Monday, September 11, 2017

Not Another List Article: How To Fail As A Writer (Rebutted)

<Photo & Artwork: The Reckoner>

First off, the usual full disclosure: as I've said before, I think, I enjoyed The Book Of Lists and The People's Almanac...first, as a pre-teen, and then, as a high school student, curious about the world around me. In lesser hands, though, the concept underwhelms, which is how I feel about endeavors like one that caught my eye on recently: “How To Fail As A Writer.” 

So, in the spirit of providing counter-information, our rebuttals follow below, one mind-numbing trope at a time:

1. Don’t worry too much about your opening line. Readers will soon be past it and into the good stuff.

Fair enough, but maybe the author prefers to ease us into the story. Consider Maj  Sjowall's and Per Wahloo's seventh entry in the Martin Beck mystery series, The Abominable Man (1971). The first chapter simply describes the killer's late night drive through Stockholm, to reach his target – whom he slaughters at the hospital, with a bayonet, in the next chapter. In just eight pages, we've gone from mundane to terrifying. This approach works well, in the right hands. 

2. Don’t be concerned that your ending goes off with a fizzle. The rest of the book was worth the price of admission.

Same response as #1. Sure, sizzle trumps fizzle, but one person's “fizzle” is another person's subtle coda. For further reference, see how The Abominable Man ends:

"Bohlin too climbed up on the roof and looked around.

"'For Christ's sake, why didn't you shoot?' he said. 'I don't get it --'"

"'No one expects you to,' Gunvald Larrson interrupted him. 'By the way, have you got a license for that pistol?'

"Bohlin shook his head.

"'In that case you're probably in trouble,' said Gunvald Larrson. 'Now, come on, let's carry him down.'"

3. Don’t worry about typos and grammatical errors. Trivial details won’t bother veteran readers.

Again, depends on a) your audience, b) intent, and c) underlying rationale. Sniffin' Glue, which launched the whole punk fanzine movement, is riddled with errors, large and small...but we're still reading it and talking about it today. If you're not doing Sniffin' Glue, then, yeah, get a proofreader.

4. Go with your first complete draft as your final draft. Your gut instincts were correct the first time around, you’ll just dilute them when you edit.

Didn't hurt Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac, right? Whose ghosts would you hang out with in that After Life Waiting Room – the above gents, or the editor of Lawnmower Quarterly, who's sweating over every comma till his hands bleed? 'Nuff said!

5. Only write when the urge hits you. If you need discipline to write, it’s not really writing.

Many big name authors, like Stephen King, make a point of writing so-and-so many words a day, regardless, because it's a discipline, some sort of a job, blah-blah-blah...doesn't work for me at all. I'm not the type who waits all day for inspiration, but let's face it – I got into writing, and other creative activities, in hopes of escaping the nine-to-five (plus) job. The day I approach it that way is the day I think about doing something else.

6. Do not exercise, enjoy hobbies, or have any kind of life . Any minute spent not writing is time down the drain.

Some people thrive on battering till the job gets done. If that means locking themselves away from friends, TV or Internet, why should we care, if the results kick ass? Leave 'em alone, and leave 'em to it!

7. Sleep as little as possible. Sleep deprivation will unlock your inner writing god.

Maybe, maybe not. No two writers' circadian rhythms run alike. For reference, I only need to look at my household. I'm a dedicated night owl, who's lived much of his life between “midnight to six,” as the Pretty Things say. By contrast, Squawker is more of a day person, and would probably wilt trying to keep my hours. In other words: to each his own.

<Failure is not an option.>

8. Quit your day job immediately. Work gets in the way of your writing.

I can only speak for myself here. When you're doing that 40-hour drill, as I once did, time is the rarest element on your personal periodic table. Not surprisingly, you often feel squeezed, even resentful, of having to divide your creative energies with The Man's demands and expectations. On the plus side, you're less likely to waste time, because every minute counts (literally).

Now, after a decade of self-employment, the creative ball game has changed. I feel more relaxed, after doing my “rent money party” stuff – those un-sexy, greenback-generating activities that you need to pay the freight – I have more freedom to pursue creative activities that often got diverted, postponed, or sidetracked, depending on whatever juggling I was doing that week between my day job, household demands, and personal life.

