Every month, patrons of my Patreon account who pledge $3 or more have the opportunity to choose the topic of a 5 for Friday post. This month, thanks to the generosity of patrons Narrelle M Harris and Andrew McKiernan, I’m looking at five myths about the writing process that make my teeth itch.
We all know the myths the general community believe about writers and writing: anyone can do it; we must all be rich from those sweet, sweet publishing dollars; yet somehow we’re all willing to do anything for free because exposure…… Sure, it’s risible, but at least the general community has the excuse of ignorance. We actually do the business, and yet, somehow, we manage to perpetuate just as many harmful myths about the process amongst ourselves.
Perhaps it’s because, deep down, we know that the only true secret to writing is to sit our arse on the chair and keep doing it until we get better. And because it really is just that simple, we have to build up an air of mystique to prove to ourselves that we’re really magical, mysterious artistes. Here are five lines of bullshit you hear authors spinning to each other while we all nod sagely as if we believe it, even though we damn well know better.
5 FOR FRIDAY: HONEST, WE’RE SPECIAL.
1. Write every day
This is the biggie, and the most obviously toxic myth we tell ourselves, usually bellowed out by self-fancied keyboard ninjas who demand you put writing before such piffling things as career, family, and lovers otherwise you ain’t no real writer, boy!
The truth is, that for 99.99% of us, writing is something we fit in around the margins of our real lives. It can be a passion. It can be your greatest passion. But if I’m faced with the choice between earning enough to eat and sleep in an actual building and getting down 2000 words on my alternative universe Cat Warrior Romance epic poem, the day job has to win.
Apparently, in some Universes, you can play sport on a Sunday and only train once or twice a week; or get a degree that lets you teach children whilst studying part-time; but somehow you have to spend time every single day writing? Bullshit.
The key is, of course, to write when you can. If that’s every day, then bully for you, slainte, and may your God go with you. But if you can’t– if you have actual real life stuff like children and money worries and bad health and broken wrists– there’s no reason to listen to the muscle-pumping fistbros of authordom and feel bad because it’s been a week and you haven’t written a word.
Write what you can, when you can. All motion forward is to be treasured.
2. Set targets
Why? For whom? Unless you’re under contract, you’re not writing for anybody but yourself and a perceived audience, and until that audience is actual, you’re only writing to have written words. (Even once they’re actual, you don’t owe them anything– you’ve already given them your work– but that’s another tirade for another day).
Graham Green wrote 500 words a day. Ray Bradbury wrote 2000. A colleague of mine, with well over 150 short stories and half a dozen novels, aims for 100 words a day. I’ve managed 3 novels and 80+ shorts without ever adhering to a word target. Which one of us right?
Much like point one above, setting arbitrary targets, goals and deadlines make no allowance for the very real circumstances of your very real life. If you’re only writing to advance your own words, why set yourself an arbitrary unit of measurement that will serve to make you feel bad if you ‘fail’ to meet it? A failure, I should add, that nobody but you decided upon in the first place.
What you can, when you can. Until you’re under contract, you don’t owe anybody except yourself anything.
3. Plot or pants?
You see this one thrown out by writing organisations, magazines, and fellow writers all the time. Hell, I’m guilty: I’ve written articles on this exact topic. Which one are you? Do you obsessively plan every detail down to the colour inside each characters’ pores? You plotter, you. Do you hang in the breeze, following your characters and plot as they meander over the horizon and drown in a river none of you knew was there? Pantser, pantser, something or other on fire.
As if art is ever about simple dichotomies. As if human behaviour is.
The truth is, arts practice is a spectrum, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle, as we do with most things in our life. Most of the authors I know– myself included– actually conform to some variation on “I know the major plot points, as well as where the story begins and where I hope it’ll end, and the bits in between I leave to chance and the story-telling momentum to weed out the mis-steps.” And yet, there we are, trotting out the same old either/or parlour game as if we’d cop to one or the other if we were tied to a chair and had a lamp shoved in our face. It’s nonsense.
What’s more accurate to gauge, for your own working satisfaction, is how much of your completed story you get down in a tight first draft, versus how much you bring together as part of the editing process. Because that actually matters to the final product, and knowing where you generally operate on that spectrum will set your mind at ease when you’re working.
4. Live in the world of your creation
Jesus, no! Have you read most of my stuff?
This advice is meant to impress upon you the need to maintain the verisimilitude of your story by constantly being aware of your narrative. By doing so, the lost time spent while trying to get yourself back up to speed at the start of every writing session is minimised. But it’s too often taken to mean– by those dispensing as well as those receiving the advice– that you have to wander around all day, stepping into oncoming traffic because you’re too immersed in thinking about the magical faraway land of your imagination.
You do need to know where your characters stand, and where the narrative is heading. You don’t need to bathe in the world so that your pores ooze the land of your writing. This is a first draft, and subsequent drafts will flesh out that world. It’s enough to reread a page or two before you start, just to reacquaint yourself with the work. Or incorporate your thoughts into your daily routine– currently, my days often start with 45 minutes ploughing lengths at the local swimming pool, which is a perfect way to nut out what’s about to happen without compromising my ability to live an actual human life. Don’t spend your whole time there.
Balance your day. There’s nothing more boring, or more dangerous to local traffic, than someone who only relates to their hidden world.
5. Nobody will read your book unless you’re an internet genius
It’s the cry of the self-publishing crowd and the wannabe marketing geniuses: if you’re not across seven or eight hundred different internet platforms every day, throwing a million tweets in the direction of your slavish followers and snapgramming like a demented thumb-twiddling monster, then you’re missing out on all that sweet potential audience who just didn’t know what a genius they were missing out on, man!
Let’s be honest. The self-pub crowd have to engage in this desperate audience grab, because they don’t have any efficient marketing team working for them. That’s why the rest of us go with traditional publishing: to get the support necessary, so that we can spend the best part of our time, well, writing.
Well, that and have you seen half of those self-pubbed covers? Yeesh.
And yes, clearly the internet is a thing, and a big thing at that, and clearly it’s an important part of establishing yourself as a brand in a crowded marketplace. And you are a brand, and any commercial artist is part creator, part product, because we’ve all done Self-Employment 101. So we don’t need to trumpet this revelation like it’s the missing link between my grandkids liked it and I’ll have two Ferraris and the yacht, please.
But it’s not the mad marketing that creates readers. It’s the engagement. Hey, you’re here, aren’t you, so you know at least how part of this works. I have this blog, and a Facebook page, and Instagram, and I’ve been tapping away since 2003, so you’ve got 15 years of material to engage with without having to jump from platform to platform like some demented Donkey Kong clone (I’m old, that’s my frame of reference, leave me be and get off my lawn.)
Pick a platform. Pick a solid one that’s been around a while– well done to you, FourSquare and MySpace guys– and stick with it. If you’re a writer, write and then talk about it. Readers who like your work will seek you out. You just need to be waiting, and to have some value-added entertainment that will keep them around. Like, say, maybe, some cheesy regular column with a title that reminds them of what day it is……
If you’d rather shout your marketing spiel over and over, all the time, well… maybe self-publishing is more your speed.
No rant without pant… no, wait, that’s not right. No baitreon without Patre… this isn’t working. Look: 5 for Friday posts are brought to you by the letters F and Q, and the patrons of my Patreon site, whose generous pledges are rewarded with any number of sweet, sweet writing goodies. Check it out, and consider becoming part of the rich literary tradition of people who give me a couple of bucks a month and get cool things in return.