Sunday, February 1, 2009

Learning the Breaststroke… Over the Internet

“It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all.” --Will Shetterly

Being a writer is all about taking risks. Every book about the craft will tell you and every experienced author will agree, you have to push beyond your limits. While this is sound advice, it can also be rather daunting. We may wonder, “Does this mean I should write historical when I’m drawn to science-fiction? Must I write hot when I prefer sweet?”

The answer is not so simple. Yes, we should challenge ourselves by stepping outside our comfort zone if for no other reason to explore the other aspects of our writing selves. No, we don’t need to twist up our creative self into a pretzel shape based on market or the advice of others.

In reality, every page we type is a risk. Every idea we explore is a challenge. Who hasn’t experienced a tremor of unease which we translate quickly into Writer’s Block? Often the truth is simply that we’re nudging up against our unspoken fear. The Fear That Dare Not Be Named is this: What if my writing sucks?

“You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing.” --Gene Wolfe

The more we write, the more we learn how to write. As we write our first novel we grow. Eventually we master POV and catchy hooks and dramatic cliff-hangers, a fabulous progression of events which often leads to the unfortunate notion that the fear will disappear completely. The good news is for some writers that will be the case. *smile* However, the percentage is small. Most of us struggle and whine and sigh and finally beat that damn fear into submission.

How? By writing. By writing a page even when our inspiration dwindles. By pushing to finish a chapter even if we’re certain our prose is stale. By finishing our first draft despite our inner critic who whispers that a REAL writer’s work is perfect from the get-go!

Let’s collectively roll our eyes and snort. *grin*

“You sit down and you do it, and you do it, and you do it, until you have learned to do it.” --Ursula K. LeGuin

Writers learn by writing. The mental acuity required to pen a story and polish it until it gleams is not something you learn by reading craft books. Some of the insights contained in craft books or in workshops conducted by bestselling authors will open your eyes. They may give you a new perspective which will enhance your story a thousand-fold. Those books and classes can educate you to the point where you’ll be capable of opening your own school.

But they can’t teach you how to write. Only you can do that by writing. All writers are self-taught.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” --Alice Walker

I’m a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory on CBS. In one episode, Sheldon (a nerdy genius with off-the-charts IQ) decides he wants to befriend a fellow scientist in order to gain access to the Open Science Grid Computer. His roommate Leonard tries to explain that he can’t approach making new friends the same way he learned how to swim… over the internet. Hilarious! The idea of someone learning how to swim without jumping into water is insane!

Uh-oh. *grin* This strikes a chord. How many of us have attempted the same thing?

The way we learn to write is by writing. By occasionally composing delightful, engaging, brilliant passages along with a whole lot of crap. *heh-heh*

“If you don't allow yourself the possibility of writing something very, very bad, it would be hard to write something very good.” --Steven Galloway

So, here’s the low-down. Boot up the computer or grab your pad of paper. Write. Get your story down. If you’re bogged down because you’ve written yourself in a corner, pull up a new document and vent. Spew out any and all ideas until one grabs you and doesn’t let go. Your intellect may encourage you to be cautious. Kick that caution to the curb. Write.

"If we listened to our intellect, we'd never have a love affair. We'd never have a friendship. We'd never go into business, because we'd be too cynical. Well, that's nonsense. You've got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down." --Annie Dillard

If you love your idea, let go of the absurd notion of a perfect first draft. Or second. Or third. You have to marry your plot and see it through… for better or for worse. Cozy up close because you’ll be sleeping with and dreaming of your tale until the breath-taking moment of completion. Stick to it. Write. Rewrite. Make the story your own.

“Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it...” --Michael Crichton

Here’s the best news of all. As you progress to your second, third, fourth, fifth book, a marvelous insight will blaze.

You’re getting better all the time.

Each book will reflect your progress. Here’s a secret that authors can only discover after they’ve written a few books. You learn more after three books than you do after three rewrites. Which is why one piece of advice pops up more than most. Write Your Next Book. If your book isn’t being snatched up, set it aside and write your next one. And your next one.

My last women’s fiction didn’t garner the attention I was absolutely certain it deserved. *smile* I shelved it while I pursued my fourth book. 65,000 words into my WIP, my last book got picked up. After keeling over in shock, I applied myself to the diligent task of giving it a read-through and doing any necessary clean-up. Here’s what I found.

