Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Five Things I Learned about Being a Writer (by Screwing Them Up)

True that, Jake the Dog. True that.

Here's the truth: I've been writing almost as long as I've been speaking. I've got a whole bunch of years under my belt in terms of experience—more than most folks my age. And, recently, I've been doing a lot of it (producing, all told, around 150,000 words in the last two and a half months). And in all that time, I have screwed up.

Like...a lot.

It's an unfortunate inevitability that when you do something a lot, you're going to make mistakes often. And on the long journey to being sorta good at writing, I have made some pretty huge mistakes—sometimes things that cramped my writing muscles for months, even years. And, in the spirit of shared knowledge, I'm compiling a list—here, for you—of the Five Things I Learned from my Five Biggest Writing Failures Ever.

1. I'm not a protagonist.

When I started writing fiction at the tender age of seven, my instinct was to put myself into the stories.

Wait, did I say myself? Scratch that. I put everyone I knew into my stories. 

Usually, the list started with my best friend and whatever girl I liked at the time. And, of course, I was always the hero. It was only fair, right? Don't they tell us to write what we know? And am I not the hero of my own story? That's a good idea, right?


Here's the truth: whenever I wrote stories in which I was the hero, and my current crush was the love interest, and everything else mirrored my real life as much as it could, the story was terrible. The cause is simple enough; real life isn't a story. At least, it doesn't look like a story to us, because we're so entrenched in it we can't see the larger picture. By patterning my stories after my life, I was enslaving the story to something external—something I couldn't affect in any appreciable way. That hobbled my ability to tell the story, and it crippled the story's ability to be any good.

The Failure: making my stories pale imitations of life.
The Lesson: DON'T. A story ought to be its own creature, not some farce indentured to the real world.

2. I'm not actually in charge.

It's tempting to think that, as a writer, I have ultimate control over things. I, and I alone, have constructed this little oubliette-world I'm tinkering with; I devised its laws, shaped its social structure, birthed its inhabitants from my own mind. I am become god of this tiny place, if only for a short time.

Until, that is, one of the characters starts to exercise a little free will. It turns out that making characters that are worthwhile—active, dynamic, expressive characters with real wants and needs and styles—lets them start thinking for themselves (sort of). It's an odd interplay between an author's goals and a character's needs. What I've learned is that it's simply not a good idea to strong-arm a character into doing what I want instead of what he wants.

Even if doing the things he wants will land him in jail, or muck up things between him and his friends, or seriously inconvenience the plot I had in mind. I'm of the opinion that the best sorts of stories happen at the intersection of complex plots and powerful characters. I suspect that the trick of it is to set up the world of the plot like a row of dominos, and then let the character knock them about however he sees best to do so.

The Failure: making my characters vehicles for the story.
The Lesson: let the characters do what they need to. Stories are better when the characters act in accordance with their natures.

3. I'm not a genius.

I've heard from a number of writing sources that there are two types of writers: gardeners and architects. Gardeners put some reactive ingredients in a bowl for a little while and write about what happens, letting their subconscious do all the heavy lifting for them. Architects, however, design their plots in intimate detail before they've written a single word of story. It's a continuum, of course; I don't think anybody is purely a "gardening" writer or an "architect" writer. For myself, I oscillate between the two, switching back and forth between tending the garden and planning the garden. 

It wasn't always like that, though. I used to think that I was purely a gardener: that I could just write stuff and it would all cohere later. I didn't see any need for story notes, and I thought that people who used outlines were irretrievably mad.

It took me about thirteen years to break out of the idea that I was a genius. I was sort of convinced that, anytime I wrote, there was some kind of irrepressible brilliance bubbling just under the surface of my conscious mind; I didn't make mistakes, just brilliant moves that hadn't panned out yet. But, over time, it became more and more obvious that I was just making things up as I went along. There was no higher purpose; there was no plan. I was winging it.

Don't get me wrong: there are writers who "wing it" all the time and they're some of the giants of the field. Stephen King spits on outlines. Patrick Rothfuss has yet to need notes for his sprawling, complex plot. They're geniuses.

