I Should Be Writing
It's odd how people can tell you something for years, but until you get to that combination of being ready to hear it and someone putting it to you the right way...
Heaps of people, especially Vickie, have been telling me to just write for ages, especially with regard to Slamdance. But after I sat down late last year and got three chapters into re-writing Slamdance as a stand-alone own body of work, I felt as though I had to do a lot of development work before I continued on. I needed to lay down a framework (write the story bible, do character back-stories, figure the villain's motivations, etcetera) so that I could figure out what came next and make sure it all made sense. Basically, I was afraid of two things: Writer's block and the end result being crap. So I stopped writing again.
Then, at some point, I think it was Wil Wheaton who mentioned a piece of advice Neil Gaiman (yes, I know you're not fond of him, love, but I still like Good Omens) gave: Don't be afraid to suck. But it still didn't feel like a practical piece of advice. It's all very well not being afraid of sucking, but it's still something you should actively avoid, right?
In a way, I think I have Stephen Fry to thank for finding a podcast called I Should Be Writing. I remember hearing maybe a month and a half ago that his preferred way to make long walks pass quickly is to listen to an audiobook. So I fired up iTunes, searched for science fiction podcasts, came across Escape Pod and downloaded a few episodes. The first I listened to was a short story called “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky, read for the podcast by Mur Lafferty.
Now, if you read Knights of the Dinner Table, you probably know Mur from her Geek Fu Action Grip columns. She's also written for White Wolf; she's mentioned work she's done on Mage and Exalted. But my first exposure to Mur was through that reading, and I liked it so much that I searched for other stories she'd read and/or written (not to mention more of Rachel Swirsky's stuff), and discovered that she has a podcast of her own.
Mur describes I Should Be Writing as a podcast by a wannabe fiction writer for wannabe fiction writers, and I reckon that, combined with Mur's focused-yet-easygoing delivery, is why I like it so much. It's easy to get treatises on writing from successful veterans, but Mur's right there in the trenches with the rest of us, making her own way as a fiction writer step by step. Mur knows how hard it is to juggle sitting down and cranking out a thousand words a day with your other commitments, or slash through your own first draft with your correction pen's blood-red ink, or handle the downer of your hundredth fucking rejection slip (not that I'm that far along yet) and she has a great presenter's voice. She's unstinting with her advice and thoughtful in her replies, and her conversations with fellow authors from big names like Michael A. Stackpole and Pat Cadigan to up-and-comers like Scott Sigler (go out and buy Ancestor, by the way – or listen to the free audiobook version on his website) and even folks like herself are a little different than anything I've heard or read before.
Funnily enough, the lightbulb moment for me came not from the podcast itself but from a guest spot on the ISBW blog by writer Jared Axelrod. The two lightning bolts were these:
- Not only are you allowed to suck, but on your first draft, you're going to. Indeed, it's highly likely that every bestseller with deserved critical acclaim was nigh-unpublishable in its first draft.
- So what should you worry bout when writing your first draft? Just what happens next. Nothing else. Don't worry about themes or continuity or whether it's working; don't go backward and edit a damned word. Just keep writing until that particular story is done.
Mur even addresses point 2 in one of her earlier podcasts (I think it was a piece of advice from another author, maybe Stackpole): If you write a character as an only child in your first draft chapter 2 and by chapter 10 you discover that you need her to have a sister, don't go back and re-work your previous stuff; that's what your next drafts are for. For now, just write the sister in and keep ploughing forward.
It feels as though a weight's been lifted. You creatives out there know what I mean; even though everyone's falling over themselves to tell you how god you are, that little inner critic keeps telling you you're crap and you shouldn't bother; you've left your run too late, you'll never learn what you need to and if everyone's telling you how great you must be there's no way in hell you'll meet their expectations. Now, if I start getting myself down I can just tell myself, “Hey, I have permission to suck. In fact, I'm going to revel in the suckage! You know why? Because I know that there's around three more drafts to come before I plonk it down in front of anyone.”
In hindsight, putting chapters of Slamdance up on the web was a really big mistake confidence-wise, although I didn't know any better at the time. I was so desperate for attention that I treated my first draft as if it were ready to publish; when I looked at it again within a week, I knew it sucked, but... y'know, I thought that was what I was meant to be doing. And after all, it was just fanfic, right?
So from here on out, I'll Just Keep Writing until Draft 1 is done and then give it the full second-to-fourth draft treatment before I send it out to anyone interested in being a first reader (if you are, let me know, but be prepared; it'll mean going through a novel's worth of text with a red pen and being honest without being cruel about what works and what doesn't).
This means, of course, that you folks wanting to read more of my stuff, especially Slamdance, are going to have to wait for a while longer. But I'm doing it. If you've got Twitter, I've been tweeting word counts on there when I finish a writing spurt and I'll start putting editing progress up once I start getting into the second and later drafts.
And that's somewhere around 1,100 words. Good enough for now. 'Night, everyone!