One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve started in participating in NaNoWriMo is the obsession people have with word count.
A recent article on the site discussed ways to inflate your numbers: give your character a stutter so words are repeated, they suggest; give someone amnesia so the whole plot has to be repeated to them, and so forth. Creative suggestions, to be sure, and in some cases they would be useful, but surely they defeat the point of the exercise? Isn’t it more important to write a decent first draft? Yes, I’m aware that such a thing could be considered an oxymoron, and with all respects to the notion of it being okay to produce a ‘shitty first draft’ as Annie Lamott would say, I can’t believe the idea is to wallow in faecal matter.
I have a vision of someone submitting an entire manuscript consisting of ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ a la The Shining.
All of this has got me thinking about the lies people tell writers and writers sometimes tell each other.
Lie #1: You can’t fail if you produce 1000 (or 2000 or even 50) words a day.
Quality be damned, this philosophy seems to say. The word count is all.
Well, producing copy is important, but not as important as substance. If you force yourself to write 1000 words a day – for instance – and you just write the same phrase over and over, you’ve technically met your goal.
That’s not the point, the writers’ manuals say. Get your bum on a chair and produce copy. Quality will inevitably follow.
Some time ago I was asked to review a story written by a young writer, let’s call her Lucy. I was asked to give comments, feedback, and suggestions for how to improve the writing. You know the sort of thing.
The story – a fantasy adventure – had some interesting things going for it, but it was entirely plot-driven and the characters had all the substance of Woody Woodpecker cartoon. It was contrived and derivative. Worse, the ending suggested the young author had simply run out of steam and just decided to stop writing rather than try to resolve all the aspects of the tale.
Well, I thought, she’s young, she’s just starting. No doubt some suggestions for how she can develop this tale – which has some really promising scenes – into a fully realised piece of fiction would make her day. Such feedback would have certainly made my day when I was starting out.
So I spent a few hours writing an analysis. I told her how much I liked various characters but how she could make them come alive a bit more. ‘Give them something to fight for, rather than just something to fight against.’ I told her what aspects of her plot worked well and should be expanded, as well as what she should consider deleting. I reviewed things like sentence structure and grammar. In short, I spent a fair bit of time presenting her with the tools to develop her talent
Her response was to say, ‘Oh, thanks’ and promptly put her story in a drawer, presumably never to be looked at again, while she went on to write another virtually identical tale.
I later learned that Lucy wasn’t the young teen I had envisioned, but a twenty-something woman who described herself as a writer – something I didn’t dare do until I’d had my first piece published. Is it a problem that such people call themselves writers? Probably not, as the West Wing’s Sam Seaborn would say, ‘as long as we broaden the definition to people who can spell…’
So words on page are a start – but no more than a start. Without graft, you’ll be left with nothing more than a shitty first draft. That’s your choice, but please don’t call yourself a writer if that’s all you’ve done.
No matter how well you spell.
Lie #2: Everyone has a book in them.
To be fair, this is something the general public like to believe. Most writers – if they are worthy of the name – shudder at the thought.
I seem to hear this comment every time I say I’m a writer. The reaction seems to be, well, who are you? You’re nothing special. If you can do it I can too. Easy peasy.
Tosh! (Insert a saltier epithet here if you wish.)
Most people’s lives are banal. Their days are full of dandruff and bad backs; annoying bosses and humdrum jobs; spouses who don’t listen and children who don’t respect them.
Can you make a story out of that? Sure you can. If you’re Virginia Woolf or Tennessee Williams. But trying to turn an ordinary life into good fiction (note the key word in that sentence) is something best left to the experts. You wouldn’t try to do your own root canal, why would you try to write a novel?
It can be done of course. If you have time. If you work hard. If you read and study and try and try and try. You can write a novel. You can even use your own life as a blueprint.
Just don’t assume everyone can do it.
Lie #3: If you work hard you will succeed in being published
Well, that depends. Many books that we now consider classics were not published until after the death of the author.
Writers such as Emily Dickenson, Steig Larsson and Anne Frank did not see published the work that made them famous.
John Kenndy Toole failed to get A Confederacy of Dunces published and committed suicide. His novel was published posthumously.
But if you’re a writer – the real definition of a writer rather than a good speller or typist – you will keep on writing. You’ll do it because you have no choice. Even when you hate it you won’t be able to stop.
A real writer is a modern day Lady of Shallot steadily weaving a tapestry night and day. Publication or no.
And yes, you’re right, it is much easier to say that when you’ve actually seen some stuff published.
Lie #4: Rejection is good for you
OK, maybe it is, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And I’m not sure it is good for me unless it’s constructive. But consider these famous rejections and tell me if you think the authors felt nourished by them:
Sylvia Plath – ‘There certainly isn’t enough talent to make us take notice.’
Stephen King (‘Carrie’) – ‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.’
JG Ballard (Crash) – ‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’
William Faulkner (Sanctuary) – ‘Good God, I can’t publish this!’
Lie #5: Writing is the hardest work you’ll ever do
Uh, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be bloody hard to get the words to flow, the plot to make sense, the characters to behave.
But I’ve done other things and I have to tell you sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee and the chance to enter the world of my own imagination is not nearly as hard as working the night shift at a hospital.
Try telling someone their spouse, child, parent has an incurable illness. Try getting beaten up by a violent patient. Try spending twelve hours on your feet, wading through human misery and excrement, then talk to me about the hard job we writers have.
“The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer, day after story after year after novel…”