I love preparation.
You know those scenes in the heist movie or the superhero movie or the fantasy movie where people are carving arrows and training to shoot from horseback? Or tacking things up on cork boards and coordinating the precise timing between when they will drill the safe and when the alarm goes off? Or drawing Xs on big maps to indicate that when the third bell rings, the scrappy young go-getter with a thirst to prove herself and who is vital to the execution of the plan needs to be here?
I bloody love those scenes. I love them so much that I’m often disappointed when a story moves past the preparation stage and into the relative monotony of execution. I know this indicates a crossed wire in my brain. The excitement built by the planning and prep work is really there to build up tension and expectations for when the horses ride out and things start exploding. But the riding horses bore me, and my brain thinks that if I’ve seen one explosion I’ve seen them all.
It applies in life, too. When we went to Disney World when I was little, I had more fun reading the book and mapping out what we were going to do in the months leading up to the trip than actually going on any of the rides. Well, except Star Tours. Star Tours was life-changing.
Right now, I am writing a novel using the Snowflake Method. The snowflake method is essentially fractal outlining, only pumped up on the stuff that Bane uses to get strong enough to pick up Batman and break the dark knight’s spine over his excessively muscled knee.
I’ve been working on my lovely horrific snowflake for a few months, and I have tens of thousands of words of design documentation. I have a one paragraph, a four paragraph, and four page summary of the entire novel. I have character sheets about each of my 9 characters which include their vocal mannerisms, their big secrets, and their connections to each of the other characters. My personal snowflake includes some steps that aren’t in the original that involve the specifics of my novel, about magic, and hungry brooms, and fairy tales.
Right now I am on the final step before I actually start writing the thing: a spreadsheet of each scene. There are going to be a lot of scenes. I’m writing it fairly slowly, but even if I can only get through one scene a day that’s serious progress.
The only problem is, the closer I get to the actual writing program, the more nervous I get. And the more disenchanted. I don’t want to move forward. I’ve spend months amidst this glorious planning montage, and pretty soon the song will end. I’m going to have to deal with the explosions. Explosions are inevitable. Like judgement day.
I think there are two reasons why I love preparation so much. One of them is small and mundane and rooted in the vulgar mechanics of my psychology. The other is poetic and sprawling and involves dream and worldview and fundamental beliefs about the impossibility of the universe.
The first reason is that I’m scared of actually doing stuff. Preparation is a safe place where we can imagine great things without having to risk them by exposure to the sharp edges of the world. I spend my childhood telling stories inside of my imagination, and they were always perfect. They were perfect in the way that only things that don’t exist ever can be. If I was a soldier in an enchanted land, I had complete confidence in my 10 year old brain that the entire kingdom and all surrounding civilizations was richly drawn, full of interesting people, exotic magics, and terribly original monsters.
It was true because I knew it to be true. Those details couldn’t be contradicted, because they didn’t exist. They where Schrodinger’s Fantasy World, and no one was ever, ever allowed to open the box. Now, as an adult writer, the stories in my head are just as beautiful. But I have to actually tell them. I have to consign the submit the infinity of imagination to the dull alchemy that is writing them down. How can they possibly live up to my expectations? If I never go anywhere, they can stay transcendent. It doesn’t help that it involves doing work, and work cannot feel more different than imagination.
The second reason is that I don’t believe in the physical universe. Oh, I believe in it intellectually, of course. I mean, I’m sitting on a chair this very moment. But I don’t believe in it on that deep level where faith and poetry and the illogical logic of dreams all live and dance and eat persimmons that are also Santa Claus. The physical world’s existence doesn’t make sense to me. I act like it exists because it gets the job done. What I believe in, really, are possibilities.
I realized years ago that I’m happiest when the world is rich with possibilities. When what I can become or do feels more open and more real than what I can’t. Of course that’s never really the case. There are always more non-options than options, if you’re being realistic. But you shouldn’t be realistic. When you think about it, it wouldn’t be very realistic. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to worry about whether or not you can eat a star, or buy Spain with a bushel of oranges, or kick a mountain with a steel-toed shoe and shatter it into dust. It’s better to focus on what you can do, and that very narrow range of things you can’t do that are just outside of your possible range.
What does this have to do with preparation? It is relevant because no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. But you won’t know how well it will survive until you’ve contacted a few enemies. That is to say, the more you practice any given skill or master any given field, the more the possibilities available to you shrink.
That sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But when you don’t know what you are doing, so very, very many things remain possible. Once you can realistically assess what you are capable of, you have to live with it. Before that, you might be capable of anything.
Somewhere deep down I don’t want to live in a world where I’m not capable of anything. This novel I’m writing might have the capacity to be as amazing as I think it can be. I might even have the ability to write it that well. But probably not. When I start to write it I will find out, one way or another. And I’ve written enough to know that the highest, most perfect version of this novel is almost certainly a dream. A wisp. A phantasm. What I can actually create won’t be anywhere near that good. And if I want it to exist I am just going to have to live with that.
On the other hand, it will exist. I will be able to hold it in my hands, and read the words I have written with my physical eyes ,full of retinas and photosensitive cells and vitreous humor. It is going to take pain to get there. To create a real novel, my perfect dream-novel has to die. I am going to have to raise a stone alter out of fantasy-stuff, and wet it with the phantasmal blood of this imagined work of impossible magnificence.
