Rules of the Page
Creativity obeys an unusual and contrary set of laws. If you violate them, you will expend enormous amounts of energy and get nowhere--just as you would if you pressed the gas and the brake to the floor of your car at the same time. Many writers give up, feeling they're incapable, when the only problem is that they're unwittingly violating these natural laws. To put it simply, they're trying to do the impossible. Trying to do the impossible is the major cause of frustration, discouragement, and failure for writers.
All of this trouble stems from misconceptions about how the process is supposed to work. It's the result of trying to impose normal, everyday, noncreative standards upon a process that isn't normal. That's right. Creating isn't normal reality.
You will make a mess. Creating stories is never a neat, orderly, or predictable process. Mess is inevitable. You make a mess. You clean it up.You lose your way. You find it again. Your writing veers away from the story. You rein it in, or you follow it to see where it takes you. You do this many times until you get where you want to go. So, accept the mess as inevitable and good, let it happen, work with it, and you will get there a lot faster.
You must write badly first. Trying to get it perfect right away will only get you blocked, because the bad comes first. No one does it on the first draft. Writers write many drafts to get it right. Hemingway, in typical macho style, said, "The first draft is always shit." If Hemingway's first draft was shit, why should you expect more? Once again, bad is good. Believe it or not, you'll do better if you lower your expectations. By not expecting so much, you'll give yourself the space, the slop you need, to work. So, don't hold back. Gag the critic in you, and dare to write badly. It's the only way.
Mistakes lead to discovery. This is a game of mistakes. Art begins in error. Mistakes and uncertainty are good. They create new combinations and possibilities. Penicillin, the lightbulb, the Slinky were all the result of mistakes. Creative people have a lot more good ideas than other people do, and they have a lot more bad ideas. They have a lot more ideas because they let everything out. They know the good and the bad go hand in hand and that letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good.
Here's an old writing anecdote that expresses this well: The beginning writer writes his first draft, reads it, and says, "This is awful. I'm screwed." The experienced writer writes his first draft, reads it, and says, "This is awful. I'm on my way!"
Writing badly may not be fun (although it can be once you stop worrying about it), but the great thing about writing is everything can be fixed. And fixing makes exciting things happen. Writing is rewriting. Everything can work, because you can add, subtract, make changes and adjustments until your story comes alive. There's always a way. The way is technique--story craft.
In all of this, a relaxed, unhurried attitude will get you there faster. But that's hard to achieve when it's so important to you, which brings us to the next point.
THE UNIMPORTANCE OF IMPORTANCE
What I'm saying is, The less you care, the better you write. But how can you make yourself not care about something you're pouring your heart into? Well, it can be done. Practice is always the first step--writing and writing and writing until you let go of the tension and relax, until you no longer have the strength to be uptight. When you just dash it off to get it over with is when the best things happen.
Another thing to keep in mind is, Everything that happens is OK. No matter what problem you have (confusion, worry, self-doubt, panic, emptiness, paralysis), it's OK. It's no reflection on you or your ability. It's all a natural part of the process--what every writer must face. You're not the only writer who's ever had these problems. You'll feel you're the only one, but I can tell you that you won't be inventing any new writing miseries. They've all been experienced before--and dealt with successfully. So, try not to blame yourself or punish yourself. And keep the following examples in mind.
The famous French writer Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary)struggled for three days, threw a monumental tantrum, rolled on the floor, chewed the rug, and bashed his head against the wall to get eight sentences on the page. Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray) said, "I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out." All writers are susceptible to such misery. So, when you get into this kind of a jam, remind yourself that you're in good company. Then get your mind back on the craft and technique you're going to learn, and you'll get out of your funk.
THE JAGGED SLOPE
Progress is never even. In everything you do, some days you're a whiz, and other days you're a dud. Writing is no different. It's like everything else in life. So, when you have a bad day, don't despair. Just keep plugging away, because how you handle your slumps is what makes you or breaks you. And it's not all bleak because it will get good again--always. You will bounce back. I guarantee it. Not only will you rise out of your slump, but you will reach your best level of writing, and you will exceed it--if you keep at it. Then you will dip down--and rise again. You will always lose it, and you will always get it back--and then some. Think of writing as a relationship with another person. It's at least as thrilling--and at least as miserable. You don't get one (thrill) without the other (misery). But in writing, the thrills make up for the misery.
Speaking of misery: Some writers take years to write a novel. Joseph Heller took 10 years to write Catch-22. Tom Wolfe took 10 years to write A Man in Full. That's one end of the spectrum. At the other end is Nabokov, who wrote Lolita in three months. James Hilton wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips in four days. Now, Goodbye, Mr.Chips was a slim little novel, but at the rate Hilton took to write it, Heller would have finished Catch-22 in a month or two.
So, what accounts for the difference between the 10-year novel and the four-day, four-month, or 1-year novel? Well, I can tell you that Heller and Wolfe were not banging away eight hours a day, five days a week, on their novels for 10 years. No--they were struggling, straining, spinning their wheels, doing all kinds of things other than writing. The difference between them and the writers who do it in days, weeks, or months is not how much time they spend writing, but how much time they waste trying to write.
Wasting time and energy is what you're going to learn to avoid. The point is: it's easier than we make it. But it's hard to make it easy--unless you know how.
Of all the advice writers give out, there is only one thing they all agree on. They all say: Stick to it. Don't quit. Don't give up. Keep writing no matter how awful it feels. Do your daily writing. Remember, it's no different from the rest of your life, with its ups and the downs.
A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit. Not quitting is vital. The other equally important factor is guidance. Sadly, 99 percent of all writers never publish. It's not that they quit or don't try or don't write their hearts out or don't do what the writing books and courses tell them. They don't make it because they have no guidance or poor guidance. Sadder still, they could publish--if only they learned their craft. Craft is the key, but you can't learn it on your own. You can teach yourself golf, tennis, or basketball--up to a point. On your own, you can learn enough to get around eighteen holes, hit a ball over the net, or make a basket, but how many successful athletes learn on their own without lessons or coaching? How many teams play without a coach? None. Professional athletes are on teams getting coaching and lessons for years before they make it.
For writing, guidance and coaching are just as important. As in any discipline (sports, music, dance, painting), you need to practice until it's a part of you, until it's reflex, until you perform without thinking. Again, my personal estimate is, the right guidance will get you there at least ten times faster. Guiding you and giving you the tools to guide yourself are the goals. This course is designed to make a short trip out of what can otherwise be an endless journey.
What you'll learn is technique--how to do it. Technique is neutral. You can use it to write any kind of story you choose (science fiction, romance, adventure, fable, fantasy, mystery, crime, literary). With proper technique, whatever you write can be shaped into a complete story. The complete story is what all great story writers write (Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald). A complete story is the most fulfilling, because it has the shape of our most meaningful experience. Whether it's comedy or tragedy, it gives us what we need from experience. What we need from experience and stories, along with how to put together a story that fulfills that need, is what the next three chapters are about.
IMMEDIATE FICTION: A COMPLETE WRITING COURSE. Copyright © 2002 by Jerry Cleaver. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.