I Suck at Writing
A few of you are nodding. But for those who don’t believe me, I assure you that my writing skills are well below par. Watching a rough draft emerge from my fingertips in realtime would induce nausea. It’s a haphazard, drunken affair.
But I’m a decent editor. That’s my trick, and the trick to turning out a great manuscript. Writing engaging prose requires three things, none of which are easy to pass along to another: You need a flexible vocabulary, an ear for the rhythm of words, and a plot people will care about.
How do you obtain these three things? I say absorption. By reading a metric ton of books, mostly the good kind. This is why writing classes aren’t always helpful. Sure, you will get some practice by doing and by workshopping with peers and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but it’s hard to have a clear discussion about why one piece does or does not shine. It’s either good or it’s bad, and it’s often evident at a glance. This is why a lot of craft discussions descend into bickering about rules and the hard and fast of grammar. Everything you’ve ever heard about passive voice and -ing and -ly endings and the like is bunk. All the great writers ignore these rules. But we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about what really makes for great writing. It either is or it isn’t.
Let’s look at the three facets of great writing again.
Vocabulary is one of the hardest of these three to learn in that it takes years to accumulate. There is no recipe here other than to read beyond your current level and to employ a dictionary. I never write with a thesaurus (some of you are like: “Dude, we can tell”), but it’s a good idea to do this while studying creative writing. It can break the flow and wreck the next two facets we’re about to discuss, but you have to expand your vocabulary. And the reason is not to show off. It has nothing to do with wowing or impressing the reader. It isn’t even to achieve greater clarity or brevity or any of the logical and obvious fruits of this endeavor. The primary reason you need a strong vocabulary is to achieve pleasant rhythm with your words.
Rhythm is everything. Prose is music. Sentences are trills that tickle our minds like fingers on piano keys. Did you like that last sentence? Read it again a few times. Note the rise and fall on the stress of each word. Granted, this is not my best effort. It’s not even a sentence I edited. I just wrote what felt musical to my ears while also conveying information as clearly and concisely as possible. Rhythm requires mixing up long sentences and short. It requires repetition, so that key concepts are stressed a second time, that they may lodge in the brain. It often means breaking rules and dropping commas where they don’t belong, signaling to the reader to take a breath, to pause, to relax, to prepare for more to come.
Like vocabulary, learning rhythm is all about absorption. I used to spend hours memorizing Shakespeare’s sonnets. No, not to get laid, though that was often an unintended byproduct. It was more about listening to a perfect tuning fork and humming those oscillations in my head. It was about singing with prose until key phrases — collections of words — became part of my exo-vocabulary. What I think of as my beyond-vocabulary. The key to learning rhythm is not to master rules but to develop an ear for prose that sings on key. All great editing happens here, even if you don’t understand the process while it’s taking place. Here is where your mind trips on a sentence; something is wrong, but you’re not sure what; a repeated word, perhaps. You play and play and rearrange until it shines, and then you leave it alone.
The best way to learn this art is through practice. Working with a great editor helps. Seeing how someone else tickles those mental keys, recognizing where a bad passage suddenly becomes a thing of beauty, studying what changed and why and making these changes in our future prose — these are the keys to becoming a great writer. I liken mastering rhythm to playing chess. You have to see twelve moves at once, and then concentrate solely on the most sublime of options. In chess, you “look” ahead. With writing, you “listen” ahead. You hear the words in your virtual ears, and you only set them down if they sound pure. Read poetry. Strike those tuning forks. Hum until you can hum on key. A broad vocabulary works wonders, as each word is a new note, a new power, a chess piece that can zig or zag or leap clear across the board, opening up options you never knew existed.
