My friend, John Miller (known to his friends as JAM) is quite the thinker. I don’t call him a philosopher—I don’t believe he is one. But he thinks and he experiments and he’s always got a ‘Yippee’ on his lips.
[Side Note: A Yippee is JAM’s version of both good things and bad things—he doesn’t normally let things get him down so when something good happens it’s Yippee. If something not so good happens it’s Yippee. It’s one of the things that people find endearing about him–his constant, upbeat attitude. I don’t Yippee. End Side Note]
He owns this publication titled Liquid Imagination. It was one of his dreams to create a web-zine that blurs reality and fantasy and blends images and words like… well, liquid imagination. To go with that web-zine, he also has a private office on a web forum where folks talk about writing and other things. Oh, and yippees abound.
Sometimes JAM (no, not jelly) will start a discussion with a long, deeply thought out post and we chat amongst ourselves while he is all verklempt…
[Side note: If you don’t get that joke, I’m sorry. End Side Note]
Recently JAM posted one of these thought provoking topics.
If you know me at all, then you will know that I choose to do things just a little differently. I’ve never let the market dictate how I write. If I get published, great. If not, then I will be happy with what I write because I chose to not change in order to get published. For me, there is no compromise in how I write–it is part of me and it’s hard to sell changing for success.
I’ve been preaching to anyone who will listen that in order to become a good writer you have to be true to yourself and let the stories breathe, let them “be.”
JAM’s recent title was called: Damn it, Jim! I’m a Write-a-Holic, not a Perfectionist!
I found his post interesting, simply because a lot of the questions he posed are questions I have answered when it comes to how I write. The following is that post (used with permission, with a couple of names changed or omitted, since they weren’t really part of the discussion, though they did come up in it) with my replies in bold, including a couple of comments that weren’t in my original response. I will denote those with an * symbol.
There are two kinds of writers. There is the writer who can create three rough drafts for short stories per week, if they can find the time. * That would be me. This type of writer can do this easily.
Then there is another type of writer. This is the writer who painstakingly labors over what he pens, worrying about word placement, style, plot and depth of characterization. *Nope, not me.
(Note: There is a 3rd writer, too, a combination of both types of writers described above. They’ll claim that. I’m betting that they belong to one type over another, and are simply experimenting or simply trying to find their niche’, but that is for another essay.)
What you’re about to read is intended for the first kind of writer. If the second type of writer practices what you’re about to read, they risk falling into writer’s block. This is because the 2nd type of writer ALREADY intrinsically practices what I’m about to describe.
Now I’m the 1st type of writer. I can easily write 3 rough drafts per week. If I have the gumption, it’s easy for me. While I differ from other writers who fall into this category, this is how and why I can do this:
1) I am very creative. I can come up with story ideas that are (to me) fairly interesting, and I do this easily. There is no need for me to scribble down notes during the day, because when I sit before my laptop, ideas literally pour out of my head. Sometimes those ideas are so creative and simply too big to become a short story, and thus those ideas cannot be captured by a story of that length. Thus there is TOO much stuff in the story.
I’m not saying that writers who fall under the 2nd category aren’t creative; all I’m saying is that writers who fall under the 1st category (we need a name, so let’s call them write-a-holics) are almost always bursting at the seams with story ideas.
2) I type very fast. This gives me the ability to virtually type out my thoughts as I’m thinking them, which allows for the purest form of inspiration to materialize on paper. There is no painstaking contemplation of plot or characterization or depth or intrigue that the 2nd writer (let’s call this writer the perfectionist) constantly utilizes while writing.
3) I have very low self-esteem regarding my writing. I’m always picking fault with it. Because of this, I intrinsically realize that whatever I’m writing, it’s not going to be the best. Just about everything I write I consider a “rough draft.” This is one of the best reasons I can write so many stories per week. In the back of my mind, they simply do not matter.
