This past week I put up a post about some mistakes I see in the stories of new(er) writers, and it’s one of those posts that went further and wider than I expected — and for the most part, the response was pretty positive. But there’s this other effect that happens, and sometimes this effect is revealed in emails or I see it in social media, and the effect is this:
I have discouraged you.
My nonsense has stitched into your soul quilt a BLACK SQUARE OF DOUBT.
That saddens me for a number of reasons.
So, first, let me get out of the way a disclaimer — one I think regular readers here recognize, but one that perhaps those who are new to the terribleminds experience (which sounds like a really weird laser light show) do not know:
I’m full of shit.
Just bubbly with it.
And all kinds of shit, too. Horseshit, bullshit, monkey shit, and all of it gets hosed down with a gurgling spray of hogwash and then slathered over with a gluey coating of PURE SHENANIGANS.
Nothing I say here is true.
It is nearly always my opinion. Okay, sometimes I’m talking about things that are writing “rules,” but even there, the rules can flex or even snap satisfyingly in the hands of a savvy craftsman. In fiction, everything is permitted — all magic is manifest if you’re a wizard of proper talent. Exceptions often make for the finest fiction. (They also, contrarily, comprise the bulk of the worst mistakes. Risk big, and you win huge or lose like a motherfucker, I guess.)
My opinion should be weighed in the hand and brought to the nose like any other opinion. How does it feel? How does it smell? If it feels and smells like a big ol’ pile of bloggerrhea to you, then you need to drop it on the sidewalk, wipe your hands on the nearest businessman, and run.
And now, with that disclaimer out of the way —
Listen, if my posts cause you doubt and discouragement, you’re in some trouble.
I try very hard to mix it up here — when I post about writing, I aim to keep a saucy blend of craft advice, publishing talk, storytelling neepery, inspirational tickles, motivational taint-kicks, and so on. Sometimes it’s so-called tough love, and sometimes it’s a big slobbery sobbing hug. We’re all in this together and that means we all need pep talks. But we’re also all friends, or so I like to think (which is why I am standing in your shrubs right now watching you read this), and that also means sometimes we need to speak truth about the things we’re doing poorly.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is, we can all do better.
That’s not just you. That’s me, too. I own that. Every book for me is an opportunity to improve my craft, up my game, and understand something new about the art, the life, the business. I pray to the ashen reliquary of Sweet Saint Fuck that I never become complacent — that I never become one of those authors who refuses to be edited or who thinks their prose-piles don’t stink.
Doubt is an insidious thing. I’ve commented on it many a time. Once you let that demon under your skin, he lives there like a parasite — except instead of leeching your blood, he starts siphoning your confidence. Just as you start to feel good, the worm turns and feeds anew.
And I recognize that posts like mine can contribute to that.
It’s why I suggest that authors are best when they ignore that doubt. Like, I know that’s way easier said than done, but what I mean is: just say fuck it. The doubt is there, and the doubt is a liar demon shitty-pants asshole, so you speak aloud: YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME. And then you keep on keeping on. You write. You rewrite. Write. Rewrite. That’s how you beat doubt. By doing. By doing and iterating endlessly to spite your own fear and shame and uncertainty. Because that’s how you gain confidence, really. And instinct. You do a thing enough times, you start to get a sense of it. You start to see its edges, feel its margins. You know the shape. To go with a metaphor I like to use, writing a novel is like running through a dark house — and the more you do it, the more you start to figure out where the furniture is. You learn how not to bump your knees and shins and knock over lamps. In fact, let’s go with the lamp metaphor, too — you start turning on lamps as you go. Click. Click. Click. Let there be light. And doubt cannot abide the light, so it shrinks into the darkness of rooms where you have not yet been.
And by the way, when I say doubt, I don’t mean the normal feelings of uncertainty you get that suggest your work isn’t perfect. Of course it isn’t perfect. What are you, some kind of Word Angel? Disgorging shining gems of prose from your sanctified maw? No, no, I know my writing isn’t perfect, and I know it’ll never be perfect, but I know I can fix it and I get as many chances as I want or need to fix the damn thing to my liking. That’s not doubt. That’s a comfortable, confident awareness of imperfection. That’s a happy understanding that my work sometimes will need a scalpel, sometimes it’ll need a truckload of Juggalos with chainsaws, sometimes it’ll need orbital lasers. I get it. I’m all good with that. You should be, too.
The kind of doubt I’m talking about is that aforementioned demon doubt.
(Note: I consider this separate from depression. For that, read: “The Writer And Depression.”)
Here’s where I get, though, a little mean — or at least uncomfortable — again.
Let me reiterate:
If my posts cause you doubt and discouragement, you’re in some trouble.
Here’s why you’re in trouble:
First, because I’m just trying to help. If general criticisms of unspecified work have you experiencing the shivering shits that you’re not good enough — enough to paralyze you where you sit, fingers poised over the keyboard and never again to dance on those keys — that’s trouble.
Second, because you’re going to get rejected. Rejections will come from agents, editors, and readers in the form of reviews. And those rejections? They’ll be specific to your book. Not my “painting with shotguns” approach to criticism. But they will be very explicitly pointing their critical laser at the exact thing you wrote. And it’ll hurt. It always hurts. I’ve had a dozen-plus books out and… yep, still burns. Even when it’s a rejection you can discard for XYZ reason, you still feel stung by it. And then eventually the sting wears off and you get back to work.
Third, because this is art. Art is made through agitation. Not necessarily unkind agitation, to be clear, and maybe sometimes I drift too far into the realms of unkindness, and if you feel that way, my apologies. (Er, I’m probably gonna keep doing it, though? So, I guess I’m not that sorry? Is that what sorry not sorry means? I GUESS IT DOES.) This shit isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. You’re not supposed to just write a book and then be like YAY I DID IT SO GOOD YAY and then launch it off into the ocean. That boat has holes in it. That vessel shall sink unceremoniously to the bottom of the drink. Your work needs to be tested. Gone over. Rent asunder and put back together again. As authors and artists, we’re supposed to chew it up, spit it out. We have to let other people kick the tires, rub it on their gums, give it a little slap-and-tickle.
You gotta learn to take criticism.
Sometimes that means taking criticism to heart.
Sometimes that means taking criticism and flinging it over your shoulder.
But it doesn’t mean giving into doubt.
That’s what the demon wants.
And fuck that demon.
You can do this.
No matter what I say.
You won’t do it perfectly.
But you can always make it right.
So go write. And rewrite. And write again.
That’s how you exorcize the demon.
* * *
An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.
But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.
Out now Harper Voyager.