Writers are sometimes told to JUST WRITE, even if they know that what they’re writing is bad. I think this can be good or awful advice depending on who you are.
It’s good advice if you’re the kind of writer who gets stuck agonizing over sentences and scenes until they’re perfect. If that’s you, you can benefit by postponing a lot of that self-critique until you have a first draft. Because otherwise you won’t have one.
And first drafts are always bad. Reaching the end of a first draft and re-reading it for the first time is like waking up in bed with a stranger who seemed dazzling and irresistable last night, when you were drunk, but now it’s daylight and oh my God what were you thinking. But that’s okay, because now you can take care of all the other stuff that got overlooked when you were trying to invent an entire populated world with a compelling narrative through-line in your head.
So if you tend to endlessly re-read what you wrote last week and mentally compare it to the greatest novels of all time, you’re asking for trouble. It might be a red flag that your story isn’t working in some fundamental way—in which case you need to strip it down to the part you like best and start over—but you might also simply be operating under the mistaken belief that your first draft has to be excellent.
On the other hand: Your first draft does have to be excellent. I mean this in the sense that I don’t think it’s possible to write a good book you don’t like. Those stories of authors who found every sentence excruciating but their pain and toil created something magnificent—those didn’t happen. I don’t believe those at all. It’s the other way around: You think you’re creating something magnificent and only when you re-read the first draft do you realize, boy, I still have a lot of work to do.
It is possible to crank out a novel that no-one really likes, including you. I know this because I did it, right after I started writing full-time and mistakenly believed that the job was all about discipline. Since then, I’ve written four or five novels that will never be published, but none has been a bigger waste of time than that one, which was bad in every way, and I knew it at the time, while I was working on it. Each day, I was happy to finish writing, and I didn’t think about it again until I had to the next day. That is no way to write a novel.
Delusion is key here. You don’t have to write a great first draft. But you have to believe it will be a great book. You must know in your soul that it’s going to be great when you’re done. Not because you’ve re-read your first chapter a hundred times and every line is perfect, but because the story is in your head and it thrills you to think about. Write that book.
Could you give some tips on query letter writing, as in what’s worked for you and what hasn’t? I’m about 40,000 words into my novel and the idea that six months or more from now i’ll have to condense it all down into a page both scares and confuses me.
A page! No-one reads a whole page synopsis. You get two or three paragraphs.
But you are right to be scared and confused. It’s terrible. It’s like you’re 40 years old and you run into someone you haven’t seen since high school and they say, “So what have you been up to?”
That’s your template for summarizing your novel. Skip to the highlights. You don’t make high school person stand there and listen to you justify those years when you didn’t really accomplish anything tangible as such but it was such an important period of personal growth and discovery. Sure, okay, without knowing about that, people can’t really understand the full significance of the time you threw a pie at your ex-boyfriend. Even so, the pie thing is the correct answer.
This process can feel fraudulent because of course you’re so much more than a pie person. That’s a small part of what you do, going around throwing pies at people. You spend a few minutes on that per day, tops. But people realize that. They understand there’s a whole life going on as well as the pie-throwing thing. You’re not selling yourself short by skipping to the highlights; you’re just respecting the fact that high school person isn’t actually asking for your entire life story right now. If they want to know more—and why wouldn’t they; what made you throw pies?—sure, you can head back to a bar or whatever and start to unpack things. But for now: stick to the pie-throwing.
I’m not great at this, by the way. And I haven’t done it in 15 years, not the query letter kind. You should probably look up what an agent or editor thinks, since they have actual experience reading these. But since I’m here, and I have to write blurbs sometimes, which is the same deal, here’s my opinion.
I think you want to start by reducing your book down to the shortest description that makes any kind of sense. So Lexicon might be “killer poets.” If you can get that into the first sentence, that’s ideal. In fact, your query letter might want to have a sentence like, “It’s a story about a girl who is drawn into a secret society of killer poets” before taking a step back and doing the actual synopsis, which is a more linear description.
Note down more words or phrases that are important to the texture of the story (I might want “chase” and “secret school,” “love” and “betrayal”) just to make sure they get used somewhere. The goal is to linger in the mindset of trying to pick out just the most essential concepts before you get bogged down in trivialities like trying to write sentences that make sense.
When it is time to write sentences that make sense, remember you’re still telling a story, just a very short one. That means you care about things like creating a question in the mind of a reader and withholding the answer. Don’t create something that sounds dumb to you but figure that’s their fault because if they want a proper story and not a novel murdered in three paragraphs they should read your frigging book. I say this as someone who used to think like that. You should still think about change and instability; that is, your synopsis/blurb/summary should strongly suggest that things are motion, or, at least, cannot remain the same.
Some stories lend themselves very easily to this, like murder mysteries, or mysteries in general, really. (Who? Why?) Also stories where someone wants something. (Will they get it and what will it cost?) But whatever it is, what makes it a story is that it contains change or the threat of change. The reason people want to read the story is to find out how its characters will deal with that change.
Ideally you want to demonstrate that your story is funny (or horrific, or whatever) rather than merely claim it’s funny, or horrific, or whatever.
That mainly means matching tone. That is, you don’t want to change tone from your novel and wind up with a dry academic
abstract. In the same vein, don’t lose sight of your story’s emotion. It can be implicit, but you must convey that people are feeling
things, not just doing things.
This is all a million times harder in practice than theory. Good luck.
Hello! Hi there!
