The Journal, Friday, August 30

In today’s Journal

* Remember in The Godfather….
* Topic: Writing Fiction
* Of Interest
* The numbers

Remember in The Godfather when Michael Corleone was so frustrated? Just as he’s finally almost legit, “…they pull be back in.”

That’s a little how I feel lately. No numbers today, no “Of Interest.” Just this and a topic.

I’m corresponding with a young woman who wants to write. She’s considering becoming a mentoring student.

I asked her to send me a story opening (character with a problem in a setting).

She did. It was interesting.

I asked whether the story wanted to keep going.

She said it did. So I said, “Then write it.”

That was a week ago. Today I heard from her twice. That conversation is my topic for today.

Topic: Writing Fiction

As you know, you can write any way you want. But the fact remains, the conscious, critical mind doesn’t do “creative.” Not its role. Nor can you put together an outline from your creative voice. Again, not its role.

Even if you’ve managed to do the hard work necessary to forced a book through your conscious, critical mind, and even it was published—through either a traditional or an independent publisher—how much better would the story have been if you had written one clean draft beginning to end and then left it alone?

Until you do it, you’ll never know. And even then, you’ll know only what YOU think. You can’t pre-judge work for another reader. You can’t decide what another reader will like, or not like. When your conscious, critical voice starts whispering you have “too much” of this or “not enough” of that, it’s only trying to make you doubt your ability. It’s trying to make you stop, or at least delay by entering into a cycle of rewrites.

Tell me, is it succeeding? Only you know.

One thing is for sure: You will never know how good a writer you really are until you learn to trust your creative voice, stop “correcting” it and second-guessing it, and allow it to shine through.

There are two kinds of fiction writers:

1. Those who ascend into their authorial ivory tower and—with their conscious mind (outline, “signposts,” critique (hear that word?) group input, rewrites, etc.—control every aspect of the story: situations, events, dialogue, who lives and who dies, and everything else.

These writers don’t trust themselves and their own creative voice. They don’t trust in their own ability to tell a story that ANYONE will like.

To them, the story is “special,” the book lauch an “event.” The story must be as perfect as they can make it so nobody (or at least fewer people) will criticize them. All of this despite two hard, cold facts:

1. What is eventually “perfect” to the writer will not be “perfect” to anyone else. You have zero idea what any other reader might like. You can only write the story and let each reader enjoy it or not. You can’t prejudge your work for even one other reader, much less for hundreds or thousands. And the more you polish it in that pursuit of perfection, the more boring and “same” it will become.

2. Earlier in the process, they actually INVITED AND WELCOMED criticism! So why are they worried other readers will be critical? Seriously? In fact, why don’t they EXPECT other readers to be critical?

These writers are scared to death someone might not like what they wrote and might even leave a bad review. But yeah, I get it. If a critique group member criticizes something, they can still “fix” it. But they’re fixing it for only that one reader. Every opinion is just that: the opinion of One Person. Nothing more.

Maybe worst of all, these writers see writing as work. They might see it as a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. They actually take vacations to escape “having to write.”

2. And then there are those who are excited to approach the story each day. Like Bradbury, they roll out of bed each morning wanting to get back to the story. When they get to the computer, they slip off the parapet into the trenches of the story. There, they race along with the characters, enjoying the story as it unfolds.

These writers trust in their ability as storytellers. They realize the story isn’t special or important. It’s only a few minutes or hours of entertainment. That’s all. Nothing more. What’s important is not the story, but WRITING the story.

They trust and jealously guard their own voice. They refuse to do anything to polish that unique voice off of it, refuse to make it look “smooth” or “perfect” or “same” or “like [name anyone you want]”.

Okay, so after that lengthy intro, here’s my exchange with my prospective student. Well, she IS my student. She’s my prospective PAID student. Understand, nothing below is even approaching the craft of actual writing. It has nothing to do with licensing and all that. And forget any advanced writing techniques. This is still just trying to get her to overcome the damn fear:

Her email: Think I lost the story. No real suspense.

