Lots of writers, even unpublished ones, like to dispense writing advice. I know this because I’ve been actively seeking it out for the past six months and… yeah. There’s a lot of it. I’m guessing much of it is dubious, because many of these people seem to write more about writing than they do about anything else and with so much advice out there, for free, there can’t possibly be much of a market for all this. But, as with all advice, the more you hear the more likely you will hear something useful which is why I keep listening.
That said, I’m about to drop what might be construed as writing advice. Oh, I’ve taken great pains to disguise it as a series of personal revelations, but if you don’t see through it as a kind of redirected offering to other people, then you don’t really understand how this whole blogging thing works, do you? But whether you decide this counts as advice or a cautionary tale or just the inane ramblings of a madman with nothing better to do at five o’clock in the morning than type words and then follow them up with more words until they either make sense and I delete them or I get sick of them and post them online for the world to mock, well. That’s up to you.
Basically what I have here are a short(ish) series of revelations I’ve learned about writing in the last 34 years. They amount to precisely nothing because I have had nothing published and have received only a few pennies for my writing in all that time. But they serve to remind me that there is a process to writing and it is ongoing. It goes back, for me, a very long way.
Lesson #1: Surprise Is In The Context
When I was in fifth grade (I think), I wrote a story for school. Maybe it was for school, maybe it was for a project put on by the library? I’m not sure. In any case, we were supposed to write and illustrate a story and, unlike a lot of our other assigned creative writing projects, I remember this one being pretty open-ended. I wrote a story about a gallant knight named Sir Lightfoot. There was a princess and a dragon. I don’t remember much about the plot (although I believe the book still exists somewhere, I think I’ve seen it floating around in some box or chest or something since becoming an “adult”) but I do remember that at one point the dragon has the princess held captive and Sir Lightfoot shows up and says some intimidating things to the dragon. In response, the dragon breathes fire on the princess.
I think I intended for it to be funny, the way morbidity strikes a ten year-old boy with a weird imagination as amusing. But I recall a lot of people were pretty shocked by this turn of events in my story. At the time, I recall trying to explain to someone (maybe a teacher, maybe a parent) that it seemed pretty natural for the princess to get cooked because if I were the dragon and I’d already lured the knight I wanted to confront to my layer with the captured princess, her purpose had been served. Why, I wondered, did the bad guys always leave the bait lying around to come distract them at a later, often pivotal, moment when they didn’t need it anymore? So in my story, the dragon kills the princess straightaway.
Now, for a more sophisticated storyteller, this would be a pivotal, possibly even subversive plot decision. But for me it was just how the story ought to go. I didn’t expect people to be shocked. Finally (and this revelation may have come much later), I figured out that it wasn’t so much that people were surprised the princess didn’t live to the end of the story, it was that a ten year-old was—somewhat dimly—introducing a pretty dark ironic twist to an otherwise classic narrative. In other words, it wasn’t that the dragon killed the princess when he had the opportunity, it was that I killed the princess.
Later on, in high school, I wrote (longhand) a serial story just for kicks about a vampire lady who seduces a teenage boy. In it, the boy’s chaste and pleasant girlfriend dies in what I thought was an exceptionally clever twist. Someone I showed the story to read past that part without a pause. I asked them if they had been shocked by the death scene.
“Not really,” came the reply.
“Well,” they said, “for one: it’s you. You always kill everybody. And also, it’s a vampire story, so I figured everyone was going to die anyway.”
A jack in the box may startle a child once, but after they know the “Monkey Chased the Weasel” song gets to the part about “POP!” the clown shoots out of the lid, they don’t get startled anymore, because the context is lost.
The lesson here is one M. Night Shyamalan really needs to learn.
Lesson #2: Writers May Be Lazy, But Lazy Writers Invite Disaster
When I was in high school, I worked (well, “worked”) on the school newspaper. I was more than a bit of a tool back then. Shocking, right? Anyway, I did a bunch of stuff in that class that I now look back on and think, “What? Who was that idiot? Me? Really? Gah.” For example, I was given the opportunity to work on the humor section, which our instructor said was to be satirical. Honestly, I had no idea how to write satire. Still, don’t for that matter. But if I had been smart, and not criminally lazy, I would have researched satire and read classic examples (Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift) to get a sense of it. In fact, that’s precisely what our teacher recommended. I ignored him.