The perfectionist doesn’t think that way. The perfectionist painstakingly crafts every word to set perfectly in his magnum opus. He slowly forms the plot, sometimes etching out the middle or ending of the story, much like a sculpture forming various bits and pieces from blocks of marble. Just as the sculpture may start at the face or the feet—wherever inspiration hits him—the perfectionist analytically approaches the story in segments, perfecting each.
I said all that to say this…
Why do we write-a-holics create rough drafts? Regardless of what the ‘perfectionist’ do, their stories are still rough drafts. Asks any of them. Why can’t we produce the next-big-thing? We can. We just have to believe we can. Why should we strive to write like what the markets want, anyway? We shouldn’t strive to write what the markets want. This is what everyone else does and (many of them) they suck. I loathed cookie-cutter writing. Just be yourself and you’ll be fine. Just to get a publishing credit? Are the markets the Holy Word on All Things Pertaining to Writing? Nope. Will those publications be around fifty years from now? Probably not. Why would we sacrifice our stories for the editorial cunning of someone at a publication that will be defunct in ten years? That is all subjective and about priorities. It’s like sending your work to a non paying site for exposure. Sure, it’s a great jumping off point, but if that is the only place you are sending your work, then all you are getting out of the deal is an ego stroke. If you want a little more attention, then you would have to submit to the higher dollar places. Or publish a novel. If you don’t want any popularity, you can do whatever you want to do. However, you should still write what you want to, how you want to.
Why shouldn’t we write-a-holics approach writing like golf? In golf, it’s not about your opponent. Not really. It’s about your best score on the golf course. It’s about maintaining and (hopefully) exceeding your best performance on the field. It’s not about your opponents. Some are better than you, some are worse. None of that matters; what truly matters is that you maintain your performance somewhere around your average. If you’re under par by 3 strokes, you naturally attempt to maintain that average, and to hell with the other players, even those who maintain an average of golfing 6 under par every single game. If you’re talking about writing, you shouldn’t worry about what others are doing anyway. Everyone develops in their own way, in their own time. Some find their niche sooner than others, while some take a lot longer. One of the biggest issues writers have is that they see what others are doing and wonder why they are not doing the same thing. I also think peer pressures tend to get involved as well. I don’t know how many times people have asked me when I’m going to have a novel published… when I want to, folks, that’s when.
Why can’t we write-a-holics excel? we can and often do Why can’t the next story we write be the best story we’ve ever written, the best story we’ll ever write? I don’t want the next story I write to be the best thing I ever write. I want each story to be better than the last. If The Woodshed is the greatest thing I ever write then I may as well stop writing now. Not that I can’t be proud of that if it is so, but I want to strive to make every story I write better than the best piece I’ve ever written. Why can’t we believe that? It’s a mental thing. And, in many cases, it also takes someone believing in us in order for us to believe that we can do great things. Why don’t we forget the cookie-cutter writing-templates? I did. This is the one thing that drives me nuts–I don’t wish to write like everyone else. If I do then I’m just your average clone of your average writer. I’m me, I write like me. Why do we HAVE to start right at the action? I don’t. Why can’t we go beyond plot, beyond mere characterization? We can, it’s just too many people are too scared that their work will not get published if they do that. Screw what others think–they don’t know if your work will get published or not.
Why can’t we write-a-holics attempt to create a mood or theme? Dude, that is what I’ve been preaching. For years I’ve been saying that mood is like a character in the story. The right mood can make a story. On the flipside of that coin is the wrong mood can kill it. What about penning a story with the theme being creepiness? Above and beyond a good plot and strong characters, why can’t we go for producing a visceral reaction with the reader? I’ve been saying that for a while now–if you don’t illicit some feeling… something from your readers, then you’ve failed. If not creepiness, then why not attempt to manufacture true fear within the reader? Not based on gimmicks such as monsters or gore or taboo subjects, but based on solid and pure writing.
