This is going to be one of those posts that sounds a bit harsh at first, but hopefully you’ll stick through ‘till the end before posting those angry responses. If you’re feeling a bit thin-skinned, maybe you should come back next week.
Writing is tough. It’s hard work. I know this, because I do it for a living. When someone tells me how easy and wonderful and fun writing is, I’m often tempted to point out that they’re probably doing something wrong.
Instead, I bite my tongue and scribble notes for a ranty blog post or two.
There was a point when I thought writing was easy and fun. To be blunt, that was back when I wasn’t taking it seriously. My plots were either contrived or derivative (some might say that hasn’t changed). My characterization was weak and my motives were... well, whatever they needed to be at the moment to make that weak plot move along. I rarely edited.
Perhaps most important of all... I thought I was a literary genius. My stories didn’t just deserve Stokers and Hugos, mind you. Once I got around to finishing them and sending them out, they were going to get Pulitzers and Nobels.
Needless to say, my writing made huge leaps when I was able to admit a few things to myself. I think that’s true of most people in most fields—if we can’t be honest about where we are, it’s hard to improve.
That being said...
My writing sucks—This sounds harsh, yeah, but it needs to be. Too many beginning writers just can’t get past the idea that something they wrote isn’t good. I know I couldn’t. It’s just against human nature to spend hours on something and then tell yourself you just wasted a bunch of time. Why would I write something I couldn’t sell? Obviously I wouldn’t, so my latest project must deserve a six-figure advance.
The problem here is the learning curve. None of us like to be the inexperienced rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts. Surgeons, chefs, pilots, astronomers, mechanics... and writers. Oh, there are a few gifted amateurs out there, yeah—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it.
You noticed I said “us,” right? Lots of people think of Ex-Heroes as my first novel, but it wasn’t. There was Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth (two versions), a God-awful sci-fi novel called A Piece of Eternity, some Star Wars and Doctor Who fan fic, a puberty-fuelled fantasy novel (which I haven’t admitted to in twenty years or so), The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth... and then Ex-Heroes. And I can tell you without question that most of those really sucked. It doesn’t mean I didn’t try to sell some of them (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I couldn’t improve as a writer until I accepted that I needed to improve.
My first draft is going to suck—There was a point where I would fret over my writing. I’d spend time laboring over individual words, each sentence, every paragraph. I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to fix things. It meant my productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.
The freeing moment was when I realized my first draft was always going to suck, and that’s okay. Everyone’s first draft sucks. Everyone has to go back and rework stuff. It’s the nature of the beast. With those expectations gone, it became much easier for me to finish a first draft, which is essential if I ever wanted to get to a second draft, and a third draft, and maybe even a sale.
My writing needs editing. Lots of editing—So, as I just mentioned, I’ve been doing this for a while. Arguably thirty-five years. Surely by now I’ve hit the point where my stuff rolls onto the page (or screen) pretty much ready to go, yes? I mean, at this point I must qualify as a good writer and I don’t need to obsess so much over those beginner-things, right?
Alas, no. We all take the easy path now and then. We all have things slip past us. We all misjudge how some things are going to be read. And I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends and a really good editor at my publisher who all call me out when I make these mistakes or just take the easy route when I’m capable of doing something better.
Also, as I mentioned above, part of this is the ability to accept these notes and criticisms. I’m not saying they’re all going to be right (and I’ve been given a few really idiotic notes over the years), but if my default position is that any criticism is wrong then my work is never going to improve past the first draft.
Which, as I also mentioned above, sucks.
My writing needs cuts—Sticking to the theme, if I believe my writing is perfect, it stands to reason all of it is perfect. It’s not 90% perfect with those two odd blocks that should be cut. When I first started to edit, one of my big problems was that everything needed to be there. It was all part of the story. Each subplot, every action detail and character moment, all of the in-jokes and clever references.
The Suffering Map was where I first started to realize things need to be cut. I’d overwritten—which is fine in a first draft as long as you admit it in later drafts. I had too many characters, too much detail, subplots that had grown too big, character arcs that became too complex. It took a while, but I made huge cuts to the book. It had to be done. Heck, with one of my more recent ones, 14, I needed to cut over 20,000 words. That’s a hundred pages in standard manuscript format. All cut.
My writing is going to be rejected –You know what I’ve got that most of you reading this will never have? Rejection letters. Actual paper letters that were mailed to me by editors. I’ve got lots of them. Heck, I’ve probably got a dozen from Marvel Comics alone. And since then I’ve got them from magazines, big publishers, journals, magazines, ezines.
But when that first one came from Jim Shooter at Marvel... I was crushed. Devastated. How could he not like my story? It was a full page! It was typed! I even included a rendering of a cover suggestion in brilliant colored pencil. It took me weeks—whole weeks, plural—to work up my courage to try again, and then he shot that one down, too.
Granted, I was about eleven, and those stories were really awful. But even good stuff gets rejected. Heck, even with the list of credits I’ve got now, the last two short stories I sent out were rejected. Editors and publishers are people too, and not everything is going to appeal to everyone. I came to accept being rejected once I realized it wasn’t some personal attack (okay, once it was...), just a person who didn’t connect with my story for some reason.
And, sometimes, because my stories sucked.
If I can admit some of these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer. It’s not a flaw or a weakness. In fact, if I look at the above statements and immediately think “Well, yeah, but I don’t...,” it’s probably a good sign I’m in denial about some things.
And that won’t get me anywhere.
Next time, I’d like to say a few clever words about saying the word said.
Until then, go write.