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It Bears Repeating

It occurs to me, following various conversations I've had over the last few weeks, that I should probably make this statement. Most of you know it, or at least suspect it, but just in case some of you haven't been here the full length of the blog and have mistakenly gotten the wrong impression--this is for you.

I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing.

I have been talking about it in the context of writing, but you could also apply it to art, although there's various other stuff goin' on with art. Regardless, let me expand the above into the following statements:

There is no one right way to write a book.

Mind you, I'm pretty sure there's a bunch of wrong ways. I've done some of them. I will do others. Get me in a bleak moment and I'm not entirely sure there even is a right way--there may just be the "making the best of a bad lot" of ways. (Actually, I think I may be on to something there...) Regardless, if you are writing, you are not automatically Doing It Wrong. I promise.

There is no trick to it.

Seriously. There is not some trick that we writers know that the rest of you don't. If somebody offers to teach you to write, and they are not your first grade teacher with all the sheets of carefully lined paper, be skeptical, particularly if they want money for it. Other people can teach you all kinds of things ABOUT writing, many of them very useful, they can critique you, they can offer you very helpful tips--but you generally have to actually do some writing first for that to work. 

A lot of us, in life, I think, have this perpetual belief that we are Doing It Wrong. "It" could be anything or everything. We buy a lot of books on how to do stuff the correct way, because we assume that whatever way we start doing it, we are doing it wrong, and it will boil over or explode or run away from home and people who actually know what they're doing will be Very Nice about it and secretly think we're morons. Low self-esteem is part of it. Some of us--many of us--are deeply convinced of their own incompetence.

Let me tell you now that as long as you are making little marks on the page and the words are in a language you're fluent in and they form reasonably complete sentences, you are not Doing It Wrong. (I say nothing of doing it well, but that's another matter entirely--if you don't at least knuckle down and do it, even if it sucks, you'll never have anything to improve on.)

You do not need inspiration. I am constantly amazed by the notion that inspiration is somehow critical to the creative process. If I had to rely on inspiration, my unmet deadlines would settle on the house like a flock of crows, clutching my rent and my car payment in their hoary claws. When I'm writing Dragonbreath, I sit down and write a thousand words a day, three or four days a week, until there is no more book left. Some days, sure, I get in the groove and do two or three thousand words in a day--but most of the work gets done by writing a thousand words a day, over and over again, until it's done.

It's not hard. It's just a matter of going "What happens next?" Okay, somebody says something. What happens after that? Somebody says something in response. What happens next?

If you ever don't know the answer, you can never go wrong having ninjas attack, or at the very least, having the roof fall in. This gets things moving along again, and you can always cut that bit out later.

Writing is not that hard. If it was that hard, they wouldn't let people like me do it. I once flushed a sock down the toilet on accident. I wear my clothes backwards a lot. I have never yet figured out how much metal chicken can be shoved in the back on a car safely. The fields in which I am ruthlessly competent are very very few, and the ones in which I am inept are vast beyond measure. My self-esteem's pretty good, but I am one of those people convinced of their own incompetence, and in my case, there is quite a lot of corroborating evidence. Ask Kevin about my cooking some time.

Speaking of:

"I can't write," said Kevin to me, not that long ago. "I just get these fragments. I don't know where they fit." 

"Good lord," I said, "do you think any of the rest of us DO?"

Undoubtedly there are people who get a full story dropped on their head like an anvil, complete with amusing minor characters and devastating plot twists. Someday I hope to meet one. Me, I get fragments, I get scenes, I get bits of dialog. I write them down. Then I stare at the fragment and go "Okay, what happens next?" If I had to wait until I got a full story before I wrote it down, I'd have written maybe two paragraphs in my life and be trying to eke out a living throwing lumpy pots.

Case in point--at some point Our Heroine (I don't know her name, I don't know anything about her) is walking through the woods, and stumbles across a girl wearing a red hood, who has a finger in her mouth and is drooling a bit.

"Oh lord," says the wolf behind her, "not another one!"