Why can’t the next thing we write be perfect? It often is, in the writer’s eyes. Why does it have to be considered a rough draft? Why does it have to be “shelved” for years until we decide to do something with it? I disagree with letting stories languish in exile. I write them, give it a week, then reread them and edit so they can be subbed out. Sometimes the edits take longer, but if you write something an you want to be able to submit it, sitting on it for a year is wasted time. Why can’t we break free from our “average” and go beyond what the guidelines of publications say? Remember what I said earlier? People are scared; afraid someone won’t like it or publish it. Bottom line with a lot of folks who don’t take chances. Why can’t we break free from that “average” story locked in our mind—that “average” story that we almost always write—and create that perfect story that goes beyond our average writing game? We can. We just have to do it and not be afraid.
Why can’t we experiment like XXXX XXXXXX did in the recent, marvelous story he just posted in this office? Why can’t we try new things? Remember that fear thing. Well, add something else to the equation. A lot of folks feel like experimenting is a waste of the time they could be using to write something that sells. Why write this experimental piece that may languish on my hard drive forever when I could write something that ‘may’ sell on down the road? It’s an ignorant mindset and it often keeps folks from trying something new. Why must our fiction be held accountable by the guidelines of our own imagination? Just recently I read the collection, A Gentle Hell, by Autumn Christian. No limits whatsoever to her imagination. Did you read XXXXX’s piece a couple weeks ago? How about XXXXX’s in the Duel? The one that had people talking for and against violence in writing? The only person that can limit your creativity is you. Why MUST we write a certain way? Why MUST we obey all the freaking rules? Why MUST we maintain a specific plot sequence from A to B? All three of those are essentially the same question and they all get the same answer. We don’t have to. It goes back to wanting folks to publish our work. It’s a compromise and one I don’t care much for. Conform and get published or don’t conform and maybe, someday, when someone wants a change, get published. And even then, only if you’re lucky.
By now you probably understand why I said earlier in this post that these suggestions are NOT for perfectionists. Perfectionists automatically do this from the get-go. In fact, perfectionists often fall into writer’s block because they feel so strongly that the next thing they write simply MUST be the best thing they’ve ever written PERIOD… that when they read what they’ve written, they metaphorically vomit with derision, hating everything they’ve produced. If a perfectionist practices what I’ve just written above, it will already seal the perfection they insist on EVERY TIME THEY WRITE. I’m not a perfectionist, but a lot of times I vomit when I read stuff I wrote last year or the year before that or the year before that…
This isn’t intended for the perfectionist. This topic is for the write-a-holics out there, those write-a-holics who can easily pen 2-3 stories per week, those authors who can hit 2,000-,5000 per day (if they have time), and feel natural and great doing so.
I think there comes a time in the write-a-holic’s life that he must stop, take a step back, and ask himself, What the heck am I doing? He must examine his writing (golfing) average, and contemplate his writing game.
Maybe the write-a-holic should take a few suggestions from the perfectionist out there. Maybe he should begin with the middle of the story like perfectionists often do. Maybe the write-a-holic should attempt to mix Hawthorn and another respected writer’s style—let’s say John Grisham because the two combined writers’ styles would be very interesting—combining both writing styles with his own personal writer’s voice.
Instead of having the mindset that the next story we write is just a rough draft, is just an idea, just a story… just another piece of crap from another piece of a writer who will stuff the crappy story in a file to be forgotten about…
Instead of having that mindset, what if we write-a-holics could take a cue from the perfectionists out there? What if we—instead of gushing forth with words until we transform into dry husks of delighted and satiated emptiness—began the next work with the idea that it WILL be perfect? Emptiness? I’m not so sure I would use that word here. Simply put if the writer is delighted and satiated I’m not so certain they would be empty. What if the NEXT story we write, what if we intend it to MEAN something, to CONTAIN some meaning of worthwhile purpose? What if there is a moral to the next story we write OTHER THAN MUNDANE ENTERTAINMENT? Oh, you mean like television shows and movies… If your characters have any importance to you–the writer–then the story will mean something.
What if we write-a-holic writers could write just one story—the very next one we write—with the intention that it is to be perfect? What if we could be a perfectionist, if just for one story, if just for one day? I’ve tried that. It depressed the hell out of me and set me back half a year in writing. Honestly, I believe if you are happy writing the way you do, then why worry about being a perfectionist or changing for someone else?
