A Looking-Back Fairy Tale

In today’s Journal

* A Looking-Back Fairy Tale
* Threatened? Really?
* Topic: Expect to Sweat
* Of Interest

A Looking-Back Fairy Tale

Once upon a time I hosted a site called Pro Writers Writing (PWW). The idea was to do something similar to what they’re doing over at KillZone blog. At PWW, a bevy of professional writers, in rotation, would hold forth on writing, publishing, and marketing topics that interested them.

To skip over the details, PWW ran successfully for about a year. Then, out of the blue, one of my weekly contributors quit. She cited her own weekly blog and the invitation she’d received to write a weekly post for another site, one similar to PWW but with a much larger following.

Anyone can understand that. After all, what writer doesn’t want more exposure? Plus we’re all different. Maybe expecting her to continue with PWW and therefore write three posts per week was just too much.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. When I asked whether, instead of leaving altogether, she might rather just step back a bit and contribute something monthly to PWW, the dam burst.

She admitted she was leaving PWW mostly because “too many” PWW writers talked “too often” about the benefits of Writing Into the Dark, cycling, adhering to Heinlein’s Rules, eschewing the myths of writing, etc. All the talk about WITD, she said, was especially repetitive and annoying.

Never mind that you can’t read or listen to a conversation ANYWHERE about writing fiction that isn’t the same old regurgitated propagation of the myths. And as it turned out, she was steeped in those myths.

She wrote in the traditional way, she said. She didn’t outline except at the very start, but she did follow “signposts,” revise, seek critiques, rewrite, edit, polish, and employ beta readers. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that she was that insecure as a writer.

Frankly, I don’t believe the writer who left PWW found the mentions of WITD and Heinlein’s Rules “annoying” so much as threatening. But the end result was the same. PWW faded into memory.

Threatened? Really?

Of course, the writer who left PWW couldn’t admit openly that she found WITD threatening. That would just be silly, wouldn’t it? Threatened by a concept? And one that wasn’t even holding a gun or a knife? (grin) Yet she literally fled PWW.

I’ve never understood that. How can any writer be threatened by any technique? All you have to do is say No. And if you DO try the new technique and fail—or, more likely, decide you don’t look all that good in sweat beads—you can easily return to what you were doing before you tried the new way, right? No harm, no foul.

But really, it’s fine. My personal philosophy of social interaction is simple, easy to follow, and a great balm for wounds of the sort that writer inflicted: Be honest or be on your way. I don’t like people who lie and I’d rather not be around then. Life’s too short.

For that matter, it’s too short for blubbering over bad fairy tales too, especially those with unfortunate endings. So let me write a new, hopeful ending with this Personal Salute to the writer who left PWW high and dry.

Topic: Expect to Sweat

If you DO decide to try WITD, with either me or someone else to guide you or on your own, you should expect to break out in sweat beads periodically. Your palms probably will get a little clammy and your heartrate might even increase a bit.

All of those are symptoms of your conscious, critical mind in its ongoing, usually welcome effort to protect you from yourself. After all, you’d rather the conscious mind were on guard to keep you from walking into the path of a speeding truck or plunging your hand into a pot of boiling water.

That’s completely understandable.

But why does the conscious mind try to protect you from so benign an act as writing a short story or novel?

Well, because as you’ve been told your entire life (and as all beginning writers with their weeks of experience agree), you are incapable of writing a story or novel by yourself, so chances are good you’ll fail, and failure is embarrassing.

The conscious mind’s reasoning goes like this:

  • If you give yourself over to the creative subconscious and write into the dark, you’ll actually enjoy writing and you’ll write a lot more.
  • The more you write, the more stories and books you’ll produce and publish.
  • And the more stories and books you publish, the more times you open yourself to rejection, ridicule, and embarrassment. (Notice there’s zero mention of all the readers who LIKE your book.)

So there’s the rub. If you don’t like the sweaty forehead, clammy palms, and increased heartrate, here’s what you have to do:

  • Don’t risk it.
  • If you must be a writer, first outline, then write, then revise, invite critiques, rewrite, edit, polish, and finally submit your work—to beta readers.
  • If any of them don’t like something you’ve written or would have written it differently, revise or rewrite it until they’re satisfied.
  • Do this long enough and you’ll never publish. And if you never publish, you’ll never open yourself to rejection, ridicule, and embarrassment, and the conscious, critical mind’s job is done.