The wolf and Little Red Riding Hood are partners. Sometimes he kills her and sometimes she kills him and sometimes they're lovers and sometimes they're mortal enemies. It's just the way things are. She always reappears on the path, and he always finds her. Pas de deux.

And then one day Little Red Riding Hood showed up without a mind. And the wolf, not knowing what else to do, takes her back to his den and feeds her and tries to figure out if this is just the latest variation on the theme, or if something else is going on.

And then another one shows up. Which is outside all experience--there's one Little Red Riding Hood, she's an archetype after all. And then  another one and another, and they can utter maybe a word or two and aren't housebroken and the wolf is collecting them because he simply doesn't know what else to do and Our Heroine goes to his den and finds a dark room full of grimy girls wearing rags, staring out with bright, feral eyes, and eating the meat the wolf brings them raw.

"One of them got sick once," said the wolf miserably, "and I left to find medicine for her, and by the time I got back, they'd eaten her, too."

"Why don't you just...let them go?" say our heroine, who can tell that the wolf is on the last edge of exhaustion, and isn't sure there's anything left in the girls to be worth saving, even assuming they're actual people and not something else entirely.

"If I let them go," says the wolf, "they try to go to Grandmother's House."

There. Now you know as much as I do about that story. That's all I got. I don't know the heroine from Adam, and I feel terrible for the wolf. I figure something really really bad is going on at Grandmother's House, and I also suspect that there's no way the heroine won't wind up there eventually--you've gone into the woods, you've met the wolf, there is no way out that doesn't end at Grandmother's House--and I get some really disturbing bits of imagery from there, but that's it. What's the overarching story? Why is the heroine here? Is she from our world or theirs? What IS their world? I don't know. Haven't a clue. If I waited for lightning to strike and tell me, there would never be any more to the story.

The only way I'll find out is by writing the fragment down and asking "What happens next?" (Or maybe "What happened right before this?" which is just "what happens next?" in the other direction.) I'd kind of like to know, but frankly, I have ZILLIONS of these fragments. I'll die before I ever chase them all down. Some live, some die, some get posted to the blog with a "Huh, this is hanging around, I have no idea where it's going..."

And then there was "I have these characters, but I don't know how to introduce them..."

"Then don't bother to introduce them! Write the bits while they're there. You can worry about how they show up later."

It occurred to me somewhere around then that maybe people think that because you start reading a book at the beginning, you're supposed to start writing there, too. A lot of people do start there, it's a fine place, nothing wrong with it. Maybe you can't start anywhere BUT the beginning, and that's fine. I'm not gonna come and slap the keyboard from your hand.

Me, I start there...and halfway through...and with that little bit over there...and maybe that bit there. You can see the example up above. And then I pick a chunk and go "And what happens next?" with a vague notion of where I'm aiming at--that chunk over there, say--and write until I get there. Or until I figure out that I'm dead wrong, and then I take that chunk out and go wherever I'm supposed to go.

That's probably worth expanding on, actually. At some point, you're probably gonna write something that's really, really neat, and which turns out not to be in the story at all. Well, dang.

Eve Forward ("Animist" and "Villains By Necessity") gave me the notion of keeping the Deleted Scenes file, which made me feel better about it--you take that really cool chunk and you dump it in the Deleted Scenes, because it doesn't fit, and trying to warp the story just to get that bit in is usually a bad idea.  It's a shame, really. I would have loved to get that bit with the dwarven ruins and the traps into Digger, or that bit with the Wicker Man and Murai. But they didn't fit. Oh well. Dang.

Anyway, if you have a character and you like them, but you're not writing them because you don't know how to introduce them to the story, then feh! Go write the bit they're in. Maybe they'll tell you along the way how they got there. Maybe it'll turn out that bit doesn't actually fit, but you'll know enough about them to write the bit that DOES fit. It's all good.

The readers will not look at the book with their beady little eyes and go "Wait! You wrote this out of sequence, didn't you?!" They can't tell. Honest.

