My girlfriend and I just signed a lease on a new apartment. That is exciting news in and of itself, but something equally exciting happened to me this weekend while I was cleaning out my bookshelf and boxing things up: I found my copy of Strunk's The Elements of Style. Immediately I recalled how fun and terrifying those first baby steps into the perilous world of writing were. The feeling was a strange combination of fear and longing that made me thirsty for a cold beer with old friends. I missed those earlier times.
Ahhh nostalgia, what a fantastic and powerful drug.
*Long thoughtful sigh*
Moving on now.
Even better than the book discovery, was when I cracked it open and leafed through the pages and the receipt for it fell out (Spirit of '76 Bookstore, which, coincidentally, is now carrying my first novel, Cicada Spring). The receipt was faded and creased in all kids of strange ways that seemed impossible, especially when you considered that it had spent nearly three years pressed flatly between pages. But there it was in all its magnificent glory—proof of a beginning. For all intents and purposes, it was my birth certificate, a reminder of when I decided writing was what I wanted to do.
According to the tiny piece of paper, May 20th, 2012, was when Christian the Writer was born. I'm still a lot of other things: Christian the Banker, Christian the Over-Confident Golfer, Christian the Hungry, Christian the Habitual Line-Crosser. But Christian the Writer is certainly my favorite of all these identities. He is the one who feels most at home in his awkward and often sunburned skin. Christian the Writer doesn't tan well.
It's funny to think about how three years can feel so short yet so long at the same time. From my current standpoint, it flew by (a tad cliché, I know), but when I try to place myself in my younger self's writing shoes, I can only remember time passing in a grim slog of impatience.
When I was first starting, pumping out short story after short story, all I wanted to do was get better. I wrote hard and fast, with little regard for the rules. I was aware I was making mistakes, but I didn't care. Damn it, I wanted to be good NOW! Get out of my way punctuation and grammar! However, deep down, I knew there was work to be done. Very. Hard. Work. Talent, in my opinion, is less about the 'genius' you think you have inside you, the gift you believe you were given, and much more about how hard you are willing to work to coax it out of you and shine a light on it. It'll be an ugly bastard at first--squinty eyes, no teeth, opaque pink skin (picture a baby rat)--but eventually you can pretty it up some and maybe even find someone who'd be happy to date it.
What I'm getting at is this: I knew that if I kept at it, if I promised myself that no matter what happened, if at the end of the day I never gave up, then inevitably I would get better. And sure enough, I did. At least I think so. The progress was slow. The results, I was certain, would never come. But bit by bit, word by word, then sentence by sentence, things started to get better and easier. I have no delusions of being a genius writer, but I do, however, think that the talent I felt simmering inside me is finally a little easier to transition from my head to the blank page. In short, it's gotten easier to say what I want to say the way I want to say it. And in writing, that's pretty darn important. It is your voice.
So, while I know 'writing advice' is an over-touched-upon subject, and one I'm not even sure I am qualified to discuss, I would still like to talk a little bit about what I picked up along the way. Bits and scraps from here and there. Things that worked for me. Some might be helpful. Some might be better suited as dog food. But if you, dear reader, should glean even the tiniest morsel of inspiration or insight from it, I will be satisfied. Think of this less as advice and more of me telling you what has worked for me. There is no one size-fits-all with writing, so read this and interpret it widely. These things are simply the things I've noticed I was doing when I felt most in control of my craft.
1) Write Honestly
This is something of a staple in almost any book on writing you will ever read. My favorite, of course, is Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and he discusses the topic the way only Stephen King can. I doubt he would claim to have invented the notion; it is simply something any writer worth his or her salt learns along the way—that the words are best and have the greatest impact when they aren't dumbed down out of fear of what people might think or who might get offended.
Many writers, I have found, are the sort who were often thought of as weird in their adolescence. Not because they were actually weird necessarily, but because they would say things with little care of what others would think of them. Little did we know we were preparing ourselves at such a young age to say what we wanted to say the way we wanted to say it.
So what exactly does 'write honestly' mean? It can mean many things to many people, but to me it means don't hold back. For example: If you want to make a character convincing, say a character who is supposed to be devious and evil (serial killers are a good blank canvas for the dark inclined mind), then I hate to tell you this but you're going to have to conjure up some dark thoughts that disturb you. And when you finally go to put them down on the page, cringing as you type the words, second guessing yourself as to whether or not it's too much and you've crossed a line, you need to know that that's when you should keep going. If you aren't feeling it as a writer when you're writing it, then you better believe the reader won't feel it when they read it. That goes for any emotion—fear, love, lust, anger, humor, sadness.
