It seems at some point every author puts down in writing their process for… putting things down in writing. Sometimes they even write an entire book about… how to write a book.
Typically, these are authors of some renown (think Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Annie Dillard, many others). However, I think it’s easy — from their vantage point of having already achieved some level of critical success (which I realize is an arbitrary measure, but William Shatner has something like thirty books to his credit and no one is clamoring to learn about his process) to look back and say, “This is how I did it.” What early-in-their-careers writers really need is someone to tell them in real-time, “This is how I’m doing it.”
Pine no more. From the vantage point of someone still lusting after that first, big,
lucrative critically-acclaimed score, here are my thoughts on the crap craft of writing:
Think of things. I sit, sometimes with a glass of water, perhaps a cup of coffee, occasionally a Scotch or Dr. Pepper and vodka, and open up my mind to thoughts: “What happened to me today?” “What happened to me yesterday?” “What would happen to me tomorrow if I woke up and found I was the Count of Monte Cristo?” “What am I making for dinner tonight?” “Uh oh, did I forget to tell my wife about the notice from the IRS we got in the mail?” “What if Donald Trump was in an accident and awoke to find his head grafted onto Barack Obama’s body, a la The Thing With Two Heads?” Now I’m on to something… I bet Trump’s sweaters are already large enough that Obama could just slip in there next to him without stretching the necks any further.
Write them down. This may seem obvious, but how many times have you heard someone say, “I’m carrying around this great idea for a novel in my head,” or, “One of these days I’m going to write a book about my experiences in the waste removal industry.” This next point is very important: You can not call yourself a writer if you haven’t actually written anything down. Until you do, you can call yourself an intellectual, or a spoken-word artist, or William Shatner — but not a “writer.”
- There are those who still write out their entire book in longhand, on legal pads, or in Composition notebooks. Others use index cards or sticky notes to outline the plot and capture key character traits, affixing them to the wall in order to map out the flow of the novel-in-progress. Some still bang ’em out on a typewriter. Many of us make use of modern technology and write on a computer or tablet. The great advantage here is that there are a variety of software programs to check speling, grammar. And punctuation; Best of all, if you’ve got internet access it’s a piece of cake to copy and paste something like Machiavelli’s The Prince, revise it just enough to avoid charges of plagiarism, and then publish it under the title The Art of the Deal.
Begin with the end in mind. I guess I should have started with this… Sure, you’ve got a great idea for a book (“Two good-looking people have lots of kinky sex.”) — but where are you going with that? What will happen at the end of the story? They get tired and fall asleep? He puts his clothes on and goes back home to his wife? They have sex again? They fall in love, get married, have kids, move to the suburbs and she is beyond miserable every goddam day? You’ve got to figure out a satisfactory ending, otherwise you’ll just write and write and write and end up like George R. R. Martin, frantically cranking out his Game of Thrones fantasy books in order to keep up with the wildly popular HBO adaptation of them, leaving himself barely any time to count his hundreds of millions of dollars. Hmm… I’m no longer seeing the downside here.
Write every day. If you’re really serious about writing — I mean really serious; you’ve bought a new pen and everything — then writing is something you’ve got to commit to. (Or, as my grammar program is begging me to say – “… something to which you’ve got to commit.”) Writing is an exercise program for your mind, and just as you don’t get any benefits from no longer hopping on that $1500 treadmill you insisted you needed to get into shape and instead are now using to dry your sweaters, you need to exercise your writing muscle on a consistent, even unrelenting, basis, even whe
- [NOTE TO SELF: Will come back to finish this point after “Judge Judy.”]
Include a variety of sentence types. Most grammatical guides will claim there are four types of sentences:
- Simple sentences contain just one independent clause: “Santa loaded the sleigh.”
- Compound sentences contain two independent clauses: “Santa loaded the sleigh, and his wife baked cookies.”
- Complex sentences contain both an independent and dependent clause: “After Santa left to deliver presents, his wife staged an orgy with the elves.”
- Compound-complex sentences contain at least two independent and one dependent clause: “After Santa left to deliver presents, his wife staged an orgy with the elves, and then Santa came home to a kitchen empty other than for a plate of freshly-baked cookies.”
Including all of these sentence types in your writing will really increase your word count, and the paragraphs will practically write themselves. However, there is yet another type of sentence to consider: the suspended sentence. You use this when you want to generate suspense in your narrative:
- “Santa suspected his wife was cuckolding him during his yearly absences, so with a freshly-baked cookie in one hand and a .357 Magnum in the other, he snuck back into the workshop before anyone realized he had returned from his trip around the world.”
Use lots of adjectives. Those
venomous venereal venerable guides to the art of stylish writing, Strunk and White, command us to “[O]mit needless words.” I disagree. Which of the following statements do you feel makes its meaning clearer?
- “Get over here.”
- “Get your goddam ass over here NOW!”
I certainly had a clearer understanding of my father’s meaning when he beckoned me using the wordier version of that statement.
To prove my point, here’s a quote directly from Strunk and White: “The fact that is an especially debilitating expression.” Why do they say “especially debilitating?” The fact that they included a superfluous adjective suggests that even those
degenerate venerated champions of clarity in word choice sometimes felt the need to be very emphatic.
(Strunk also objected to the use of “very,” calling it and other similar modifiers — rather, little, pretty — “leeches that infest the pond of prose.” But believe me — I would be very hesitant to go swimming in a pond filled with leeches. Especially prose-infested leeches.)
Be open to criticism. After publishing my first book, I received a number of laudatory, 5-star reviews on Amazon — along with a 1-star review from someone who expressed his profound disappointment with it. Instead of being crushed, I carefully considered his online response, reflected upon what I could have done differently, and then tracked his IP address in order to find his physical location so I could leave a flaming sack of dog shit on his front porch. Without his candid assessment of my work, I never would have found the courage to express my thoughts in that way.
Compare my insights above against what other “successful” writers have said about the process:
- Jack Kerouac: “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
- I believe Kerouac’s amphetamine habit led to the term “speed typist.”
- Margaret Atwood: “A word after a word after a word is power.”
- But not just any any any word.
- Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you.”
- I guess she never passed a kidney stone.
Upon reflection, maybe there are some advantages to my remaining very obscure. Especially after offering you this debilitating insight into my process.
“Think of things.” Great advice, John. “Write them down.” Also good advice if one is to be an actual writer. Did your spelling program miss the misspelling of the word, ‘speling?’ If so, I want to know what it is so I won’t buy it. LOL! I love Stephen King’s book “On Writing” and re-read it this summer. Also read Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird” but it’s been a while so I need to re-read that too. What is your favorite book on writing?
Not about writing per se, but about getting started as a writer: “Hand to Mouth” by Paul Auster. One of my favorite novelists.
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I have not heard of this book or this author before. I must look him up.