Simply put...I am not ain't.*

The Failure: refusing to outline because I thought I was "better than that."
The Lesson: I have to admit that I'm not brilliant. I'm no genius. In fact...

4. I'm not as good as I thought.

Nowhere near as good as I thought.

One of the greatest feelings in the world is the one you have at the end of the day after writing 5000 words. They're not perfect words, not by any stretch, but they're good words, and they exist, which is important. And you're exhausted and languid and drunk on how awesome you are and you go to bed.

And then you wake up and read what you did yesterday and you do this.

It's one of the immutable laws of writing: first drafts are always bad. Just ask Ann Lamott, who wrote an essay about really bad first drafts (spoiler alert: she uses a synonym for "poopy"). There's no way to get around that. First drafts are just bad. There's no way around it; nobody produces their best words in one go. Writing is revising. That's what makes it such a fascinating art form. In speaking, once your words are out, they're out. But writing has so much opportunity for polishing. Misspeaking is unavoidable, but writing has no such constraints. Once my thoughts have been spewed out, I have the opportunity to make them better. That's priceless.

(Obviously, there are the rare prodigies who produce first-draft words that are better than other people's final-draft words. The best way to handle these people is with patience, or, failing that, a bazooka.)

The Failure: thinking I could produce perfect words and never need to revise.
The Lesson: revision is necessary, and denying that is stupid. While I may be able to write well on the first draft, the words will never be as good as they could have been.

5. I'm not allowed to make excuses.

This is the final and most difficult thing. Herein lies the gap between writers and typists.

(I've said before that there are people who identify themselves as writers who shouldn't. Truth be told, I avoid saying "I'm a writer" wherever I can, if only because I don't feel I've earned the title yet. I'll say that I'm "studying writing" or that I "write," but I'm not yet a writer. I aspire to it, yes, and I train for it, but I'm not there yet. Calling myself a writer when I've accomplished so little is an insult to a noble and beautiful craft.)

When I began writing, I enjoyed it. I loved it, in fact. But it didn't take long for me to become very, very proud of myself.

I would look over the things I'd written, surveying the miniature world I'd created and the characters I'd formed with nothing but ink and the soul-stuff I'd crammed into it, glorying in how well-crafted my little intricacies were, and I would think to myself, "You know what? I'm pretty good at this."

And then I would stop writing.

(This is the trap. This is the opiate, the little death that numbs the mind and fools us into believing we've done something worthwhile.)

I would justify it with things, of course. "I have other stuff to do today." "I'll return to it." "I have writer's block."


These are excuses. Nothing is as terrible an excuse as writer's block. You know what the best way to handle writer's block is? Writing.

Remember the beautiful thing about this craft? No matter what's been written already, it's available for edits. Nothing is sacred.

For weeks that became months, and months that became years, I used writer's block as an excuse. I had other names for it, of course—if it kept presenting with only one name, I might have grown suspicious: not knowing where the story was going. Needing to edit earlier chapters. Refusing to write stuff that was "low-quality."

I cannot stress this enough: low-quality is inevitable. The only way to beat low-quality is to spew it onto the page and then hack away at it until you've found what's worthwhile. That might be one sentence in an entire chapter, mind you. There might be 5000 words of useless drivel surrounding one single, perfect sentence...but the only way to reach that sentence is to wade through all the dreck, ripping out the pieces that refuse to carry their own weight. Using the pride I took in my work as an excuse not to work was stupid.

The Failure: getting too caught up in how much I liked my writing to actually write.
The Lesson: as cliche as it is, go big or go home. There are a multitude of techniques and styles to writing, but in the end, they all boil down to one thing: sit in the chair. Open the mind. And write.

*Father forgive me, for I have sinned. I have written "ain't." I pray that your grammar rules are more consequentialist than deontological.


  1. Excellent post- and HECK YEAH DUNE REFERENCE.

  2. Good thoughts, Chandler! Your first point reminds me of Taylor Swift, who my daughter is obsessed with right now. The first few songs about her current love interest were okay. But fast forward 3 million songs later that I have to listen to ALL THE TIME, and I'm frankly bored out of my mind. Make up a story, Taylor! Your real life isn't that interesting!