I can’t remember where it was suggested or by whom, but someone recently asked me to write a blog post on craft. How I write. How I plot. How I come up with my characters and my stories.
I dutifully sat down to write a blog post on my process — and then I realized that I have absolutely no clue how I do these things. To be honest, I don’t think I’m all that good at the business of writing. You should see how brutally painful the process is for me. My rough drafts go from unreadable notes and musings into something with a semblance of story, but it doesn’t happen easily. It isn’t pretty.
I just finished a science fiction work from a debut author. It isn’t out yet (they wanted me to blurb it), and all I could think was how far superior this writer is. I marvel at his ability to turn a phrase, the character development, the plot, the pacing. It’s brilliant. How does anyone do this? How do I do this?
After watching myself write the last few days with this question in the back of my mind, I now have an idea of what makes me a decent writer. It’s a combination of being a practiced reader and a persistant motherfucker.
Reading is the best lesson on writing. It’s like listening to music over and over again until you learn how a good song is supposed to sound. I think I “write by reading” the way some people can “play by ear.” When I’m writing a rough draft, I can tell that my words suck. It’s painfully obvious. When I go back to revise, I take those sucky words and I keep rearranging them until they stop sucking. Eventually, the words flow and convey meaning in a manner that I’m tolerant of. With the next pass, more of these spots are sanded down until they don’t trip me up. Enough passes like this, and my stories start to read about as decently as anyone else’s. I just stick with it until I don’t hate it. I bang on the keys until a tune pops out.
Learning to be this persistant was difficult. For two decades, I started stories only to abandon them. I never put enough work into them to love them, and thereby to love the process of writing. It wasn’t until I received feedback for some lengthy blog posts and sailing adventures that I felt encouraged to write to completion. After that, I began writing book, film, and product reviews that won a bit of praise. This fed my drive to be more persistant with my novels. I finally tunneled my way through to the end of a manuscript. I cleaned it up until the words stopped stabbing me in my eyeballs. I fell in love with this process.
How do I write? The same way I take pictures (another hobby that people mistakenly think I’m good at). I do a lot of it, and then I delete the bits that suck. I’m a great reader. I’ve been doing it all my life. I know what’s good and what’s bad. I just have to make a lot of the bad in order to get lucky and stumble on some of the good. And then I publish my greatest hits.
My best advice, then, is to write a bunch and write to completion. Start small. Write reviews and post them on Facebook or a blog. Write journal entries about your day or days from your past. Write short stories. Write fan fiction. Stick with it for years. I know that seems like a long time, so I suggest you enjoy the process along the way. Enjoy each piece you finish. Share your work. You’ll get better, believe me. And I think, when the words align just so and you write something with perfect pitch, that you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll see that this is something anyone can do. You just need to get a lot down and know what you like when you see it. Be persistant, motherfuckers.