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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?

Friday, February 15, 2019

I Need Advice! (But Not "Write Every Day")

See, it's multiple mailboxes since I get
this question all the––you know what, forget it.
Image description: 12 stacked mailboxes and
a package nook
(like from an apartment complex)
I want advice on writing, but not "write every day."

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. I have a metric buttload of questions in my backlog, though, so make 'em good if you want them answered before 2031.]

I'm looking at my inbox from yesterday:

Do you have any piece of advice for someone who'd like to write a story/book/whatever? Not the obvious "write every day" type of advice.

There's another one that I got a few days ago that is a little more pointed. "I want to write this. Please don't tell me the only way is to write every day for ten years before I even start."

I get some version of this question on the regular (perhaps a new FAQ question is in order), and sometimes it lands like "I already know and am writing every day, so what's next?" and sometimes it's more like "Is there someone else here I can talk to? Maybe a manager? I want different advice."

It's writing advice, not a goddamned salad bar, people. You don't take what you want and leave the rest when it comes to the fucking wisdom of the ages. You don't come into MY house on this, the day of my daughter's wedding, and tell me my tried and true wisdom is not GOOD ENOUGH for you. Y'all fuckers need to get yourself some basic common fucking––

*hit by a tranq dart*

Ungh....

*shakes head*

Okay, okay. I don't know who did that, but fair enough. I'll take it down a notch.

So before I get into my answers about the next most likely advice, I'd like to ever-so-gently unpack some of this epic fucking Holy Grail advice questing shit that is so cheesefucking BASIC––(*hit by second tranq dart*)....uh, I mean somewhat more ubiquitous than in many other industries.

Naturally this isn't for all of you. It's just for people who want to kind of "get around" that pesky writing every day (or almost every day) part. And for a moment, I need to put on my "Not Amused 'Uncle'" face that I use when the five-year-old won't stop running towards an intersection or kneeing me in my groin while playing Ninjago.

Are we ready?  Okay. I'm srs now. This is srs bzns.

Srs face.
You're NOT going to "make it" without a shit ton of work, and there is a really good reason that "write daily" is at the top of the list of advice that Every. Single. Successful. Author. gives all the damned time to people who want to know how to "make it." Other than reading, no single bit of advice is more ubiquitous.

Let me make an imperfect metaphor and compare being a successful working writer to being a doctor. I'm not talking about a world-famous brain surgeon; I'm talking about your run-of-the-mill doctor. 4 years of undergrad. 4 years of medical school. 3-7 years as an intern/resident. Now has a little practice that makes a bit of money. That's an awful lot like the timetable of your average fledgling writing career. You don't have to have a college degree in liberal arts (particularly English), but a quick scan of successful authors without them shows that it sure helps*. 4 years of additional ARDUOUS unpaid practice honing one's craft is almost universal. And then 3-7 years of very-low-paid, onerous work to establish oneself in a way that might pay the bills. Yep, that sounds about right.

*MFA's are about 60/40 among published fiction authors (with slightly more authors NOT having one), but four-year degrees in liberal arts are around the 95+% range. 

Again, this metaphor is imperfect as most doctors have to be able to read and write competently, but applying a band-aid is where most writers' ability to practice medicine ends; the levels of OFFICIAL training are very different (generally, you wouldn't have a medical doctor who was vaguely incompetent, had an unofficial clinic that scoffed the AMA as a bunch of "fucking prescriptive blowhards," but was really good at social media self-promotion); there are ways to do your "four years of medical school" while getting paid––like jobs in non-creative writing. Plus writers will never quite make that sweet, sweet attending doctor money (unless those writers REALLY hit the bigtime, which has more to do with luck than ability). There are a lot more doctors in the world than professional writers. Perhaps the biggest difference is that tenacity is important, but it isn't the most important thing in medicine. You aren't really the person who gets to decide whether you keep going in a medical program. You either pass or you wash out. It's not a choice every year whether to abandon all your invested effort or keep trying for something you may never achieve. But the long hours and the many years of training kind of line up, so I hope you'll indulge me without too much pedantry.

Now what would you say to someone who said, "I want to be a doctor, but I don't want to have to go to medical school and be an intern every day for years"?

Weird, right? Like...you would suddenly physiologically transform into a character from anime so that you could just stare at them and blink loudly a few times. Very likely, you would REALLY encourage them to maybe possibly perhaps rethink their seemingly limitless passion for that end goal if they weren't willing to go to med school.