My response: (I’m always too long-winded)

When it feels like that to you, Just Write the Next Sentence. Ignore that negative voice (no real suspense; why am I writing this, this is boring, etc. ad nauseam). Whenever the voice is negative, it’s ALWAYS the critical voice.

Just yesterday I met with one of my current mentoring clients. She said, “Sometimes I want to stop. I feel like I’m just putting words on the page, but they don’t really mean anything.”

I told her exactly the same thing: Your critical voice exists only to protect you. In writing, it tries to protect you from embarrassment. If you finish a story, you might publish it. If you publish it, someone won’t like it. They might even give you a bad review. So your critical voice tries hard (always with negative thoughts) to stop you from writing. With things like “no real suspense.”

The only way you can beat it is to tell it (out loud, if you want to) “Shut up and leave me alone. I’m going to finish this, and that’s that.”

Then write the next sentence that comes to you, then the next, then the next.

Her reply: Exactly how I feel. OK, I will try.

My second probably unsuccessful attempt:

No, don’t try. Do. The only way to overcome the critical voice is to Write, and when the negative critical voice crops up, tell it to shut up and leave you alone, then write the next sentence.

If it stops you once, it gains power and it will stop you again.

Don’t make the story special. It isn’t. It won’t change the world. It’s just a story. A little entertainment. Probably 80% of people who read it will like it if you let the characters tell the story (just keep writing the next sentence that occurs to you). The other 20% don’t matter.

I realize I’m being harsh here, but I’ve been through it. Everyone has. It’s a harsh truth, but if you don’t shut down your critical voice—the voice that tells you you can’t do it or you aren’t good enough or you’re just putting words on the page that nobody will care about, etc.—you will never be a long-term fiction writer.

Keep the writing fun. Just be the first person your characters tell their story to. Just listen and record what they say and do.

And seriously, if writing isn’t fun, why bother? Do something you enjoy instead.

So what do you think? Too harsh? Yet it’s what I tell everyone who asks these questions about writing.

This young woman wants me to teach her advanced techniques about fiction writing. But frankly, if she’s going to write from the conscious mind, why should I bother taking her money and teaching her techniques that she won’t be using in five or ten years? She’ll be dollars ahead, and my conscience will be clear, if she keeps her money and I keep my advice.

Because like every fiction writer who writes from the conscious, critical mind, even if she enjoys some early success, she won’t be around for the long haul.

She has already worried and fretted her way through a novelette. But on her fourth or fifth rewrite (of a novelette!), she wondered why she became so confused as she tried yet again to “fix” it.

She also complained she had more and more trouble coming up with ideas.

No wonder. Duh. She spends excessive amounts of time actually teaching her creative mind that she doesn’t trust it, that she has to “fix” what it tells her, so why should it bother? If she constantly corrected me, I wouldn’t talk to her either.

Another writer acquaintance wrote in a comment on another blog recently that she never trusts her characters completely.

Again, seriously? Folks, if you don’t trust your characters to tell the story they’re living (in your subconscious mind), you don’t trust yourself. You don’t trust in your own ability to Just Tell A Story. Think about that.

The thing is, I wouldn’t tell my prospective student (or you) all this stuff if I didn’t care whether she or you ever become successful. I do care. I don’t know why. It isn’t like I get a cut of your royalties. I have zero vested interest. Yet for some reason, I do care. I want you to be successful, and I want you to have a ton of fun every time you sit down to write.

But you never will unless you shed the angelic robes and drop out of the authorial ivory tower.

You never will unless you slip into your grubby jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers, slip down a mud slide into the trenches of the story and make some new friends.

But as I said at the outset, it’s all your choice.

You can be the timid kid peering through your bedroom window at the other children as they play in the field across the road, or you can put on your jeans and sneakers and t-shirt, run outside and enjoy the fun.

When you do, you’ll realize who wins or loses the game of tag or baseball or whatever doesn’t matter. What matters is the playing.

As a writer, that’s when you’ll realize the story isn’t important at all. What’s important is WRITING the story. And when that happens for you, my friends, you will have the time of your life.

I’m gonna go write now. Not sure when I’ll be back. Talk amongst yourselves.