The third and final key to great writing is plot, which is both the information conveyed by your prose and how you convey that information. There are unusual aspects to good plotting that most writers would say do not belong in this discussion. As far as I know, I’m the only idiot who would suggest that rhythm is a key function of plot. But I believe that repetition of certain words and adhering to consistent paragraph lengths are just as crucial as laying down clues in a murder mystery. Sentence length is important. Sentence fragments are. Here are the sharp tacks that nail information into the readers’ brains, that give them something concrete to remember and file away, so that the long and flowing sentences that build clause upon clause, where the words rise and fall like the sea against a pier, are where the brain may relax and briefly shut off so that the prose washes through us and over us and in this moment of reverie we are able to process those pinpricks of information, ideas that came sudden and swift and seemed important, taken in as we listen to what rambles on, arriving more as raw emotion than content. Because the reader might need to recall such details that we drop like sharp tacks. Some things must not be forgotten.
Read that last sentence again. It is practically punctuated with periods, is it not? Must. Not. Be. Forgotten. There is no clear flow between these words, which makes them like beating drums, and it is that rhythm that makes the sentence stand out and its contents lodge in our skulls. Before we go on about plot, it’s important to see how vocabulary is a tool for mastering rhythm and how rhythm conveys information. Without these things, a story is the bare bones of an outline. A body is found. A woman suspects a man. It was her sister all along. You can set down most plots with brevity that verges on haiku. To turn that into a book, you need vocabulary and rhythm.
Plot is also about knowing when to stop. Breaking sentences into paragraphs is a filing system of sorts. Each paragraph is a single document, filed away into folders we call chapters. Putting too much into a single paragraph will cause most of it to be forgotten. It works for Proust, as he wants his words to fill you up to bursting so that they become a raw emotion and not a thing remembered or even understood; but don’t be Proust if you care to plot. Study him for rhythm. For plot, you want digestible lengths of things. Sentences that grab, often with their simplicity. You gain here not by working hard but by choosing chess moves wisely. And your chapters should end with a bang, with dynamism, with a forward lean, so that pages are turned in the middle of the night and angry emails about lack of sleep are sent to writers the next day. All of this, remember, is as important as clues in a murder mystery or fights and kisses in a romance.
I suck at writing, but I’m a decent editor. If you asked me to teach you how to write, I couldn’t. I would be horrible at that. But I can show you how to bend your words once they already exist on paper. I can point to what’s shrill and what flows. I can suggest where a plot is weak, where a character spends too much time brooding, where some dialog is needed to give the reader’s mind a break, where an info dump is jarring, where a love interest is needed, where characters sound too much alike, where “he said” and “she said” are plenty and how and where to place them, that few people employ names when speaking to one another, all the concepts that make for great writing that have to be seen to be understood.
My editor, of course, is cringing right now with my claims of being able to do what he does. He sees the drafts I send him and the work they still require. But he is also complimentary of how clean my drafts are in comparison to others. And he compliments my prose. These things are functions of my inner editor, who is a lot sharper than my inner writer. I’ve seen this the past two months as I’ve worked with John Joseph Adams to edit a dozen stories for an upcoming anthology. If I could give a class on the craft of writing, it would exist in the track changes of these Word documents, my suggestions and edits to these massively accomplished writers. Which gave me an idea. Stand the fuck back.
I believe in self-publishing, in the right for any and all to express themselves with words. Furthermore, I believe that every person has the right to be remunerated for their offerings. Not the expectation that anyone will, but the dignity to ask. I believe in the audaciousness of leaving that guitar case open while strumming on the streets. A free sample is there, a click on a product page no different than strolling for half a block while chords are played and the music washes over you. If it’s a discordant mess, others have the right to shout at you with 1-stars and tell you to shut up, to practice more, to grab their dollar back from the case or never place it there to begin with. They have the right to hurt your feelings, which is why expressing ourselves in public is so raw and dangerous. That danger comes with the territory.
We like to think that only those with talent will engage the market, but this will never be the case. Wishing will not make it so. Every season of American Idol is full of tone-deaf hopefuls with adoring tone-deaf parents, an echo chamber of support around an absence of talent, and yet a firm belief that this is music they’re making. Simon Cowell and his ilk are needed. But the only Simon Cowell who matters is the reader. All other Simon Cowell’s get it wrong often enough to make them tragic. It only takes one innocent and beautiful story murdered to make those erected gates a terrible thing. It only takes a rant here and a rant there to dissuade the nervous and talented not to bare their beautiful souls on the streets that we might weep at what they bring to the world. Demanding that people sing only in the privacy of their own homes, or only to the self-appointed music masters who might unlock their doors and grant them the freedoms that all artists should have, or to suggest that these plebes can belt a tune but they may not open their palms for payment — these ideas are abhorrent to me. Enough with the fucking gatekeepers.
