The End Of The Beginning: Now The Real Work Begins
Holy shit, right?
Doesn’t matter if it was a NaNoWriMo project, or whether it’s just the end of a hard haul down a long writing road, you’re standing over there with a Finished Product. Good on you. You’re beaming. You’ve got that glow. That “just been giddily fucked in the bathroom” glow. Your hair’s a muss. Limbs akimbo. Drool dangling off your chin, oozing from a pair of grinning dipshit lips.
Of course, the big question is:
Tricky question, that. Everybody’s endgame here is going to be different, but maybe you’d like to hear my thoughts on the matter? Sure you do. You’re here, aren’t you? You came here on your own. I didn’t make you come here. Okay, yes, once you got here I did duct tape you to that chair. But that’s not my fault. That’s your fault. WHY DO YOU MAKE DADDY DUCT TAPE YOU TO THINGS?
Whoa. Holy crap.
Let’s just shake that off and move on, so I can help you figure out your next moves.
This is not a touchy-feely “hugs, not drugs!” kind of blog. This is a meth-fueled, Ambien-addled “slap you ’til you acquiesce” kind of blog. Still, as noted, I do advocate rewards from time to time. This is one of those times. Hey, listen, if you really finished something, you’re sucking on rarefied air. The world is home to an infinite applecart full of precious fruits that think themselves writers. Fact is, most are spoiled. Most won’t finish a goddamn thing. Oh, they’ll talk about it. They’ll spin yarns in their own heads. But their work ethic is for shit (and in case you need another Hard Dose of Troof, Doyce Testerman will remind you that Work Ethic > Big Brains any day of the week, and to reinforce that notion, my father will come back from the dead and stick his workboot spleen-deep in your body). The fact that you actually crossed over the finish line is a big deal. As such, you deserve kudos. Don’t expect other people to reward you, so, fuck it, reward yourself a little bit. Don’t go overboard. A cupcake here. A shot of tequila there. A three-week Tijuana bender with donkey shows, mescaline binges, and dust-swept desert wrestling matches with your totem animal, El Escorpión! Nothing too crazy, is what I’m saying.
2. Crash Back To Earth
You’ll be sleeping on the supine, hog-tied body of your spirit animal, El Escorpión. Your mouth will taste of donkey tail and mezcal. You will have no pants and no money, for that’s how El Escorpión rolls. When you awaken, reality strikes you in the back of the head with its uncaring truncheon. You’ll be forced to ask, “What the hell did I just do? Did I drink the venom of my spirit totem? Did I make love to a donkey?” The answer is no, no you didn’t. All you did was finish a novel. But here’s the actual reality —
You didn’t finish shit.
I know. It feels like you did.
But all you accomplished was the completion of one stage of the whole shebang.
You got a lot more work to do, hombre.
El Escorpión was just a motherfucking mini-boss.
Back to work, chief.
3. Time For The Trial Separation
Whatever you just finished — novel, script, memoir, hateful anti-Socialist screed — you need to shelve it. Hide it from yourself. Put it in a drawer. Put it in a safe. Let someone else safeguard it. Say goodbye to it. Bare minimum? One month.
I mean it. Don’t even think about it during this time.
You’ll want to go back to it. You’ll want to mess with it.
Stop. Stop that right now. It’s like a scab. Stop picking at it. You’re just going to infect it. It won’t heal this way.
Why do we do this? Isn’t this sort of insane? Isn’t life short?
Life is short, yes. I’m not suggesting you enter a coma during this month. Find other work to do. Since you’re a writer — well, goddamnit, write something. Take that month and bang out a short story, or use that time to re-energize your blog, or make some cash doing freelance donkey erotica.
The reason we do this is because you need to transform your role. You need to stop being a writer and become a reader, at least in terms of this new work of yours. This takes time, though thankfully, not much effort. See, the transition is a rough one. When you finish a novel — or anything, really — you’re still emotional about it. I don’t mean you’re necessarily all giggly and weepy, I just mean that it’s quite likely that the work features things you love and things you hate in equal measure.
But you’re very likely wrong about those things.
You need to get out of the forest and see the big picture.
You need time away. You need a trial separation.
4. You Also Need Readers, Plural
Not one. Many. At least… mmm, say, three. I’m picking that number out of a hat, but three at least gives you some room to work with. Do not procure these readers until your trial separation is ended. You need the distance, remember, and they need it, too. Because you’re not ready to hear their criticisms, yet. They’re gonna hate the things you love and love the things you hate, and your world will turn upside down and you won’t be able to feel your legs and next thing you know, you’re burying yet another body out in the Jersey Pine Barrens. Nobody wants that.
