It occurs to me, following various conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks, that I should probably make this statement. Most of you know it, or at least suspect it, but just in case some of you haven’t been here the full length of the blog and have mistakenly gotten the wrong impression–this is for you.
I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
I have been talking about it in the context of writing, but you could also apply it to art, although there’s various other stuff goin’ on with art. Regardless, let me expand the above into the following statements:
There is no one right way to write a book.
Mind you, I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of wrong ways. I’ve done some of them. I will do others. Get me in a bleak moment and I’m not entirely sure there even is a right way–there may just be the "making the best of a bad lot" of ways. (Actually, I think I may be on to something there…) Regardless, if you are writing, you are not automatically Doing It Wrong. I promise.
There is no trick to it.
Seriously. There is not some trick that we writers know that the rest of you don’t. If somebody offers to teach you to write, and they are not your first grade teacher with all the sheets of carefully lined paper, be skeptical, particularly if they want money for it. Other people can teach you all kinds of things ABOUT writing, many of them very useful, they can critique you, they can offer you very helpful tips–but you generally have to actually do some writing first for that to work.
A lot of us, in life, I think, have this perpetual belief that we are Doing It Wrong. "It" could be anything or everything. We buy a lot of books on how to do stuff the correct way, because we assume that whatever way we start doing it, we are doing it wrong, and it will boil over or explode or run away from home and people who actually know what they’re doing will be Very Nice about it and secretly think we’re morons. Low self-esteem is part of it. Some of us–many of us–are deeply convinced of their own incompetence.
Let me tell you now that as long as you are making little marks on the page and the words are in a language you’re fluent in and they form reasonably complete sentences, you are not Doing It Wrong. (I say nothing of doing it well, but that’s another matter entirely–if you don’t at least knuckle down and do it, even if it sucks, you’ll never have anything to improve on.)
You do not need inspiration. I am constantly amazed by the notion that inspiration is somehow critical to the creative process. If I had to rely on inspiration, my unmet deadlines would settle on the house like a flock of crows, clutching my rent and my car payment in their hoary claws. When I’m writing Dragonbreath, I sit down and write a thousand words a day, three or four days a week, until there is no more book left. Some days, sure, I get in the groove and do two or three thousand words in a day–but most of the work gets done by writing a thousand words a day, over and over again, until it’s done.
It’s not hard. It’s just a matter of going "What happens next?" Okay, somebody says something. What happens after that? Somebody says something in response. What happens next?
If you ever don’t know the answer, you can never go wrong having ninjas attack, or at the very least, having the roof fall in. This gets things moving along again, and you can always cut that bit out later.
Writing is not that hard. If it was that hard, they wouldn’t let people like me do it. I once flushed a sock down the toilet on accident. I wear my clothes backwards a lot. I have never yet figured out how much metal chicken can be shoved in the back on a car safely. The fields in which I am ruthlessly competent are very very few, and the ones in which I am inept are vast beyond measure. My self-esteem’s pretty good, but I am one of those people convinced of their own incompetence, and in my case, there is quite a lot of corroborating evidence. Ask Kevin about my cooking some time.
"I can’t write," said Kevin to me, not that long ago. "I just get these fragments. I don’t know where they fit."
"Good lord," I said, "do you think any of the rest of us DO?"
Undoubtedly there are people who get a full story dropped on their head like an anvil, complete with amusing minor characters and devastating plot twists. Someday I hope to meet one. Me, I get fragments, I get scenes, I get bits of dialog. I write them down. Then I stare at the fragment and go "Okay, what happens next?" If I had to wait until I got a full story before I wrote it down, I’d have written maybe two paragraphs in my life and be trying to eke out a living throwing lumpy pots.
Case in point–at some point Our Heroine (I don’t know her name, I don’t know anything about her) is walking through the woods, and stumbles across a girl wearing a red hood, who has a finger in her mouth and is drooling a bit.
"Oh lord," says the wolf behind her, "not another one!"
The wolf and Little Red Riding Hood are partners. Sometimes he kills her and sometimes she kills him and sometimes they’re lovers and sometimes they’re mortal enemies. It’s just the way things are. She always reappears on the path, and he always finds her. Pas de deux.
And then one day Little Red Riding Hood showed up without a mind. And the wolf, not knowing what else to do, takes her back to his den and feeds her and tries to figure out if this is just the latest variation on the theme, or if something else is going on.
And then another one shows up. Which is outside all experience–there’s one Little Red Riding Hood, she’s an archetype after all. Andthen another one and another, and they can utter maybe a word or two and aren’t housebroken and the wolf is collecting them because he simply doesn’t know what else to do and Our Heroine goes to his den and finds a dark room full of grimy girls wearing rags, staring out with bright, feral eyes, and eating the meat the wolf brings them raw.
"One of them got sick once," said the wolf miserably, "and I left to find medicine for her, and by the time I got back, they’d eaten her, too."
"Why don’t you just…let them go?" say our heroine, who can tell that the wolf is on the last edge of exhaustion, and isn’t sure there’s anything left in the girls to be worth saving, even assuming they’re actual people and not something else entirely.
"If I let them go," says the wolf, "they try to go to Grandmother’s House."
There. Now you know as much as I do about that story. That’s all I got. I don’t know the heroine from Adam, and I feel terrible for the wolf. I figure something really really bad is going on at Grandmother’s House, and I also suspect that there’s no way the heroine won’t wind up there eventually–you’ve gone into the woods, you’ve met the wolf, there is no way out that doesn’t end at Grandmother’s House–and I get some really disturbing bits of imagery from there, but that’s it. What’s the overarching story? Why is the heroine here? Is she from our world or theirs? What IS their world? I don’t know. Haven’t a clue. If I waited for lightning to strike and tell me, there would never be any more to the story.
The only way I’ll find out is by writing the fragment down and asking "What happens next?" (Or maybe "What happened right before this?" which is just "what happens next?" in the other direction.) I’d kind of like to know, but frankly, I have ZILLIONS of these fragments. I’ll die before I ever chase them all down. Some live, some die, some get posted to the blog with a "Huh, this is hanging around, I have no idea where it’s going…"
And then there was "I have these characters, but I don’t know how to introduce them…"
"Then don’t bother to introduce them! Write the bits while they’re there. You can worry about how they show up later."
It occurred to me somewhere around then that maybe people think that because you start reading a book at the beginning, you’re supposed to start writing there, too. A lot of people do start there, it’s a fine place, nothing wrong with it. Maybe you can’t start anywhere BUT the beginning, and that’s fine. I’m not gonna come and slap the keyboard from your hand.
Me, I start there…and halfway through…and with that little bit over there…and maybe that bit there. You can see the example up above. And then I pick a chunk and go "And what happens next?" with a vague notion of where I’m aiming at–that chunk over there, say–and write until I get there. Or until I figure out that I’m dead wrong, and then I take that chunk out and go wherever I’m supposed to go.
That’s probably worth expanding on, actually. At some point, you’re probably gonna write something that’s really, really neat, and which turns out not to be in the story at all. Well, dang.
Eve Forward ("Animist" and "Villains By Necessity") gave me the notion of keeping the Deleted Scenes file, which made me feel better about it–you take that really cool chunk and you dump it in the Deleted Scenes, because it doesn’t fit, and trying to warp the story just to get that bit in is usually a bad idea. It’s a shame, really. I would have loved to get that bit with the dwarven ruins and the traps into Digger, or that bit with the Wicker Man and Murai. But they didn’t fit. Oh well. Dang.
Anyway, if you have a character and you like them, but you’re not writing them because you don’t know how to introduce them to the story, then feh! Go write the bit they’re in. Maybe they’ll tell you along the way how they got there. Maybe it’ll turn out that bit doesn’t actually fit, but you’ll know enough about them to write the bit that DOES fit. It’s all good.
The readers will not look at the book with their beady little eyes and go "Wait! You wrote this out of sequence, didn’t you?!" They can’t tell. Honest.
Various authors have said at some point or other that you never learn how to write books, you just learn how to write the book you’re writing. There is some truth to that. For example, I have Nurk down. If anybody ever wants me to write Nurk again, I am set. And after four Dragonbreath books, I’m finally gettin’ pretty good at writing those, probably because it’s only a five book series, and book five will undoubtedly fight me like a starving wolf for my arrogance. (Of course, it’s not always true–I still have no idea how to write Black Dogs, and it’s been done for awhile. Volume 2, coming late this year.)
Anyway. Just to wrap up–I don’t know what I’m doing. Haven’t a clue, really. There’s no trick. There’s nothing I do that’s special. I just write. Stuff happens. Stuff fails to happen and I stare out the window and go "What happens next?" until stuff happens again or I write in a ninja attack.
However you get the thing written is fine. There is no trick that Real Writers know and are withholding. There is no amazing plotting system that will make the boring bits easy (and this is the other great truth, that writing, like everything else, is unbelievably boring work a lot of the time, and if you are bored and restless and would rather do anything else on earth than write, it is not because you are Doing It Wrong.)
There is no solution, no quick fix, no moment of grace whereupon you can be a Real Writer forever and ever, world without end.
There’s just sitting down and writing.