Continuing my series of thoughts on writing and the peculiar soup of skills and perspectives that go into it, I present to you points 3-5. These are not in any particular order, one is not more important than the other. It is not a top ten list, but numbers help me think in an organized fashion. Today's seemed to unintentionally group into a "Buck up, Camper" theme.
3. People Are Going to Shit All Over You
Oh, yes they are. It really doesn't matter if you try to do something different or you just want to rescue the princess in the tower. It'll start with your teachers, in college or high school or workshops. You are going to have to hear, more than once, more than ten times, that not only does your work suck, but it betrays some signal flaw within yourself, and you as a person are terrible for having written this thing. This is true, basically, no matter what you write. It is especially true if you are trying something off the beaten path, whether that beaten path is one of bestsellers or your teacher's own predilictions. I have personally had verse and chorus of "Nothing" from A Chorus Line spewed at me from numerous teachers. For those of you not musically inclined, it goes something like: you're bad at this, you'll never amount to anything, give up and work at a gas station and leave this to the real artists. One professor literally threw up his hands at our final conference and said "You're just going to do whatever you want no mater what I say so there's no point in even trying to teach you about good writing."
We all have stories like that, I suspect. Most particularly those of us who write SFF, which makes no friends in universities. The best part is, it doesn't stop there! Once you're published, new and exciting people will appear to tell you how bad your work is, even if you are popular and/or critically acclaimed. And it will get personal, especially if you are throwing down with your whole being, laying your kinks and history on the page like a sacrifice. If you're a woman, or other-than-white, or queer, it will probably, at some point, get really personal. Many readers have a huge problem separating the work from the creator. The mountain of crap I got for writing Palimpsest, both in public venues and in private emails, would make you crawl under the table with a bottle of fuck-you whiskey. I not only wrote a bad book, but I am sexually disturbed (I either hate sex or like it way too much, depending on who you ask) and politically suspect. Give up and work in a gas station. Name a book you think is universally liked and I will find someone saying it is a sin against man, decency, and the dictionary. People get very invested in books, which is the whole point of writing books. I have myself gotten upset to tears over books and have said so online. I try not to do that unless at great need now. I know too much.
It's easy to say: you must develop grace about this. I doubt anyone actually has grace about it. We all get mad or sad or hit the bar and rage against it all. It takes a really long time, or a really good internet filter, to be ok with how much some people will not like your work and by extension you. I'm not saying get grace at the bargain virtue store.
But you can fake grace.
Do not respond to online wars about your book unless you can do so with a cool head--and even then, have someone else look over your response and gauge the probably fallout before clicking "post." Know that once a book is published it no longer belongs entirely to you. Readers will engage with it and take it apart if you are very lucky. Let them do that--it's their right as readers. If someone says your book is racist or sexist or homophobic or fatphobic or cruel, try to listen and see if there's something you can do better--because the nature of predjudice is that most people don't know they have it. Scream into your beer with your real life friends or over email. Fake the grace not to do it in public. Some takedowns are because people are dicks and want to shred things they don't understand. Some are because there's really a problem. And we as the authors of the text are way too close to it to be the ones deciding which is which.
And know that someone, always, will not like your work. Those voices sound louder than the ones who love it sometimes, because we are human and hurt easily. Because these books are pieces of our hearts bound in glue and cardstock. If you can't fake grace, just don't read your reviews. Reviews are a brutal kind of crack: when they're good you feel you can conquer the world and everything is fine. When they aren't, it's a painful come down from the level of ego it took to write a book in the first place. All these things are normal. A mask of grace will get you further than Hulking out on every blog that reminds you of how much painful, painful rejection and misery comes stapled to the contract.
Carrie's mom was right: they're all going to laugh at you. Bucket of blood is not actually the answer.
4. You Will Never Be As Good As You Want To Be
And that's a good thing. There's always some data loss between the perfect book that existed in your head before you screwed it all up by writing it down and the final, actual book that heads out into the world. (Peter Straub's In the Night Room is possibly the best literary treatment of this sad fact that I've ever seen.)
At least for me, every single book I've ever written (12 so far) has seemed so big and monstrous when it only existed inside me that I could not even imagine, at first, how to begin writing it. I have torn my hair out in stages over every book, and with every book there were moments when I thought I'd never finish it, or worse, that I was simply not good enough yet to pull it off (possibly actually true). I genuinely believe that variously-attributed quote: "You never learn how to write a novel, you only learn how to write this novel." I have felt, every time, like I was starting over as a beginner.
