Once in a while, I like to take the myths about writing that circulate, and I like to hunt them, and I like to slay them with my GOLDEN ARROWS OF WISDOM. (Man, how’s that for ego? ‘Golden arrows of wisdom?’ Somebody needs to give me a right good slapping.) Seriously, though, writers are often sandbagged by these persistent goblins of untruth that climb up on their backs and start riding them like ponies. That’s no good. You want to write, then write. And get shut of any toxic myths that would poison your process.
Here goes. Ten — no! Eleven! — myths I wanna kick in the basket.
“Writers have to write.”
The myth is that writers are urged, compelled, forced to write as if by some indomitable, external spirit. It’s true that many writers are driven obsessively to create, but the danger in this myth is that when you sit down for a day of writing, if you don’t feel the sacred wordmonkey spirit move through you, then you’re a bad writer, or not a writer, or that you just shouldn’t write at all. Some days I don’t want to write. Some days I am so uncompelled by the act that I’d rather do anything else at all. I’ll clean my desk, or build a blasphemous icon out of paperclips, or groom my hirsute body of various mites and ticks. It’s bullshit. Writers don’t always want to write. And that’s okay.
“Writers have to write every day.”
BZZT, false, poop, myth alert, no.
I write every day. I write every day because I am a person who a) needs the discipline and b) has a mortgage to pay and c) pays that mortgage with my crass penmonkeying. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid, and so I endeavor to write every day — and by every day, I don’t actually mean every day. I mean Monday through Friday. I take weekends off. I take holidays off. I take random days off to go do random shit.
Every writer is different. Every writer possesses a different process. Some people open their maws and disgorge 10,000 words at a time. Some writers peck through the word count — a hundred words here, a hundred there. One writer takes a year to write a book. Another takes three. I write a first draft in around 30-90 days. Everybody does their thing. No thing is wrong as long as the thing is getting done. Whatever your process is, accept no shame for it. (Shame is a worthless booster anyway.) The key here is: make sure your process works. Some writers get married to a process that doesn’t work, and then they stubbornly cling to it like a monkey riding a tiger, afraid that if they leave the beast, the tiger will eat them. We can always refine our process. And as we grow and our lives change, so do our processes. Just as there is no one perfect process for all writers, there is no one perfect process for you individually, either.
“If you’re not published by Age XYZ, then you might as well be a rodeo clown.”
Some writers start young.
Some start middle-aged.
Others in retirement.
OTHERS SCREAM NOVELS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE.
Who cares? Write if you wanna write. You don’t even need to marry being a writer with being published. If you want to write, write independently of your desire to be published. That secondary part can come later. Write to write, don’t write to be published. It matters little what age you are. Age lends weight and experience to the work. You’ll be fine.
If you’re 15, 50 or 105, go ahead, write.
“Outlining diminishes magic.”
a) writing is not magic, though it sometimes feels that way
b) outlining, or any act, will not kill the magic that doesn’t exist
c) magic does not exist
d) unless you’re harry potter
e) but you’re not harry potter
People worry somehow that outlining like, bottles the lightning or steals the thunder or robs them of some precious elf juice. Like, if they outline, they’ll give away their novel to this ugly process and now it’s all ruined, pouty-pout-mopey-face. Listen, if you ruin your story by outlining it, then your story wasn’t that fucking exciting to begin with — and oh ha ha ha oh shit it’s a good thing you never got to the editing phase, because boy howdy, editing feels less like wizardry and more like plumbing.
To be clear, I’m not saying you need to outline. (Though I’ll always remind writers that though you may hate the idea, some publishers will ask for synopses and outlines, especially as your career advances, so it remains a skill worth learning if not universally incorporating.) What I’m saying is, if you choose to do it, it won’t kill your work.
I compare writing a novel to taking a cross-country trip: in taking that trip, you would likely plot your journey, but plotting that journey does not rob you of all the things you will see along the way. Imagining the journey is not taking the journey. Nor does it prevent you from taking unexpected routes or exits when the sights call for it.
“I don’t need to know the rules.”
You need to know the rules because that’s how writing works. You only break the rules once you know them — breaking the rules willfully is an act of artistic independence. Breaking the rules ignorantly is an act of being an asshole. Knowing the rules is a good way to realize what rules are important to you and which ones are not. That is a way to be stylistically in command and not some Forrest Gump doofus gumping his way around Novel-Land hoping to get lucky and not shit it all up. Breaking rules with knowledge of the rules is some bad-ass, sinister shit. It’s walking away from an exploding building without flinching.
Be that character. That character is awesome.
“I’m not a real writer because [insert reason here].”
Real writers write.
Like, that’s it.
Three words, so simple, so precious. Do you write? You are a writer.
Avoid artistic purity tests.
Actually, avoid most purity tests, because they’re cliquish and elite.
“I need an MFA or some kind of formal training.”
Nobody cares about your MFA.
Nobody cares about Clarion or your degree or what karate belt you’re up to or what you had for dinner last night. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter one lick.
That’s not to say MFAs are bad. Or that Clarion is bad. They can be great. They may be useful to you in building skills. Look at it this way: if you submit a manuscript that is shitty, it doesn’t matter if you have an MFA. If you submit a manuscript that is amazing, it really doesn’t matter if you went to Clarion. You do programs to learn, not to build a ladder. (Admittedly, sometimes these programs offer you connections, and those are good. Just the same, they are utterly non-essential and you still have to actually write a good book. Though, more on that in a few.)
