I’ve been reading Dean Wesley Smith‘s blog for some time now, and I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource for me on a lot of levels. I’ve come away with a lot of good information, and in almost all cases, I’ve learned something new about being a writer.
There is, however, a difference between writing and being a writer. I haven’t learned as much about writing from Dean’s blogging, at least not yet, but I learn quite a bit about being a writer. Here are some of my lessons, in no particular order.
Relax, Kid, You’ll Live Longer
The first thing I learned is to relax. Writing shouldn’t be a horrible, laborious process where we agonize over our “art” and twist ourselves into knots. Writing is supposed to be fun, something I enjoy doing, something I do for the entertainment of readers and, honestly, to entertain myself. (Let’s face it, I’m not thronged with readers. A handful of people have read my books and stories. So I write as much to entertain myself as I do to entertain others, whether I like it or not.)
One way of expressing that relaxation was to quit worrying about plotting, planning, and outlining my book to oblivion. Literally, into oblivion. I’d spend so much time writing outlines and story maps, my poor creative brain figured I’d already written the story and my creativity, my desire to write the story, dropped through the floor.
So did my output.
A major solution to this? Relax. Allow the creative mind to work its magic. So many writers aren’t fully aware of how powerful their creative mind can be. They go forward with the belief they need to let the creative mind speak once, to produce a “first” or “rough” draft, and then the critical mind has to take over, to make the writing “better.”
It’s not a rare belief, it’s the common thought process. Plenty of writers will tell you they can’t work any other way, and won’t even try.
But, to me, that’s completely backward. Completely. When it was explained to me so I understood what was happening, it made perfect sense.
The creative mind is where the ideas, the story, the twists and turns, the fictive dream, are born. It’s where the magic happens. It’s where the good stuff is. The critical mind is there to keep you from doing something foolish, something that could hurt you. It’s really, really good and dampening and stifling, but it’s lousy at being creative and expressive.
The creative mind of a writer has been learning how to tell great stories since it could understand words, hear stories that captured the imagination, and learned to read and write. A writer has been feeding that creative mind for a long, long time, usually.
But they don’t trust it for some reason. They let the critical mind take over when they think it’s time.
When a writer writes, the creative mind is what they rely on to tell the story. The critical mind shouldn’t be in the process at all. Not at the first pass through, and not later in the process. This, DWS says, is one of the myths writers are taught, and it’s perpetuated in so many different ways all over the writing world.
But it’s a myth. Being told there’s a Bigfoot doesn’t mean there is one.
And that leads me to the second point I picked up.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
When writing, don’t give yourself permission to be sloppy in craft, or lazy in the effort of writing, for the sake of “getting words down.” I’ve heard this a lot over the course of my writing journey. “Just get the words down, you can edit later.” Or “You can fix that in subsequent drafts, just write as fast as you can while the ideas are fresh.” Or, “This is only the first draft, you can rewrite later.”
Rewriting. I’ve even heard – and yes, have repeated – the old adage, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”
This single expression, catchphrase, idiom, whatever it is, might be the single most damaging thing a writer can buy into. It’s the thing that’s going to keep you working and reworking a single story death.
And this might be the biggest myth of all. (Dean Wesley Smith has a laundry list of these and has pulled them together in his Killing the Sacred Cows series of books, if you’re interested.)
“A story’s never finished” is another way of saying it. It just means most writers always find something they can improve when they look back on older writing.
I have heard and repeated that one, too. Of course a story will never seem finished if the writer continues to grow. Looking back on older pieces is always going to reveal the growth, and reworking an old story only locks the writer in the past, prevents forward movement in their journey, and unless they stagnate in their craft, this becomes an endless cycle.
For every story you rework, there’s likely a story you could have written fresh. Moving forward is far, far more rewarding than going back and trying to bring old work up to current standards. That becomes a never-ending cycle…as long as the writer is growing, of course. And rewriting hinders growth.