Crazy thought, have you ever considered banging out books Heinlein style? One draft, then DONE. Launch it and go to the next, and the next, and the next. Get 10 books done in the time of 1. if 50% of people don’t love it, you are still 5x better off than 100% liking that x10 draft work. And honestly? I bet 80% of the people will STILL love your work. The only person stopping you is that unfair critic glaring from your mirror. Tell him to piss off and let you write!
Yet another aspiring writer
I appreciate the support, Y.A.A.W. Thank you. But I have to say, I would rather set myself on fire. First, I think you’re being very optimistic about how many people would like the pieces of crap I produce as early drafts. You may think otherwise, but remember, I’ve seen them and you haven’t.
Second, and I offer this by way of explanation, not as excuse, I like messing around with stories by myself. That’s super fun. Showing them to people is the worst part, because they stop existing as beautiful imaginative creatures full of wonder and possibility, and turn into chunks of paper with plot holes and unclear character motivations that need a lot of work. I like publishing books, and I agree I should do it more often, but it’s just so tempting to sit and write drafts instead.
Do you like peanuts?
Jordan P. Johnson
They’re okay. I don’t dislike them. Me and peanuts have nothing to say to one another.
I did not know that! Huh. I guess I showed them. I mean, I’m not trying to take credit for bringing down the company. But, you know, they tangled with me, and now I’m here and they’re not. So I basically brought down the company.
Will you be answering my question. Of course not this question. As that may become rhetorical. But the question I posted prior to the question I just end posted in this post.
Could you write a Multi Ending Book? One that allows the reader to make choices as they read. With a range of unique outcomes.
Oh, wait, it’s you again. Then yes, I will answer it. No.
I mean, that’s almost NationStates, isn’t it? That’s pretty close.
Which stance did you take? Trump or Hillary? Or moderate?
I am perfectly moderate and the rest of the world is extreme, like everyone thinks. I think Hillary would have been a good President. You would have gotten sensible, incremental improvement with Hillary. She would have finished with historical low approval ratings because a lot of people were super aggravated by her very existence and would have beaten the drum until it drowned her out of office, but still.
Trump, on the other hand, was the kind of person I thought the US would elect in about twenty years, right before Fahrenheit 451-style parlor walls and the Apocalypse. Years ago I regularly watched The Apprentice, and each episode a team would go into the boardroom to face Donald, who would quiz them on their performance and then invent a completely unrelated reason why one person was to be fired. The logic never held from one episode to the next, so one week being cautious might get you fired and the next it would win praise. So in that sense, it was a useful allegory for the randomness and cult of personality of the business world. But also it made clear that Trump is basically a collection of amoral pathological psychoses tuned for self-aggrandizement. Which is not ideal in a President.
I do wonder if there’s a more evil version of Trump, though. Because Trump isn’t very calculating. A lot of the time, his main objective seems to be to feel important. Also often he seems to believe what he says and then just doesn’t want to admit he was wrong later. So I wonder if you can take that bluster and shameless populism and set it in someone with more self-awareness, who does it on purpose. That would be pretty evil. Maybe Trump opens the door for that kind of person.
On the plus side, though, it’s been a fantastic six months for journalism. Not long ago, everyone hated the media and journalists were hopelessly compromised click-bait merchants in a dying industry. Now they’re saving democracy. I mean, they’re also hopelessly compromised click-bait merchants, but as an institution, the media has been a real credit to the nation. I think there’s a lot to be proud of there.
See, a more evil Trump would have wedged the media with patriotism, rather than attacking them directly. You attack the media head-on, you’re injecting adrenaline directly into the veins of everyone who ever thought they might like to be a journalist. You go to war, you get attacked, then the media has to shut up and support the troops. That’s what Evil Trump would do.
Australians in total need to reevaluate their leaders.
That’s not a question. HEY, IT’S CALLED “ASK MAX,” NOT “MICHAEL MAKES STATEMENTS.”
Do you ever write funny short stories and then sit in the corner of your bedroom giggling to yourself?
Not short stories. But with novel scenes, and in my study, when I’m rereading. When I’m actually writing, I’m staring at the screen with an expression like your psychotic ex-boyfriend peering through your bedroom window. There is no giggling at that point. But reading it back, I try to put myself in the headspace of someone who’s reading it for the first time, and if I do that successfully, then yes, I do admit, I sometimes giggle and guffaw at the wit of the fellow who wrote these words, whoever he is.
A 6-minute radio adaptation of a short story I wrote a few years back,
thanks to Greg R. Barron.
Greg just noticed it on my site and decided to make an audio version,
which is pretty great.
Might we have a new book from you by the end of 2017? I’m jonesing for some new material. I guess I’ll go back through and re-read your old books again.
That is an excellent idea, because no, sorry, there won’t be a new book from me in 2017. It
takes about a year to go from a draft I’m not ashamed to show to an editor to something
that can sit on a bookstore shelf, and I don’t yet have a draft I’m not ashamed to show an
But 2018 looks good! I’ve been working on multiple books and now they’re
all getting close to finished. So one of those should be ready to go. I don’t know which one, though. Sometimes I feel like a book is on track and then I realize it’s horrible and I
should burn it and feel bad and go work on something else. Then, a little while later, I
realize that other book needs to be burned, and the first one is actually all right.
It’s not a linear process, is what I’m saying.
This has been a really great year for me creatively. One of my best.
It will take a while before that becomes apparent to anyone else. But I’ve enjoyed it
a lot. I still don’t really know where good words comes from or why but I’m grateful
for the ones that found me this year.