No matter how glorious the end result, no matter how worth-while, I need to take a knife to something I love. For the peach tree to blossom so I can inhale the scent of the flowers and taste the sweet flesh of the fruit on my tongue, I need to drop this perfect seed of potential into the mud, and watch it get dirty.
It’s called getting real. It’s called growing up. And it’s about time I get to it.
Many writers and readers alike say that the most important part of a story is the ending. When asked why, they say things like “an ending allows you to form a complete opinion about the work as a whole,” or “the ending is the payoff of what the writer builds during the story.”
These are probably part of the answer, but if the last 30 years of experimental psychology have taught us anything, it’s that we are surprisingly ignorant of why we form beliefs and opinions. A series of experiments by psychologist Daniel Kahneman–one of my personal heroes–and his colleagues Donald A. Redelmeier and Joel Katz suggest a simpler reason why endings are so important, and why as a writer it’s more vital for you to deliver a satisfying ending than almost any other factor.
It starts with a group of men. More specifically, their colons.
The colonoscopy procedure is about as much fun as it sounds. It is painful, intrusive, and embarrassing enough that many people skip the procedure as often as possible even when it’s vital to their long-term health. In their experiment, Kahneman et al. took a group of men who were coming in for a medically needed colonoscopy and divided them into two groups.Both groups were given the procedure and asked to rate their pain and discomfort during the process, and then once again immediately after it was finished.
The first group, the control group, was given the colonoscopy as normal. The second group, the experimental group, was given the colonoscopy as normal, but then the apparatus was left in for a short period after the actual procedure was done. They did not know that this extra period wasn’t part of the procedure, but they did know that the last few minutes of their procedure was considerably less painful than the bulk of it.
During the procedure, the experimental group experienced more total discomfort than the control group, because they had a full-length full-discomfort procedure followed an extra period of reduced discomfort that was still much less fun than less irritations like, for example, getting a root canal. However, when asked to rate the overall unpleasantness of the experience, the experimental group rated it as significantly less bad than the control group. Even though they experienced more total pain, the reduced pain at the end made the entire procedure seem less bad. Not only that, the people in the experimental group wer more likely to come back for a repeat procedure.
In other words, when they thought back on the experience, they mostly remembered the ending. The last thing that happened to them had a higher impact on their impression of the experience than the much longer period that preceded it. Even though their total discomfort was higher. It didn’t matter. The taste it left in their mouth, to use a metaphor that we should all agree not to think about too much in this context, was based on the ending.
These findings have been reproduced in other experiments under different conditions. Kahneman and Redelmeier, their sadistic lust for psychological insight not sated by even the most unpleasant medically necessary procedures, went on to blast people’s ears with unpleasant noises and submerge their hands in freezing water. In both cases, subjects rated the overall experience as less unpleasant as long as it ended more gently, even when the gentle-ending condition was twice as long. When asked which condition they wanted to repeat,the overwhelming majority of subjects chose to repeat the double-length torture period over the shorter one, as long as the long one had a milder finish.
This data stacks up with a great deal of other data from other directions to tell a specific story about the human mind: we massively overvalue whatever happens last in an experience. A fantastic vacation with a crappy final day will be remembered less fondly than a mediocre vacation that went out with a bang, according to survey data. A great dessert will save an otherwise mediocre restaurant meal.
So it may be, then, that the major contributing factor for why endings are so important in stories is simply that they happen last. No matter how carefully you craft the beginning and middle of your story, it just won’t have the same lasting psychological impact as those last few scenes. Another implication here, and I admit I am speculating, is that it might matter less than you think how well the ending ties everything together. It might be more important that the ending is enjoyable for its own sake.
Someone clever writer is probably going to have to torment some hapless readers to find out.
The most important part of writing is rewriting.
–Every published author, writing teacher, and book on writing in the history of the field. (paraphrased)
It’s hard to make yourself sit down and write. Once you break through that barrier, you come face to face with the much worse truth that you’ve just done the easy part.
The fact is that even you can write pretty good first drafts, your writing is a weak copy of what it is supposed to be until it’s been thoroughly edited and rewritten.
But damn is rewriting hard. One of the hardest parts about it happens at the level of the individual sentence. When you go back and read your own writing, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that your sentences are “just fine.” The might not be great, but it feels difficult to come up with a way to change them. They do the job. They’re not beautiful, but they’re structural. They hold the whole thing up, and you are worried that if you fiddle too much everything will come crashing down.
This exercise is here to help. This is a deliberate practice exercise, which means that it is intensive, tedious, and a lot of work. But if you do it enough times, it could transform how you look at your own sentences.
Here it is:
Take a sentence you have written. Now rewrite the sentence 50 times.
That’s it. Sounds simple, right? But not easy. Like I said, it’s tedious. Like practicing tiny variations on your golf swing over and over and over until you get it right.
To really get the benefits from this exercise, you have to do it a lot. Just like any other exercise. Say, three times a week for a month, just for starters. Just like starting a new workout routine, you won’t even know if you are getting benefits for a few weeks. But once they come they’ll be enormous.
I’ll post a link first try at this exercise at the end.
Here are a few rules about the exercise. They’re designed to give you some focus so you get the most out of the exercise. Don’t worry so much about whether you’re following the rules that you spend 20 minutes memorizing them and never get to the actual work! That’s a method of stalling. The rules are designed to be intuitive, so just read them through and get going.