For my next story, I will make it perfect to the best of my ability. I won’t just write a rough draft. I won’t just spill my guts on paper. I won’t let my thoughts bleed crimson, I won’t just gush forth with creative ideas and inspiration. Why not? If you don’t just let it out, YOU will not be happy with your work. Besides, just writing and letting a story flow seems to work for you (and me, for that matter).
No, for my next story, it’s going to be my magnum opus. I’m going to approach it slower. Each word will be carefully chosen, like well-placed dynamite hidden through the edifices of the reader’s expectations. And I will push the plunger down, I will light the fuse that sets off a charge that will cause the reader’s expectations to crumble, causing the reader to become engrossed in more than just mundane plot and strong characters.
Yes, my dear reader (probably only one or two) will become engrossed in my story, because it ISN’T a rough draft, because it ISN’T just another cookie-cutter template chosen because it’s safe.So, then you mean after all these years of saying exactly that, someone is finally going to listen to me?
Hell, no! My next story is going to be DANGEROUS! It’s going to produce a theme within the reader. Perhaps it will be a feeling of creepiness, or a twinge of fear mixed with loss.
After this next “perfect” story, I will go back to my old ways. I will succumb to natural inclination, penning imperfect rough draft after mediocre story, until I am hitting 2-3 stories per week (again). I would never say your work has ever been mediocre. No, those cookie cutter writers are mediocre, at best. Not you, though. You have your own voice and style. So, why mess it up?
But until then… I am leaving the camps of write-a-holics, going AWOL in order to broach the ideas of the Perfectionists.
If only for one story…
Here’s the thing: my friend, John, has a great writer’s voice. Going all perfectionists and changing what he does may not be a bad thing. Then again, it may not be a good thing, either.
Let me say a couple of things.
People are flawed. There is no such thing as a perfect person. There was once and they crucified him.
There is no such thing as the perfect story. If there were such a creature, then everyone in the entire reading world would want to read it. It would be the reference point to which all other stories are compared. Professors would use ONLY that story to show where all others are flawed.
Albert, that is a great sentence, but look how you could make it better. Take this sentence from The Perfect Story, written by Ima B. Perfect.
Gee whiz, Mr. Professor Dude, that is a great sentence.
As writers, we absolutely can not be concerned with what others are doing, how others are writing and where others are getting published. We can’t put that type of pressure on ourselves. What we must do, however, is find out who we are, as authors. Find our voice, our niche. We can’t really become the writers we want to be until we do that, until we, for a lack of a better term, find ourselves.
I don’t mean we should take that spiritual journey to the rainforest or hole up in a cabin along somewhere out in the middle of nowhere and just… be. What I mean is we have to write, write, write until we figure out what type of writing we are good at–or could be good at–then develop that.
Admittedly, I experiment a lot with my fiction. I like to try new styles of writing. I like to create a different experience, not only for the readers, but for myself as well. If I enjoy what I am doing, then I think the readers will too and I do enjoy a good experiment. If I struggle at it, well, there is a good chance the reader will struggle to get through it.
I’ll say this for JAM, he has a good voice. He does what I call Free Style Writing, where he just opens his mind and types what appears within it. His stories flow like… liquid imagination. I hope trying to write the perfect manuscript does him some good and not just the opposite. I hope when he gets done he will find that happy medium that he can enjoy.
Most of all, I hope he goes back to doing what he does best: Free Style Writing. I like his ‘fluid’ stories, I like the way he creates tension and sadness.
One other author who commented on JAM’s post said something that I think applies to us all: You may be in danger of over-thinking rather than letting your ideas flow onto the page.
I think, more than anything in writing is that we tend to over analyze things, to complicate things. Too may rules. Too many plot holes. Too many generic characters…
I have a rule when it comes to writing of any type:
No Rules, Just Write…
Until we meet again, my friends…