“Writing is a talent.”
Nope! Some writers are certainly talented, but talent ain’t shit if you don’t have the work ethic to back it up. Worry about skill. You can build skill. You can practice skill. You can manifest the desire to be a writer, and then you can be a writer by iterating and reiterating and learning and thinking. Sure, some jerks are probably sprung from the uterus with a copy of Scrivener in their hands and half-a-novel already written. They still have to do the work. Talent is like a field of fertile dirt — you still gotta get your hands grimy, you still gotta plant the garden. I’ve known a great many talented writers from my youth, and very few of them made anything of themselves. Meanwhile, I’m a total shithead, and I’ve got a proper writing career because I work very hard at doing it. If talent is real, it barely matters without work. So do the thing you control. Do the work.
“Someone is going to steal my idea.”
Ideas are not precious little snowflakes that melt if you breathe on them.
Ideas are not diamonds people want to take.
Ideas are rugged, brutish, ugly things. Ideas are pieces of wood and hunks of stone. It’s up to you to sand them and polish them and fit them together how you see fit. They’re not rare gems. Your vision of an idea will be different than mine even if they come from the same core concept. I could right now try to write Die Hard and I’d come up with my own version of it without even meaning to. The only thing original about your work is you. You’re the rare gem. The idea is just the light that filters through your many unusual facets.
“Writing is supposed to be easy.”
Ha ha ha ha
Haha hehe ho oh oh oh
*wipes tears away*
That’s a good one.
Some days writing is easy.
Some days writing is like trying to castrate a unicorn with a BB gun.
If writing does not come easy to you:
Welcome to the club, the club called THE WRITING IS SOMETIMES FUCKING HARD CLUB, where we sit around our treehouse and try to write and bite our knuckles till their bloody and engage in training montages (punching frozen beef, drinking lots of whiskey, running through a gauntlet of readers smacking you with one-star Amazon reviews nailed to wooden paddles). Writing isn’t easy. It’s work. And sometimes work feels like work and that’s okay.
“All it takes is for me to write a good book.”
And here, a hard truth.
Writing a good book matters. It matters to me. It matters to you.
It also doesn’t matter as much as you want.
Here is a true fact: lots of great books have failed either to get published or to sell well once they got published. Here is another true fact: lots of very shitty books have done very well.
This is just the way of things. It’s the way of life. Sometimes mediocre people excel. Sometimes geniuses die alone and broke. It can go the other way, too — mediocre people end up landscaping your lawn while you, the genius, are a billionaire who goes to sleep on a bed of her own bitcoins.
Here’s what I will tell you: writing a good book is not the key to the kingdom, but it is valuable just the same. It’s valuable because a writing career — and really, all of life — is predicated on luck. That sounds suspiciously like I’m admitting that there really is magic in the world, but I don’t consider this magic. I consider the existence of life to be relatively random. A mad confluence of atoms and molecules. A turn of the wind, a cataclysm, a shift in weather.
Luck is the universe walking halfway down the road and stopping.
You have to walk, too. You have to meet luck in the middle.
Sometimes, bad luck happens in life, right? But often when this is the case, it’s like — okay, you still had to do something to catch the glinting flinty eye of the Bad Luck Beast. It was bad luck that you went out and a deer ran out in front of your car and the deer came up over the hood and through your windshield and beheaded you. (That actually happened to a guy outside my house when I was a kid, by the way. Big deer took off his head.) That’s bad luck, but it still required actions to take place, right? You still had to get in your car. Still had to drive it down that road at night. It was random, but it wasn’t impossible — like, deer exist. They crash a lot of cars here. They tend to go down backroads at twilight. And if you’re out, and you’re driving fast enough, and if you’re not paying enough attention…
The deer is in the backseat of your car.
Along with your head.
Bad luck. Oops. So sorry.
It’s not that the person deserved that. It’s not that you shouldn’t go driving just in case a deer tries to suicide in front of your speeding bullet of death-steel. But factors lined up in a certain way because you nudged them to.
You met the universe halfway and it fucking killed you with a deer.
Writing is like this.
You cannot control luck, but you can get its attention.
You get its attention in a lot of ways — by engaging with the industry, by going to conventions, by entering an MFA program or by trying to accepted to Clarion. And of course, one of the chiefmost ways of urging luck to your side is by writing a book. You won’t get a book published if, uhh, you don’t write a book. That’d be fucking weird. Not just improbable, but impossible. You write a book, and that ups your chances. You write a good book — and that adds more to your chance. It’s like stacking positive modifiers on a dice roll in a roleplaying game. Sure, you might be able to kill that ogre with a stick you find, but your chances are a lot better if you have like, a chaingun that shoots magical swords.
Writing a book is like forging a sword.
But writing a good book is like forging a magic sword.
I know, I know, I said there was no magic, but damnit, this is metaphor.
The magic sword does not guarantee you’ll slay the ogre.
But it damn sure ups your chances.
Besides, magic swords are fucking baller. And writing a good book gives you the satisfaction of having done so. No, writing a good book is not a guarantee that you will be successful. But it feels great and it ups your chances, so try to do it anyway.
* * *
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.