We’ve all done it.
We write what feels like the most heart-wrenching, glorious, meaningful story ever put into words, and we polish it until it’s as beautiful as a rare seashell. 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 instead?
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.”
How do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot?
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 this blog and my advice column 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.