Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ten Things a Writer Should Never Do

Because being an author is an elite position, a place for only the greatest minds to tread, it’s where in which people create deliberate lists of requirements and expectations, where we constantly spend more time criticizing questions than answering them, and where lists of “Don’ts” receive the highest hit numbers on Google.

Despite that writing is supposed to be art, supposed to be subjective, and supposed to be free of societal pressures, there seems to be a lot of people shouting should and never. These concrete demands imply there is a right and wrong way to do things. That it is, black and white.

And it makes sense. Humans like it black and white. As someone once commented on a contradictory health article, “I wish someone would just tell me what I shouldn’t be doing and be done with it.”

So from that state of mind, for all of us who don’t like sitting and debating just how evil “was” really is, I have a list of things that we can’t “not” do to a T. Here’s what any valuable author shouldn’t be doing.

1. Allow other people’s perception of him to define him.

Dean Koontz, after finding himself on the bestseller’s list for the, I don’t know, millionth time, realized his unfortunate situation of having to fire his agent and change publishers.

His reasons?

The way he put it, it was along the same lines as working in a company in which the new CEO is a woman who you first met when she was just a secretary: no matter how well she does, you will always see her as a secretary.

The best way to achieve confidence, receive feedback, and deal with all those rejections letters, is to see yourself as the author you want to be. The common error is when we are still looking for proof we are good and if this is what we should be doing. When someone hasn’t yet committed to being an author, still waiting for evidence that he should and can be, every time a piece of evidence that indicates otherwise comes along, it will really, really hurt.

Most people do not recognize genius when they first see it. Most people don’t perceive their peers to be special. In the competitive art form, no one wants to find out that their friend is one of the greats destined for success. So we all think they’re not. This means that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a genius or not; just because you are doesn’t mean it will be obvious, and just because you aren’t doesn’t mean you should give up.

See yourself as you want to see yourself and people’s perception will often follow. Do not allow their lack of faith to tell you who you are. Make that lack of faith inspire you to show them who you are. When the world tells us we can’t be authors, then we prove it wrong. That’s what success is all about.

2. Be closed minded about opportunities.

I will admit that maintaining image and reputation is an important part of the job. On that same note, however, doing so shouldn’t limit you out of all your options.

We all have our snobbery, and sometimes it’s okay to not overcome it. The people who won’t work for free are more respected. They often won’t get as many jobs, but they usually get better ones.

In that vein, narrowing down your choices to keep up appearances is beneficial. It’s just relatively common to narrow them down until you don’t have any work at all. Whether it be a defense mechanism or a sense of entitlement, being closed minded keeps us down.

Unless he is receiving ample opportunities, constantly being active in his career choice, then an author should only refuse jobs tentatively. Your friend want you to make him a Youtube video? Well, unless you have something better to do, go for it. And do it well.

I’ve met people who sit in stagnancy for years, and yet, when an opportunity knocks on their door, they refuse to take it because it’s not what they want to be doing. Whether it be the screenwriter who won’t make short films, the novelist who won’t write nonfiction, or the playwright who won’t make a children’s play, the snobbery has held a good portion of people back in a myriad of ways.

Open mindedness is useful, and with that open mindedness comes the ability to reject specific jobs. Someone who only works for money will be fine as long as he’s open to different genres, mediums, and subjects. A person who refuses to write short films won’t have a problem as long as he is willing to make plays or prose, gathering up some resume credits instead of waiting around for full-length scripts to be supported. It’s not a problem to cut down options that don’t benefit the big picture of your career, it’s just important to have these exceptions be the exception and not the rule.

3. Lie to himself.

They say the best sort of writing is a reflection of reality. That would indicate why lying to yourself wouldn’t be beneficial.

But the problem of deceiving ourselves goes much further than the subject matter or the events of the story.

In order to really compensate for problems, we must admit to those problems, even the ones we don’t want to believe are true. No matter if it’s issues with ourselves or issues with the world, some authors are prone to pretending the shallow reality isn’t true.

Writing is the act of pretending you’re not doing what you’re doing. In fiction, the author is making something up off the top of his head. In nonfiction, the author is pretending he remembers it perfectly, or like he was there at all. Genius will not always speak for itself; in order to get people to hear it, we have to get people listening. We are all influenced by our cultures and by peer pressure, though the magnitudes of that influence may vary. Your audience will not always be good people, smart people, or respectful people, or open minded people. An author is, on whatever level, no matter how low a priority it is, writing for money, writing for respect, and writing for fun. Those who don’t care about those things don’t finish. You are allowed to write for whatever reasons you want, you are allowed to say whatever you want to say, and you are allowed to do write in any way you want.