Rule 1: To start, pick a sentence that’s long enough that you can play with it. The shorter the sentence the more challenging the exercise. It would be very difficult to write “See Dick Run” in 50 different ways. That’s like starting with a 200 lbs bench press. Work up to it!
Here’s my sample sentence:
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake, where they picked crabapples from the tree and skipped them across the water.
Rule 2: Copy and paste your sample sentence 50 times in a document, and then work from there. That way you have to edit the sentence directly, just like you would do while editing a manuscript. For some of your entries you’re going to want to delete the sentence and write it over again. That’s fine. But by making yourself delete the sentence it will feel more like editing and less like brainstorming.
Rule 3: Minor tweaks are fine. It’s not cheating to flip a few words around. That’s a huge part of the rewriting process, and one that beginnings often miss. Sometimes flipping the order of two words has a surprising impact on the meaning.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
is a different sentence than
Every summer Lilly and John spent their days up by the lake…
Putting Lilly first places a different spin on the sentence and it’s meaning. It looks small, but rewriting isn’t about making a few powerful changes. It’s about making hundreds of tiny changes that add up to a much better manuscript.
Rule 4: You can add or subtract information, as long as it’s all accurate.
Every summer John and his sister Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
That’s fine because I know they are brother and sister. You’re allowed to include or remove that kind of information, but don’t change it. You can’t suddenly decide that Lilly is John’s mother. That’s not editing, that’s changing the story. It’s a valuable skill, but not the one we are practicing here. At the same time, your original sentence might be too wordy and contain unnecessary information.
John and Lilly spent their summer days up by the lake.
The crabapple detail might be unnecessary and distracting.
Rule 5: Don’t change tense. You wouldn’t change tense in the middle of a manuscript, so don’t do it here either.
Rule 6: It is fine to break the sentence into multiple sentences. Don’t feel artificially constrained to stick to one sentence just because that’s where you started.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake. They loved to pick crab apples from the tree and skip them across the water.
Rule 7: Every sentence needs to be usable. They need to be grammatical, but also stylistically viable. They don’t have to be beautiful, but the goal here is to improve your writing, not just finish the exercise. Any sentence that is so hideous that you’d scrap it the second you put a period on the other end doesn’t count.
Up by the lake it was crab apples that John, during summer days, picked and skipped across the water, along with Lilly who did it as well.
I feel dirty. That sentence is grammatical—or close enough for prose work—but it’s so ugly that I wouldn’t use it. So it doesn’t go in the 50. Whether a sentence feels “viable” is up to you. Don’t spend more than a second on it. If it doesn’t make you say “blech” when you read it, it’s probably fine. Even if it does you might want to just move on and perhaps add a few more after 50 just to be sure you’ve done the exercise.
Rule 8: Don’t go back to check your earlier entries as you write. That’ll just kill your momentum. It’s okay if you have a few repeats. Just keep writing.
That’s it! Give it a try, and let me know what you think.
Here is a link to my first go at this exercise. Read it if you want to see an example. Prepared to be insired…and also bored to tears. It’s 50 of the same sentence! What do you want from me?
It is a flavor that longs for a curious rebellion.
I read that sentence today about a vodka made from grapes. What a beautiful and nuanced sentence. The most intriguing poetry suggests thousands of tiny variations of meaning, all blending and splashing together, by virtue of being meaningless.
Some of the best sentences are the ones that make you pause and say, “Huh,” not because you immediately know what they mean, but because you don’t. They suggest meaning by their unusual construction. Or their ironic twist on conventional structure. Or merely by virtue of being both obtuse and beautiful. A beautiful sentence cannot be ignored and will therefore make you linger. The longer you linger on a supposed messenger of meaning like a sentence, the more you will search for that meaning.
Longs for a curious rebellion. It is intriguing because it feels like it makes sense for a split second, and then it ceases to allow full access to its meaning immediately afterwards. Not right away. Not without crawling deeper into the foxhole. A curious rebellion? Rebellion, as a word and a concept, can be and often is modified by many words. A violent rebellion, a just rebellion, a bloodless rebellion, a futile rebellion. Curious isn’t on the list of usual suspects.
Yet doesn’t take long to find the meaning. It is a vodka made from grapes. That is an unusual thing to do. Perhaps even a rebellious one. But it is not a rebellion in any traditional sense. Why rebel against grain vodka? This neutral distilled grape spirit would seem to have its reason, but we can only guess at what it is. It hides its motivations behind mystery and nuance.
Grapes cannot speak, save through their flavor. Clearly these grapes speak. They speak of longing. Of a desire to break from tradition for the pure aesthetic thrill of quiet, beautiful defiance. Like someone who attended a Mariner’s game dressed as Franz Kafka, and spent the whole game in a reserved and non-pushy attempt to read his latest work to the others near him in the stadium.
This sentence, short on length but long on depth, tells you nothing literal about the flavor. Yet in refusing to do so it tells you more than a sensory description ever could. Our language is tearfully inadequate at true, granular nuance. We speak in large clunky words that convey great gobs of meaning all at once. Speech is a jury rigged monstrosity that launches semantic water balloons and hopes their overlapping splash will coalesce into something that recognizably resembles the complex pictures we have in our heads. They rarely do.
Nowhere is this more true than in food descriptions. Listen to anyone try to describe what something tastes like to someone who hasn’t tasted it and you will know what I mean. Or read any food magazine. It’s like watching someone perform delicate surgery wearing welding gloves. People try to compare the unexplored flavors to others in combination, but it never works well. I had an inside joke with a friend about how Rachel Ray described every herb in her lexicon as tasting “woodsy and lemony.” She used this for both thyme and basil. Even if it was an apt description for both, thyme and basil taste nothing like each other. So the description is useless.
If you taste a dozen different vodkas you will have no difference telling that they all taste different. The differences are both subtle and obvious. But you won’t be able to describe them. Not in a meaningful way. The predominant taste in all of them is the same: they taste like vodka. The nuances can only be described subjectively, even though they aren’t really subjective. They might be subjective to the extent that a more delicate pallet will pick up volatile compounds others will miss. But that’s true of every single food ever. Fundamentally everyone has the same chemical experience. Nuances only matter in the culinary experiences where people pay attention to nuance. Like wind, or chocolate, or coffee. Or vodka.
The taste longs for a curious rebellion. It doesn’t tell you what it taste like. Nor, I suspect, does the fact that it was distilled from grapes. For all that the origin certainly informs the final product, vodka distilled from potatoes doesn’t taste like potatoes. It’s a neutral distilled spirit. It’s designed to remove the flavor of the original fermented ingredient. All that is left is alcohol, and water, and the trace volatiles that make one distinct from another.
The curious rebellion tells you nothing of the flavor, but it tells you something more important. What the flavor means. Why it matters. Wine connoisseurs have trouble telling the difference between a $10 bottle and a $40 dollar bottle when the labels are switched. It’s not because they are frauds. They can demonstrably and repeatably identify 10 or more wines when they know what their options are. Their palates are amazing. But their minds are more amazing. Of course they are. Most of palate is in the mind. They are changed by what they bring with them. Studies have shown that food with an elegant garnish tastes better than identical food without the garnish.
A curious rebellion is what the makers of the vodka were after. That was the dream, even if they never articulated it. They undoubtedly fermented distilled after batch, making tiny corrections, until they could taste the dream inside the liquor. Maybe it was then that the phrase arose. Sometimes we do not know what to call the path we are on until we reach the end.
Or maybe it was a poet who teased the words out of the vodka-mist air. Perhaps the distiller heard it and their eyes lit up and they said “yes! That’s it! That’s it exactly!” We can capture indescribable experiences with clunky and imprecise words. That’s why writing is infinite. That’s why poetry can put mountains into couplets and sunsets into lines.
The difference between two similar sentences may be tiny at first glance. They are both sentences. Nonetheless, one might be hideous, flat, and with a single perfunctory meaning. And the other might be a thing of beauty and depth that evokes tears and rage and contemplation. The difference might be slight, but the important ones often are.
Nuance is everything.
We have so very many notebooks.
Ratty spiral notebooks in primary colors with the springs distended, half of them with front covers torn or missing entirely. Marble composition books that would fit in a fourth grade classroom. Well-loved Moleskines full of fiction. A host of interesting, more distinctive books: the one with the large copper rings and the cork cover, the green rubber Celtic rune notebook, the notebook covered in luminescent dragon skin.
We had a shelf of them already. As I’ve been excavating our rooms and recovering our living space, the notebook supply has spilled into another shelf, and then still into another room. There are dozens of them. Over a hundred. Almost none of them full, and not a single one of them empty.
For all that I’ve used computers for most of my writing since I was a child, these notebooks contain my dreams. Thoughts and prose captured away from digital recordings. Or during times when I chose to write by hand to give my thoughts the liberating momentum that comes from being unable to edit. There is a purity here that I–who am disdainful of the whole concept of purity–am unable to deny.
Some of the books are crammed with notes from the elaborate year-long roleplaying campaign I ran, which I secretly believe is one of the greatest stories ever told. A lot of it was planned and I have many pages of documentation on various hard drives. But much of it was conceived in the creative heat of those desperate few hours of cram-preparation before each game session. It only exists in scribbled notes that barely make sense even if you can decipher the liberties I took with the physical shapes of the Latin alphabet.
There are my dream journals. Every few years I try this again. I might be about to do it soon. I keep making noises. Eventually I’ll listen. Dream journaling is a strange endeavor, but what always amazes me is that when I read the chronicle of an old dream I can feel it. Like I just woke up. Dreams from my first journal of 15 years ago are clearer to me now than the one I had yesterday morning. So much of it comes back. The images, the strange unconnected emotions, the sense of logical unreality that is fully tangible, utterly ephemeral, and entirely unique to each individual dream.
I don’t know what to do with all of these notebooks. Some of them have plenty of room to still be used. But I always feel strange writing in a book that has the tatters of an old story. It’s like if I was to wear a single sock for a few hours, take it off and toss it in the back of the closet, and then years later start a new outfit by digging out the sock and putting it right back on my foot. Also, I have a strange relationship with my socks.
Notebooks still feel like magic to me. Even though it’s hard to remember when they really were magic. A place where anything was possible. A place where the past and the baggage of old scribbles and old ideas didn’t matter. Nowhere was it more true than on the New List.
J.K. Rowling understands. It was one of the most delightful moments in my first reading of the first Harry Potter book, which I have read many, many times since then. When Harry gets the list of school supplies he will need to attend Hogwarts. We see the list. Exactly as Harry sees it. It’s right there, in black and white, on the page. It isn’t tossed off and forgotten. It is spelled out.
