Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Universal Untruth (Yet another writing post)

They say that anyone who attempts to defend his or her self in court has a fool for a client. Well, let's translate that to writing perspective. The writer who tries to critique their own work has a fool for a judge.

Let me illustrate my point with a little slice from my writing life:

A few weeks ago, my wife heard that Denise Little, an anthology editor she's worked with, had come up short on an upcoming anthology. Several of the people on her invited list of writers had come in much shorter than usual, so she needed 10K words, and she needed them fast, so the book could be turned in. Chris immediately wrote her and said that one or both of us would come up with stories for her.

Mind you, "fast" in this case meant we heard about it on Friday, and she needed stories by the middle of the following week. Mind you, this was a theme anthology, the working title being "Front Lines," and so not just any story would do.

Sub-lesson #1 here for the aspiring and new writers in our midst: this is the sort of situation that separates the writers from the neos. The ability to produce work quickly, on time, to specification, and to market, is a highly valued skill in the marketplace. When these sorts of opportunities come along, and they will from time to time, the ability to follow-through will get you far.

So, kudos to Chris here. She very quickly came up with a fantasy idea, wrote it, mailed it over the weekend, and had a sale by Monday. That's professionalism for you.

I, on the other hand, was struggling. I had a seed of an idea, derived from my hobby of collecting GI Joes (and similar 12" action figures) and my childhood love of GI Joe, Major Matt Mason, and their kin. It also played on the sad fact that childhood is an endangered institution. These days, kids seem to go straight from diapers to video games, computers, cell-phones, and I-pods loaded with gangsta-rap. They're giving up traditional toys younger and younger, and simply never take to them with the enthusiasm that earlier generations did. It's my feeling that with the loss of that imaginative and unstructured play, we're losing something important from our culture, something that may come back to bite us in the ass later.

So, okay, I had a subject, and a theme, but I didn't have a story. I decided my protagonist would be "Backyard Joe," a tired old action figure who was still holding down the trenches in an overgrown back yard, long after the kids have gone on to other things. Valiantly, he guards his post against an unseen enemy that seems to lurk just beyond the high grass. His only companion is the "Limey" (a character in fact inspired by Action Man, GI Joe's counterpart in the UK) an action figure who seems even more broken down and dispirited than he is.

All this is good, but this gives us a character, in a situation, with a somewhat loosely defined problem. That's an opening, but it isn't a story, and that's where I struggled. I had a vague idea of where it might end, but I wasn't at all sure how to get there. The bridging events, the dark moment, the turning point of the story; these things were all missing. Even if I can make it work, there didn't seem to be enough meat there. The story needed to be at least 2000 words long, and I didn't see how I was going to make that with what I had.

So I write a little. I stare at the screen. I write a little more. I stare. I'm stuck. I hate most of what I've written. I hate the whole idea. Several times I'm tempted to throw it away and try to come up with a new idea, but I've got nothing, and I know that I'm probably just trading the devil I know for one I don't.

For me, the darkest moment was probably when Chris got word of her sale. I still was no closer to finishing, and I was starting to feel like a total fraud. (This is the kind of place where jealousy can rear its ugly head, and that's why I'm very wedded to the idea that other people's success is their own, and has nothing to do with you. You succeed or fail based on your own work. Other people's success can't hurt you professionally. It can bang your ego around, though, if you're busy having self-doubts.)

To put this in perspective, I've got a stack of novels under my belt, plus scripts, computer games, and other things. I've sold a fair number of short stories, including to major sf/f markets like Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and to anthologies as well. But most of these sales were years ago, before I got distracted writing tie-in novels. More recently I've written stories under contract for tie-in anthologies, but not much original short fiction. Yeah, I can write a novel, but short-stories are a much different skill set.

So this is the part where the highly-trained writer brain starts making things up, starting with, "you're a fraud." Followed by "you can't do this," and "you never even knew how to do this, the other sales were flukes." That's what the writer brain does. It makes things up, and in that, it is often not your friend.