You learn to live in that space between the perfect and the real. Walking that fence keeps you hungry, keeps you turning over the things you're obsessed with until, like the rock tumblers we geologically inclined children loved, eventually those concepts begin to gleam with clarity and color. But they will never be perfect. They will always have lumps and pockmarks. That's why working writers write fr their whole lives, chasing that book that says it the way you meant it, a grail that is always in the next castle. We are Lancelots, not Galahads. And it's almost worse if you do come close and write something incredibly good, because that next castle can become terrifying, paralyzing. Doing it again can feel impossible. This is another high-level writer spell I didn't get until I had a big hit: it's far easier to say fuck the haters, I'm gonna knock out the next one like a motherfucking prizefighter than to whisper everyone loved this, and I don't remember how I did it.
The point is, the race is long. It is never about only one book, unless you get well and truly paralyzed and only ever write one. What keeps me going in the long dark deadlines of my soul when I think my old professor was right is the hope that someday I will write something as good as I hoped it would be when the idea first landed in my brain. I won't; the rabbit races forever in front of me. But sometimes, just sometimes, I can smell it as I run.
5. Use Your Voice
This one comes in two parts.
You know how everyone says all the stories have already been told? (Aristotle did, but also probably your flatmate.) It's totally true.
I've never understood why that means we shouldn't write anything else ever. There are a limited number of stories when you boil it down to Event A + Event B = Narrative C. But that's never been the whole of literature. Yes, indeed, your plot is basically Beowulf/Arabian Nights/Antigone. So? What makes the difference is voice. Every story has been told, but you have not told every story. What your peculiar experience brings to a narrative is what makes it new. Human skeletons come in a certain more or less fixed configuration, but we all look completely different. The musculature and skin are as important as the bones. (Or: style is content, as the man said.)
This may seem to fly in the face of the No Cliche Stinkeye I cast yesterday. I poked fun at the monomyth because it's so easily recognizable as a Thing that Has Been Done. But you can even make the monomyth fresh--it just takes a lot of work and awareness. And I think awareness is the key. Examining the tools and materials you're working with, asking yourself what is necessary and what is simply easy, what is your own and what you borrowed. Asking yourself repeatedly why you are writing what you're writing, is it still what you want to be writing, has it become something else, something more or less interesting than when you started out? Being willing to take it apart again and start over. And most of all, most especially if you are working with well-worn tropes or retellings or engaging vigorously with the Great Conversation, be that the science fictional one, the critical one, or the one you've been having with your friends for the last ten years, does this thing you end up with look and sound like you? How have you added to or subtracted from the model you started with?
Follow your voice is a common bit of teacherly advice. And yeah, it's true, sort of. I think that in the beginning, most of us try on the voices of other writers, because we love them, because they resonate with us, because we want to see what fits and what doesn't. You're Sylvia Plath for a year, then you're Ursula Le Guin, then you're Charles Stross, then you're Jane Austen, then you're Homer for awhile. Eventually you come out with a technicolor dreamcoat of all the bits of voice and technique and style you've loved, minus what you don't, and stitched together with what is uniquely yourself, and that's what we call a voice. When you're just starting out it's ok to wear Jane's dress and Kafka's shoes. Hopefully, you outgrow it and keep growing into and out of things your whole life. This is part--but only part--of why it is not possible to be a writer without being a reader. Follow all the voices. See where they lead. And use it. All the tricks, all the backflips and hat-dwelling rabbits you know.
The second part is a more technical thing: read your stuff aloud.
Not just to yourself, preferably, but to someone who can react in ways subtle and gross. But if it's just to your cat, it's still the best tool I know for editing. You learn immediately what dialogue does and doesn't work, what flows and what judders, what beats you're hitting and what you're missing. (You also clean up your spelling real nice.) If you have another person to listen, you can see when they get bored, when they get excited, when they don't understand. I was in theatre for the first major portion of my life, and my parents were, too. I can preach this like the gospel. Stories were performed once upon a time, and you can see your work plainly, nakedly, fully only if you speak it aloud. You will also figure out what Your Voice really is, the natural cadences of your own accent/dialect, your sense of speech and rhythm, and how to invert or play into those hidden tics.
Not for nothing are the first words of The Iliad and The Odyssey are Speak and Sing.
Part 3 coming tomorrow.