I used to think writing was a simple thing. You simple sat down, held your hands over the keys like a concert pianist taking a moment to center himself as the thousands in the audience hushes, and then you plunge your hands down, touching not keys but gripping an electric current. SHAZAM! You just channel that magic, you lay it on down, you writhe and grimace and the words flow from you like blood, and then, many hours later, you throw yourself away, panting and exhausted, leaving a masterpiece on the table.
Turns out it doesn’t really work that way, not if you want to produce something good. I spent years waiting for inspiration to strike, and when it did, what I produced was gaudy purple prose, over the top and insufferably precious, full of the mind shattering revelations that only an amateur teenage philosopher who thinks himself really quite original and smart would bother laying down on the page.
So a few years went by, and I gradually noticed that I was only produced a handful of half completed short stories. Not good enough. So one day in Australia I decided to try my hand at NaNoWriMo, and in about three weeks I wrote some 55,000 words, creating a novella with little forethought or plot, just hammering away valiantly until the thing stood there. I was wild with glee, but knew it was a limited, twisted little novella, with hints of greatness but terribly flawed. Thinking of it now I’m still proud, but god is it awful and utterly, utterly unpublishable.
But it showed me something. That, if you sit down every day, you can write a novel. Yes you can. Write 1,000 words every day, and you’ll have a novel in 3 months! Like the crudest of recipes, that’s all it takes. Now, the quality might be debatable, but by Grimlock it’s a novel.
So, I started writing novels. “It’s a craft,” I began to boldly declaim, “Waiting for inspiration is a mugger’s game.” Oh yes, how wise and world weary I felt. You need to just write a novel, one word at a time, every day. So how did I do it? I would come up with a great idea. ‘In the darkness beneath abandoned buildings live entities cursed by their own fear to live forever and damn others!’ or ‘There are demons roaming the world unseen, and there’s a dude with a shotgun driving around killing them!’ or ‘The only way to trap an omnipotent AI in the future is to collapse time around it, trapping our heroes in the process!’ and ‘The good and evil fairies are looking for humans to assume the positions of leadership so that one side may rule NYC!’.
I actually wrote all those novels. I would have the great idea, get some fantastic visions, a few key scenes, and then, all excited, with the first 2/3rds sort of mapped out, I would sit down, place my hands over the keys like a concert pianist about to begin, and then type about 9,000 words/day and be done with the damn thing in about two weeks. SHAZAM! Instant novel!
Except the final product would be fatally flawed. I’d love the heck out of it, but everybody who read it would come back and say, ‘Well, yes, good stuff! But what about this plot hole? And you forgot this character here. And this doesn’t make much sense. And these parts here don’t really do much. And…’ And so on. In short, they’d point out that these novels, while passionately written, and perhaps even showing some fair amount of imagination and skill, were wild, unruly things, and deeply, deeply in need of serious editing and revision.
And boys and boysenberries, I do hate me a good revision. Loath it. In fact, I’d rather shovel shit. Sure I would. Blast some good music, put a wet bandana around your nose, and just lay in with a vengeance, shovel that pile and then shower down and you’re done. Much better than sitting down to squint at your manuscript and slowly begin pulling on thread after thread until the whole thing unravels around you, and you no longer know what the damn thing was ever supposed to look like.
So that’s where I’m at right now. I’ve got one novel that has done the rounds a few times, the first major revision coming after Ms. Kaitlyn got through with it, and the second round of critiques coming from Mr. William who has done a masterful job of pointing out the seams, the thin parts, the inconsistencies and leaking jambs. In short, I need to chop off the first three chapters, then redevelop two of the characters, add more emotional oomph to the ending, and on and on and on.
Which, to be frank, I don’t want to do. It’s like taking a badly built Toyota and trying to change enough parts so that it looks like a Porsche.
Instead, I want to write a new book. My fourth. I have an idea, some good images in my head, a powerful main character, in fact, I’m at the point where I would normally launch myself into the actual writing. ‘Yukon ho!’ I would cry, and crash out 9,000 words.
But not this time.
See, I’ve learned a thing or two, and this time, I’m going to do it differently. I’m going to write out an outline. I’m going to figure out what happens, and then scrutinize what happens and see if it has enough dramatic weight, momentum and consistency to keep the reader hooked. In effect, I’m going to do my revisions before I write the damn thing.
And you know what’s really helped me get a grasp on what needs to be done? Surprising as it may sound, a book by master agent Albert Zuckerman entitled, ‘How To Write a Blockbuster Novel‘ has really opened my eyes. Recommended to me by author David Farland (in one of his email blasts), I decided to purchase it when I realized that Albert Zuckerman is the head of Writer’s House, that mega darling agency in NYC that happens to stable Merrillee Heifetz, Neil Gaiman’s agent. The guy has sold hundreds of books, many of them hugely successful, so I thought hell, let’s see what he has to say.
And man is this a good book. It’s short and to the point. No time wasted. Zuckerman outlines a number of things that authors such as Ken Follet, John Grisham, Steven King, and Mario Puzo did, breaks them down and explains how they did them, shows why they’re important, and then gives you ideas as to how you could do them too.
His advice is at once simple yet cuts to the heart of it all. If writing is really a craft, then ensuring that as the author you remain aware of certain key and important elements that cannot be neglected as you write the novel is crucial. Tighten up your plots. Don’t diffuse the intensity by focusing on unimportant characters. Always be aware of pacing. Outline, then revise your outline, then revise it again. Such basic points that seem laughably obvious until, like myself, you find yourself staring at your lumpen, misshapen novel, and wishing that you’d put a little more thought into it to begin with.
So yes. It’s another round. I’ve gone from believing in sheer inspiration to believing in just putting one word after another to now giving outlines and carefully thought out plots a try. This next book is going to be a completely different animal, but, with some measure of discipline, hard work and forethought, maybe this one will finally get things right.