It’s a moment where everything is real. Tangible. Defined. Harry hears that he is a wizard, that he is about to enter a world of magic and has an enemy and a destiny. It’s all so impossible. So abstract. Then he opens that letter, reads about the school, and sees that page of school supplies. It lists books. It lists the color and type of clothing he needs, and in what quantities. It lists parchment. It lists ink. This is a real place he’s going. Just like the other places he knows, only a little different.
It happened every year. My mom and I would sit down and look at the list of new equipment. It was always beautifully precise. 4 black marble composition books, medium rule. 12 number 2 pencils. 3 packs black erasable pens. I remember in 4th grade the rule size on the composition books changed. We were going to have to write more to fill the same number of pages. I remember going into 5th grade, and for math we would need a protractor and a compass. I didn’t know what either of them were until then.
It meant that everything was different. But not just for its own sake. It had rules. It had rituals. It had its own set of magical tools required for the exact tasks my new classmates and I were about to undertake.
The implements displayed the potential. The pens and rulers and specifically colored markets. I would lay them all out on the dining room table and look at them. Were the pencil’s sharp enough? Did I have enough folders? They were the tools of the trade.
But the notebooks had the power. They were the ritual space. They were where everything would happen. At the moment it was all potential. That’s where it would all become real. Whatever they taught me. Whatever I wished.
Notebooks are never going to be that magical to me again. I know that, and I accept it. So much of the transition to adulthood is a slow diminishing of the magic, as you fill in the corners of the map and leave less and less room for the dragons. None of what you put into a notebook can ever equal the endless wonder whispered by the unspoiled page.
We have so very many notebooks. There is a lot written on them. A chronicle in fragments of decades of my life and imaginings. But there are more empty pages than filled ones. I may no longer believe that my 4th grade teacher is going to show me the secret of the universe. But it’s out there, somewhere. Maybe it’s swimming beneath the surface of one of those blank pages. Maybe it’s just waiting for the moment ink touches paper, and I at last, after thousands of years of human thought and a single lifetime of my own searching, write it down.
I got my first freelancing rejection today. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. Because it’s real.
In a sense I’ve just started freelancing. I’ve been “working on it” for over a year. Most of that time was spent reading and learning and not doing anything. For awhile that was great. When you know next to nothing about a subject you can expand your knowledge at an amazing rate. The first few days it grew exponentially. It’s intimidating and inspiring. You dive in and learn how much you don’t even know about the vast amounts you don’t even know. The more open your mind, the more intimidating and inspiring it is. Those first few days I flashed from moment to moment between “what am I getting myself into” and “I can do this!” and “wow, this is complicated.”
The rush doesn’t last. It doesn’t take long before you can’t ignore the fact that learning isn’t enough. You have to do something. This terrified me. I was scared about showing anything I wrote to anyone. No, scared doesn’t get anywhere near it. I was mortally paralyzed. How could I go from that to writing professionally? The gap seemed impossible to cross.
Because it was. If you are scared of climbing a ladder you can’t learn to climb a mountain. That is an impossible goal if your fear of the ladder is absolute. If you think about the mountain you’ll just curl into a ball so tightly it will crush your bones. Instead you need to think about the ladder.
So I started a blog. It was very, very difficult psychologically. But of course I had nothing really to worry about. The fear was exactly as artificial as it was real. Within a month of starting a blog it was hilarious that it ever frightened me. I started a blog to make writing a habit and to get used to communicating with others.
It took a long time to move to the next step. Of course it did. Sure, I could write for myself. But that didn’t matter. Writing for other people was still impossible. I couldn’t do that! It was mortally paralyzing.
But I did it. After months of planning and strategizing and learning, all in circles, I started to write for content mills. Most of the professional advice says “don’t do that!” But they are speaking to your career. They are speaking to people who can make themselves write. Who aren’t paralyzed. They are providing career advice, when what I needed was immersion therapy. The content mills provided that therapy. It was a low stress way to do something enormously stressful.
My writing for the mills was successful. I would say phenomenally successful. It was a low bar, and my performance was far above it. Everyone loved what I wrote for them, it was always accepted, and it got huge compliments.
Then I stopped. I stopped because I fell into a funk. I stopped because this kind of writing was too easy. I was good enough to move past it, just like the pros told me I would be. That was encouraging, but I was wasting my time here. It isn’t lucrative, but more to the point it was so easy it wasn’t real. I was on top of the hill, but the mountain loomed. I felt no closer to climbing it than I had months before when I was staring at a ladder. It was time to take the next step.
But the next step was terrifying. Paralyzing. I had to cold call? I had to do blind pitches to business and big time blogs? They were going to laugh at me. I didn’t know how to do that kind of writing! Of course, no one does. Everyone starts somewhere.
I spent a few months not doing much of anything.
But now I’ve started. Finally, as of last week, I’ve started. I didn’t go back to the mills. I took a few steps up the mountain. I started to pitch to nonprofits to get samples. I reached out to friends. I pitched a guest post to a contest on a major writing blog. I wrote letters of introduction to trade magazines. I did more in a week than I had in the last year.
The friends I reached out to were excited to work with me. Why was I so scared to do that? The pitch to the blog contest—which I almost deleted because I saw some counterexamples to my idea in a book on blogging—won third place. Why did I ever hesitate? I haven’t heard back from the non-profits yet. I need to do more of that, but they can be slow. I’m not worried, because I’m actually doing it. If none of them reply I haven’t lost anything. I know that most of my pitches and queries won’t go anywhere. That’s the game.