What’s the answer? Make your first draft your only draft. Make sure you write the best you can at the moment. If that means slowing down a bit, and only doing 5K words a day instead of 8K or whatever, maybe it’s worth it, especially if it saves reworking a 100K word piece.
Sometimes more than once.
Now, sometimes putting your best work down the first time is easier said than done, which brings me to my next lesson.
Start Each Writing Session by Cycling Through Last Session’s Words
Some people reading this are going to blow smoke over this, and say, “HA! Gotcha in a lie! You said no rewriting, and yet here, you say to rewrite what I did last session! Make up your mind!”
Well, that’s what I initially thought too. But, it’s not the same thing. You’re not re-doing what you did; you’re reworking it as you go. Finding smoother wording, locating typos, clearing up descriptions, cutting out unnecessary words, things like that. Think copy editing.
So, you might find this a hair being split. That’s okay. I’d rather back up a few hundred words, or even a couple of thousand words, and race forward again cleaning things up before moving on, than spend months and months waiting for some magical switch to throw, indicating it’s okay to edit now.
Yes, I still missed things. I did this method, for the most part, and still had issues with the manuscript when I was finished. No one’s expecting perfection, right? (Right?) So, putting your best words out there, working hard to get the craft part right, is something we all do, but so are mistakes. So there’s that.
I like this method a lot, and it works very well with my writing style (I guess it’s a style). I don’t consider cleaning up my previous session’s work rewriting, and it goes pretty fast. I wrote a 70K word piece in just over three months, and that was with lag time for goofing off. It really worked for me. It might for you too.
But you have to trust the creative mind. It’s powerful.
I’ve talked about this method a lot, but this is one that really helped shut my critical mind up. After each writing session, I outline what I just added. Whether it’s a scene or two, or a chapter or two (and on my reverse outline, I break each chapter into its individual scenes), I make sure I reverse outline what I just wrote. If I have to stop in the middle of a scene for some reason, I still take the time to jot down what I wrote. Then I can refresh myself when I return (besides cycling back through anyway).
It looks and feels like planning and outlining, so my critical mind is satisfied and stops interfering with my creative mind. In the end, I have a fairly detailed outline of what happened in the book. I can track times, what people are wearing, who’s there, what the location is, and events both major and minor. I can summarize a scene in a couple of sentences, or I can use a full page for each scene so changes can be made. Next time, I’m going to try using an index card for each scene. If I need to move stuff around, I can simply and literally shuffle the cards.
Storytelling vs. Writing
In the first part of my writer journey, my focus was on words. The literal words on the page, printed or electronic. Better words meant a better product, and a better product meant happier readers. Right?
Well…no. The next stage of my journey is to focus on the story itself, and becoming a better storyteller. That’s not necessarily the same as being a better writer, with superior mastery of the language and a strong vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong, being strong in those areas isn’t a detriment at all, but there’s more to telling a good story than words.
The next part of my journey includes how to control what the reader is feeling and experiencing at any point in the story. Anticipating their questions and knowing when to answer them. Answering before they know they have a question, sometimes. Manipulating the depth of involvement the reader has in the story. Bringing them down into the fictive waters and never letting them up for air. Tension and emotion. All the things that make a great story.
How to do that is going to be a very interesting ride.
The method of Writing into the Dark produced great results, for me, but does demand the writer put forward the finest work they have at that particular stage of their journey. It won’t be as fine as the work they produce in six months or a year, if they’re growing and doing it right, so revisiting at some future date is a mistake. Any time spent on older stories, is time not spent on future ones.
But every writer is different. No two are the same. Some don’t want to change how they write, or any of their long-held and strongly-convicted beliefs. I don’t want to convince them, and I’m not trying to make a case for them being “wrong” in their process.
I just know this worked and worked wonderfully for me, at this point in my writing life. I will use this method until it doesn’t anymore.
Whatever way works for you, I hope your journey is as fun and interesting as mine looks to be.