Various authors have said at some point or other that you never learn how to write books, you just learn how to write the book you're writing. There is some truth to that. For example, I have Nurk down. If anybody ever wants me to write Nurk again, I am set. And after four Dragonbreath books, I'm finally gettin' pretty good at writing those, probably because it's only a five book series, and book five will undoubtedly fight me like a starving wolf for my arrogance. (Of course, it's not always true--I still have no idea how to write Black Dogs, and it's been done for awhile. Volume 2, coming late this year.)

Anyway. Just to wrap up--I don't know what I'm doing. Haven't a clue, really. There's no trick. There's nothing I do that's special. I just write. Stuff happens. Stuff fails to happen and I stare out the window and go "What happens next?" until stuff happens again or I write in a ninja attack.

However you get the thing written is fine. There is no trick that Real Writers know and are withholding. There is no amazing plotting system that will make the boring bits easy (and this is the other great truth, that writing, like everything else, is unbelievably boring work a lot of the time, and if you are bored and restless and would rather do anything else on earth than write, it is not because you are Doing It Wrong.)

There is no solution, no quick fix, no moment of grace whereupon you can be a Real Writer forever and ever, world without end.

There's just sitting down and writing.

Brilliant advice, all of it. Now if I can just get myself to sit down and actually WRITE What Happens Next instead of just thinking about it...

That is the hardest part. Getting from your head onto the paper, I mean.

I think you hit the nail on the head. I can certainly tell you that-- for me-- one very wrong way of writing is to get started, and have NO IDEA where the plot is going to go. I've started, and had to throw away, many stories simply because of this. I have a project in a secured part of my live journal, which has a great start! But is going nowhere fast because I don't know what to do with the next step. If I go left, I will end the story right now as a ten-page short story and leave half the characters undeveloped. If I go right, on the other hand, well, the langoliers ate that part of the story before I could get a good look at it. So I would be stepping into that mysterious, white, cloudy space and probably disappear forever. In short, outlining a plot ahead of time is a really great idea. =^_^=


Except for those of us who, if we outline the plot, find that the voice in the head says, "Okay! Done now! Next project!" and trying to write past that is like pulling teeth from something with very well-affixed toothies.

Someday, I hope to actually outline a book before I write it. (For one thing, I can probably hit word-count a lot better instead of my usual "too short/way too long" trick...) But I know that I'll need my writing support network on hand to push me into actually writing the thing after that.

(Deleted comment)
*laugh* On #1, there's maybe a half dozen lines of dialog at most. Digger's script, these days, is a 200 page file consisting solely of lines of dialog, none of which is credited to any particular speaker.

Some people do find it easier to write when they've sketched out a full roadmap for the book ahead of them tho. I've written one novel the 'just start writing till you stop' way, and I'm now trying out the 'put together a synopsis first' way. Not sure which works best for me yet.

I have several writing books (none on how to write but many on tips, tricks, strategies, exercises, or specific things I know I suck at) because they interest me but, and I think I may blog on this later so thanks for inspiring me, I have the confidence to say well actually I like this bit and this bit but I think this bit is wrong and I'm not going to follow it just because the author is published and I am not.

I recently wrote about characterisation and found two articles both by writers who have successful careers, both writing the same genre even, so you can't even put it down to differences in what the audience want. One of them explained at length how you absolutely must describe your characters in excruciating detail because your readers if they are visual people as she is (and as I am for that matter) need to know. the other explained at length how you must give some idea of what they look like and any salient details and then trust your readers to fill in the rest... I prefer the style of the second, but both methods seem to be working fine for them so you can't really say either of them is 'doing it wrong'.

Also, to the several people I have discussed this with - fanfiction writers are not automatically 'doing it wrong' because they write fanfic. Nor are they wasting their talent (like it's some set pool and you risk running out halfway through your master work if you write fanfic?) and they are not automatically complete failures with a lack of imagination for using other people's characters.