What are you looking for in these readers?
Raw, unfiltered sycophancy. They must worship you. They must nurse on the magic teat that is your prose, they must —
No, no, wait. That’s all wrong.
You need people who are already readers, for one. If they hate books and do nothing but watch endless marathons of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, they’re probably not for you.
You need people who you can count on. When you hand them something, get a guarantee they’ll read it, and by when. This isn’t a perfect system, of course — not everybody can commit the time, and not everybody can commit it unfailingly. So, you need to give them a little room — don’t expect to have your work read over the weekend. They might need a month. That’s okay. You can still use this time as an extension to your trial separation, which means more paychecks rolling in from all that hot-ass donkey erotica you keep writing. (Freak.)
You need people who know how to give a note. Your mother probably isn’t one of them. If they’re the type of people who are either unerringly positive or wholly negative, then that’s not helpful. Constructive criticism is the name of the game.
5. Harden The Fuck Up, Care Bear
Okay, here’s the real trick. You need to learn how to take criticism. This ain’t easy, and comes with practice. It’s probably like sticking things in your ass, if you were so inclined to travel that path — sure, at first, you can only take a pinky, and even then when it’s been liberally greased with peanut oil. But, after a few months of training, you can stick a whole grapefruit or bowling pin up there. You’ve trained your anus to accommodate larger and larger objects, and taking criticism is like that.
I mean, uhh, I’m just guessing.
(Listen, when the photos of me taking daikon radishes up my ass finally hit the web, I’m going to politely ask you just look away. Just look away.)
Here are my current tips on how to take a note:
First, even after the trial separation, your reaction is going to be: “No! Wrong! Rage! Muh! Gnnuuuh! Gggnnnngg!” That may last for about 30 seconds. That may last for 24 hours. I dunno. But let it pass. It will subside.
Second, repeat after me: “I’ll try that.” Even if you don’t like the note, you might want to say those three words. They have a criticism, and maybe you don’t agree with it. Provided it’s not completely asinine, consider actively attempting to address the criticism — even if you think it’s a dickbrained idea. You might be surprised how often you come away saying, “Okay, that actually works.”
Third, the criticism may not be right on the mark, but it’s still hitting the target. What I mean is, you may not agree with a specific bit of criticism for a very key reason: “If I remove that element, it’ll break this other element.” Sure. Fine. Still, the criticism is pointing a problem area, and you need to find a way around it. Some criticisms will offer unique solutions, but you don’t need to take them — they’re not your solutions. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can avoid a solution altogether. It’s still a problem. Find the problem area, and address it. Think of it in this abstract manner: someone tells the doctor, “My knee hurts.” Doctor can’t find anything wrong with the knee, but that doesn’t mean the pain isn’t real and doesn’t have a cause. So, he’s got some work to do. (“You’ve got spineworms!”) You are the doctor in this scenario, and your reader is the patient. The patient is pointing out the hurt knee. You have to ease the pain of that knee, even if the solution isn’t obvious.
Fourth, compare criticisms against other criticisms. This is one of the reasons why multiple readers are key. One reader hates Codpiece Johnson as a protagonist, but another reader loves him — well, suddenly you might have a preferential issue. You may not need to address that (though not necessarily — if Reader A reads a lot of thrillers and you wrote a thriller, then Reader A is more representative of “your audience”). But if all three readers say, “Dude, Codpiece Johnson’s gotta go. I hate him, and his leather jacket, and his pet Kodiak bear,” then you know the score.
6. Mozambique Drill Your Darlings
Kill your darlings.
Kill everything that’s precious — by “precious,” I mean, those elements that exist only to serve themselves.
Use the notes your readers gave, but also do your own hard-ass readthrough.
It’s like that scene in The Matrix, where they just chew through the bank with chattering machine guns.
Do that to your work. Walk through its halls, executing with extreme prejudice.
Once you have distance, this is a lot easier than you think.
7. Repeat Until Insane
You’ve got rewriting to do. So do that. And then come back to it, and run through this shit again. You probably need to. It’ll go a little easier the second time, and if you must go beyond that, it’ll get better and better until finally, you’ve actually got a finished product. (But even there — shhh. It ain’t finished. I have a novel with an agent, and I know she’s going to do line edits, and then a publishing company — Jeebus willing — will ask for edits, and so even with a finished product I don’t have a finished product.) Now it’s time to figure out how to get that sumbitch published.
That’s a blog post for another day, though.