Rule #1 in writing is – or should be — if you’re not yet published (by someone else) you’re not the best judge of your own material. At the very least make friends with a writer who has a good editorial eye and the bravery that goes with using it. It’s the collaborative experience that is so important in writing at a professional level. I know YOU know what you mean, but does everybody else?
But then there’s rule #2 – Forgedaboudit! as they say in New York. Ignore what everyone tells you about writing, including what I just wrote as Rule #1. Learn to trust your instincts instead.
Dr. Johnson was once called the second most important writer in the English language (after Shakespeare, in case you’re wondering). A friend asked him if he was upset about being described like that. “Not at all,” Dr. Johnson replied. “At least it means they thought about it.”
Essays like this are meant to inspire you to write “that book.” You know, the one that will change your life. But this essay is already going off the rails because what I’m here to say is: don’t write anything at all.
Procrastinate. Hold off. Forgedaboudit!
I’ve been a professional writer, editor and agent for nearly 30 years, so you should listen to me: If the urge to write comes upon you like a desire for ice cream at midnight, go and clean the cat box instead, go outside and look for an old lady to help across a busy street – at all costs, DON’T WRITE.
This isn’t an original idea, unfortunately, but one of the two best pieces of advice about writing I was ever given. (The other, about journalism mainly, was, “Always cover your arse.”) If you get a good idea, ignore it. If it comes back, ignore it again. Halfway decent ideas are like nagging children tugging on your clothing. Don’t be fooled by them, ignore them. If the idea returns for a third time, it will be sneakily better formed and structured than when it first accosted you, like some brazen strumpet offering ill-defined pleasures. My advice, run, don’t walk away from it. Keep ducking and weaving. Eventually, just like the nagging child we all love really, we realize that the only way to make this obnoxious, won’t take “no” for an answer child go away is to sit down and write it out of your system. Will this change your life? Of course it will — it will make it peaceful again if nothing else.
Writing is like carpentry. All that manipulating large eight-foot by four-foot sheets of plywood and two-by-four sections of wood all on your own, all that back straining effort measuring and adjusting, cutting and dry fitting and adjusting some more, then gluing and screwing and nailing and then remeasuring only to realize one piece is not as long as it should be and not as square as it could be . . . Then there’s all the coughing as you sand and plane and smooth the piece, using wood putty to fill in the mistakes you made but only now spot and have to somehow fix as invisibly as possible. What sane person wants to do all that? Once the words are down on the page you then have to spend hours making sure they actually say what you mean them to say if you can actually figure out what that is in the first place. No wonder so many writers become drunks.
As an example: I wrote my first novel on a dare, and I’m still paying for it. I’d been a journalist for years, so I should have known better.
“I’m going to write a novel,” I said to my friend Maggie.
“Don’t tell me about it, DO IT,” she said. That was Maggie, of course, an original 1970s women’s libber who still doesn’t understand why her son grew up to be a young male chauvinist.
“OK, I will,” I said defiantly. And here we are all these years later. I work in publishing as an agent, for God’s sakes. Do you know how many bad books and ideas I have to read every week? Have some pity. Ninety-five percent of what we read sucks! Of course, that’s a totally subjective pronouncement based almost exclusively on what I like and dislike and what moves me or leaves me cold. (Some people like caviar and oysters, others hate them as too fishy.) I know your book falls into that enviable 5% that agents and editors lust after like teenage boys during spring break. But I want to spare you the pain I endured of writing a profound short story about a romantic breakup, that got returned by an editor who went to the trouble of handwriting a note on the rejection letter (yay! someone really thought I had some promise!) telling me how much she hated the story and that I should seek counseling.
That novel Maggie dared me to write, by the way, took five years to complete. It was going to change the way people looked at me – it would make me a STAR — and would be compared to, I don’t know, Gravity’s Rainbow or The Magus or something. Of course, it was pretentiously awful. But at least I finished it. All 500 pages of it.
The novel that was published was co-authored with a friend. It was a bracing experience, highlighted by Jim telling me to lose my Shakespearean affectations, and just write A STORY directly and honestly. I mean, what was he thinking? Where was the layering, the hidden meanings? The relationship quickly devolved to notes to each other about how neither of us could write while we were actually still collaborating and writing a lot–on our “portable” Kaypro computers the length and size of large gym bags.
Eighteen months later, between Jim’s writing and my rewriting, and his rewriting of my rewriting, and my final editing, our first novel was published by a company that promptly went out of business six months later. Change my life? My friend (yes, we kissed and made up once the stress of writing our first novel was over) then moved across country to California.
Jim wrote a number of other novels that got published and started to live his dream of being a full time author. I, meanwhile, wrote another unpublishable novel, again intended to be a “great American novel” (what was I thinking, I’m a native Englishman for God’s sake!) and then for book three I settled down, reread John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction which changed my life, and took Jim’s advice — just tell a good story well.
And you know what? By ignoring ideas that seemed brilliant at 3 am, I wrote a novel called Werewolf that got published. Then I got a job as a publishing house editor, published my co-author and once-again-friend Jim’s third novel, and eventually wrote a nonfiction book called The Elements of Storytelling that you can still find almost 20 years later. (I mention this here rather blatantly because you can only get it as a print on demand edition and you need to know about it to demand it. Hint, hint.) Other books and essays started to follow and now look at me.
So, remember Rule #2: If you get a good idea you want to write, forgetaboudit! You’ll be much happier. Of course, if you do what I tell you, you should ignore this advice much as any other you get. But if you do follow my suggestion, inevitably you’ll eventually feel compelled to write something because it won’t go away until you do. It’ll bring you pride accomplishment and frustration in equal measure – just don’t say I didn’t warn you.