August 26, 2010

It’s A Trap!!

I would like to thank Admiral Ackbar for pointing out the obvious.

Alas, sometimes things aren’t as apparent as we think they should be. Like the horror story where the absolute last thing someone should do is open the door to the study, so of course Yakko is reaching for the knob…

Lots of aspiring writers fall into traps. Sometimes it happens when they follow bad advice. Other times it’s because they insist on using a method or writing in a style which really doesn’t work for them. And sometimes… sometimes that trap’s just sitting there in the field kids play kickball in, hidden by some leaves, waiting to snap…

So, with all that being said, here are some common–and dangerous– misconceptions people have about writing. Beware them, and beware the people who set these traps for themselves and others.

Writing is easy Probably the most common misconception there is. I mean, most of us learned how to put words on paper when we were ten, right? We could write passable essays by ninth grade. So writing for a living, for an audience greater than your immediate friends and loved ones, how hard could it be? Anyone can do it once you’ve got a clever idea. Heck, I’d bet 90% of Americans have immediate access to a word processor of some sort.

Truth is, writing—not basic, grade-school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write— is a skill which needs to be learned like any other. All you need to do is browse the comment sections of any news feed or message board to see how few people know how to express their ideas through words. Yeah, I took English and reading classes in school. I also took music classes, so maybe I should expect to get a recording contract sometime soon? Twelve years of gym classes, too, but for some reason I haven’t made it onto any Olympic teams.

Writers need to train and practice for months–maybe even years–before they’re ready to show off their writing. I don’t need to look it up to tell you Wolfgang Puck didn’t get any praise for the first hundred meals he cooked, Mark McGuire did not get paid big money the first thousand times he swung a baseball bat, and Stephen King didn’t make a single cent off the first 100,000 words he wrote. Writing is work. Hard work. It requires skill, a great deal of practice, some actual talent, and a heck of a lot of dedication. This is why so many people can’t succeed at it.

This is probably the best trap because it doesn’t just catch the writer, it tends to kill them 2/3 of the time. Most of the wanna-be writers who believe this have never actually written anything. Once they do, they come up with an excuse why they’ll never be completing their manuscript (see below), then slink away to become musicians. Or writing gurus.

Writing doesn’t require any writing A few decades back there was a huge spec script boom in Hollywood. It was one of those rare periods when studios acknowledged the importance of the writer and were paying top dollar for screenplays, or even just the idea for one. A popular story is how established screenwriter Joe Eszterhas scribbled the bare idea (no pun intended) for Jade on a cocktail napkin and ended up with a multi-million dollar contract for it.

As I said, however, this was over twenty years ago. These days producers and publishers are much more cautious and they’re not interested in ideas. They’re interested in complete, finished works. Not two-thirds of a manuscript. Not most of a script. Just to save time, knowing the right people won’t change this. No, it won’t. I don’t care what you read on the special snowflake website.

Not to sound too harsh but… well, no, this is harsh because people can only end up in this trap by choice. If someone can’t write and complete something, they can’t be a writer. That’s really all there is to it. Stop now and go back to those criminal justice classes you signed up for.

For the record, some folks argue they don’t want to write until they get paid. These people should give up on any sort of fiction– because that’s not going to happen there–and go into journalism. Then they need to find a staff job on a website, magazine, or newspaper.

Good luck with that, by the way, not having a writing resume and all…

First person is easy A lot of prose writers start off with first person stories. It’s quick, it’s not hard to get into, it’s easy to find a voice. It’s also very personable, so a reader can relate to the characters immediately. Plus there are tons of formats ready and waiting; journals, diaries, letter, memoirs, and so on.

Truth is, first person is a very difficult, very limiting tense to write in. There’s a reason so many professional writers avoid it. Beginning writers rarely develop their first-person characters past their voice. I could go on about this one for a while, and as it happens I did earlier this year.

Writers who get caught in this trap start their first novel and pound out 20,000 words worth of journal entries over the weekend. There’s always that chance they may be brimming with so much raw talent they’re the next Hemingway or Steinbeck. There’s a far better chance, though, they’ve just wasted a long weekend.

Writers don’t need to read – Somewhere along the line, someone started promoting the silly idea writers shouldn’t waste time reading, they should spend all their time writing. This is kind of like saying you don’t want to waste time stopping for gas while you’re driving. Every professional writer I’ve ever met, interviewed, or even just read about (myself included) reads voraciously. A writer should be devouring works in their chosen field to stay current and snacking heavily on everything else to stay fresh.

Sad but true, the people who fall into this trap tend to write plain awful stuff. They go for every easy idea, hit every cliché plot point, and tend to follow the textbook formulas they were taught in some creative writing class somewhere. What else can they do? They try to mimic one or two famous examples of what they aspire to and usually end up looking just like the worst of the worst (because they have no idea what the worst looks like)

Research everything – Alas, this is one of the two deadliest traps out there, which is why I saved it for one of the last. We all want to get the facts right in our stories. We check research books, make phone calls, visit important locations, or maybe some of us just spend a lot of time on Wikipedia. The point is, how can I be expected to move forward with my story if I don’t know the name of George Washington’s barber and what size shirt he wore? It’ll ruin everything if I just call him John Smith, neck 16.

This is an awful trap because getting stuck in it means a writer was trying to do the right thing. Research is important, but never forget it’s not writing. There’s a time for putting noses in books but there’s also a time for putting pens to paper (or binary code to electromagnetic bubble memory, as it may be)

Some people get caught in an even deeper layer of this trap. They get stuck researching how to write. We’ve all known someone like this, the one who buys book after book, takes class after class, but never does any actual writing. For some people this becomes a defense mechanism of sorts, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes… not so subconsciously. If they never start, they won’t have to put the work in and their work stays in that wonderful hypothetical stage where it’s the greatest thing (almost) ever committed to paper. It’s a tragedy, really, they never had time to write it down…

Rewrite until it’s perfect – The last and deadliest of the traps in our showroom. For some people, rewriting turns into an endless loop. There’s always another opinion to listen to, more feedback to get, and revisions which need to be done because of them. Just thought of a new way to do those action scenes? That calls for another draft. Maybe last night’s Chuck inspired a new opening? Perhaps Aunt Betty is visiting and she thought the ending was a little violent, and a good writer knows changing the end means changing everything which leads up to the end.

There are two ways people fall into this trap. One is a combination of bad advice and bad judgment. So many gurus tell people to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. How many times have you heard “writing is rewriting” parroted in classes or on message boards? There’s some truth to that, but there’s also a lot of truth in the phrase “poop or get off the pot” (cleaned up for work computers). Eventually, a writer just needs to call it done and move on or they’re going to be trapped in one manuscript forever.

The other way people fall into this trap is by purpose. A bit like with research, constant rewrites are an excuse not to actually produce anything. You don’t expect me to show you an incomplete or old draft, do you? I was going to send it to some agents or publishers, but I think it needs one more polish to make it perfect. Maybe one more after I go through and clean up a few loose threads. Rewrites are a way wanna-be writers–again, consciously or not– can avoid possible failure yet still keep up the illusion of forward motion.

Are all of these traps deadly? No, but getting snagged in one can definitely cost you some time. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t fallen victim to one or three of them over the years. Fortunately, one of those things only has to slam on your leg once and you’ll rarely let it happen again.

Assuming, of course, that you get out of it the first time.

Next time, I’m going to throw around some big words relating to the throwing about of big words.

Until then, go write. And watch your step.

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