I say feel free to lie to others. Tell them that you only write to help the world and for no other reason. Tell them that you are only saying what you feel and not in a way to get them to listen. Pretend you are an immaculately unique and original person who never cares about what other people think. But then, when sitting at home with only you and your computer, feel free to be honest with yourself and say, “I do only write about white people.” Because admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it.

(NOTE: I hate to ruin a joke with a clarification, but that last paragraph is only autobiographical. Although please feel free to fill up the comment sections with all the books you’ve written about other races.)

4. Be unopinionated.

I have my theories about why this is, but they’re too long and circumstantial to put here. For whatever reason, it is fairly typical for some beginning authors to try to keep their opinions from being known.

Books are a form of communication. Reading something that has a tone of “it’s about whatever you want it to be about,” is like talking to someone who has a tone of, “it’s about whatever you want it to be about.”

Anyone ever been on a date like that? Anyone actually enjoy it? Reading about something that echoes our ideas can be appealing, but only if, a) they add new information, and b) it sounds like it’s their actual opinion.

And unlike talking, the yes-writer can hardly shift along with the reactions to make it appear organic. Whereas an oral listener can wait until they find out what the speaker’s opinion is (Oh, you are against abortion? I’m against abortion too!), the writer can’t do that. He’s talking to (hopefully) sixty-thousand different people at one time. So if his interest is to just pander to whatever pre-existing opinions they already have, his only option seems to be not to have an opinion at all.

No matter how much we pretend otherwise, people like people. We like gossips and rants and we’re not big fans of neutrality. Why do you think Fox News became the way it is? It’s not to be artsy and against what sells.

And although challenging yourself and experimenting with neutrality is a great thing, the best narrators are judgmental, opinionated, and damn stubborn in their perspectives on the world. In fact, the only way to have a unique perspective is to have one at all, and that requires an opinion.

So when a description reads like, “Susie got out of bed. She went to the bathroom and brushed her hair. Heading downstairs, she heard her mother in the kitchen,” just consider adding a couple of “uglies” and “crampeds,” in there and see how judging a room can make it all the more interesting.

5. Wait for reactions to make decisions.

Being that most of the people I talk to on a daily basis are actors, this has become a spot of contention for me. Actors, especially theatre actors, get the benefit of having constant reactions to their actions. Even during rehearsal, when no audience is to be found, they have the director, their friends on stage, maybe even a stage manager or the homeless man who wandered in to get warm and no one had the guts to ask to leave. When they make a choice, which, by the way, is nicely limited by space, time, and script, they can see a proper response.

Writers don’t get any of these benefits. We write independently, it is read independently, and even when we get the good graces of someone agreeing to give feedback, it will still never be as organic as a gut reaction.

The number one enemy to the author is the “could.” When the thought, “It could be funny,” ever crosses my mind, I physically shudder because it means I’m going to have a headache trying to figure out what to do with it.

The truthful could is an accurate reference to the subjectivity of writing. Some people could find this funny, and some might not. It is very hard to tell which in some cases. Furthermore, maybe if it was the only point of confusion the author had it would be relatively easy to solve, but because we don’t get a play-by-play response during a reading, we have thousands of “coulds” to contend with. Considering it’s hard enough to get people to read your work, the legitimacy of the could becomes nothing more than an obstacle.

Although considering an audience while writing is very helpful, it is important to narrow down how we define our standards to a singular person. It can be yourself or your friend or even one imaginary being of the intended demographic, but the point is to remove subjectivity and possible reactions before we make decisions. Simply because we can’t wait for a reaction before we make a decision. By the time the reaction is there, it’s too late.

Remember that you will rarely receive an editor before it is good enough to be edited. This means that most of the decisions have to be made for yourself, by yourself, and without knowledge of what other people think. Therefore, by not waiting around for other people to tell you how to make your decisions, you will be able to make some. Decide what you’re going for and hope the reaction is the desired one instead of hoping that, whatever the reaction could be, it’s a good one.

6. Think he has all the time in the world.

It is very common for someone to say you shouldn’t start writing until you’re thirty. It is probably the most common piece of advice I’ve gotten (other than don’t use adverbs.) Next time this happens I think I’m going to tell them I have cancer.

Not only do we actually not know how long we’re going to be on this Earth, but the idea that we have all this time to actually start working just allows us to never start working.

Don’t act like you have another 70 to 40 years; you might not. If you really want to write, you have to sit down and behave like if it doesn’t get done now it will never get done. You can’t “do it tomorrow.” It has to be done immediately.

And even if your goals are not oriented around being prolific and you enjoy going slowly, just remember there’s a difference between being leisurely and procrastinating. Sometimes taking your time is beneficial, and sometimes it’s just an excuse.