So this is also the part where many, maybe most, would-be writers give up. The difference with a pro is that (most days, anyway) they bull their way through. Maybe you justify it on the thought that, "maybe the editor will be so desperate for words they'll buy even this crap," if that's what it takes. But the professional thing to do is to keep going.

And I did. I figured out an approach, and by Tuesday evening I was over the considerable hump and headed for the ending. I'd managed to flesh out my story a bit, so that it easily went past 2000 words. I even got a good emotional hit while writing the ending, which I normally take as a very good sign.

In this case though, I was still a doubter. I was writing about something very personal to me. I got it, but would anyone else? Were my action-figure references too obscure, too "inside-joke" for the average reader? Had I written a "guy story" that my female editor just wouldn't get, or worse, just wouldn't like? Was it too sentimental? Was the ending too abstract?

The tragedy is, even at this point, some people still give up. The story goes in a drawer (literal or digital) never to emerge again, because the writer isn't sure that it will sell. Well, let me tell you, there's no certainty in this business, but if you don't submit it, you'll never know, and if you don't submit it, it can't sell.

By the time I'd gotten to my computer in the morning, there was a note from Denise saying that she was buying the story. I replied, thanking her, and saying "glad you liked the story."

To my surprise, I immediately got back a note starting, "Liked it, hah! I loved it!" It then went on to further praise the story's virtues. (Normally I wouldn't share the contents of such correspondence in public, and I hope Denise doesn't mind, as I do so only because it's necessary to the point I'm making.)

My first major point is, the writer is almost always the poorest judge of their own work. That doesn't mean that you can't look at your drafts and say, "this and this would make it better." You make this kinds of judgments with every word you choose to type.

What it means is that, when it comes to making critical judgments as to the over-all value or quality of the work, the writer's perspective is hopelessly skewed. This is a vital lesson for every aspiring writer to learn. You can have a first reader, of course, but any reader you know well enough to be worth trusting on other merits is probably too close to you to be entirely unbiased. Ultimately, the only test, imprecise though it is, of the merits of your work is to put it out in the marketplace, and see what happens.

Mind you, just because you think its crap, doesn't mean it isn't. In the beginning, especially, it quite possibly is. Don't worry about it. Mail it. Nobody is going to hold it against you for trying.

But as time goes on, and you've made some sales, it will be less and less likely that it's crap, no matter what the little critical-voice in your head says. Odds are it's at least competent. On good days, it may be far better than that. Maybe surprisingly better.

My second major point is that it isn't unusual to hit a point in the process where you're unhappy with what you're writing and lose confidence in yourself. Maybe some writers skip past that (and I envy them), but in my experience talking with many, many writers is that (for novels at least) it happens to a lot of writers at some point in every project. Knowing that it's usual, that others suffer from it, and that your critical-voice is entirely untrustworthy at this point; is a starting point in fighting your way over the barriers.

If you write, or want to write, and this hasn't happened to you, it probably will. How you respond to this challenge will be a major hurdle in your journey to professional success.

Keep writing.

I'm well behind in my posting here, and I've read a number of interesting things recently that I'd like to talk with you about, several of them writing related. Hopefully you'll be seeing some more major postings here from me in the next few days.

Meanwhile, remember that I post a new Minons at Work cartoon panel every Monday. Check it out, check back, and share it with your friends.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, yer damn right you've been slacking off on the updates. Though I must admit that (a) I have not purchased your book and (b) have already caught up on all your new posts..

    "Keep Writing". And I have. I am still running with the ForestryMech story my son demanded. He wants to know what happens to the little boy in my first story. I don't think this will ever get beyond the fan fiction stage, but if it does, I will quote you as an inspiration. Well, you and Kurt Busiek. But, see, Kurt never championed IndustrialMechs, and you have, so you have pride of place.


    Steve Satak