In other words, the fear—the sweat, the clammy palms, the increased heartrate—is unreasoning, but it’s real. And frankly, it means you’re on the right track. Keep going and you’ll be amazed.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Queen Elizabeth II: A day-by-day guide from now to the funeral” at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-62861617.

See “Want to Build Tension?” at https://www.janefriedman.com/want-to-build-tension-encourage-the-reader-to-ask-questions/. Some gems, but take this with a grain of salt. Absorb the knowledge, but defend against the mythis.

See “Repeating Details About the Workshops In the Kickstarter” at https://deanwesleysmith.com/repeating-details-about-the-workshops-in-the-kickstarter/.

See “What Writers Can Learn From Casablanca” at https://killzoneblog.com/2022/09/what-writers-can-learn-from-casablanca.html. If you set aside the myth-driven bovine excrement, there are some good points here.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1010 words

Writing of (novel, tentative title)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXX

Total fiction words for September……… 3277
Total fiction words for the year………… 69708
Total nonfiction words for September… 9880
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 138110
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 207818

Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 67
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: Along with discussing various aspects of the writing craft, I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. WITD is “the only way” to write, but it is by far the easiest, most liberating, and most fun.

8 thoughts on “A Looking-Back Fairy Tale”

  1. I was the follower of PWW and remember the incident you’re talking about. I ended up checking out that person’s blog. And I realized my critical mind totally agreed with them, so I ended up staying away. And here I am still reading your journal and trying to apply what you teach because I want to have fun when I write as well as be productive.

    And it’s not just you. I found out Robert [Sadler] made a book out of his PWW posts. I ended up buying a hard copy of it. The person who left, I don’t even remember their name.

    Harvey, keep the faith.

    • Always, my friend. Thanks, and thanks for not divulging the name of that other writer even if you did remember it. We all make different choices.

  2. I remember PWW and found it useful. However, I ran out of time to stick with it. And I have to admit that I sometimes scan through the Daily Journal quickly because it appears to be a rehashing of WITD, cycling and Heinlein’s Rules, etc. But the scan is often disrupted by new bit of information on writing, which is why I rarely miss reading your journal. So thanks for that.

    Here are a couple of things I disagree with. First, I believe many writers adopt the WITD process because it never occurs to them to write any other way. If you have a passion for telling stories, you just start telling them. I have written into the dark all my life, and it didn’t always serve me well. My newspaper reporting career would might have been more successful if I’d put more effort into planning and paid more attention to what my editors’ take on stories was. For example, I never got a chance to report on Three Mile Island because it sure didn’t look like a disaster to me. Nobody died, nobody got sick as far as we knew and when sun went down nothing was glowing in the dark. Sure looked like safety systems largely worked. I had just spent a year covering an environmental accident in Michigan where they mixed the fire retardant with cattle feed. At least dozens, and maybe hundreds, of people got sick. Some farmers and their families got very sick. Farmers slaughtered thousands of livestock animals rather than have the meat, milk, cheese, butter, eggs, etc, go to market. And many of them lost their shirts. That was a disaster. Three mile Island? Nope. For sure, it was a problem. A near miss with lessons to be learned. My editors decided that I was wrong person to cover Three Mile Island.

    Yes, I employed a form of WITD as a journalist. I listened to people (my characters) and then wrote their story. One of the things I soon learned was that I didn’t always hear everything exactly as they told it to me first time through. I sometimes had to call them back. Sometimes they’d call me up and deny they’d said something I put in the paper. This was especially true of public officials. Sometimes they didn’t call me, they called my editors. Luckily, I always kept good notes. Sometimes, however, I did make mistakes. And sometimes, I make mistakes when I’m writing fiction. So I find that I have to fix things in my fictional stories. That makes me a slow writer. I wish I could write faster.

    The second thing I sort of disagree with is that there is a vast conspiracy of English teachers, professors, agents, mainstream editors etc who are perpetuating the myths of outlining, rewriting, and processing a story to death. I’m not trying to say that doesn’t go on. Easiest way to deal with it is ignore that crap. Somehow, I managed to skate all the way through high school and college without encountering any of it. Sure, I had a few teachers who insisted on outlines. A few of them made you hand in an outline for a grade. But this was usually for courses requiring major term papers. I hated outlines, mostly because I was too lazy to waste time on something I wasn’t going to follow anyway. I’d slap one together and hand it in. Then I’d pray that the teacher never noticed that my paper bore little resemblance to the outline. I figured they had a bazillion papers to read and were as lazy as me. I don’t remember any of my English teachers in high school or college trying to impose these myths. And I took several creative writing courses. I don’t remember learning much of anything in most of my English classes, especially in the creative writing courses. As you so often point out, practice makes perfect. You learn more by writing the next story.