Instead, I spent a lot of time coming up with clever responses to the fact that one of my classmates got to put in his byline, “Editor-in-Chief,” while I had to put “Staff Writer.” I was technically the Managing Editor, something I thought should be reflected on everything I wrote. I comprehend entirely (now) that no one cares what business role you fill at the paper in a byline but at the time it seemed very unfair. So I put “Not Just A Staff Writer Anymore” as my byline. What wit! What a thumb on the nose to the authorities! I got away with it because the Editor-in-Chief (a guy I admired—and still admire, as a matter of fact) knew he could shove my piece in the satire section and no one would care because, let’s face it, the satire section was pretty sad. I realize now that I could have contributed to a teenage version of The Onion or The Daily Show, but again, that whole research thing got in the way. It should be noted, also, that I was possibly the worst Managing Editor in the history of school newspapers. Whatever managing I was supposed to do, I did none of it.
But that same laziness also got me into some hot water later on. I was helping with a piece for the entertainment section about local stuff for teens to do. I think we had little blurby reviews of arcades and hangouts and such and I decided to do a short bit about the local bowling alley. Now, let’s just pause to reflect that I was saved a heap of scorn in this by mere chance: While it was me who wrote the paragraphs in question, the bowling alley featured was owned by a guy whose son was both my friend and on the newspaper staff. Plus, there were a couple other writers on the byline since it was a collaborative article. So while the problem was entirely my fault, the blame got diluted a little. What happened was: I hadn’t been to the bowling alley in a while, probably something like eight to ten months at least. But I figured it didn’t matter because the place didn’t change that much with time—it couldn’t, right? So I wrote my review based on memory. And I wasn’t exactly flattering, either.
I could try to explain it by saying we were on a deadline (true) or that I didn’t have time to visit the bowling alley (not true) or that I meant to fact-check it later but forgot (partially true). It doesn’t matter. The point is, I never should have assumed anything and I never should have let the other authors put their names on something that I wasn’t fully confident about. I should have pulled my section, at least. What I really should have done was gotten off my lazy butt and done the real research.
Now, again, the owner’s son was on staff (possibly he had even collaborated on the story, I don’t remember for sure now) and it was more embarrassing for him that he had let it slip by than it was for the rest to be associated with me and my story. But the owner (my friend’s dad) wrote a letter to the editor saying that my bit was full of factual inaccuracies. They had upgraded the arcades, fixed some of the fees and improved other areas I criticized. Had we been there recently? the letter asked. Our instructor asked us point blank. Had we done the research? I had to admit, I had not.
We issued a retraction and felt bad and wiped the egg off our faces and ultimately it didn’t matter because no one read the paper anyway, but I won’t ever forget the vengeful creeping sense of shame and regret that came—and this is key—not with having written the piece, but in having been caught and called out on it. I recognized even then, as dumb as I was, that the only way to avoid having that kind of revealing insight into your human failings broadcast for all to see, was to not try to pass off fiction as fact. Perhaps if I’d learned a bit about passing off fact as fiction, I might have been a better satire writer, but that lesson would never come in time to be of any use.
Lesson #3: Art May Be Subjective, But Writing Still Has To Make Sense
In my junior college days, when I was directionless and unwilling to grow up but felt like I wanted to achieve greater heights than my teenage idiocy had permitted, I carried around a notebook that I would fill with scribbles and poems and freestyle verse and handwritten lectures about the kinds of things that a guy who listens to too much Bob Marley and reads too much Stephen King thinks are really, really deep. I felt then that the words in the poems were only there to provide contextual clues to the theme of the poem, which was further conveyed by my hand-drawn typography experiments. In short, it was half the words and half the way the words appeared on the page that made the poems work.
Let me save you some time: The poems didn’t work.
I showed a few of them to my friends who were prone to being dazzled by “art” in the sense that we all felt if it was vague or incomprehensible but even hinted at depth or meaning, it must be mind-expanding and hold value. But then again, we listened to Metallica for the lyrics, if that tells you anything about the sophistication of our art appreciation. They liked it, said it was great stuff, man. Around this time I started noodling in a speed metal band with a guy I thought of and still believe to be a genuine genius. Now, he’s a tortured artist type in the classic sense but he’s also incredibly grounded in a reality that is more at home with the hard facts of life than I hope I will ever fully understand. At the time, he was writing all the music and lyrics and I was just chugging out power chords as a rhythm guitarist. I showed him one of my poems, saying it might make for some good lyrics. He read them and then handed back the notebook.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“You don’t get it?” I replied. Protip: Whenever someone shows you something and then asks this question if you request an explanation, what they mean is, “I don’t know, either.”
“Uh, no,” he said frankly. I like that about him: he has always been completely frank. “It just seems like a bunch of words randomly put together.”
“Did you take into account the way they appear on the page, man?” I asked.
“Who cares?” he said.
I didn’t have an answer.
And this was what I really learned: You have to be able to answer the question, “Who cares?” Even if the answer is simply, “Me! I care!” But the truth was (and is), even I didn’t care about my dumb, one-draft-only art poems. And if I didn’t, no one else was going to care about them for me.