And if you were feeling super generous, you might ask them some really tough questions like what they wanted to get out of being a doctor and find alternative paths to the things they found compelling. Like maybe they want to save lives, so being a paramedic would satisfy them and that's a lot less training (though it is not easy or particularly well-paid). Or maybe they want to help people in pain feel better and being a healing massage therapist would scratch that itch. Perhaps they could get on some slow track where they were able to broker a slower-paced education with the administration of the various institutions and not come every day, but it would take them twice as long (nearly twenty years) to get to the end. But if they really wanted to be a licenced medical doctor, you wouldn't see a way around those ten or so years and a lot of hard work.

You would react the same way if someone said they wanted to be a professional basketball player, but not practice every day. Or be a paid musician, but not rehearse.

Same goes for writing. If you just want to be published, there are ways. (You might not get more books sold than you have family and good friends, but you can be "published.") If you want that ONE story published traditionally, you can probably get there. (It might take you twenty-five years and a small fortune in editing, but you can probably do it.) Want to be read by millions? (You might have to write smutty fanfic or a blog where you take extreme positions on social issues, but it can be done.) If you want to make a lot of money writing, you can. (You might have to have a day job doing business or technical writing, but it is certainly feasible.)

But if you want to be a successful working creative author, there aren't shortcuts. I'll write until my fingers bleed that you don't need to write every day to be a writer and it's ableist to prescribe daily writing as a metric for "realness," and you alone define what success even means, but you can't get around what working creative writers have in common. There's no "trick" to get you around all those years. There's no way to skip the queue on all that work. It's not like Super Mario Brothers where anyone who wants a shorter game can just pop over to the warp zone and the only reason folks haven't heard it yet is because writers refuse to release the craft version of Nintendo Power. When people try to write and get frustrated by their lack of success, it is almost always because they don't yet have the technical skill or the voice to use the alchemy of their craft to transmute what's happening in their mind's eye into clear, crisp language.

And there's only one thing to be done about that: read a lot, and write a lot. A LOT!

There just isn't any other way. None that I know of. None that other authors ever speak of. None that has ever been whispered at the Working Writer Secret Conferences™ any kind of meetings, not that writers ever have such meetings––and I will swear an oath to that effect. None that I have ever seen  in all the books I plumbed by shockingly transparent authors as I went spelunking for the One True Advice™ that would transform me into a writer.

It doesn't exist.

Okay.....that was long but now I can relax my srs face.

Whew! Being srs for that long is exhausting*.
Time for some threesome jokes!
*Also tranq darts

Okay, now on to the part for people who just want MORE advice. The next logical step. The folks who are "writing daily [or mostly], but now what?"

Write more: Look, you don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. That's why I'm really good at World of Warcraft battlegrounds but epically n00bfail get pwned at Overwatch. I could read Overwatch theory until my eyes popped out of my head, and watch tutorials and talk to Overwatch masters, but what I really need is to practice playing someone other than Torb for a goddamned minute and only him for a couple of games a month. So if you want to get better at writing, write MORE.

Read (or keep reading): A lot of writers stop reading. Like they kind of figure they read all the books they'll ever need early in their life and now it's THEIR turn. Don't do that. Trying to just write is like trying to only breathe OUT. You will be a better reader if you're writing and a better writer if you're reading.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit. A Pushcart anthology. A genre you don't usually dig. Once in a while take a stroll on a new path and see some new sights. You might learn a few things and get some WONDERFUL ideas.

Figure out why you like writing that you like: One of the reasons literature majors and creative writing majors spend about 90% of their time in the exact same classes is because the "close reading" of literature and the "how did the author make me feel this way" of creative writing are basically the same skill––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and word choice and see what made that meaning happen. For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something, press the book to your breast, and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) To be a writer who is reading, though, pause and take a moment to look at that sentence or passage that moved you. WHY THAT LINE/SENTENCE/PASSAGE? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which words? Is it the sound it makes in your head? Is it the imagery? Is it the sentence construction? Or maybe the way long and short sentences weave together? Notice what is going on. Unlock its secrets. Let that author teach you their tricks. Be the ready student and the master that is that writer will reach across space and maybe even time and give you your very own writing lesson. Read consciously.

Practice outside your comfort zone, but also practice writing that plays to your strengths: I love writing dialogue, and really hate trying to write about FEELINGS. So I often pause when I read good descriptions of feelings (above) and pay attention to that and try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft. My more final versions though....TEND to be focused on dialogue because I want to go where I'm strong. Consider some of the writing you do like practicing for a sport. If you suck at speed but are super good at endurance, you want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition, as much as you can, you want to play to your endurance and avoid situations requiring raw speed.