To write honestly you need to know your characters inside and out. They have to think and behave the way they were meant to, and often times the way that they want to; they can easily take on a life of their own and say things that catch you off guard. So if they decide to speak up, for the love of God do not censor them. It's an unforgivable sin, if you ask me, and you should be nibbled to death by a duck.
2) Surprise Yourself
When it comes to twists and surprises you need to avoid doing the first thing that comes to mind. You are the writer, but you are also the first reader. If you get to a point in your story where you can see the setup/opportunity for a plot-twist coming, take a break for a moment. During that break, think of the first two or three scenarios that would best fit that twist... then throw them away. If you thought of them that fast, then chances are a reader will too. Sometimes the cleverest twists are the ones that seem more obvious (sounds counterintuitive, I know), but people automatically look for the obscure when they start to realize things aren't what they seem. Hiding in plain sight isn't always bad if it suits your story. Points for clever twists are always good, but not the ultimate currency in storytelling. Stories are so much bigger than gimmicks.
In a roundabout way, I think I am trying to say to be real as often as possible. Root your lies in grains of truth to lend them believability and ground them in reality.
3) Find What Works For You and Do It
Writers are creatures of habit, if nothing else. We have our routines and our environmental requirements in order for the words to flow freely. Some writers like to drink or smoke a cigarette or wear aluminum foil on their feet. Find what works for you, your comfort zone, and stay there for the duration of your writing session, whatever it may be. Me? I need to be warm. Scratch that—I need to be blazing hot. I bundle up and turn the heat to 78 degrees. It's the only way I can relax enough to get things moving along. By the time I've managed to get down a thousand or so words, I'm usually a sweaty medium-rare and ready for consuming.
4) Write, Damn it!
This one should go without saying, yet I cannot tell you how many "writers" I have met who tell me they want to write something. It's usually at this moment that I am overtaken with ungovernable rage and want to grab them by the lapels and shake them, all the while screaming "Well then write it, damn you! Don't tell me you want to write... WRITE!!"
What I am getting at in a not-so-subtle way is that if you want to write, you need to write. Even if it is only a hundred words a day, you have to write. It is the only way to get better, and it is the only way to be a writer. Hence the old chestnut: A writer writes. It's old and it's a chestnut because it is true. I have a minimum goal of five hundred words per day, and I always hit that no matter what, even if the words are crap. If I don't, I honestly have a hard time sleeping. Writing, as with so many other hobbies, can quickly become a compulsion and an obsession that demands things from you. It is not unlike an unruly child without manners. It wants what it wants when it wants it. So feed it and you'll be happy.
5) Read Everything
That's all I have to say about that.
Dialogue can be tricky. I have always been jealous of those to whom it comes easy. My brother, for instance, can write clever and witty dialogue as if he has been doing it for his entire life. I should mention he is not a writer and the dialogue he does put down on the page is usually just part of some funny email he has decided to send me when the hours of our day jobs are ticking by slowly. But still, he is damn good at it. The trick is, I have found, to remove the boring parts (Elmore Leonard says the same about all writing, in fact). Dialogue should always move the story along or build a character's depth and reveal subtle motivations. It's a great way to show instead of tell.
If you want to try an exercise that can help you improve your skills, try this: listen to conversations on a train and transcribe them, then after you've creepily jotted down everything the couple next to has said, take out all the parts that didn't lend a person character (mannerisms and stall words etc) and take out all the stuff that didn't advance the conversation. What you are left with is the good meat.
7) Finish Something
One of the biggest confidence boosts I got when I was first beginning to write was when I finished my first story. I had a wicked habit of starting things and putting them down, never to be finished. The problem is that when you first come up with an idea to write, there is this initial euphoric blast of adrenalin and excitement. You are like a child with a new toy. But after a few thousand words the excitement wears off and you are left with a bill for the hard work required to finish it. This is where the men are separated from the boys, the women from the girls. This is where it's time to show that story who the hell's boss. So do it. Come to the page every day and finish that story. Even when it gets hard, even when the idea seems stupid at second thought, even when the characters don't resonate, finish it. I promise you when you sit there at the end of it all, finished first draft in hand, it will all be worth it. One cruddy but finished story is far better than a dozen brilliant first paragraphs. And besides, first drafts almost always stink anyway. It's okay. Rewriting and editing is an equally important craft to hone, and you will do just that, grasshopper... you will. It just takes time and practice.
For now I think I have said enough. There is more kicking around in my noggin I am sure, but much of it is probably nothing more than opinions on what you should eat for breakfast and what brand of tea to drink while writing (Earl Grey). So I shall depart posthaste, before I lose your attention, dear reader. But first I would like to thank Kathleen Valentine for the opportunity to write this piece for her blog. The advice she has given me over the past few years has been invaluable.