But one of the trade magazines replied. They rejected me. It wasn’t personal. The editor with the scary picture on their website replied and told me politely that they don’t use freelancers. She told me to try some of the sister magazines within their company.
I’m overjoyed. Yes, I had an emotional sting from the rejection. Of course I did. Rejection is painful, and I’m not used to it. But mostly I’m very happy. This was my first professional failure. The important word there is professional. She told me they don’t use freelancers. She didn’t say “little boy, who are you fooling?” She didn’t say “that was a really bad LOI; have you considered remedial writing lessons?” Of course she didn’t.
That would have been ridiculous.
Every step makes it a little more real. That is the key. All of my fear comes from a very specific belief. I don’t I realized that until recently. The belief is this:
Becoming a professional writer is a fantasy. Like becoming a superhero. It’s not a real thing that people do. It’s certainly not a thing that I could ever do. I can’t climb mountains! Those things are huge! There’s no oxygen at the top and they’re covered in snow!
What do you mean hundreds of people climb Mount Everest every year? What do you mean some of them are elderly, and some of them are missing a leg? What do you mean lots of people make a living as freelance writers?
Of course I can do this. I’m smart, dedicated, and a damn good writer. I just got my first professional rejection. It’s not going to be effortless. Good! Nothing real is effortless. Not even breathing. And you know what? It isn’t effortless for Spider-man, either.
That’s how you know it’s real.
Many strange things happen when you make the transition from someone who thinks about writing a lot to someone who actually writes. One of the strangest is that, at first, you may find that you don’t have much to write about.
One of the hardest challenges in writing is getting the engine to start. Once the words are flowing it’s easier to take that momentum and focus it into something worthwhile. But what do you if you sit down to write and it seems like your fingers stick to the keys? When I first started writing every day that problem smacked me in the face.
This was weird and surprising to me, because I never shut up. I’ve noticed that one the things I bring to a social gathering is that when I am in the room there are very few awkward pauses. The awkward pauses are replaced by equally awkward blatherings from me. But at least there’s momentum!
But when I would sit in front of the keyboard intending to write something–anything, as long as I was writing–I often found I had nothing to say. Me, of all people! Why should this be? Did my brain only generate material when my vocal chords were flapping? Can I only perform for an audience? Do I actually have nothing to say and just love the sound of my own voice, as so many have accused me of doing in the past?
I’ve been writing nearly every day for over a year now, and I’ve gotten much, much better at this. I’m not saying I never have that problem, or that my 250,000 word writing journal doesn’t have a lot of repetition. But mostly I’ve licked it, and I think I understand what changed. There are two factors, and they can both help overcome the horrors of Blank Page Syndrome.
The first is seeds. When talking to other people there is always a conversation seed. Someone said something. The more people in a group, the more likely it is that there is something worth talking about. It’s even more true if you know the people you are with. I find that there is always something I wanted to say to someone in the group but haven’t gotten the chance.
In writing, it really helps to have something to write about, even if it doesn’t matter or isn’t interesting. The blank page has the same effect as a doorway, which psychological studies have demonstrated actually do make you more likely to forget why you entered the room in the first place. Likewise, the blank page can suck away your motivation and momentum like a sponge. A sponge that is also a doorway.
Take a few minutes and come up with a list of interesting writing topics. Not too interesting. Just something you think you can blab on about for a few minutes. Make a file. Then, when you can’t get started, pick something in the file and just get going. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you’ve written about a million times before. The goal here is to get warmed up, which makes it much, much easier to work on something you actually care about.
The second factor is practice. I know, I know, people always say that about everything, but it’s true. You know that feeling where you sit down to write and everything in your brain screams at you that you are wasting your time and you can’t do this and it’s too weird and maybe you should go play video games and come back and try this writing thing tomorrow?
Not every new writer experiences this, but many of us do. And it turns out that feeling goes away. It dies. You’ll barely notice when this happens unless you are really looking for it. But one day, or one week, writing will transform from something that feels kind of unnatural into the most natural thing in the world. A basic and fundamental part of your life and daily routine.
Because it has become a basic part of your life and daily routine. The same way a new route to work feels weird and wrong at first, but eventually do you it without much thought. Writing is the same way, only much, much better. And it is accomplished in the same way as well: just keep bloody doing it.
You ever notice how there are so many cop shows following homicide detectives on TV? Or murder mysteries lining bookstore shelves? You might love stories about murder, or you might find them repetitive and boring. But hidden in their popularity are some very useful lessons about writing.
To demonstrate, here’s an experiment you can perform on your friends or coworkers. Before I get into the details, let me give you a little warning:
DO NOT DO THIS EXPERIMENT.
It is a terrible idea! It will lead to horrific things!
Okay, here’s how to do the experiment. First, find someone in your life who finds murder stories of any kind boring or oversaturated. Cop shows, murder mysteries, slasher films, it doesn’t matter. Bonus if the person used to like them but has gotten burnt out or desensitized.
Then threaten to kill them. Really threaten. Don’t just say “I’m going to kill you!” with a little laugh over your morning bagels. You’ve got to sell it. Show up in their house at night in a mask and a butcher’s knife. Hell, make it a hockey mask. The fun part of this experiment is that you can throw in all the cliches you want and it’ll still work.