But what to do about raising the bar? What to do that we might help people sing without scaring off the shy talent among us? What can I do beyond this blog post spilling everything I think I know about not sucking at writing? I am not Brandon Sanderson, who might possibly be the best instructor of craft out there, who can stand at a blackboard and show in chaulk how to tell a great story. I do my best through editing. Which brings me to the idea that I warned you about: What if we taught by working as editors? As mentors?
I am aiming for a clearer schedule in the future. Less traveling and more writing. But as I learn how much I enjoy editing, and how useful it can be for other writers to see a different set of chess moves and how the game of their stories might have played out, I realize that there’s an opportunity here to help. So I’m thinking of offering my services as an editor (to which my editor half-chokes and spits on his screen). No, not as a new profession in lieu of writing, but as a kind of applied workshop. It would work something like this:
Once a month, I will take submitted short stories that are no more than 5,000 words in length. Each will have a brief synopsis at the beginning, something that resembles haiku in brevity if not in perfect form. Each month, I will return one of these short stories to the author with heaps of notes in track changes. Not only what I would do, but why I would do it. I will treat your work as if it were my own. I will destroy it. And here is where I should warn you: I can be an angry editor, not least of all to myself. I learned to write from a long succession of angry editors. Dr. Dennis Goldsberry was the first, a cantankerous and lovely old man who warned his freshman college English class that to get an A on a paper, it must force him to set that paper down, move to the window, and shed a tear. I demand perfection from my own work (knowing I’ll never approximate it). I hold every writer to the same standard. That makes for angry edits. I am Simon Cowell, barking in the margins.
I also won’t do this for free. Not because I care about the money; I have no pressing need in this regard; but because I want to cut down on submissions and only receive them from those who care. From those who want to tackle writing as an impassioned hobby or even as a profession. But wait, it gets worse: Your manuscript and my edits will be available to any and all to read. Which I guarantee will cut down on submissions more than the fee. If you’ve ever workshopped or participated in a critique group in which you were the one publicly critiqued, you know what torture this is on a writer’s soul. You will be an example. I won’t be surprised if nobody volunteers.
Each work will go into a new section of the new forums I’ll be unveiling in a couple of months. The first manuscript will be edited in May and revealed in June. If we manage to get twelve of these submitted and edited in a year, I’ll probably combine them in an anthology that is meant to instruct as much as entertain. There is a lot to balk at here, not the least of which is that I’m not nearly skilled enough at writing to have the audacity to claim I can instruct. Hey, I don’t even have a college degree. I have no formal training other than a dozen meetings with a writing group. I’m nobody to offer this, and I welcome the crickets and even the howls of “hack.”
But writing only gets better through an application of effort and through mentorship. I want self-publishing to be a viable alternative to selling our art to the highest bidder. Self-publishing is liberating and can be far more lucrative than publishing by any other means. The openness of this space and these tools that allow anyone to publish are multiplying the chorus of voices that readers may sample. Voices they encounter as they stroll from block to block through an ever-sprawling metropolis of literature. How can I help make those voices prettier? Maybe I’m an ass to suggest that I can. But a blog post with my ideas on what makes for good writing is a start. Working with aspiring writers is another way. Making those lessons public is a third.
Once the new forums are up, there will be instructions on what to submit, how, and where. You will own the rights to your work and will be free to publish however you see fit. As will I. I’ll have the ability to publish the rough draft and the final product. You really should think about this before you fire something off to me. We’ll have a very simple contract of sorts, and it’ll be full of warnings. This won’t be fun for any who participate. It’ll be work, ugly and cruel. But we will improve, you and I. And the reader will benefit.
Until then, happy writing. Go read some Shakespeare. Strike that fork. Hum a tune.