I have never been good at tough love. A rapidly moistening pair of eyes, a quivering lip — these have been my downfall as a “tough lover” because I hate sadness. I embrace and enjoy existential terror and nihilism as well as, as one brilliant writer recently called it, “Cosmic Futilitarianism.” But sadness, hurt feelings, disappointment? Holy mother of the FSM, I can’t stand them and will often try to completely blank out my mind in order to avoid experiencing them in myself or (especially) others whom I care about. Almost anyone being sad … I can’t stand it.
There are exceptions.
Anyway, all of this is to preface that I’m about to dispense some tough love. If you are a writer or want to be a writer, then, frankly, I love you. You are doing something very brave, or intend to do something very brave, because writing does all of the following:
- Allows a way to make a living only slightly less arduous and risky than panning for gold on a stream inside the compound of a Tea Party militia;
- Completely exposes your most secret and important self to a world that may not only not give a rat’s ass, but that might actually mock and despise you for it;
- Makes you so needy that you think of the above risk of mocking and despising as “Hey, at least people are reading my stuff!”; and
- Takes you away from doing other things that other, non-writer, people enjoy.
- Also, you might suck at writing and no one will tell you except on your deathbed, precluding any chance of your improving from their feedback.
And that’s the good news.
So you see that when I say the prospective writer (especially novelist, but this also applies to playwrights, poets, nonfiction scribes, and writers of shorter fiction as well) is “brave,” I absolutely mean it. You are willing — heck, asking — to confront demons both internal and external, as even the most hackneyed plot and characters still require a plumbing of one’s own depths in order to allow them to do anything at all.
There are writers, and there are “writers”
So the people I respect are the writers who are either working on a project, planning a project, or shopping a finished project around (and this includes self-publishing folks). People I do NOT respect (as writers — I’m sure they’re all fine human beings) are those who exclusively talk about writing, or who “work on their writing” by shopping for the right desk and lamp and computer and office and house and city to work in before they dare put words to paper, even virtual paper (which is quite cheap) on a word processor.
These are the beret-wearing, clove-cigarette-smoking dilettantes of a thousand New Yorker cartoons. But they are also the people who talk endlessly about agents, copyright protection, marketing plans, and other writing business topics without actually doing any writing. I run into these people every week, almost whenever I leave the house and go somewhere where writers gather. I consider outlining, writing treatments, and doing research (actually doing it, not “being in the process of doing it”) as perfectly acceptable parts of writing novels or other kinds of work. (I do novels, so that’s my focus, obviously, but this applies to wannabe writers of all stripes.)
“OfficeMax was out of the quills I like, so I ain’t writin’ jack squat ’til they get them in.”
A writer can become a “writer” at any time. There are tons of authors (they are measured by weight, not volume) who write a book and then proceed to do nothing for the rest of their lives although they still call themselves “writers,” not “have writtens.” While this is unfortunate, these folks get a pass with me. At least they did it once. They can always say that they wrote that one novel which legend has it exists in each of us.
But here’s the flip slide: If he or she puts him- or herself to the task with real intention and real commitment, a “writer” can become a writer. I spent years with it “not being the right time” or “I didn’t have what I needed to ‘really’ start writing” and using every other excuse in the book (which I did not write). Here are a few that I relied on for years to explain why I wasn’t writing but really, deep down, was a writer:
- “My wife called it ‘that damned book’ and made me feel unsupported.” (Before Ann.)
- “I don’t have a fast enough computer.”
- “What I really need is a laptop.”
- “Without a deadline imposed on me from without, I just can’t seem to finish anything. Or start it, to be honest.”
- “I’m not good enough of a writer to ever compete with real writers.”
- “Publishing is a scam. It’s who you know, not how good your writing is.” (Note that I was not doing any writing in the period I was saying this, so it was doubly bullshit.)
- “Self-publishing is a scam.”
- “Small press publishing is a scam.”
- “There’s no point if I don’t have an agent.”
- “I need to really research everything in Writer’s Market before I do anything. I wouldn’t want to waste my time writing for a market that doesn’t exist.”
- “I can’t write with small children around.”
