25/5/18 – On Not Knowing What the Hell You’re Doing
It is a strange thing, the writer’s inability to know the quality of their own work. I might write a story I love, only to have it shot down by those whose opinions I value. Other works I’ve detested personally, only to have others heap praise upon them. I’ve tried, over and over, to figure out what the hell I can do to predict, ahead of time, whether or not a story will be well received by my beta readers or not.
The conclusion I’ve ultimately come to is this: if your readers all disagree about the good and bad points of your story, you win. Don’t change a thing. If everyone unanimously says it’s good, or that certain points are good – then that’s probably the truth, and likewise for if they all say it’s bad, or that specific parts of it are bad. In other words your opinion, as the writer, is meaningless. Your own taste, your own criticism, has already been exercised in the first and following drafts of the story. Once it is sent out into the world, it is no longer a part of you, and therefore beyond your judgement.
One of the reasons I think I am good at taking criticism is that I can separate my stories from myself. If you hate my story, you hate my story, but I don’t extend that criticism to mean that you hate me, even though I may have put a lot of my heart and soul into a certain project. Anyone that’s devoted a portion of their life to a project as intensive as a novel – or even a short story – knows how difficult this can be.
This is one of the reasons I’ve always liked Stephen King’s idea that stories are found objects, like fossils. I don’t believe in it, exactly, because I think the reality of the matter is that I created the story from nothing, not that I discovered a pre-existing thing. But sometimes it definitely feels like a story is something that you’re finding rather than making, and it can be very helpful to think of things this way. One of the reasons why is as I mentioned above: if a story is something you’ve found, you can be detached from it and therefore edit it more objectively and take criticism better. Instead of saying to people ‘Look at this piece of my soul which contains all my blood sweat and tears! What do you think of it?’ You can say ‘Hey look at this cool thing I found? Not sure about it myself, what do you reckon?’
The moral of the story, I think, can be summarised the following way: if you finish a story – and you should finish most of the stories you start, if not all – send it out.
It sounds obvious, but only to those who have not written many hundreds of thousands or millions of words. Anyone who’s created a significant body of work has created a significant body of shit. That is the truth.
Here’s the thing: if it is truly bad, it may be bad for reasons that you don’t anticipate, and having other people tell you those reasons can be really helpful. I have deleted dozens of stories on the basis that I thought they were unfit to see the light of day. I was on the brink of doing this with a recent thing I created, but I stubbornly gave it to my beta readers instead, only to receive an overwhelmingly positive response.
That’s good, but it would have been just as good to get a negative response and reasons for it that I hadn’t anticipated – then, you see, I would have learned something. But to throw a finished story away without any feedback at all? That’s a waste.
So, the lesson for today’s post is this: if you have a story that is finished, send it out.
After all, what do you have to lose?
21/5/18 – On Over Writing and Gin
Wrote nothing today, but I feel justified because yesterday I did 2200 words. I was on a roll – I wrote until 3am drinking gin, and the best part was when I read over the words this morning they weren’t even that bad. I have had bad experiences writing drunk in the past. It has always been a mystery to me how people like Stephen King and Hemingway and Hunter Thompson could drink so much and yet produce such good work consistently. Apparently, Stephen King wrote Cujo over the course of a 72 hour coke binge, and remembers little of it, yet the novel required little rewriting.
The idea of this appeals to me, because I’ve never been capable of such prolific production. Then again, I’ve also never had coke. If I write more than a couple of thousand words in one night, I feel drained the next day. I get a feeling that I’ve seen every sentence a hundred times. Every phrase is a cliché; every plot device is a trope.
On the other hand, if I don’t write for too long, say four or five days in a row, I sink into a terrible depression. My life ceases to have meaning, and everything else I do is leeched of joy. I become self destructive.
The best way to do it, in my experience, is to write just enough that you’re satisfied for the day, but no more. Like eating a big meal, but then stopping short of being completely full. That way, when you wake up in the morning you’re hungry again, instead of bloated and lethargic.
Right now, that means about one thousand to thirteen hundred words a day – though I should mention that that number has changed over time. The amount per day, and the number of days per week I typically write, has increased steadily across the years.
So today I did not write, but I’m okay with it because I’m still full from yesterday, and I’m not yet willing to take up cocaine.
“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast