Writing advice from successful authors can be a unique form of psychic torture. Let me share with you my own personal hell demon:
Oh, God, this one drives me crazy. The reason it drives me crazy is because I think he’s right but, by the same token, I live a life that prevents me from reading even a quarter as much as I’d like to. I would estimate I read about 10-15 books a year for my own pleasure. All of this happens during the summer. The rest of my life is spent re-reading texts I’m going to be teaching for the fall and spring semesters (approximately 20 books) and then reading all the student papers I need to grade (which works out to about 4800 pages a year, give or take a few hundred–call that another 10-15 books). So, you know, I do actually read the equivalent of 40-50 books a year, but only 25% of those are ones I actually get to pick. Therefore, I go around feeling as though I’m not able to do the thing I evidently need to do in order to be a writer.
But, of course, I am a writer – a published author with book deals and short story pubs and one award under my belt – so clearly I’m doing okay on some level.
There are literally hundreds of pieces of advice like this floating through the ether. Join a writer’s group and you’ll hear all of them. “You must write every day!” and “Write what you know!” and “Finish everything you start!” and so on and so forth. Listen to them long enough, and you’ll get it into your head that the only way to be a successful writer is to already be a successful author who can do nothing but author things all day long and, on top of that, have no real life outside of the written word (oh, wait, but that violates that rule about “lived experience is the only way to write with authenticity.”).
There is a lot of truth to a lot of these things – they can and do work for a lot of authors. None of them, though, is set in stone. To quote Hemingway:
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
That, right there, is probably the best bit of writing advice anybody can give you beyond “put your butt in the chair and write.” All of us – every damned one of us – is kinda making this up as we go along. Nobody has it figured out. One of the weirdest things I’m learning as I go is that every single novel is difficult and easy in completely unique ways compared to all my previous novels. Now, does that mean it’s true for you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Who the hell knows?
The point here is that listening to too much good-intentioned advice is a good way to scare the hell out of yourself before you’ve even gotten started. Take the recent Twitter discussion among many authors I follow regarding how old you can or should be to begin writing. The consensus is that, ultimately, you can become a writer at any age – there is no aging-out in storytelling. And then we’ve got Chuck Wendig pointing out that he published his first novel at 36 (Hey! Me too!) and now has published 20 novels.
In only 4 years.
Wait…wait…20 books in 4 years? I’ve only published two in two years! Holy shit, how much of my time have I been wasting? What is wrong with me? WHY CAN’T I ALSO DO THAT?
Okay, okay…cool it down. It’s all right. It’s not a race. It’s not even a competition. Keep your eyes on your own paper, Habershaw. Work your own problem. Wendig’s pace is not your pace. That’s not how this works.
And, ultimately, that’s my main point here. There are no rules on how to do this thing. There is no time limit, no required pace, no set reading list. You have to sit down and write, yeah, but how and when and where and how often are something you need to negotiate with yourself. That also doesn’t mean you should be so arrogant as to assume you know it all already and will discount any advice that comes your way – listen, take notes, absorb. But then, in the end, it is you doing the writing, and only you can solve that problem. And, given the drive, you will solve it.
I am currently in the fourth draft of a novel. What this should mean is that the novel is nearing its final state – I have the plot figured out, the character arcs established, and it’s just a matter of pacing and sticking it all together. Except, well…I’m not there yet. The first few drafts of this beast didn’t go especially well (damned book’s first act just doesn’t want to gel!), so what this means is I’ve written this book three times now in three slightly different ways. I’ve got deleted scenes coming out the wazoo. I’m a guy who’s lost the instructions sitting in a pile of Lego bricks that he knows is supposed to make the Taj Mahal, but for some reason he can’t figure out where it all fits.
This is what I call “the Frankenstein Stage.”
The term is inspired by a tweet from Chuck Wendig from a couple years back which went like this:
Editing is frequently standing over a corpse with a hammer, a scalpel, a car battery. “I WILL MAKE YOU BEAUTIFUL. I WILL MAKE YOU DANCE.”
The analogy is apt. Right now, this novel is an ugly, dead thing. It isn’t dancing…yet. Right now, a lot of what I’m doing is taking big chunks of scenes from other drafts and copy/pasting them into the new draft and then altering them so they fit with the flow. It is a *lot* like stitching together pieces of a dead corpse and hoping, at the end, to get a living one.
This stage of novel writing is a very dispiriting one. Part of this is because you don’t always hit it – sometimes the book comes together much more cleanly and evenly and the edits are clearer and you feel like a million bucks. When you don’t, therefore, you feel as if you’ve failed and that your book is crap.
But it isn’t.
I know the book I want to write is contained within some combination of the elements I have already laid out. It merely remains for me to find that combination and, possibly, see what needs to be added or subtracted to the final framework to make it sing. Writing, I must tell myself, is not a mystical process full of muses and fairy dust. It is work, as methodical and rational as any other kind of work, and merely requires sufficient time and attention to be made good. This is another way I think the Frankenstein connection is a good one: gods and angels did not fashion Dr. Frankenstein’s monster – a man did. The monster is the result of hard work, intelligence, and dedication with just a sprinkle of inspiration to get it all rolling. And, while Dr. Frankenstein came to regret his labors, you sure can’t say the thing wasn’t a success. I mean, not everybody can manage to get their whole family murdered by a series of body parts you stitched together at medical school – that is, on the whole, pretty damned impressive.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. There might be a lightning storm coming in later, and I want to be ready.
Igor, get me more rising action! We’ve got a climax to ascend!
I just read a piece by Aliette de Bodard on Tor.com about how oppressive systems perpetuate themselves. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (good read, by the way – nice, fast paced, and very Star Wars-ish). Also somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been working on another book in The Saga of the Redeemed that, in fact, deals with popular revolution against an oppressive regime.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that revolution is very much on my mind.
(please pause as the NSA zeroes in its internet snoopers…)
De Bodard’s article has it exactly right – oppressive systems do not persist in spite of the people but with their approval (tacit or begrudging as it may be). One of the things I liked about Wendig’s novel is that he goes out of his way to mention and show how people put up with the Galactic Empire for so long because that was basically how it was done. That was just how the world was. Yeah, they sucked, but if you kept your head down and didn’t cause trouble and just went along to get along, you’d be more-or-less fine. Luke Skywalker, remember, was going to apply to the Imperial Naval Academy in Episode IV. Not the rebels. The rebels, I’m betting, didn’t offer much in the way of career options or recruiting centers. Yeah, young Luke wanted off the farm, but he didn’t want off it that badly that he was going to throw in his lot with a bunch of crazy terrorists.
Wendig also tries to demonstrate how messy the transition from Galactic Empire to New Republic is going to be, too. For one thing, as the tagline says, the war isn’t over. There’s a lot of Galactic Empire out there, folks, and it isn’t about to roll over and die. Well, not all of it. Some of it will, some of it will go rogue, other parts will keep fighting. Criminal syndicates will take over backwater systems. Vigilantes will run amok. Basic systems and services will break down. Lots and lots and lots of people will die. That’s just for starters, too, and during that time you are going to have a lot of people asking one question:
“Was the Galactic Empire really all that bad? Was it worse than this?”
In Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, he talks about something called the Thermidorian Reaction – the period of calm that follows the furor of revolution. Most interestingly, this reaction sees the relaxation of some revolutionary policies and, in the end, results in the new order sharing a number of potent similarities with the old order. In other words, the revolution, in the end, doesn’t change society half as much as it thinks it will. The Russian people weren’t a hell of a lot better off under the Soviets than they were under the Czars; the new system of the United States wasn’t all that much different than Britain; the current rulers of Egypt are scarcely any different than Mubarak. Heck, it’s basically the same people in charge. Again.
In the Saga of the Redeemed, particularly in the next book or three, I want to deal with the awkwardness and horrible mess that is involved in “fixing society.” Tyvian, bound by the ring’s influence, has to act to do what is “right,” but what is “right” doesn’t always translate to what is “best” (as he points out strenuously and at length). Indeed, there seems to be some doubt on his part that any improvement at all is possible, especially given that, in the end, all new world orders are made up of the same things: human beings.
While I am perhaps not as cynical as my protagonist (heaven forfend!), I do wonder if people understand what they’re advocating for when they propose to tear down an oppressive system. We make it sound so easy sometimes – the American Revolution was won at the Battle of Yorktown, and that was it (and yet, in 1812, we were basically still fighting it). One battle – one war – does not a revolution make. Society changes slowly, very slowly; it’s like the melting of a glacier. Sometimes a big hunk falls off all at once and there’s a huge crash, but that was made possible by a long, long process of the supporting ice melting out from underneath. Even then – even after it falls – it will just freeze back again come winter unless we are vigilant (or we raise the ambient temperature of the globe sufficient to…actually, you know what? Different discussion for a different time.).
The revolutions of the world are not just the stories of Luke Skywalker or George Washington. They are also the story of the pain, suffering, and deaths of thousands or even millions of souls trapped beneath the wheels of history. If you need a reminder of just how ugly a thing that can be, you need look no further than the barbed wire fences surrounding the nation of Hungary and the poor, starving people huddled on the other side.
I earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in 2005. It was three years of non-stop workshops in screenplay, novel, and short fiction as well as literature classes, teaching pedagogy, and a smattering of other stuff. I don’t talk about it much, really. I’ve been taught, through gradual experience, that nobody really wants to hear about it.
When you get an MFA, you find yourself situated with a foot in two very different, very adversarial worlds. On the one hand, you are a “writer” among many other people who are also writers and many of whom chose not to spend the money and time to get an MFA. I’ve found, generally to my surprise, that when I mention that I have an MFA among writers, the response (more often than not) is prickly defensiveness. They, more often than not, look at me like this:
Now, maybe this reaction is because of all the MFA-holders who are douchebags (more on that later), but generally I think the fact that I have an MFA and they do not makes them doubt themselves somehow and they resent me for being the impetus for their self-doubt. When you’re trying to become a writer, there is an almost constant worry that you’re doing it wrong, somehow. You worry if you’re ever going to make it and if your plan is just so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming and then along comes me, with my fancy-shmancy MFA, and oh I must think I’m so special…etc., etc.
Then, on the other side of your post-MFA life, you’ve got the academic world. An MFA is a terminal degree, technically equivalent to a PhD in other fields, and entitles you (should you so choose) to dive into the world of higher education. The thing is, though, that nobody in the academic world really thinks your MFA is equivalent to a PhD because, let’s be honest here, you just made shit up for your dissertation and you basically earned a degree for talented lying and now you think, for some reason, you’re entitled to have opinions about things happening at an actual college with real academics. I’m one of the only professors my students have who does not have the honorific “Doctor” in front of my name. I keep picturing Sheldon Cooper sneering at me over my shoulder at faculty meetings sometimes. I think, probably, in this instance it is me having a degree of self-doubt about my worthiness to be in higher ed – probably very few of my colleagues actually look down on me – but the feeling of Impostor Syndrome is often very strong.
So, I don’t bring up my MFA if I can help it. I let my work and ideas speak for themselves, since the degree itself seems more of a divisive thing than otherwise. All that said, I think my MFA was a valuable experience for me and its capacity to get me into teaching higher ed has been an invaluable benefit for my life and career. I did learn to be a better writer in my program. Do you need an MFA to become a better writer? Of course not! You can take the same number of workshops and classes in your free time from any number of programs and probably for less money. My MFA didn’t make me any more publishable and didn’t give me an inside-scoop on the publishing world by any means – I came out of my program a better writer, but just as unprepared for the publishing end of writing as anybody else. And, furthermore, everybody’s MFA experience likely varies a wide bit just based upon course selection, the school you attend, and even the individuals who happen to be in workshop with you. As with so much else in life, Your Mileage May Vary.
Which brings me to this op-ed piece in The Stranger by Ryan Boudinot which discusses the things he, as an ex-MFA teacher, believes about writers and MFA programs. This article has caused a bit of a stir in the writing community, with people reacting very poorly to Boudinot’s tone and argument. In particular, Chuck Wendig tears the guy a new one on his blog. I, personally, did not react quite so negatively. I mean, I don’t fully agree with a bunch of things he says, but the spirit of much of what he says I feel is accurate and, furthermore, very much reflective of what goes on inside MFA programs. Now, is he being an arrogant, elitist jerk about this stuff? Well, yeah. But, then again, maybe it doesn’t bother me that much because, having been through an MFA program, I got kinda used to listening to arrogant elitist jerks (both teachers and fellow students) spout off and I got good at finding the kernel of truth behind all the BS. I mean, you have to understand that, as a science fiction writer in a MFA program, I was basically considered to be some kind of dumb, half-wit cousin to “actual writers.” I was very commonly in an atmosphere of disdain and dismissal when I discussed what work inspired me and what I liked to read. A number of workshops forbade anything they termed “genre literature,” and when I offered up a page of William Gibson’s Neuromancer as good writing, a bunch of people refused to read it on the grounds that “they didn’t read that kind of thing.”
It was all crap, I know, but I learned how to sift useful information out of that crap. That, in and of itself, was an education worth the price of admission, since so much of writing is listening to nonsense about your writing with tiny kernels of useful truth. You gotta learn how to find it.