    I think you are a little too hard on writers who fall off or jump off the WITD wagon. I don’t believe they are all afraid of failure as much as they are searching for a process that works for them. As you have pointed out many times, there are many different ways to write. And there are many wrinkles in WITD. Some of those writers have found an alternative to WITD that works for them. Many writers have found great success without pure WITD. Mickey Spillane comes to mind. At least for a long time, he wrote the ending of his stories first. Then he wrote the rest of the story to arrive at that ending. All those early Mike Hammer novels were written that way. And he wrote them very fast. This was not very impressive because essentially, they were all the same story. As a reader, you always knew where the story was going. And when he broke that mold, or broke out of it, his stories weren’t as good. At least, it seemed that way to me.

    • I don’t think it’s a “conspiracy” so much as teachers, instructors, professors, etc., since “conspiracy” implies an act of will and collaboration with full knowledge something isn’t true. Instead, I think they’re simply pabulum puking back what they were taught, without having truly sat down and thought about it. Particularly with those who have never actually written fiction and, thus, have had no reason to question what they were taught and then carried on to teach.

      Speaking from my own experience, my writing career was pretty much destroyed by such teachers/instructors who kept shoving the “outline” myth down my throat. I even tried online courses, but they did the exact same thing. Everywhere I turned, I was told outlining was the “right way” to write and not doing so was “bad” and “wrong”. I got so sick of hearing that. It totally didn’t work for me, took every bit of the enjoyment out of storytelling and made it the drudgery I still hear authors claim writing to be. It took me 20 years to complete my first long novel (about 90K words) – from putting the first words on a page to finally reaching “the end”.

      Then not too many years back, I got word of an upcoming writing class/seminar in Bisbee (where I lived at the time). Didn’t know the presenter, but figured I didn’t have anything to lose but a few hours by going to it. If it was more of the same, I didn’t have to do further ones.

      Imagine my absolute DELIGHT when HARVEY assured us right off the bat that it was perfectly acceptable to throw away outlines and JUST WRITE. Everything he said that day was 100% opposed to what my teachers/instructors had said ad nauseum over the years. It’s taken a while to ferret out all the ways they had adversely influenced me and my attitude about writing, but the more I’ve annihilated those teachings and simply trusted my characters, the more fun I’ve had with my writing. (He’s also the one who finally made punctuation make sense to me!)

      Soon after that first class with Harvey, I sat down and wrote a 125K novel in a single month. I enjoyed the heck out of the process. Interestingly, that novel seems to consistently be a reader favorite. Hmmm. 😉

      • Bless your heart. (grin) Thanks, Dawn. I’d forgotten we first met in Bisbee at that little seminar. All these years I just thought you were another writer who happened to “get” writing into the dark.

        I still say although there are myriad ways to write, they all boil down to only two types: the one in which the writers trust themselves and their characters, and all of those others in which the writers are taught not only is it all right to depend on various crutches, it’s actually preferable. Head shaking.

  3. Bob, thank you so much for your comment. It helped me see things in a different perspective, especially this bit “I don’t believe they are all afraid of failure as much as they are searching for a process that works for them.” It has helped me clarify my own thoughts on the matter (as I post below), so many thanks to you.

    Harvey, I love WITD, and I’ve personally benefitted from your repeated mention of it on your blog. Thank you for that.

    Having said that, more recently, I’ve come to see that WITD is itself a process/system, like every other writing process/system out there. There’s a lot of brain science research that has proven that no one process/system works for everyone universally because our brains are literally wired to work very differently from each other’s. Which is why just because a particular process works well for one person doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else.

    Taking this perspective helps me keep the pressure off when I’m stuck in a manuscript. Instead of cursing my critical voice or worrying that I’m not ‘doing WITD right’, it helps to look at it as a process I’m trying out to see if this is the way I can write the story best.