Personally, I'm working on an alternate take on Sherlock Holmes, which puts me in a category with Stephen King and Neil Gaimen, which can't be a bad place to be :D

and word to jumping about. The fic I'm writing on right now is coming in order (and man I can't wait to see what happens next... What? You thought I knew since I'm writing it? ha!) and the novel I'm working on that I hope to try to publish one day I think the first scene I wrote was the finale.

You are, as always, awesome. :)

For more years than I want to remember or recount, every book I read on how to write told me I was Doing It Wrong. Not in so many words, mind you, but they all said I needed an Outline or 3-by-5 cards or something that clearly set down the beginning, middle, and end and detailed all the scenes that occurred in the story arc.

Foolishly, I believed these books and tried, really tried, to do it the Right Way. But I couldn't; I wrote for the same reason I read: to see what happens next. If I knew that already, writing turned into a boring exercise of mere typing. I couldn't do it.

Then I learnt that Isaac Asimov wrote with no initial planning--just the way I did--and that man wrote more than 600 books in his lifetime. I felt vindicated.

Since then, I've found more and more and more professional writers who all write the Wrong Way. Some even dare to say that it is the best way. Even those who make an outline beforehand frequently admit that all their planning as often as not gets thrown out the window because their characters decide they want to go east despite the outline clearly saying they should go southwest and it all goes to hell and the author ends up following them around because what else can you do? (They still make outlines, because they are insecure without some kind of plan, even if they know that plan will eventually, inevitably be abandoned.

My first novel began with some unknown part of me writing, "This is folly." I had no idea who said it, why she said it, what she said it about, or even how I knew it was a she. It was only twenty-thousand words later, in the process of answering these questions, that I realized I was writing a novel. (I think that snip of dialogue eventually ended up in chapter seven.) And I had many more words to go to answer the other questions that came up in the process of putting down those twenty thousand.

Or maybe there really is only one question: What happens next?

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
*blinks* *stares at words* *smacks forehead with palm*

*slinks off to apologize to a rather large and forlorn stack of dust-coated boxes, each containing eons of chronologically-impaired vignettes*

I have no idea why, but it never occurred to my brain that writing things inside out was a viable option...

Just in case it makes you feel less alone in the "never occurred to me" corner: It never occurred to me that a book written in first person could be fictional rather than autobiographic.

Thank you for sharing this. I'm an aspiring writer, except that I often do a lot more aspiring than writing- often for many of the reasons you talk about here. After reading digger I friended you here on lj, and I was entranced with the stories you tell of living a life based on creation. It's really heartening to know that even a pro still has to struggle to make the words come.

My one tiny bit of advice for people (taken with a grain of salt because I am not a Real Writer) is read, and think about why you like it, or why you don't like it. Like rereading a book I liked as a young adult, gee, the main character is fond of fantasy and reading. And considering it's a fantasy book, there's a darn good chance the reader is going to go "Wow, I identify with that!" Take that and look at your own writing and go "Would I enjoy reading this?" If the answer is no, then others probably wouldn't either.

Also, an editor (or just an honest friend) is the person standing back while you're trying to hang a frame on the wall. You're too close to see if it's crooked or too far to the left or right, you need someone to go "No, raise the left corner, trust me"

When your webcomic is a daily panel gag, though, you have to ask, "What happens next that has a punchline?" When the characters are behaving, you can just write what happens next and they give the punchline to you, but many many days you have to manufacture one.

Dude, someone else on the planet has read Animist! Eeee! ♥

I still have copies, somewhere...

I think I'm a little bit in love with this whole post.

I get discouraged all the time because I have all those little bits lying around. But you're so right--if I just work on what happened after each little bit, I'll get the stories finished.

I'm also guilty of the whole 'trying to start at the beginning because that's the way you read it' thing.

Oh gosh, now I want to write like crazy and I have a lab in fifteen minutes. Great post!

Ooooh, it's so nice to hear that other stories often start with a single phrase that pops into your mind with quiet need for explanation. Writing is not in my blood, and I feel no great passion for it, but as you said, the advice works for artists too.


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