I’ve noticed, among some folks, an ongoing confusion between the how of writing and the what of writing. In some cases it passes confusion and just becomes deliberate ignorance (which seems to come with those accompanying screams of “ART!!!”). While there are common threads, one is not the other, and as a professional writer it’s important to know the difference..
How is the unique part of writing. It’s that artistic bit you always hear about when people do research, write extensive outlines, symbolically burn their first drafts, and consume mass quantities of food, booze, and drugs while they search for that one, elusive, perfect word. Was the night hot or was the night humid?
How is unique to each of us as writers. That’s why I have my one golden rule— What works for me might not work for you. And it definitely won't work for that guy. We’ve all got our own personal quirks and habits and preferences that lead to a finished novel or screenplay or short story.
I got to speak with Kevin Smith a little while ago, and he explained that he only writes a few pages at a time. Then he smokes a lot, goes back, and rewrites them. Then he smokes a bit more, goes back, does some more editing, and moves on to the next scene. By the time he’s done, his script is effectively on his third or fourth draft.
One gent I know writes fairly successful action-adventure novels—three or four a year. He’s got it down to a system where he can plow out thousands of words a day on a notepad, and then the act of typing it up actually becomes his second draft.
Stephen King tends to write in the morning. Neil Gaiman writes at night (or so I’ve heard). My girlfriend needs near-silence to write, and I... well, I had to get a nice set of headphones when we finally moved in together.
There are a lot of habits that work for a lot of people, a few habits that only work for a few people, and vice-versa. In the end, how is when you get to do whatever you want. It’s when you look at all these suggestions about morning routines or dealing with writer’s block and say “No thanks, I’d rather do it this way.”
Three cheers to any of you who write for four or five hours a day, every day, at the same time. Power to you if you always squeeze in some time at the end of the night with your word processor before going to bed. If you can only write on Sundays in a clown suit while standing on your head and using voice-recognition software, congratulations. Not only are you writing regularly, you’re going to make a fascinating interview subject some day.
Now, on the other hand, we have what your finished writing is.
This part, alas, is not so subjective, no matter how hard some folks may like to shriek otherwise.
You must have characters who are believable within their world. The story has to be engaging and has to move along at a pace that will keep readers awake—and it needs to actually go somewhere. Your spelling and grammar need to be perfect.
As many people like to point out (including me), there will always be exceptions to these rules. But they’re exceptions, by definition, because they are the rarity. If you want to do this for a living, the what of your writing is probably going to have to fit within a very common and popular set of guidelines. If you’re going to assume you can be the exception... well, I won’t say that you can’t be, but you’d best be ready for a very long, very strenuous uphill battle.
What it boils down to you is that it’s completely acceptable to write in a clown suit, and feel free to smack anyone who tells you differently (just remember, you’re a writer so odds are they’ll hit back much harder than you). However, writing in a clown suit does not give you cart blanche to say your writing is flawless and beyond question. How you do it is not connected to what you’ve done.
At the end of the day, no matter how we got there, we are all being held up to the same yardsticks. If someone doesn’t measure up, it’s no one’s fault but their own.
So... put that clown suit back on and get back to writing.