually going to happen is that the initial reader will take one look at the first page and assume the writer doesn't really know how to write.  Round file! (That's the trashcan, if you didn't know.) No, they won't be so awestruck by your IDEA that they will forgive the horror that is your grammar. Just get over that crack pipe fantasy and move into the real world. That shit doesn't happen because great ideas aren't writing.  Putting great ideas into words is. If you don't have the first clue how to do put great ideas into words, the only place your great idea really exists is in your head--not on the page. Unless someone had a subscription to a newspaper that came from the future, and they just KNEW you were going to be the next J.K. Rowling, no editor is going to mess with that. But then they would have accepted you only because of the newspaper that knew they accepted you and you would end up in a paradox time loop and cause a time quake and Captain Janeway would show up and launch a quantum torpedo at your face to just be done with the whole mess.

Sure you could hire your own editor, but they don't exactly work cheap.  $50-$100+ an hour is a pretty average amount for a decent one. Editors are amazing with words, and their command of English is awesome--awesome in the way the word meant before 1983.  But it would be a damned shame to have someone who can dig out the nuggets of what you MEANT, help you express that in the best way possible, and find the threads of your deepest themes, working at $100 an hour to fix your fucking run on sentences. Even a copy editor--who will just fix your grammar and ignore content--makes $30-$40 an hour. For a lot of writers that would mean the opposite of "making money through writing."

Yes, a publishing house--and even a magazine of any repute--will have an editor who will go over your stuff, but to even GET to that point, you have to know your shit enough to pass the initial read. Anything you submit should be as clean as you can make it.

By the way, yes, I do actually recognize a certain irony here. I'm not good at proofreading. I'm hoping having a live blog will improve that, but I always hit "Publish" and then find ten mistakes.  (Major apologies to people with some kind of feed for always having to deal with the messy versions instead of something I've cleaned up.)  Every time this happens, I am embarrassed, so I kind of hope my brain hates being embarrassed more than not seeing mistakes. I deal with a pair of learning disabilities that make my grammar troublesome, each annoying on its own but together they combine forces in a way that The Wonder Twins can only dream of.  It's not that I can't do it.  It's just that doing it while I'm writing is very hard.  However, I should also say this: I fire and forget a lot on this blog, in a way I never would on something like a story submission.  I am capable of proofing 95% of my own errors.  If I couldn't, I wouldn't come back here after I've posted to fix stuff. I know most of the rules of grammar because I teach them, so when I sit down and carefully go through my writing, I can make it pretty tight.  Not perfect, but good enough to look like I know what I'm doing. I never submit anything without going through it with a fine toothed cliche. Writers really should learn to do this. When I worked on the lit mag, we tossed 1/2 of our submissions in the initial filtering process just because they looked like they were written by 5 year-olds.  This was before ANY kind of discussion of merits and flaws by the staffers, and even before most of the editors even read the submissions.  The E.I.C. just tossed the crap that wasn't even worth our time.

So proofing and editing aren't technically part of the process, but they are part of writing.

And that's it.  That is what people talk about when they talk about writing.  Of course, that's the clinical meaning, stripped bare of it's emotive force and examined through a microscope.  That's the how. That's the cautionary tale to anyone who is skipping steps that they probably aren't writing nearly as well as they could. But it doesn't really speak to what writing means to people. It doesn't speak to the fulfillment and catharsis that writers get from their worst day of scowling at a sentence that isn't working or the ecstasy of finding the perfect word. It doesn't speak to the obsession writers have to get back to something they've been working on or the bliss of falling into bed with a smile on their face because tomorrow they know something they love to do more than anything is still going to be there. It doesn't describe the need to write, the anxiety that comes without writing, or the sense that giving up writing would be like cutting off a limb.  It doesn't describe the highs and lows and joys and pains and determination and resilience and the fact that when writers talk about writing, very often they are talking about something that they simply can't not do.

4 comments:

  1. Wow... that was long! It is a credit to you that I read the whole thing (or maybe I just have a lot of time on my hands). But really, I enjoy reading your blog and you give me a lot to think about.

    My main question today is: How do you "soak up the world with a writer's point of view"?

    I imagine that acquiring a writer's point of view involves doing a lot reading (careful and critical, I suppose) and practicing your own writing. But beyond that, are there some specific tips you can give me to begin today to think like a writer?

    I majored in neither literature nor writing so I am probably just missing something basic.

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    1. Silly me. After writing this I looked around and found that you address this in other posts. BTW- I added Dorothea Brande's book to my to-read list.

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    2. Yeah, it's WAAAAY too long for an internet post. One of the future projects I have is to retool some of the older stuff I have into a "2.0" version where articles like this one would be pared down into seven or eight parts at least.

      Ironically, this article originally WAS seven or eight parts, and then I assumed people would want one contiguous article and I cannibalized the little parts to make menus for The Reliquary. One of the silliest things I've done as a blogger.

      I'm very glad you liked it despite it's heft.

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    3. Oh and yes, I hope you like the Brande book--I think you will. Probably one of the best books on process ever written.

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