On Writing: Let Me Inspire You

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What I wish I'd said at the Crossroads Writers Conference

I'll admit it: my Talk Block at the Crossroads Writers Conference could have been better. In part because it was my first time there and what I'd planned didn't gel as well with what I found I wanted to say. But if I had it to do again-- and if they'll let me back through the door again next year-- here's what I would want to say.



For just a moment, I want you to forget that Amazon exists and simply think about a peach.

I want you to forget about 50 Shades of Grey and advances and agents and editors and SEO and Twitter followers and and blog tours. Because that's not what we're here for. That's not the important part of what we do-- of writing. That's like dreaming of a can of slimy peaches in Costco when you're holding a seed in your hands in a beautiful grove, standing over a hole you dug yourself, ankle-deep in dew.

Only an asshole would focus on a can.

If you want to be published, there's no secret formula that you're going to find here--or at any conference or seminar, no matter how much you pay. Because the secret isn't a secret: you have to work your ass off for a long time, develop a thick skin, put yourself out there, never stop learning, and never give up. You have to write every day, be obsessed, put in the work.

But hearing that doesn't get anyone excited. That's like telling you how the cannery works. No one cares about cans, and no one cares about canneries.

The most important thing that happens is that there is a seed, and the seed grows.

That seed is your idea. It can come from anywhere-- something that happened in real life, a dream, something you read online. It might hit you like a tornado and wreck your life, or it might sneak in, unannounced and insidious, like termites. It might seem ridiculous or impossible at first; the best ideas often do. You can't go find it, though. It has to come to you.

The good thing is that if you're curious-- and every writer I know is deeply curious-- there's a good chance the ideas will come. But you have to be open to it, sensitive to it. The ideas sneak in when you're unfocused. You could go for a hike and step on twenty peach pits and never look down. But if you want to write, you have to train yourself to respond to odd little pings. Characters in the coffee shop, or words in other people's books, or that niggling little thought you had in the shower. And when you find a little seed, you have to at least write it down, maybe think about it for a minute. It might not stick, and it might not go anywhere. But the more seeds you collect, the better the chance that your subconscious will start turning one over and over, contemplating the possibilities of what could grow from that bizarre, wrinkled piece of nothing.

I love my subconscious. If I could, I would kiss the damn thing. If I just step out of my way and stop saying no to things, the answers somehow rise to the surface. Sometimes I have to go driving with the right music or take a long bath, but with the right prompts, what's supposed to happen, happens. Your brain wantsit to happen. It's almost looking at a Magic Eye poster. But instead of relaxing your eyes, you relax your brain.

The point is that just as a tree can't grow overnight, stories take time and lots and lots and lots of thought. You might get a crazy-good hook in your head-- it's like Twilight for narwhals! But that's not enough. You have to know where it starts, where it stops, and a few mile markers in between. You have to know these characters like they're annoying neighbors. I write romance, and while I'm writing, I'm always crushing on the male lead, trying to make myself swoon with everything he says. So this is the part where you take the seed and plant it. Water it and fertilize it. Tend it carefully. Don't let a day-- don't let an hour-- go by when it's not with you, on your mind. Even if it's just one page, one sentence, one word a day, even if it's just some notes on a future scene-- write it.

The first thing you will do is bang out 10 fierce pages like you're being chased, like you're on fire. All 10 pages will probably suck. Don't let that stop you. It's going to suck for a good, long while. Just keep typing, straight on through, with idiotically dogged determination. To me, a first draft is a lot like barfing. You just get it all out, as much as you can, as fast as you can. Worry about fixing it later. But you can't fix an empty page, so you might as well fill the blank space. Just glorify in the mess. Spread it around. You're going to have to get back in there and pull the guts apart, anyway.

I heard so many people at Crossroads ask how to keep going at this point, and here's the ugly secret: for me, the middle of the book is an enormous pain in the ass. I like the beginning, that electric scene where the heroine meets the hero, the slow burn to the first kiss and the sweet fire of the bow-chicka-wow-wow, and then the climactic end. I don't like writing the piddly in-betweens, and sometimes I'l even put a *** and write "insert character building here" or "talking scene where we learn about tragic past". And then I move on to the next scene that excites me in the moment, because maintaining that excitement is the only way to slog through the swamp. Or orchard. Or Costco.

Call it whatever you want. You just have inch toward daylight, as Matt Stover says.

And some people will tell you to keep your eye on the prize, whether that's typing THE END or mailing that paper baby off to your dream agent. But I think that's bad advice.

Forget the end. Keep your eye on the seed.

Never stop thinking about the seed that excited you about the story in the first part. Roll it around in your mouth a little. Whether it's the world or the characters or the twist at the climax, there was something that moved you so much as a conscious being that it elevated you above your basic dinosaur-brain functions and told you to do this ridiculous, awesome, painful, troublesome, heartbreaking, exhausting, sleep-depriving, family-annoying thing. Keep it in your pocket like a worry stone. Listen to the songs that make you feel it. Immerse yourself in what you're creating.

And if you do that *and* you put your ass in the chair every day and write, you will eventually type THE END.

Will it be any good?

No, it will not.

Even Stephen King admits that his first drafts suck. I don't let *anyone* see anything until my third draft, and nothing hits my agent's desk until at least the fifth. And then, do you know what happens?

She takes three months to read it and sends back a six-page edit letter so honest and brutal that it often reduces me to tears.

For three days, I rant and rage and balk like a mule.

And then I usually realize she's right and figure out how to fix it, because writers are often blind to their own faults. When I think she's wrong, I lay out the most logical argument possible and promise to send her cupcakes.

But as I'd like to encourage you to finish your first book, I'm not going to talk about revision, because that's honestly the hardest part. To follow the analogy here, if the seed is the story idea and the tree is the book you're writing, then here's how revisions work. You stand back and admire your tree for five minutes to six weeks. Then you go over every single leaf hunting for blemishes, turn every single peach. You throw away the rotten ones. Mark the green ones. Trim the bum twigs. Scream and jump up and down because you set out to grow a plum tree instead. Cut off half the branches and rearrange them and sew them back on with a needle and no thimble until your hands are a bloody mess. Maybe set fire to the damn tree.

Forget I said that. 

Just remember the beautiful tree, hung with golden peaches. Remember the seed. Keep it close. Treasure it. Nurture it. Worship it. Love it.

No matter how many books I write, the feeling of finding a seed, the electricity of falling in love with an idea,  never gets old.

You are filled with boundless possibility. All you need is time and hard work to turn it into something amazing. But all of the work comes later. There are no Costcos, no cans, no peaches, no trees...

...without that seed.