Sunday, March 7, 2010

Learning to Swim on Dry Land

“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 quite as simplistic. Yes, we should challenge ourselves by stepping outside our comfort zone if for no other reason than 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 the current 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 began the process of growth. 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. 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.

“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 accomplish that. 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. 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.

65,000 words into my latest WIP, I tackled the task of editing my last book which I would have sworn was spot-free. 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. 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.

Also featured at Pop Culture Divas!

8 comments:

Kathy Holmes said...

Thanks for my weekly dose of optimism. All so true. I have to laugh at some of the things being taught in MFA programs - only funny because these are things I've taught myself. People today think if they throw more education at something, it'll pave the way. Okay, I won't stay on my soapbox too long here, but I laugh at myself when I read my early work - not that there weren't gems that I'm still using, but, oh boy, such stilted writing. Anyway, your words remind me to get going on that next book, which just may be getting off to a better start than those that came before it.

Chiron said...

Hey Kathy!

Ah... The dilemmas I encountered with my first flaying attempts to write. *grin*

While my articles were publish-worthy, my fiction was not, so I began chowing down on craft books. They would get me pumped up and confident, yet the info did little to actually improve my writing. *laughs*

I think that's why I laughed so hard over that Big Bang Theory episode. I once likened those writing-craft books to 'trying to learn to ride a bike by reading a book about it.'

The essay prompted me too, Kathy!! We better get cracking here!

Thanks always for stopping by!

--Chiron

Cate Masters said...

As always, wonderful post, Chiron!
Come over to my blog - I've given your blog an award! http://catemasters.blogspot.com

Chiron said...

Wow, thanks, Cate! I'll definitely be by tomorrow!!

Miss Mae said...

That reminds me of the original Gidget movie with Sandra Dee. Have you seen it? Well, Gidget was an egghead and, of course, the beach was "the" place to go with all these bare-chested boys strutting around, riding the waves on their surfboards.

Gidget had no idea how to surf, but she was gonna learn. How? She checked out a book at the library, and practiced the balance on her bed! By the time she actually got to the water, she had surfing down pat! LOL

Now, if only writing could be done like that....

Chiron said...

Hi Miss Mae!!

Hah! I did see Gidget (it's still one of my all-time favorites), and I loved that movie. She had the surfboard on the bed, and her friend was bouncing on it to simulate waves. Hilarious!

So, here's to developing the 'muscle memory' to catch our creative waves. *grin*

Thanks so much for stopping by and for the reminder. *laughs*

--Chiron

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