Start wherever (beginning or maybe not): Perhaps the weirdest thing about starting writers is they know but still refuse to accept that they're absolutely NOT going sit down and write their magnum opus book from beginning to end and then just go "clean up the grammar." But they still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. Go ahead and write those disjointed scenes (or even just one). Write that scene in your head even if it's floating in primordial timeline ooze somewhere in the middle of your grand narrative. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. We're an intensely imaginative species, and swells of music and emotion can evoke powerful creativity. The harder part is wrangling those into some form like language (writing). That's why so much practice usually has to happen first. Most of us can do it a little, but it takes a while to learn how to really bring someone else along for the ride. Besides, by the time you have finished writing scene 4, scene 13, and scene 22, you've probably thought of scene 7, 3, and 12. Then you can work backwards, sideways, upside down, or whatever timey wimey way you want.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine if that's possible for you, even if (or perhaps especially if) that routine involves a lot of rest and relaxation. It might be counterintuitive at first, but the more sort of...BORING your outside life is, the more your creative life tends to flourish. That doesn't mean you can't go on a vacation or something (though maybe you still try to wake up and do a half an hour every morning except for the day you're actually GOING to Disneyland). It means you embrace as much routine as you can. If you can come to the page at the same time every day, it's going to turn your creativity up to eleven. That's just the way our brains work. I know it's not possible for everyone. I myself have had to learn a more guerrilla style (and the jury-rigging process is here), so I can sit and write creatively at any time regardless of a certain five-year-old (and now a newborn), but I cleave to routine as much as I can.

Treat yourself well: We treat our brains like they're these psychic entities that live on other planes of existence that can only be reached by astral projection from the psi-vortexes within our skulls but our brains are right there with us not getting enough sleep, hurting from stress, and feeling kind of overloaded after that triple cheeseburger with greasy fries and a shake. Exercise a little (if you can). Eat decently (if you can). Drink enough water. Take your meds (if you can).

Trust the process: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they believe it's got to be perfect and aren't trusting that it will probably be completely different––they may not even keep the entire first chapter.  See, you're going to have to write many drafts. You're going to need peer review. You're going need to change some stuff.  You're not the chosen one who won't need to rewrite your book and make huge changes. You're not the special snowflake who is going to get no feedback that doesn't hurt your feelings at least a little. You are not the messiah of writing who won't have to write a few years before you're good enough that people want to pay you to do it. The process is long, messy, and sometimes painful but if you don't trust it––implicitly trust in all its imperfect chaos––ironically, it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful. And that goes for the larger process too––processes like how many years of practice it's going to take. Processes that must be trusted.

Do peer review: A special shout out to the part of the process people tend to trust the least. It's gonna sting. You won't like it at first. You're brilliant and why can't they see that? Seriously they didn't notice that thing you did? Who are these clowns anyway? But you have to get you some, and even more importantly you have to GIVE you some. In the getting, you will see all the things you think you're doing well that you're not. You'll learn what you need to work on. In the giving, you'll learn more about how to make your own writing deliberate and conscious. Without peer review, you'll skip happily along, thinking you are brilliant until you hit a gatekeeper, your first review, or (if you self-publish) really, really shitty sales. It's not easy, but it's peasy. Feed back some feedback on your....um.....back.

Have fun: Remember fun? Back before the frustration that you weren't published and making money? Back when you just wrote because you loved it? Because books were magic and you wanted to cast your own spell? Go back. Fall in love all over again. Plenty of writing is hard and not fun so try to find joy where you can. Write something you'll never publish. Catch yourself giggling. Play with the words. Toss out a scene and see where it goes, knowing you'll most likely kill it in the morning. Laugh at your own jokes. Have FUN again! Back off all that big-picture pressure about who's going to read it and what publisher might pick it up and for how much of an advance. That's way down the road. For now, just remember that quiet joy that brought you to the page in the first place. Joy is so....joyful and joyous. Joy.

I know this guy who has a blog: Seriously, this is what I do. I write a blog. Look....here it is! Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the shrimp puffs. See if you can watch your cells on the back of your hand doing mitosis like I can. There's LOTS of advice here: writing promptscraft advicemany many questions for the mailbox. I'm still working on a lot of that stuff but it's only been seven years––don't fucking rush me. I do a lot of stuff. But given that this is what I do for a living, and I make enough to live on, I can't recommend me enough. I'll eventually extrapolate on all these things and more. This is some good shit, my friend. Zzzome gooooood shiiiiiiit.

Oh my. Oh, I do apologize.  Well.....if you'll excuse me, I'm coming down off of an adrenaline high, and I can feel this tranquilizer is.... kicking in. So I need to sign off and take a––*thud*

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