Accordingly, here are the kernels of truth that ought to be taken out of Boudinot’s piece, and what I instinctively took his points to mean:
Assertion #1: “Writers are Born With Talent”
Yeah, I agree that writers aren’t some kind of elite genetic sub-class. That said, people clearly have varying levels of talent for doing it, and the most talented people who work the hardest have the best chance of succeeding. I can see how Boudinot, after years of wading through reams of indifferent prose, might grow embittered towards those students who weren’t very good at writing. That said, I feel as though this assertion is a non-entity, a non-statement. Yeah, we all have certain talents. We can hone what talent we have and get better, yeah, but some of us will never be prima ballerinas, try as we might. I mean, right? Is someone going to kick down my door and tell me I could be greatest kung fu master who ever lived if only I wanted it enough? I kinda doubt it. Desire is arguably more important, yeah, but to say talent is irrelevant seems odd to me.
Assertion #2: “You Need To Take Writing Seriously as a Kid to Make It”
Okay, so first off this is provably false, yes. Of course you can still make it, and at any age. The kernel of truth in this assertion, though, is this statement:
Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language.
This happens in about a million different ways, and everybody I know who is a writer has this love of language (whether consciously or otherwise) that they have developed throughout their lives. This doesn’t really mean “taking writing seriously as a teenager,” but it does mean having that connection with language since a young age. If you never read a book in your life and hated writing things, the odds that at 40 you can somehow make it as a novelist seem low. Not impossible, mind you, but low. Furthermore, for Boudinot, many of his students weren’t teenagers all that long ago. If you’re 22 and in a MFA program and you hadn’t already developed some kind of serious interest in language, you are probably wasting your time and everybody else’s in that program (and one wonders how you got in).
Assertion #3: “If You Complain About Not Having Time to Write, Drop Out”
This is one spot where I stringently disagree with Chuck Wendig. I’m sorry, if you sign up to get a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, you are well past the point where complaining about having time to write is a sensible objection. You (and the rest of us) are shelling out significant money and time to do this, and if you can’t figure out how to actually write in your writing program, what the hell are you doing there? Students like this in my classes used to piss me off. You were told we were going to workshop your story on the 10th so we needed it by the 8th and NO you can’t have an extension because my story is up next, you lazy dipshit. This isn’t high school, kid. Suck it up.
Assertion #4: “You Must Be a Serious Reader”
Now, on the one hand, Boudinot’s definition of what makes a “serious reader” is elitist BS of the kind which I was regularly exposed to while attending my MFA program. That said, he is right – you need to read and you need to challenge yourself while you read if you expect to do good work. Reading nothing but Lois L’Amour Westerns is not a roadmap to the bestsellers list, as fun as they are. Writers need to read widely and deeply to succeed, and everybody says this. They just aren’t being jerks about it, like this guy is.
Assertion #5: “Nobody Cares If You Suffered If the Writing is Bad”
Okay, is this poorly put? Hell yes. Is it offensive and dismissive of people’s experiences? Absolutely! Would I have put it this way? No, I would not. Is he right?
I spend 3 years in my MFA reading a LOT of navel-gazing, pointless, error-laden prose about a person’s personal baggage and it sucked. A lot. This guy is picking the meanest way possible to say something (sadly) very true: nobody cares how good the story is if you are bad at telling it. Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we? Sometimes you are not the equal of the story you wish to tell. That’s a fact. What you need to do, though, is get better so that you will become the person who can tell that story. If you just want to get the story out on paper, then fine – more power to you – but there’s more to it than that in order to be a storyteller.
Assertion #6: “You Don’t Need My Help To Get Published”
This comment reflects a certain attitude towards the publishing world at the moment – that the Old Guard, the New York elite are not as essential as they were. Do I agree with him? Well, not exactly (I went traditional, after all), but he’s welcome to his bias. Honestly, much of the publishing advice I received from professors during my MFA program was a lot less clear than that, so I can’t complain.
Assertion #7: “It’s Not Important That People Think You’re Smart”
Here he is 100% correct without reservation. Furthermore, I can say that there were a lot of people in my MFA program trying very hard to seem smart (or edgy or sensitive or whatever) and it always came off as them trying too hard. A couple years of reading stuff like that, and no doubt you’d be singing the same tune as this fellow.
Assertion #8: “It’s Important to Woodshed”
Again, this is some of the best advice in the piece. The MFA (or any “writing instruction”) does not spit you out a ready-made hit machine. Writing, more often than not, requires time and privacy and perseverance. Showcasing your crappy first drafts to the universe doesn’t help anybody, least of all you. You can’t expect good commentary to come from unfinished work. It isn’t until you’ve got the whole something sitting in front of somebody that problems become clear and the good parts really shine. Woodshedding doesn’t mean suffering for your art, it means focusing on making the art rather than telling people you’re making it. Craft before coffee shop, folks.
But, you know, you don’t need to listen to me. I’m just one guy talking about his experiences, here.