I was going to do something on short story writing, but I’m putting that off. For those not wanting to wait two Tuesdays, I suggest surfing over to James Lincoln Warren’s wonderful weblog The Scribbler. He has a rather controversial post regarding Hemingway’s infamous six word short story:
I love it. Jim hates it. But again, for that discussion, head over to The Scribbler.
What I’m going to waste your time with today is process stuff. Namely mine, cuz, you know, it’s my Tuesday. Most of you familiar with my long dead blog INK SLINGER remember the great novel race between David J. Montgomery and myself – Who could finish their opus first?
Well, Monty kicked my ass. Like a one-legged sharecropper in a skillet full of kittens.
Anyway, Monty won. I lost. Big. I never even made it halfway through mine. In fact, 2006 marked the fourth – yes, FOURTH – freaking year that I had been "working on a novel." I can’t believe I’m admitting this public. But yes, I’m a poseur.
It gets worse, because… does rewriting the same 50 pages over and over count as working on a novel? I say no. It counts as being a freaking loser, being afraid of failure AND of success, and being a complete confidence-lacking dweeb. If you tell people you’re working on a novel, but keep writing the same pages over and over, you’re a liar.
So, I quit. Around August of this year I looked at all my scribblings, realized it was all junk, and said that’s it – I’m out. I’m a screenwriter, not a novelist. I can craft a short story now and then, because the form is similar to screenwriting, but I cannot and will not ever write a novel.
The timing was perfect. I was buried in a TV pilot and had no time for the frivolity of prose. But by the end of October my pilot work was done and there I sat, wondering what to tackle next. Another pilot? A feature? A short story? A novel?
Did I just use the N word? What the hell was "novel" doing still floating around my skull? I’d exorcised those demons. But there it was, still hammering at the back of my brain like a Hindu with a waffle iron.
Anyway, I decided, instead of going at it again, I’d look back over the past four years and try and learn why I was unable to do it. And once I started this self-examination, I quickly realized the two fatal errors I’d made. And both were a result of nothing more than a lack of confidence in myself – I had never done it, so I didn’t believe I could, and therefore was doing a couple of really stupid things….
The first one was that I was writing in other people’s voices (see Alex’s post on style). At the height of my production on those lame 50 pages, I was reading voraciously. And unbeknownst to me, I was writing like whatever author I was reading. Or I should say, trying to write like them. Some days I was trying to be Ridley Pearson or Lee Child, or Michael Connelly. Other days it was James Lee Burke – boy, are those some hilarious pages to read now.
I lacked such confidence in my own prose voice that I wasn’t even trying. I was copying. And the worst part was, I wasn’t even aware of it. Or maybe I was, and thought it was a good idea? God, I hope not.
The second fatal error I was making was in the actual process. Not only was I writing in others’ voices, but I was going about it, working at it, like other writers work – as opposed to working like Guyot does.
I’m a screenwriter. My process is (generally): I get an idea. I flush out the idea – we call it "Breaking the story." Once I break the story, I outline the story. Maybe not a full blown scene by scene outline, but I give myself a road map – so I know where the hell I’m going. I have to know where I’m going in order to, not just to get there, but so I can take detours if need be. Then once I have my map or outline, only then do I sit down and begin writing the actual story.
note for comments discussion: what is your process and have you ever screwed it up?
With my novel, I wasn’t working the way I work. I was trying to be Connelly or Burke, and just "let the characters take me where they want to go." What a load of crap. I applaud and admire those of you who can sit down without an outline or even a map of sorts and start writing.
No, that’s not right. I admired those of you who can do that AND FINISH. Anyone can start writing. Only a chosen few can actually finish… something good.
So, cut to just after Thanksgiving. I’d had this little revelation and was excited about the idea of – "What if I tried to write a novel the way I know how to write? And in my own voice?"
And the winner of this year’s IT’S SO OBVIOUS YOU IMBECILIC NINNY Award goes to… Paul Guyot!
Thank you, thank you. *sniff* I’d like to thank the Academy…
Anyway, I decide to try and do an outline for my novel idea. And guess what? I can’t. Because there’s no story! It’s a beginning, not a story. A 50-page opening with a cool character. But by now, I’m juiced. I want this; the hunger is back. So I go to my trusty story file – we all have them: that little folder on your computer where you drop any and every idea (or germ of an idea) for a story, hoping it’ll be just what you need one day.
I found my very first novel idea. The one I had abandoned early on because…It wasn’t commercial enough, wasn’t unique enough. I did what I’ve been preaching to aspiring writers never to do – try and write to the marketplace.
So I take my original idea and begin outlining. Seriously, just to see how far I can get before it falls apart. And guess what? Yep, I finish the freaking outline. Only seven pages. But damn, if I don’t have a beginning, middle and end. And characters I like!
I go through the entire Christmas holiday with this beautiful outline sitting on my desktop and don’t write a word. Because I’m scared to death. Mostly to fail again. But then I have one of those conversations – you know, where someone you respect tells you exactly what you’d tell them, but could never tell yourself? And I decide to do it. And my mindset is perfect – because I am not writing the thing to get published. Chances are it will never be read, let alone published. I’m doing it because I want to write this story with these characters.
I’m writing it for me. To just do it. I’m a freaking Nike ad. And I’m loving it. I started this first of the year, more or less. And I’ve seriously detoured from the outline twice already – something I could not have done waiting for the characters to start the car and head off on their own journey. I can always get back on the road whenever I need to, because now I have the freaking map!
While I won’t tell you how far along I am – I think looking at word counts can seriously F-up a writer – I will say that I’ve written more pages than ever before (yes, I passed 50), but more importantly, I’m enjoying it. I am loving writing this thing. And it may suck. It may be complete trash.
But it’ll be my trash. Written my way and in my own voice.
Today we start a new biweekly tag known as IF I PICKED CHARACTERS’ WATCHES.
Barry Eisler‘s John Rain would wear the Jaeger-LeCoulture Reverso Quantième Perpétuel in 18k rose gold.