A little aside about that notebook: I kept it for a long, long time. Part of me had a very hard time accepting this lesson, even years after I had learned it. I have found stuff I wrote in the past, later on down the line, and thought “You know, there’s a core of something interesting here,” or “Well, at least it’s got a decent couple of phrase turns in it.” I kept thinking that if I revisited that notebook often enough, eventually I’d find it to be full of hidden insight. What I finally realized a few years ago was that the insight wasn’t coming because it wasn’t there. I threw the notebook away. Maybe someday I’ll get a new notebook and try poetry again. But when I do, it will be because it matters to someone, even if it’s just me. Until then, I need to work on making words make sense.
Lesson #4: Writing Doesn’t Better Itself
There was a semi-recent period where I was a very prolific writer. When I first started ironSoap.org, for example, I wrote every day. That was my goal: Write every day. I achieved the goal and thought riches and fame and writerly superiority would follow close at hand.
I wrote on this site then in fits and starts for the next few years, always thinking that if I could just write every day I’d eventually be an amazing writer. That was how it worked, so I thought. But I found some things weren’t really clicking. It was hard to come up with stuff to write about. It was hard when I accidentally wrote something good to maintain the quality. And it was hard to stick with it.
Two days ago ironSoap.org turned ten years old. If I’d decided to have a baby instead of start a website, that child would be as old now as when I learned my first lesson on writing. And in all that time, the time I was supposed to be using to become a phenomenal writer, I’ve only learned one thing: Just writing may be the key to being a writer, but writing alone does not improve your writing. Improving writing takes effort. The word I’m reluctant to say is “work.”
I’m allergic to effort. I seriously take a pill every day to combat this allergy (some people call it “coffee”). But in the last six months I’ve started dedicating myself to improving as a writer. Little steps, that’s what I’m working to take. I read grammar sites and listen to a grammar podcast. I research tips pro writers offer (and they loooove to offer tips). I read books about writing. I read books. I edit my work (that this is novel to me should tell you a lot about my “progress” as a writer thus far). I try to stay away from the TV. I keep notes of the ideas that pop into my head (thanks, Evernote!) and I try to keep an eye out for new ideas (sometimes you have to look for them if they aren’t just landing in your lap). I think it’s working. I have more ideas than time. I’ve finished a novel, a few short stories, and I completed NaNoWriMo last month (during the busiest month at work I’ve had in probably seven years, no less) which means I have 50,000+ words in a brand new story that I’m still developing.
And, amazingly, I now write every day. Oh, I don’t do it here. Not always. It’s scattered around. Some of it I’m even keeping, because maybe it’s worth more than a jettison into the void of the Internet. As in, maybe I could sell it some day, if I put some more elbow grease into it. But don’t get all jumpity for joy on me. I’m not a success. I’m not even a decent writer yet. But what it took me 34 years to learn is that if I want this to work, I have to work for this, allergy or no. Writing ability doesn’t happen (for me; I’m not trying to tell you what you can do) by magic, but for a long time I thought it would.
I guess I thought that having a blog and keeping it updated was the magic formula for becoming a great writer. It turns out, I was wrong; it took me longer than I wish it had to realize the truth of that. The formula for being great at anything, I suspect, is to work really hard at being great and when it seems like you never will be and you want to quit, redouble your efforts instead and work even harder.
Honestly, I kind of hate this lesson.
Ten Years On
Fifteen years after learning a valuable lesson about not being lazy, I still struggle to put some work ethic into my passion. One of my best novel ideas is one that requires a mountainous amount of research work to pull off, which has prevented me from starting on it. I still hate editing and proofreading and rewriting. But: one step at a time, because the writing doesn’t make itself better, but the writer must. On the cusp of official middle age (at least by US Census standards), I examine my life and realize that the one constant, unflagging desire throughout it has been to write. That I haven’t spent the time in pursuit of that goal particularly wisely is frustrating, I admit. But I can either waste more time moping about it, or start now.
This isn’t some “good-by and thanks for all the fish” scenario. I’m not abandoning ironSoap.org. Having a blog is a nice outlet for dropping brain emissions now and then. But even if I did close up shop, I’d be happy with the ten years in here. I think my Time Machine experiment earlier this year revealed that I didn’t output a ton of worthy content in the good ol’ days, but that’s fine. I haven’t generated much worthy content in just shy of 35 years. Ideally, the good stuff is yet to come. If you’ve been here for the last decade: Thanks. The occasional comment and complimentary (or contrarian in some cases) response has made it worthwhile. If you’re newer: Sorry I’m not one of those daily bloggers that fills your newsreader with procrastination material, but I hope you stick around.
Who knows. Maybe the best is yet to come.