If you don’t want to get arrested, you could instead anonymously send them a picture of their kids with red Xs drawn over their eyes in blood. Bonus it matches their children’s blood types. You may be able to find this information through company records. Just save Doris over in HR the last Boston Creme donuts. Or whatever she likes. Be creative!
Keep this up for a few days. Long enough that the co worker will have trouble passing it off as a joke. Long enough to really get under their skin. Then, when they are at their most stressed, tense, and frightened, go up to them and ask, “So, are you bored?”
Three guesses what their answer will be.
So, what can we learn from this little experiment that YOU WILL UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES UNDERTAKE, AND IF YOU DO IT ISN’T MY FAULT?
You can be confident that your little stunt not only caught your victim…uh, subject’s attention, it also shoved everything else out of their mind. The imminent threat of murder moved to the very top of their priority pile. Even if they had a big promotion coming up. Even if they were under a lot of stress from an impending divorce, or about to land a big deal that could let them afford that vacation home in Majorca they always wanted.
People aren’t bored of things that feel real to them. But some things feel a lot more real than others. This is an extreme example, but it hides some truths that have meaning when it comes to fiction. You can write a great story about someone getting a promotion or landing a big deal. But you have to work a lot harder to make it feel real.
Make someone feel threatened by your antagonist and you’ve got them. Make them feel like this person is so dangerous it trips their brain’s ability to tell the difference between reality and fiction, like when you are sure there is something in the darkness waiting for you. Or you are terrified when your children are 20 minutes late getting home because it’s dark, and anything could be out there.
Murder is easy. Sure, it’s fun watching competent detectives and brilliant super-sleuths outwit savvy criminals. But that’s not the real reason 20 new cop shows hit the network line-up every fall. Murder, done right, sucks people right in because it is visceral. It is primal. It is easy to make it feel so real it is undeniable.
You don’t have to write about murder. But the lessons of murder reach past the edge of the knife. Make your tension threatening and your antagonists terrifying—even if the threat they represent is non-murderous in nature—and you’re already halfway to Majorca.
The Ringmaster and the Weary Clown
A Writing Fable
The ringmaster leaps out into the center of the circus tent and throws his arms out as he beams up at the audience. He is dressed head-to-toe in an outfit of fire-engine red and gleaming gold scrollwork. His tophat is so tall its a wonder how he holds his head up.
“Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages!” he belts out. “Have we got an act for you! A performer renowned the world over for his ability to captivate audiences and leave them spellbound! Prepare for a performance the likes of which you have never seen before! I present to you, the Amazing Magnifico!”
Out from the edge of the performance area walks a clown. If he can be called a clown. He wears a dark grey business suit which wouldn’t look out of place on bank manager, save for a patches of washed out pastel cloth sewn randomly across its surface. Their shabbiness stands in stark contrast to the otherwise crisp suit.
On his head sits a blue wig that looks less like clown hair and more like the grey-dyed-blue you sometimes see in old ladies trying to unsuccessfully hide the yellowing of their aging hair. His clown-face makeup barely deserves the name. White foundation, black circles barely bigger than his eyes, brick-red lipstick that doesn’t even double the size of his lips. It curves out into the barest hint of a smile. As if he didn’t know what a smile was supposed to look like
He walks out to the center of the tent, struggling to drag a large trunk. It takes him over a minute to get to the middle. Long enough for the audience to begin to shift in their seats and mutter to each other. Once there, the clown unfolds the trunk into a table. He carefully hangs a banner in along the front of the table that states, in brightly colored but faded print, The Amazing Magnifico.
The clown reaches under the table and begins to pull out fifteen or so wine glasses. He juggles them in groups of four or five in a half-hearted way before placing them on the table. He pulls out a pitcher and pours various colored liquids into the glasses. Then he begins to rub his finger along the glasses’ rims. It plays a discordant and somewhat unpleasant tune. It goes on for several minutes. He stops for almost 20 seconds. The audience believes he is finished. Then he stares fixedly at the glasses, adjusts the liquid levels, and resumes playing.
In the audience, children tug on their parents pant legs and ask when the elephants are going to come out. A number of people walk out of the tent. Some of them are going to the bathroom, hoping that when they get back this supposed clown will be gone. Some of them aren’t coming back.
When the song, if you can call it that, is finished, the Amazing Magnifico picks up each glass and drains the liquid from it into his mouth. He makes a disgusted face as he does so. Then he packs up his glasses, sighs, and drags his heavy trunk off of the stage. There is a bit of scattered applause.
“Now, straight from the circus,” he says in a neutral voice, “the Amazing Magnifico.”
A scraping sound echoes from the side of the stage. A man walks out, dragging a huge black trunk. His heavily made-up face is mask of frustration and resignation. The trunk is too big for him. He doesn’t want to be here, but what choice does he have? Over a long, agonized minute he drags the trunk to the center of the stage. He stands up straight, and for the first time the audience gets a good look at his outfit.
Is it a business suit, or a clown suit? The outfit doesn’t seem to know, and so neither does the clown. He just dressed up for work. He wore what he was supposed to wear, even if it didn’t make any sense. His makeup is applied carefully. The circles around his eyes are perfect. The white foundation covers everything, and it evens his skin tone into flawlessness. It is impossible to see the real color of his skin. Underneath the layers of paint, he could be anyone. Or no one. The lipstick suggests the smallest of smiles. A smile that is always there. Put there deliberately. It isn’t real, it isn’t warm, and it doesn’t reach his eyes. But at least he’s smiling.