- “I can’t write with any kind of social obligation hanging over my head, even if it’s months in the future.”
And so on and so on, ad infinitum (or at least ad alotmoreum). It’s all excuses, nothing but excuses. I personally used every one of these and a whole lot moreum over the years. I do work extremely well under the pressure of an externally imposed deadline, but you know what is the most externally exposed deadline of all? DEATH. (Very little writing gets done in Heaven, where everybody is already a best-selling author, and even less gets done in Hell, since it’s an endless open mic poetry night using a sound system with random, but almost constant, squealing feedback.) In other words, you have to write now.
Photo courtesy of ExtremelySubtleImages.com.
But you’re in luck! There is a mass movement to get you WRITING!
Most people who are into writing know about NaNoWriMo, “National Novel-Writing Month.” (I added the hyphen. Philistines. Anyway, moving on.) You commit to write a 50,000-word novel — about the length of The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451 and Stephen King’s first book in The Dark Tower series (The Gunslinger) and other famous and beloved tomes — in one month. (November, to be exact.) That means you write an average of 1,667 words per day. You know you’ve written emails, Facebook posts, and blog entries longer than this already. It’s a challenge, but even if you write gobbledygook, you have that most precious of writerly artifacts, a first draft upon which to perform surgery. Add a leg, remove a rib — as Faulkner said, “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” And our buddy William Faulkner practiced what he preached — he rewrote his own name from “Falkner” to “Faulkner” to make his brand stand out more.
Also, in his first draft, Faulkner’s fictional county in Mississippi was called “Fartbutt Holler.”
NaNoWriMo gives writers the opportunity to get that first draft down. It takes commitment and it takes a certain amount of both bravery and bravado — but if you’re a writer, you’ve already gone all-in on both of those, haven’t you?
“But why do I need NaNoWriMo? I can just tell myself I’ll write 50,000 words in a month and BAM! Same difference.” Well, yes and no. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that you are supported by an entire community of fellow writers who are trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do and share their triumphs, frustrations, questions, cheerleading, need for cheerleading, and much more both on the national level but also in the smaller “pods” of writers that just about every city in the U.S. has. (Bigger cities have more than one.) These groups schedule “write-ins” where NaNo participants show up and … well, write. It’s usually at a coffee shop or Panera Bread or some other public space where people can call out to each other with all of the expressions of feelings noted above.
“Okay, fine, but November is a long way away. Why are you writing this blog post right now?” Well, the official NaNo is in November, but they have a July version called “Camp NaNoWriMo,” which gets you from zero to whatever word count you choose. (For instance, I am doing a 30,000-word “bizarro” novel for a publisher who puts out shorter works.) You can do the 50,000-word novel, of course, but you can also do a shorter one, a longer one, or a revision of something you already wrote.
The important thing is that you can break it up into stages with daily goals to meet. A friend of mine who is a poet (and an awesome one) wants to write 31 poems, one for each day of Camp NaNo. What she’s doing, since the word count requirements say a minimum of 10,000 words and word counts don’t really mean anything for poetry, is putting her goal at 31,000 words, and every time she finishes a poem, she puts up 1,000 words on her progress chart. BAM — 31 days, 31 poems, and a steady accumulation of words/points until she reaches her goal on July 31.
That’s another great thing about NaNo in general but certainly Camp NaNoWriMo is that there are widgets you can put on your blog or website that show your progress. I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my daily words, how far I am from the goal, and other fun little stats I like to look at. It was created by a NaNo writer a few years back and given freely to the entire NaNoWriMo community, to be shared by everyone.
This cat knows what I’m talkin’ bout.
The opportunity is here. The support is here. You want to write a novel?
Then join me at Camp NaNoWriMo this July, aiight?
Here’s the link: http://www.CampNaNoWriMo.org. My username (if you want to add me to your cabin) is, creatively, SeanHoade.
A final important note: Once you finish your project, whatever it may be, you can go on to rewrite it or not rewrite it; try to get it published, self-publish, or just stick in a drawer for later; or even use it for applications to MFA programs. What matters is that you did it.
It won’t be easy and occasionally it won’t even be fun. But you are brave. You are a writer. Let’s make your book happen.