October 14, 2013 by Thomas Pluck
I do not consider myself a success.
That is not self-deprecation, nor am I trolling for compliments. It is a state of mind, meant to stave off complacency, the enemy of all artists, writers in particular. I resumed writing regularly in November 2010, and three years later I have had 50 stories published, published three anthologies, and written one novel, with another novel and story collection nearly completed. I’ve won a Bullet award, had an anthology nominated for a Spinetingler, I’ve made dozens of new friends in the crime fiction community, and one of the stories I edited- Dave White’s excellent “Runaway” in the Protectors anthology- was listed as a distinguished story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.
Not bad. But it’s never good enough.
This from nothing. It began with a big bang of enthusiasm after I was coaxed into writing a novel in one month for NaNoWriMo 2010, which I called “Beat the Jinx.” Two revisions later I call it Bury the Hatchet, and I am about to unleash it into agent slushpiles everywhere. How did I do it? Same way I went from being a chubby weakling into the man-ape hybrid you see before you, who outwrestles athletes half his age and can lift over a quarter ton.
By observing successful writers I admire and cultivating their habits:
Friends have called me the most driven writer they know. I write nearly every day- 3-5 hours, until I feel tiredness at the edge of my eyes, when I know any further effort will have diminishing returns. But in my mind, I’m a slacker. And that keeps me driven.
If writing is a chore to you, perhaps writing isn’t for you. Let’s face it, it is work. But it should be a pleasurable work, like building one of those cakes that look like they require a degree in architecture. There will be failure and struggle as you learn by doing. But you get to lick the spoon. Write every day for a month. Pick a time that works, whether you can devote a half hour or three hours. Say you will write for 5 minutes. You will usually write longer. Force yourself to do it for three weeks to a month and it will become a habit. When you skip, you will feel a pang of guilt. You will scribble things down whenever you can. If you don’t know what to write about, maybe you’re not a writer. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s what you do with them that matters. In the beginning, I said “yes” to everything. Guest blog, interviews, anthologies, moderating. It forces you to write and make deadlines. Now I have to say “no” to new projects I want to participate in, to meet my commitments.
How does this jive with drive? I just told you to get off your ass and do, do, do. But be patient while you improve. Be patient while your stories sit in editor’s inboxes, waiting to be read. Be patient as you get rejections. Be patient as your rejections improve from form letters, to “Best of luck, it’s not for us,” to “we just published one like this,” to “if you edit this, this, and this, we will reconsider.” Be patient with editors. Remember, it is your responsibility to translate your thoughts into words that others can understand. If they don’t “get it” they aren’t necessarily dense; maybe what you wrote is unclear. If you trust the editor–and why else would you submit to a market, unless you enjoyed what they published and think the editors will like your work–you will work with them. You should also sit on a story before editing it, to approach it with a clear head. Don’t ship it off right after you type “The End,” no matter how excited you are about it. In the afterglow, you’re not in a right mind to edit.
This goes hand in hand with Drive. It is the one I struggled with the most. I am easily distracted, and I love starting new projects. But unfinished projects are nothing. They are a waste of energy. Must you finish everything, even a story you realize is bad? In the beginning, yes. Make something of it. A bad story can be fixed, an unfinished one is useless. No one wants to believe that writing takes practice, despite the mantras of “10,000 hours of practice before learning,” or “you must write a million words of crap before you’re a writer.” How do you expect to improve without failure? I wrote 50 stories, a novel, and edited two anthologies while I was supposed to be revising my first novel, Bury the Hatchet. I have all sorts of excuses for this. My writing has improved due to all those projects, and the novel has benefited, but if I had finished it first, that improvement would still have occurred. Do not let distractions drag you from finishing your work. Starting something new when you are in the middle of the hard work of finishing a story is just procrastination in disguise.
Sometimes, you hit a wall. With deadlines, writers often crash through these walls and finish the story in a way that works, but shows the wreckage. I’ve noticed this in many novels, even stories I’ve enjoyed. “Oh, you painted yourself into a corner there.” Then they cut a window into the wall to escape, and the house is still a house, and pretty from most angles, but there’s a weird window that sticks out. But at least you didn’t have to paint that room twice, right? WRONG! Fix the damn story problem. It will take perseverance. First to finish a story, and again to fix it. Writers have all sorts of vile analogies for revision. You get sick of your own story. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be better than “good enough.” If you’ve read enough good books, you will get a feel for it. If you say to yourself, “No one will notice,” that’s a big hint that it needs work. Or if you skim that part and get to the good bits. With me, I get a queasiness, a desire to shirk. And I bold that section for later, if I have no idea what the hell to do. But I always go back to it. Thanks to my friend Wayne Dundee, author of the Joe Hannibal PI novels and creator of Hardboiled magazine, for “persevere.” That’s how he signs his letters. And it encapsulates everything. If there’s one habit that’s most important, it’s this one.
Do you love books? Do you love reading a great story, and wishing you could write it? I hope so. You can’t be driven 24/7. If you find yourself sneering at everything you read and saying you could do better, you might need a break to recharge your enthusiasm. Ever read something you know damn well you could never have written, and yet feel outrage that THIS won the Nobel Prize/Edgar/Hot Poop Award? While your genius went overlooked? It has been known to happen. It means your enthusiasm level is critically low. Read a book by a favorite writer, for enjoyment only. An old favorite. Or stop reading for a week and watch movies you love. Read or watch the stories that inspired you to be a writer in the first place.
What happened? You may have fallen into a validation trap, where you write to hear the applause of the audience. For a time, I found it easier to write quick stories and get the thrill of an acceptance, rather than buckle down and finish a novel. My friend Josh Stallings had the opposite problem- he loves writing novels, but convinced himself that he couldn’t write short fiction. After several of us cajoled and harried him into writing for us, he wrote several excellent stories, which broadened his audience for the Mo McGuire novels. It also supercharged his enthusiasm. He wrote his breakout noir memoir ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, and Mo #3, ONE MORE BODY, will be out soon.
Yes, “only writing is writing.” But writing takes more than typing, and keeping the brain happy–but just a little bit hungry–is part of the maintenance.
I hope this helps. I learned it by mimicking the writers whose careers I want mine to emulate. People who worked hard and were rewarded. Lawrence Block, who has always been an inspiration. He’s 84 and just hammered out another novel while on a world cruise, just to see if he could do it. Joelle Charbonneau, who juggles three series and still has time to blog, tweet, go to conventions and live a busy life. Joe Lansdale, who says he writes 3-5 pages a day. Last time I checked, he’s written 35 or so novels. Plus he runs a dojo. Perseverance personified. He also posts excellent no-BS writing advice on Facebook. George Pelecanos, another prolific author, said he writes 4 hours in the morning and edits at night. Whatever works- the common element is they go the distance, they write whether they feel like it or not, and get the job done.
Now it’s your turn.