The clown…or businessman? opens up his trunk into a table. He hangs a banner along the front that says The Amazing Magnifico in faded color. It is obvious how bright and flashy the banner used to be, and it is obvious how much they have faded. The person who made this banner wanted to make an impression. The person who made this banner cared. That was a long time ago.
Magnifico pulls what look like fine crystal glasses from the trunk and begins to juggle them. His technique is amazing. This is a master of the craft of juggling. At the same time, there is as much weariness as grace in the performance. And not a single gram of passion. His face is neutral, and he doesn’t appear to be paying any attention to what he is doing. He isn’t watching the glasses or looking at the audience. He’s staring off. His mind is somewhere else. Thinking about his mortgage, maybe. Or his impending divorce. A good performer is supposed to make you forget about the world. But how can he, when he can’t forget?
He places the glasses down on the table. He pulls out more and juggles them, too, before putting them down. He pulls out a pitcher and pours colored liquid into the glasses. Different colors come out of the same pitcher. A magic trick. With just a hint of showmanship it could be dazzling. It is barely noticeable.
He is very careful with the liquid levels. For the first time he seems to care about what he is doing. He places his fingers on the top of two glasses and begins to play.
It isn’t beautiful music. It is discordant and unpleasant. It is what nails on a chalkboard would sound like, if they were lovingly and meticulously calibrated into an instrument. It isn’t beautiful music. But it is beautiful.
It is a symphony of sadness and meaningless perfection. Right next to the cringe-worthy dissonance is a flawless expression of both expertise and helplessness. This is a man who has studied music. This is a man who has practiced a craft no one else in the world could ever care about until he was its one and only master. Every sound is deliberate. Everything that explains the patched clothing and the badly-dyed hair and the faded banner is expressed, to those in the audience with the ear and the temperament to hear them It isn’t all of them. But it’s enough.
Several minutes later he stops. He stares down at his instruments. He adjusts the water level. He moves them around. Apparently they weren’t right. They weren’t perfect. He begins again. When he finishes he looks up at the audience. They stare back at him in silence. He picks up one of the glasses and throws it back. Like a shot of cheap whiskey. He grimaces at the taste. He stares down at the rest of the glasses. He picks the next one and throws it back. Then the next. His face says he is disgusted by what he is doing. Disgusted at himself. But what else can he do? He drinks down the bitter, candy-colored brew, one by one, until they are gone.
There is a critic in the audience. He isn’t moved to tears. Of course he isn’t. He’s been in the game for a long, long time. His review of the even comes out two weeks later. He talks about the poet, and the singer, and the other artist who performed that night. But mostly he speaks about the Amazing Magnifico. That’s the performance, he says, that stayed with him.A performance the likes of which he has never seen before. He writes how the audience was captivated.
Baking bread is one of the most difficult forms of cooking. A baguette might have a few as four ingredients: flower, water, salt, and yeast. It is utterly simple, but a fantastic baguette is one of the most sublime of all culinary experiences. Yet the difference between a great baguette and a passable one is very subtle.
Put an amateur baker next to a master and ask them both to make you a baguette. Give them the same ingredients, the same professional equpment, and the same amount of time. Watch them work. If you don’t have much experience with baking you might not be able to see the differences in their approach and technique. The master will look more relaxed and controlled, of course, but relaxation is not the difference.
You might not be able to identify what the two of them do differently. But be sure that you’ll be able to taste it. The master’s bread with have better texture, better flavor. The crust will be snappier, and the inside will be fluffier and more elegantly yield to the pressure of your teeth as you chew. The tang of lactic acid and alcohol from the fermentation will be beautifully balanced, and it will have little to no starchy or grassy, underdeveloped taste.
The amateur will have no idea what they did wrong. If they watch the master closely they will definitely learn something. But they won’t be able to reproduce the master’s creation. Not right away. Not without hundreds or thousands of hours of practice.
Next, have both of these bakers make a pizza. Give them the same San Marazano tomatoes with which to make a sauce, the same dry-cured linguica, roasted garlic, and heirloom red sweet peppers. All they have to do is make the crust, assemble their pizzas, then bake them in the same wood burning clay pizza oven. How different do you think the two pizzas will be?
The master’s crust will be better, of course. That probably means their pizza will be better. Crust is, after all, very important. But the difference will be nowhere near as dramatic as the baguette, even though pizza crust and baguettes are very similar forms of bread. There is also every chance that the amateur baker makes even better tomato sauce than the master. After all, this is a master baker we are talking about. Not a master tomato sauce maker. The thousands of hours spend learning to knead and proof bread don’t necessarily translate to blending the flavors of tomato, onion, and basil into a perfectly seasoned and integrated sauce. And we all know there is more to great pizza than just the crust.
Elegant and beautiful prose is one of the hardest forms of writing. You might not be able to write as well as James Joyce, Toni Morrison, or David Foster Wallace. You might never be able to write as well as they do. Not everyone can become a master baker, no matter how much kneading they do. But a story is more than just prose. It has characters, and conceptual framework, and dialogue.
Not all of us can make amazing baguettes. The simpler something is, the more subtle and transcendent the skill-set needed to make it truly magnificent. But every writer can learn to make great pizza. Work on your tomato sauce. Or your garlic roasting ability. Or figure out a combination of ingredients no one has ever tried before.
All that matters is that it’s delicious.