Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Someone asked penmonkey extraordinaire Chuck Wendig how to get over performance anxiety as a writer. You can see the full question and Chuck's brilliant answer here, on terribleminds.com. I had the same problem for.... oh, fifteen years or so. Here's how I got over it, in one simple phrase.
Don't write THE story; write A story.
Oh, that's not enough? Here's an object lesson from pop culture. Watch this 11-second clip.
That's Michael Scott from The Office, explaining why he ruins every single scene in his improv class by crashing through an invisible door with an invisible gun and going into FBI stand-off mode. No one else can tell an interesting story because Michael always wants to tell THE MOST EXCITING STORY because he's worried that without invisible guns, he'll be powerless. So the teacher confiscates all of his invisible guns.
So let's assume WRITING THE WORLD'S BEST STORY = Michael busting into a room with guns. Or, in the case of a writer, a golden gun. Because we all want to write the perfect story, right?
I would like to join Chuck in collecting all of your invisible guns.
Let's break it down.
1. THERE ARE INFINITE GREAT STORIES THAT DO NOT INVOLVE GUNS.
Put 100 people in a room. Tell them, "A normal boy named Harry goes to a new school and something weird happens. Write a story." You will get 100 vastly different stories. Harry will be different. His new school will be different. The weird thing that happens will be different. What will set the stories apart won't be the concept--it'll be the writing. J.K. Rowling didn't do anything new-- she just did it really well. And without a single gun.
2. THE WRITING, NOT THE GUN, MAKES THE STORY AMAZING.
Just as an improv scene's success is based on the actor's skills and experience and not the invisible gun, the writing is more important to a story than the subject. You must write stories in order to improve as a writer. It doesn't matter how great your story idea is. It's not going to be THE perfect story. It's not going to be a bestseller. It's not going to sell for a bajillion dollars. You have to write a lot of crap before you get even close to that, so you might as well assume you're going to write crap for a while. Adding a gun isn't going to make your crap look like gold.
3. BEAT YOUR GUN INTO A PLOWSHARE AND GET TO WORK.
Go to writing groups. Go to critique groups. Do flash fiction. Challenge yourself to tell 140-character stories on Twitter. Force yourself to share your stories publicly, as the public can always tell crap from gold. Sacrifice your work and your pride and learn, bit by painful bit, to accept criticism. Everyone starts writing crap. No one gets to start at the front of the line. Get used to the idea that there are tons of stories out there, waiting to be told, and that none of them are THE ONE. You don't see Eddie Izzard or Louis CK pulling out an invisible gun every five minutes during their stand-up routines, do you? No.
4. LEARN TO RECOGNIZE WHEN YOU HAVE UNEARTHED GOLD WITH YOUR GUN-PLOW.
Maybe you have a flash fiction piece that received some favorable comments. Maybe you sold a short story. Maybe someone in your writing group said something nice about a sentence or a character. Figure out what made that story or character work. Maybe you're good at humor, action, deep characters, clever twists. DO THAT THING MORE. That right there? That's your real weapon.
5. REMEMBER THAT GOLDEN GUNS BEGIN AS LUMPS OF GOLD.
Let's say you've internalized 1-4. You're getting pretty good at this writing thing. You have a great idea, a character and a story that excite you. You have the raw materials to make that golden gun. Should you sit down at the keyboard and think OMIGOD, THIS HAS TO BE PERFECT?
NO. Because nobody makes a golden gun on the first try.
Just remember that the first draft is going to be crap. You can always go back and fix it, polish it up, add more elements to your story. It's never too late to change something or, hell, rip the entire thing to shreds and start over. Lots of great and published writers do this with every book. I saw no less than 3 traditionally published, well-known writers bemoaning their huge revision letters on Twitter just this morning.
Great writing takes time. Great stories take time and reworking. Your story doesn't have to be perfect after the first draft, your second draft... or your seventeenth draft. Ask me how I know.
In conclusion, NO ONE WINS BY STARTING OUT WITH A GUN.
Now forget being perfect and go write A story, ANY story. YOUR story.