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Terrible Tips Tuesday: How Do You Write?

March 23, 2010

Here are some questions new writers will inevitably ask on critique group forums:

  • Do you write longhand or on a typewriter or computer?
  • Do you listen to music when you write?
  • Where do you write?
  • What times do you write?
  • Do you write in boxers or briefs?

OK, I made that last one up.  There are probably other questions along those same lines that new writers ask.  Now here’s the reasons they ask those questions:

  1. It’s a harmless icebreaker.  No one’s going to get pissed at you for asking questions like that, so it’s a good way to get your feet wet into a group.
  2. They’re clueless and they’re hoping for some secret method that will allow them to become bestselling authors.

In general these kind of questions are pointless for a very simple reason:  Writing is extremely subjective.  It’s like figure skating, not baseball or football or even golf.  The path to success can vary for each author.  As the theme song to “Diff’rent Strokes” says:  “What might be right for you might not be right for some.”  In other words, there’s no point in knowing what I do when I’m writing because it won’t work for you.

But we as humans have some innate belief that there’s a secret to everything.  This is what religion is based on, that there’s a mystical secret behind everything from the sun rising to what happens after you die.  It’s also what a shyster like Bernie Madoff or football draft “experts” like Mel Kiper use to make millions from people who should know better.  Just about everywhere there’s someone claiming to have some secret knowledge or hidden formula to allow you to save your immortal soul, make millions, lose weight, and win your office basketball pool.  With the exception of religion, all of these other people are found to be full of BS.  (Really how these “experts” on ESPN continued to be employed for big bucks after being constantly wrong continues to amaze me.  Then again we keep weather forecasters around too and they’re even more wrong.)

Even in the writing world there are plenty of disreputable people out there claiming to have the “secrets.”  A non-terrible tip for any author is to beware any would-be agent who claims to have the inside track in the business or who claims he/she will earn you millions.  That “agent” is probably full of shit.  You know what they say:  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Then again they also say:  There’s a sucker born every minute.

Getting back to the point, though, when new writers ask these “how do you write” questions, it’s because they naively think there’s some secret process that can make them into a great author.  Maybe if they use longhand and write in a dark room like Stephen King they’ll be just as successful!  Right, and me not shaving during the hockey playoffs is what helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 2008.  Face it, you can imitate the habits of successful authors but you’ll still always lack one key ingredient:  talent.  (Or in the case of some like Nicholas Sparks, luck.)

If you want proof of this, just find two interviews with famous authors.  Chances are they’ll use completely different methods to achieve their success.  King writes longhand, but my favorite author John Irving uses a typewriter.  They’re both successful and have sold millions of books, so who’s right?  No one!  That’s the point.  There isn’t a single method through the madness of writing a book.  You can do it however you want.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find out someone wrote a bestseller while standing on his/her head and using his/her toes to write it on the ceiling.  You can also just look at those threads on critique groups and you’ll see that the answers vary, sometimes drastically.

As I’m prone to doing, I’ll compare this to baseball.  You can watch film of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Ichiro Suzuki, and Albert Pujols and they’re all great hitters and yet each one will have a different stance and approach at the plate.  That’s because just like writing there’s no set method to make you a great hitter.  The stance is generally all just part of the psychological aspect to make the hitter feel comfortable.  What really matters is the talent.  You or I could go up to the plate and imitate those stances and still not be able to make contact with a 90mph fastball because we have no talent.

In the same way, you need to find what’s psychologically comfortable for you while you’re writing.  That could be writing longhand or using a computer.  It could be listening to classical or heavy metal or nothing.  It could be writing in an office or at Starbucks or on a park bench.  It could be at 5am or 9pm or whenever the kids go to bed and you have a spare minute.  It could be in boxers or briefs or nothing at all.  The point is that you have to find what works for you.  You still might have no talent, but at least you’ll feel comfortable while spewing your lack of talent onto a page.

BTW, I’m not saying that self-help books or classes are worthless.  They have uses, but that will be the topic of another Tuesday.

And since you’re asking:

  1. Netbook
  2. Adult alternative/indie lo-fi
  3. Library, Starbucks, Panera Bread, parks, etc.
  4. Afternoons and evenings are best for me.
  5. None of your damned business.

Check back Thursday for a discussion of how to write a good ending to a book and then Sunday for Part II of the March Madness, literary style.

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