We’ve all done it.
We write what feels in our gut like the most heart-wrenching, glorious, meaningful story ever put into words, and we polish it until it’s as beautiful as language can be. Then we hand it around, to our writing workshop or critique circle or peer group or dedicated readers, and we sit back and wait for the compliments to come pouring in (“How did you do it? I felt like I knew these people! I’ve lived your story a thousand times in my heart! Your metaphors, exposition, insights—I am humbled! You’re so brilliant, I just want to shake your hand and give my keyboard over into your vastly safer keeping. . .”).
And what happens?
Those ingrates come back with suggestions.
“Really?” they say with the most perfect deadpan faces. “This is what you’ve been up to? Honey, they’re starting a knitting class down at the Y next week. Maybe you’d like to sign up? I understand John Steinbeck was a great one for knitting.”
Hand it out without waiting for it to cool off
This is my personal favorite.
I love doing this one.
By the time I’ve finished a rewrite, that darn manuscript is so hot it’s jumping right out of my hands. It’s not my fault. My words are simply on fire.
(Flaubert did it, too. And his friends made him set his manuscript on fire.)
You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel? “I love this paragraph.” Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified. I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”
Let me tell you, you do not EVER want to hear your agent, of all people, say those words to you. Wowza. Trust me on this one.
Neglect to read other books
Decades ago, John Prine said it: “Blow up your TV.”
And he meant it.
And he was right.
Far, far too many aspiring writers these days are trying to write fiction the way they see storytelling done in television and in movies. But fiction isn’t screenplay. The page isn’t film. They’re not the same medium.
Yes, it sucks for everyone that reading takes more effort than watching a flickering color screen, and when you come home from a long day at the office (and on the subway or freeway or bus to and from the office) it’s easier to pick up the remote than it is to pick up a book.
Nobody’s forcing us to do this work.
If you want to write fiction, you have to read it. It’s just like riding a bike—nobody ever learned how to do that by sky-diving.
Ignore sensible feedback
I know. You’re on the cutting-edge of fiction, misunderstood by your contemporaries, corrected and insulted by your peers, dismissed by the same kind of people who refused to read Emily Bronte, Jean Rhys, and Jane Bowles. Probably the very same people. Those cretins never learn.
Yeah, they misunderstand me too.
I’m going to be dead five hundred years before anybody gets me.
But in the meantime, I’d better make an effort to roll with their feedback, at least for show. Even cretins sometimes luck into a good piece of advice. Just because they wouldn’t take it for their own manuscripts doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take it for mine.
Neglect to research writing advice
And this one’s really hard, because not only is there a ton—a super-condensed black hole ton—of writing advice floating around out there, especially now that the blogosphere has turned everyone with a keyboard and a thoughtful expression into an aspiring writer, but a great great great great good deal of it is crap.
Of course, if you’re still aspiring and not an experienced long-time professional in this field, you have no idea what’s good advice and what’s crap.
So you dutifully read it all, try like heck to sort it into some kind of logical sense, and synthesize it in the deeper, darker, slimier recesses of your poor overloaded brainpan.
And it’s like trying to reconcile the houses of Lancaster and York, goddammit. You can’t do it!
Somebody is simply wrong.
I know—I did all that during my apprenticeship to the craft, too. It was hell.
That’s why I do what I do now—putting so much advice out there free on the advice column and this blog and making so much of the basics available cheap through my books—because I want you to get the rudiments you need in order to judge for yourself what out there is really useful and what is nonsense being passed around by folks who want to be gurus more than they want to be adepts.
There’s a lot of ‘em.
I don’t make my living on this cheap and freebie stuff. I make it behind the scenes, where the vast majority of you never even know it’s going on, in editing the individual manuscripts and the emails and conversations I work on all day every day with individual writers. (Only my clients know, and they are extremely gracious about the time I spend on the freebie stuff for everyone else—hi, guys! This is me waving at you!)
However even if you can’t afford to hire me, I still want you to know what you’re doing. I’ve been alone in the world with my stories and dreams and words and typewriter and my empty bank account, with no decent advice to rely on, for years and years.
I know what it’s like. I’ve lived that way, I’ve suffered, and I swear—I feel for you guys.
Neglect to take it
But this one’s your fault. If you read nothing on craft except what you can find right here in front of you right now, on my blog (and there is a whole lot of other fabulous advice available to you out there—Flannery O’Connor, John Gardner, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Raymond Chandler, E.M. Forster, Jack Bingham, Dave King and Renni Browne, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera), there is enough here to put you on the right track and keep you there.
You simply have to do the work.
Try to improve upon the greats
And this is where fanfic meets lazy because, I’m sorry, guys, Elizabeth Bennet is not improved upon by turning her into a potty-mouth 10-year-old’s ignorant joke on the tribal elders. You know why Austen’s characters are still vivid and present and oh-so-enticing to all of us out here with lesser talents 200 years after they first appeared on the page? Not because she made them shocking or gruesome or her era’s equivalent of marketable or racy or edgy. Not because she had a fab agent or an in with a good publishing house or a really killer blog. Not even because she won the 18th-century lottery.
Because she learned her craft.
That’s all. And you can do it, too.
And in case you’re hopping around on one foot now, since you’ve just shot yourself six times in a row (ow, my foot!), take comfort in the 5 Things All Writers Always Overlook.
The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
“The freshest and most relevant advice you’ll find.”
—Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Wonderfully useful, bracing and humorous. . .it demystifies the essential aspects of the craft while paying homage to the art.”
—Millicent Dillon, five time O.Henry Award winner and author of the PEN/Faulkner-nominated Harry Gold
“Teeming with gold. . .will make you love being a writer if only because you belong to the special little club that gets to read this book.”
—KM Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel
The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
“Opinionated, rumbunctious, sharp and always entertaining. . .lessons of a writing lifetime.”
—Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel
“As much a gift to writers as an indispensible resource. . .in a never-done-before manner that inspires while it teaches. Highly recommended.”
—Larry Brooks, author of four bestselling thrillers and Story Engineering
“I wish I’d had The Art & Craft of Story when I began work on my first novel.”
—Lucia Orth, author of the critically-acclaimed Baby Jesus Pawn Shop
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.