I know this letter is a little overdue - my apologies.
We were talking about writing. One thing I’ve found gets recommended an awful lot by professional writerly types is the process of setting your completed work aside and then coming back to it after an interval, so you can examine it with fresh eyes. This sounds like a damn fine idea to me, but I seldom get to practise it because deadlines are so tight. I don’t finish a manuscript and then put it in a drawer for six months to mature. Oh, the luxury!
If you’re not riding the runaway express down Deadline Canyon, then this process is probably something you should take the opportunity of benefitting from. Put stuff to one side, and go and do something else for a while (another piece of writing). Then come back and see how well you like the original piece. Re-familiarise yourself with it. One thing's for sure, things won’t seem too precious to change anymore. You’ll be right in there with the red pen or the delete key.
The rules of writing are actually very simple. The first rule of writing is, you write your own rules. It doesn’t work the same way for any two people, no matter how many points of commonality you can find between them, but in terms of general guidance for someone just starting out, I think these tips are suitable and adjustable enough:
1. Write when it suits you. You might be a morning person, you might be a middle of the night person, you might have a day job and HAVE to work in the evenings. Do it to suit you while you’re getting to know it. When you’re married to it, then it can run your life.
2. Write as much as you like. Do not sit down to write and order yourself to write five hundred words (or whatever). You’ll quickly discover how much you can manage in a sitting. It might be a few hundred words, or ten thousand. If it’s ten thousand, you’re a freak, but we’ll move past that. Just make sure you write regularly. That’s more important than a high per-session word count. It’s not like mileage.
3. Write about what you like. Ah, now we enter the realms of the truly fuzzy, but stay with me. Some people recommend you run with your imagination and see where it takes you. Others say the best writers write about what they know. Both are valid philosophies. I reckon... well, I reckon that (unless you’re a very hard-nosed, commercially-minded sonuvagun, in which case these modest proposals are probably of little use to you) you should try to write the stories that would entertain you, the stories you would want to read. That might take you into your imagination, or it might take you to the things you know. Crikey, it might take you to both. My own basic yardstick is: if I don’t want to read it, who the hell else is going to? And how can you inject really stirring excitement into something that’s leaving you cold?
4. Write how you like. More fuzziness, but this is something worth considering. A lot of authors suggest that you keep writing, that every day when you come back to your work you just sit down and plough back in, without going back and reading over. The idea is that you keep plugging away until you’ve got a rough-cut manuscript, and THEN you start the process of reading back and revising. This is a very good idea, and you should do it if you can. I can’t. I’m a bugger for reading back on a regular basis (probably because I know my end reading time is often limited). I think there’s a strong case to be made for a writer finding nourishment and inspiration in his ongoing work that will allow him to advance it. These are simply two schools of thought. Try both and see which suits you.
When you’ve got something halfway done, a big chunk of something, or a first draft, the fun begins. You’ve got to read it yourself, re-read it, ACTUALLY read it rather than looking over it and imagining you see what you think you put there. Read it out loud if it helps, to find out if it’s got a dramatic rhythm and flow. Work back into it and add the things you feel you’ve missed, the connective tissue. Take out the stuff that’s extraneous. Be ruthless about this. Things will seem precious to you, especially if they’re still fresh. Do not be weak. As a rule of thumb, if you’re not sure whether or not a word should be cut, cut it.
(By the way, I’m assuming that, by this stage, you’ve committed your work to keyboard, even if you wrote your first draft or draft-notes in longhand. The editing process is a great deal less long-winded if you can make several (if necessary) copies of a MS file to try out edits and cuts. Always keep a file copy of your original draft so you can go back to it as a last resort if there’s some kind of editing disaster, and always keep a copy of your current or finished draft (I label mine ‘master’ with the date). In other words, keep a sample of the original ore, and a sample of the refined product. If you want to keep interesting variations produced along the way during the refining process, fine, but make sure you date-label them clearly or you’ll get very confused. This paragraph is the most confusing one in this letter - the only one you’ll have to read twice - so if a discussion of multiple drafts is confusing, imagine what managing them is going to be like.)
Once you’ve got that relatively tidy first draft, it’s probably time to show it to someone else. If you intend to write professionally, you’ve got to let people read your work sometime, and the first ones are probably going to have to be family and friends, which is going to be weird, because they know you. Get over this.
Much more importantly, get this idea front and centre: what they say when they’ve read it is going to help you. It is. It’s really valuable. You ought to pay them for it.
The chances are, you’ll either get polite feedback because people don’t know what to say or don’t want to hurt your feelings, or you’ll get some practical comments from people trying to help you. Both will seem like insults. They really will. You cannot imagine how annoying they will feel. Do not get annoyed. The people who have given you practical advice are simply telling you that there was something about the reading experience that they didn’t enjoy. Funnily enough, the people who just gave you polite feedback are essentially doing the same thing. They’re just not bold enough to suggest a change.
Now we can make allowances for genre and story type - grandma’s probably not going to be a huge fan of brutal combat SF, for example, so that colours things slightly. But the simple truth is that you want to write, and if you want to write, you need to write for OTHER PEOPLE. Using your own enthusiasms as a yardstick in the creative phase is a very sound idea (see above), and if people like what you like, that’s great. But if they have criticisms or comments, listen to them. Don’t get the hump. Don’t tell them they’re wrong, or they don’t understand. Listen to them. This is free test audience advice, so take it and be grateful. Consider what it is about your stories that people like, and which elements they dislike. If you’ve had time to let your manuscript mature, these things may have become obvious to you too.
One of the reasons you’ll get cross about ‘negative’ comments is that a novel or even a novella is a huge chunk of work. It will have probably taken you months to write, and acting on someone’s remarks could represent months more revision work, not a quick afternoon of fixes.
Sorry, that’s the way it is. If you want to write, this is one of the simple facts that you need to accept from the start or disembark the writing bus. Glaciers move slowly. Supertankers do not turn on a dime. Writing takes time. Sometimes you will despise it, because it will seem like the worst up-hill slog ever. Jokes aside, learning some stress-busting relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga, breathing exercises etc) might help, because it’s a long haul. Remember what I said in the previous letter about marathons?
Well, I’ve said plenty. If you, Ryan, or anyone else has any specific questions on this topic, or want me to expand on anything, this is the place to ask. I can’t pretend I’m going to be any more useful than I’ve already not been.
I’ll just add a couple of things in conclusion here. One is to remark upon the comment Dju made after one of the earlier letters, when he said that sometimes chasing and collecting ideas is of itself a wonderful thing. Couldn’t agree more. Jeffrey Dobberpuhl quoted the great Harlon Ellison saying something I couldn’t agree LESS with, except from the standpoint of a professional writer, but I really appreciated Jeff’s novice-friendly reading of the advice.
And as a last word, you should all check out Alan Moore’s Five Tips for Would-be Comic Writers, which appeared in his book 'On Writing' and apply to all writers, I believe. You can find it here.
Good luck and happy writing.