7. Limit himself.

Just as limiting career options isn’t a good idea, limiting writing options isn’t either. It’s the unfortunate part about writing rules. They strip us of all opportunity for variation—at least, if we were to take them seriously.

In fact, I imagine you can compile a list of real rules spread around academia you could make it unacceptable to start a sentence in any single way, removing the ability to write all together.

Of course what the writing rules are actually meant for is to be taken with a grain of salt. The concepts of these suggestions really fall into a legitimate concept of “temporarily limit yourself to challenge yourself.” So, yes, in the context of deliberately challenging yourself, limitation can lead to much more creative choices. But, on that note, it’s important to remember that authors constantly find themselves being blitzed with advice that wants to restrict them. From recommendation to never using “said” to why we’re “allowed” to write, writing forums are filled with people who try to limit your options.

In a culture that prioritizes variation over all else, limitation is an obstacle, not a sign of elitism. So by being open minded, thinking inside the box as well as outside it, utilizing the forbidden words and not depending on them either, the author can be far more creative than if he were to close off choices people deemed plebian.

Self-limitation comes in many forms, but once someone recognizes it, he suddenly sees freedom others can’t fathom.

8. Orient goals around difficulty level.

The most typical form of this is when people try to do things the easy way: “I do what I think will most likely succeed.” Examples are concepts like telling instead of showing, utilizing cultural labels and stereotypes, and writing in a genre we think is most easy to get published.

But it is also just as wrong to do things just because they’re the hard way. Whenever I teach a writing class and tell the students that internal conflict is much harder to write than external, guess what the next batch of stories all deal with?

We’re taught that challenging yourself is great. And it is. It’s how we grow and learn. Yet, it is just as important to write what you want to be writing. Making decisions around what best fits the vision makes higher quality work than what is harder to do. Especially because, if you aren’t good at it, it will look like it.

Writing a mystery series because it’s easier to sell will just be boring for the author. But refusing to write a mystery series because it’s easier will also be boring. Choices made to help maintain the vision and feeling that inspired the book will be more likely to make a book the author (and readers) will enjoy. A challenge is great, just so long as is beneficial and isn’t just being hard for hard’s sake.

9. Have only one plan.

This furthers the idea of being closed minded to options.

It is very common for humans to bank on a single plan and hope for the best. Making a back-up just feels like we think it’s going to fail. So we sit there and hope we won’t have to put a whole bunch more in, because, in all honesty, there comes a point when a high workload for a low possibility is just stupid.

Yet, due to the subjectivity, the randomness, and the just plain luck involved in the writing world, having as many plans as possible will make the workload worth more.

For instance, you can hope the greatness of your book will speak for itself. But, in case it doesn’t, the author can do things to make people give it the benefit of the doubt. A catchy title will catch eyes when the plot doesn’t. An exciting opening will get people to commit long enough to be amazed by the plot twists. Ease of reading will prevent people from just giving up due to laziness. Proper formatting will keep all those snobs thinking you’ve put in an effort. Make it topical. Submit to superficial and albeit inane expectations. Act like you know what you’re doing. As long as your “keeping up appearances,” doesn’t diminish the real value, it’s all worth it.

Of course, this seems like a lot more work just for a “chance.” Except that what it does is, though it takes more effort, it makes it more likely that you’re going to win, meaning the effort will come to something. It’s like gambling, except that you’re going to win the same amount no matter how many chips you sparse out.

Does your prediction for your success only have one scenario? Sell one book and get on the bestsellers list? You want as many as possible: “If this book doesn’t work out, then that one will, or my screenplay, or my stage play. If they don’t like the beginning, my short story publications might make them give it a second look. If I can’t get published through submission, maybe my networking will pay off.”

Sure, everyone’s available time varies, and some just have more to do more. But you know when you’re actually too busy or are just making excuses. And if you feel you just might be putting all your eggs baskets without reasons, then it’s a clear step for you to take.

10. Give up.

I didn’t want to put this one on here because it was obvious. But it also the one that rings the most true. People will try and discourage you, you’ll try and discourage yourself. The concept of wasted effort really bothers us.

I was lucky. When I first started writing I was too young to be skeptical of the whole “you can do anything speech.” I knew I would be successful, and I knew that my efforts would not be in vain. By the time that I actually lost the esteem for myself, I had already enveloped writing as a way of life. It was like smoking. I don’t know what to do without it.

The people who fail are those who quit or those who hold themselves to too specifics of standards. For the rest of us, we will succeed. It is impossible, if you keep writing and keep submitting, to not eventually get published. Ever read a crappy book before? Someone, somewhere will publish you at some time.
Writers never stop writing. Because, no matter how low the priority, no matter how much we want money or to help people, we still do it for fun.