Friday, December 3, 2010

The Road

How long does it take to get any good at writing? I don’t know, actually. I’m sure it varies from person to person. I only know how long it took me. I wrote a one act play in the second grade. I wrote it using one of those fat first grade pencils. I still have the play. It is called, quite originally, The Mummy’s Curse. There is a tomb. There is a mummy. There is a professor who finds the mummy. I was obviously quite good at stealing from the movies when I was six or seven. I wrote this play in school. Like Emily Bronte, I think maybe school drove me a little bit mad. I had to imagine whatever I could to keep from drowning inside the structure. To stay sane I read lots of wonderful books and wrote my own stories whenever I had breaks.

I have written many thousands of pages since then. Stories in hundreds of spiral notebooks in what teachers used to call “cursive” writing. Printed stories on Big Chief notepads. Composition books. Stories on yellow legal paper. Finally one day I taught myself to type. I started out on my dad’s manual typewriter from school, a brown Underwood that came in a box that looked like a wooden suitcase. Then I graduated to an ancient Olivetti that weighed five hundred pounds and punched holes in the paper in place of the letter ‘O.’ After that a cheap little Sears portable the color of an egg yolk. I used to love how the pages piled up next to my typewriter. Here was tangible proof I wasn’t wasting my time. Well, at least tangible proof that I was actually producing something. I didn’t write constantly. I sometimes went whole months or maybe even a year or more without stringing together anything that resembled a story. I have always been way too interested in the world around me to stuff myself in a chair for decades on end. But I always came back to it.

Some of the stories I finished, some of I didn’t. In the early days most were adventure stories (think Edgar Rice Burroughs). Or science fiction (think Ray Bradbury or H.G. Wells or Philip K. Dick). Or horror (Stephen King). Then I began writing books. I became very good at writing pieces of books. I never finished them. I stopped at page 70. Page 133. Page 160. I never plotted anything ahead of time, just came up with an idea that sparked my imagination, and away I went. I would roar along for a while and inevitably would hit the Wall. The Wall was scrawled with graffiti that asked questions like this: What happens next? Do I care about what has already happened? Do I even like my characters? Did you use any dialog, or are there whole chapters with nothing but action or description? Is this story really going anywhere interesting?

Heck if I knew. So I would wrap up the stack of pages and stuff them in a box. Get another great idea, and off I’d go, roaring away again. The boxes filled and I hid them away. Then came stories on computers. A Commodore 64. Kay-Pro. Atari ST. Leading Edge PC. Apple Mac. Several IBM knockoffs. Etc. etc. I love computers but find them a little insidious. Somewhere in the digital world are many thousands of words of my deathless prose that no one will have access to ever again. Computers also give you the dubious capability to endlessly edit or modify your stories. Which can be a good thing or the Fifth Circle of Hell if you lose the version you really wanted to keep. Or if you revise and edit so much that your writing becomes polished to the point of being rendered into shapeless, frictionless junk without any teeth or barbs or whatever sharp things that were there that once gave your story the bite and scratch and rough raw freshness that made it feel alive.

More stories. More books. So what am I driving at? For most of us published writers, it has taken a very long time to get here. Thousands and millions of words. For every sixteen year old with a bestseller, there are tens of thousands of us who had to work at it a whole lot longer than that. Who knows, maybe I could have been published when I was 16. Or 20. Or 35. I only knew that I didn’t want to go the conventional route recommended in writer magazines: wallpaper your bathroom with rejection slips. No way did I want all that failure staring me in the face every day. I was determined to not send out a single word until I knew I was close. And I only wanted to measure myself against good writing. Sure, everybody goes through that moment as a writer when you read something crappy that was published and say, “Hey! I can do better than that!” But there are too many good writers out there. The idea is to be better than mediocre.

I hope I’m not scaring you. Didn’t mean to do that. I just wanted you to hear the realistic side of things. This is a scary profession. It’s not for the faint at heart. It’s also not for people who can’t put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing that until they have arrived somewhere worthwhile. Everybody wants to know the magical secret. Is it a certain type of formula query? Pink stationery? A stamp with the word “LOVE” surrounded by roses? Is it knowing somebody powerful in the industry, somebody who can squeeze you in for free through the back door? Hate to tell you, but it’s none of those things. It’s work and more work. But mixed in with the work, the hours, the years, is a whole lot of joy. And terror. And, every once in a while, a tiny little taste of ecstasy. And then your feet leave the ground and you can levitate. Or not. The truth is, you can follow your path without ever leaving the ground. The road only needs walking.

9 comments:

  1. Don't feel too bad about borrowing movie plots when you were a kid. Stephen King says he copied whole books word for word as a child before he learned to write his own stories. You're in good company!

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  2. I used to rewrite my favorite books with me as the main character. :D

    And it hasn't been too terribly long ago that I threw away a bunch of writing that was printed on the long green-on-green dot matrix computer paper. Bad stuff, I tell ya. Bad. But one of them spawned an idea for a YA historical I've been kicking around in my brain, so those trees did not die in vain.

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  3. Trish, me too! Lois Duncan.

    R. A., all of this sounds so familiar...except I was one of those people wallpapering the bathroom with rejection slips. It still took me a very long time to get published. But I like to think that because I was put through the wringer early, today there is pretty much nothing the publishing industry could throw at me that I couldn't handle. (I am not trying to tempt Fate here. OK, Fate? I am just sayin'.)

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  4. Striving to get better all the time is part of the process I think. For published and unpublished both. I wasn't smart enough not to send my stuff out though. I have lots of rejections. But I didn't ever have a desire to wall paper with them. :)

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  5. Jeebus H., R.A., I think I'm going to print out that final paragraphs of your post and hand it out whenever I'm asked "So, how do you get published?"

    I have stacks of notebooks consigned to somewhere dark and so secret, I can't even remember where they're at anymore. (Actually, probably my old bedroom closet at my mother's house.)

    I actually never wrote so much as I told myself stories. Long bus rides when I was in band and/or drum corps. Or the drive between Miami and Tallahassee when I was in college. Florida is a very boring state to drive through. Had to entertain myself somehow.

    But it was practice.

    And I still need more. Always. Can always be better.

    And I think that's what keeps some of us going in this business. The knowledge that we can always be better and the perseverance to continue to work.

    And maybe we're all a little crazy, too.

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  6. Great post. I also have boxes of notebooks and old files from years of writing. Practice is necessary for this craft. And your last few sentences sum up how I feel about writing perfectly!

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  7. Copying the masters is exactly what artists do as they are learning the craft - no different for writers! We all learn from those who have gone before. For me, the challenge was learning to discern and appreciate the vast difference (in time, in experience, in sheer tinkering) between my early drafts and the finished novels of authors I admire. It was a great day when I discovered the value of revision and appreciating each stage as it came.

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  8. I loved reading about your journey. Mine was a long one, too. I actually finished all the novels I started, but they weren't pub-worthy. I'm so glad you stuck with it because your writing is marvelous now!

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  9. Commodore 64, indeed! (I must confess, I used ours exclusively for playing a Dracula's Castle game where you type in directions for your character until - Ah! Dracula bit you! Game over.)

    Thank you for this post. Writing is magical, but it's also work. Lots of work. Thinking about the rewrite looming ahead of me right now makes me alternately excited/exhausted. And I have no idea yet of the final product - but that's all part of the process, yes?

    :)Alisa

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