    So it’s not necessarily fear of losing control over the story, but maybe some people are wired to proceed when they can see one milestone ahead of them whereas some others need to see more to determine whether a particular path is worth taking. For some people, the big picture is enough. Others may need more detailed steps. Yet others may need a map/outline just so they can deviate from it. And turns out, fear may have very little to do with these neurological differences.

    One contemporary author and brain strengths coach who explains this way better than I do is Becca Syme. She’s a great supporter of WITD (she calls it Intuitive Writing), but she’s not opposed to plotters either if that’s the process that works best for them. In her words, “there is no one ring to rule them all.” (No one process/system that will work well for all.)

    So I no longer look at it as WITD vs ‘everything else’. The WITD-‘everything else’ line appears to me now more as a continuum and while there are writers who fall on the extremes, there are many others who are successfully somewhere in between, all having arrived at their optimal points after their own trial-and-error experiments.

    You may be interested in (though not necessarily agree with) what Brandon Sanderson has to say on this — https://faq.brandonsanderson.com/knowledge-base/can-you-go-into-depth-about-outlining/

    Thank you for giving me this space to share my two cents on the topic.

    • Thanks for all of that, Anitha. I can argue only one point, really, but it’s the only one that needs a defense.

      WITD is not actually a “process/system,” much less one that’s “like every other writing process/system out there.”

      Writing process/systems, every one of them that I’m aware of, call on the conscious, critical mind. WITD does not. Ever. The conscious mind can’t imagine or create anything. It’s too rational and logical. It can only build and construct, step by step by plodding, preplanned, analyzed step.

      WITD is much more about “letting go” than about actually “doing” anything. In fact, proponents of WITD say

      • DON’T preplan, that the plot is only the footprints the characters leave in the story as they pass (Bradbury);
      • DON’T allow critical thought into what your creative subconscious has created, even from your own critical mind, much less others’ critical minds (Heinlein); and
      • DON’T revise or rewrite or edit (Heinlein).

      Proponents of WITD suggest that we JUST WRITE, just record the story that the characters are living, spell check it, then submit or publish it. So I’m not sure I see a “process/system” there.

      Over on the other side it IS a “process/system.” EVERY > SINGLE > STEP is about “doing” something, about clinging and hovering instead of letting go and just writing. And if you look, most of it ISN’T even writing! Would-be novelists are advised to preplan (or outline or plot or erect sign-posts, etc.), write (yay!), revise, seek critiques, rewrite, edit, and polish.

      Yes, to me the whole argument is very much us vs. them. WITD vs. Traditional (Tied-to-the-Myths) Writing. I probably see it that way because there are so very few voices that are pro-WITD by any name. And honestly, I still believe I’m the only consistent, regular voice that’s pro WITD. And that’s why I do it.

      On the other hand, anyone can find (in fact, they can’t avoid finding) literally THOUSANDS of voices, books, blogs, videos, etc. teaching that the “only” way to write fiction is to plot, write, revise, seek criticism, rewrite, edit, polish, etc. Go figure.

      One more point, on fear, though I thought I addressed it in Why I Talk About WITD So Often in the Journal. Whether those who are mired in the myths are there because of fear really isn’t my call. What do I know?

      But fortunately, there’s a very simple test writers can conduct in the privacy of their own home: I suggest they give WITD an honest, prove-it-or-disprove-it-for-yourself try. They don’t even have to tell anyone about it. I suggest that only because the benefits are huge. (That’s what I did back in 2014.)

      If they break out in a sweat (as I did) when they think about just plunging ahead and writing, in my opinion that indicates fear of letting go of all the safety nets. If they DON’T experience any symptoms of fear, that’s wonderful. I’m happy for them. But I’m betting most if not all of them will.

      If they do experience symptoms of fear (again, in the privacy of their own home), then they have a choice to make. They can push through the unreasoning fear and emerge on the other side in a whole new world or they can step back and continue as they always have. Most opt for the second choice, and that’s fine with me.

      All of that said, I really, honestly, sincerely Don’t Care how other people write. If a situation doesn’t affect my personal productivity, my paycheck or my time off, I’m won’t lose any sleep over it.

      Consider, I get nothing from folks who try WITD and succeed, other than a good feeling that maybe I’ve made a difference in someone else’s life. I doubt very many of those who push the traditional “process/system” can say the same, so it’s all good.

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