TONS of mistakes. The book I’d pored over and pronounced perfect after endless revisions now revealed glaring holes and leaky prose. The simple truth is, I learned so much by writing my next book, my perspective had changed. The term, “Looking at it with new eyes” took on greater meaning. Trust me, this is not opinion, this is fact. You Will Grow As A Writer.

“You should never be ashamed to admit you have been wrong. It only proves you are wiser today than yesterday.” --Jonathan Swift

It’s all good. *smile* If you feel frustrated, relax, you’re a writer. If you feel fear, relax, you’re a writer. If you worry that your book isn’t perfect, Relax, You’re A Writer. You’re not alone. You will get through the endless drafts. You will finish one book and begin another. You will find an audience. You will succeed. Just keep writing.

“I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters.” --James A. Michener

Jump on in… The water’s fine. *smile*

Ready to start a new week? Let’s go! Write-write-WRITE! Go-go-GO!!

Chiron O'Keefe


Misty Evans said...

Hi Chiron! Having just finished final line edits on my next thriller novel, I can tell you that the art of rewriting is truly the key to making our stories sing.

Getting that first draft down is like surviving high school. It's awkward and scary and sometimes it's hell. However, when you get to the next level, college, you get to do a total makeover.

Jumping in!

Angela Guillaume said...

Here you go again with a lovely blog saying just what I needed to hear. Now that I'm working on the fourth rewrite of a full-length novel, I know and believe all that you're saying. It's all true - and being aware takes away the frustration and turns it into a wonderful experience of learning.

Thank you!
PS - I know you tagged me, and I'm going to play the game - I promise :-D.


Elaine Cantrell said...

I'd venture to say that The Fear That Dare Not Be Named gets in the way of so many of us. Great article.

Sandy said...


I love this post, and I like James A. Michener have to rewrite to make my work better. The great part is yet to come. Grin.


Chiron said...

Hello Misty!

What a great analogy! High-school... *snort* I love it!

Good luck with your Next Thriller! May it garner even better reviews (IF that's possible *wink*).

Smiles and hugs,

Chiron said...

Hello Angela!

I'm so glad this week's essay rang true for you. Those rewrites are simply amazing. Everytime I think my eyes have spotted every possible thing, someone manages to point out more. It's a lovely learning process!

Happy rewrites!

Smiles and hugs,

Chiron said...

Thanks Elaine!

Ah yes... The Fear... Every writer has a shadow, which is why we need to keep that inner light shining bright, eh?

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Smiles and hugs,

Chiron said...

Write ON, Sandy!

I loved that quote too. We always seem to think there's this magical pinnacle that we'll reach and THEN the writing is easy. But it seems it's hard work for us all. No matter how successful the author, each book gets written (and rewritten) one page at a time...

Smiles and hugs,

Linda LaRoque said...

Oh so true, Chiron. It's amazing even in those final edits to STILL find errors. Our eyes just skip right over them sometimes.

As always, a great post.


Anonymous said...

As always, Chiron, your words hit their mark with me. I've just completed my third story and, while I still have the synopsis and query to write, I know I'll be tweaking these pages again and again before I submit them. It's amazing how many "obvious" errors are missed on the first or second go-round.


Chiron said...

It really is amazing, Debbie! I'm now thick in the midst of edits and shaking my head quite a bit. I think I'm learning more by editing than I ever did by writing the book!


Good luck with the synopsis and query!!

Smiles and hugs,

Chiron said...

Linda, it really astonishes me that I can *see* things in my CP's books but not my own! *snort*

It takes a fresh set of eyes to catch them all!

Smiles and hugs,

Carol Webb said...

I thought I'd drop by and thank you for coming by Much Cheaper Than Therapy. I love all the quotes, particularly by Norman Vincent Peale. Talk about inspirational, and right now with the economy in the tank, I need all the inspiration I can get. :) Thanks! Carol

Chiron said...

Hello Carol!

I loved visiting Much Cheaper Than Therapy. That has to be the best title EVER. *laughs*

Those quotes are wonderful, aren't they? I'm particularly fond of Norman Vincent Peale. My first peek into his inspirational writings happened when I was still just a teen. He's been inspiring me ever since.

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Smiles to you,