So it's not a case of, "Is one schedule better than another?" A better question might be, "Here's Door Number 1. Here's Door Number 2. Both carry big tradeoffs. Which ones can you live with, depending on which door swings open?"

9. Be as original as possible, forget conforming to any genre expectations.

Should every writer resign themselves to cranking out genre fodder? Some of the biggest splashes – books, film, or TV, take your pick – have come from defying the expectations that straitjacket the best-laid genre fiction. Imagine a tone-deaf executive's reaction to Vince Gilligan's famed pitch for “Breaking Bad”: “You're gonna turn a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher into 'Mr.Chips'? Are you kidding me? The teacher's unions will crucify us!” Thankfully, it didn't happen that way.

10. Ignore the belief that publishable books have structure or that you need one.

Didn't stop anyone from reading Naked Lunch, or On The Road, right? To name only two famous works that break this rule.

11. Leave details as ambiguous as you can. Let your readers rely on their mind-reading abilities to intuit what you really meant .

Ambiguity is a powerful tool, actually. Haiku is rife with it. Russian literature couldn't exist without it. Scandinavian crime fiction extensively integrates it into the plotlines (such as in our above example, The Abominable Man, whose victim turns out to have been one brutal SOB in uniform, once Beck and his colleagues dig deeper). A pox on such commandments!

12. Make sure your readers cannot easily form mental images from your story.

Overdosing on imagery and exposition is equally bad. I remember a high school teacher saying how much he loved James Michener, with one caveat – at times, he found himself wishing for a bit less detail: “I love him, but sometimes, I find myself asking, 'When he's gonna get done?'”

13. Don’t worry about logical inconsistencies, keep your readers on their toes!

Like so many aspects of writing, inconsistency depends on who defines it – but it's not necessarily a show stopper, as any child of the '60s and '70s can tell you, particularly when you consider how network TV worked then. 

Consider “Batman”'s infamous third (and final) season. It's a season where the Penguin doesn't seem to recognize Alfred, the loyal butler, despite their many previous run-ins; Batman seems unable to suss out Batgirl's secret identity, even after spending time with her under their respective civilian alter egos (Bruce Wayne, Barbara Gordon); and strange, second-tier villains like the hyper-feminist menace, Nora Clavicle, flout their own conventions by dressing in slinky, sexy outfits (that men, presumably, might find appealing -- instead of the Margaret Thatcher prison matron's garb you'd expect her to wear, right?).

In short, the scriptwriters tossed consistency out the window totally, after a stellar first season, and a reasonably solid second one (despite a handful of clunkers). Even so, for all the above howlers, they're part of our pop cultural memory bank, and they've never stopped airing (consistent or not).

14. Do not waste time learning the craft of writing. Focus on producing lots of words – that’s what writing is all about.

Of course, it's worth remembering that, once upon a time, producing lots of words is exactly what writers did, because that's how they got paid. Pulp-era titans like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey earned, on average, five to 10 cents a word, or $3,000-4,000 per novel produced. Even so, disparities persisted, as Burroughs famously groused about his rival: "Zane Grey, the only writer who probably tops my sales, owns yachts and beautiful summer homes ... he cruises all over the world, while I sit here with my nose to the grindstone."

The point is that, in this scenario, craft took second priority to simpler considerations (like selling) -- although Burroughs tried, in vain, to crack the slick magazines, without success. He saw himself as a populist entertainer and storyteller first, as he explained his decision to start writing at 35, after many failed business ventures ("I made up my mind that if people were paid for writing such rot as I read, I could write stories just as rotten").

Those issues are no less apparent today. How artful does a Harlequin romance novelist really need to be, for example, given the formula they're expected to follow? Which isn't to suggest you should give up, or give in, because writing is a craft. Just realize, that in certain situations, you may have to make some allowances. 

<Failure is not an option.>

15. Don’t read, not even the great authors. And especially never read other authors in your genre . Their writing might rub off on you and make yours less original.

Here's the flipside of that argument. I've seen many aspiring writers soak up favored influences, to their detriment. How else to explain the countless Charles Bukowski wannabes that I endured at college literary readings, as they tripped over one another in recreating his style, while exploring the seamier side of East Lansing's happy hour bars, sweater-clad armies of preps, and split-level aluminum siding. None of them, of course, had ever experienced a county hospital ward, a drunk tank or racetrack. Net result? I stopped reading Bukowski for quite awhile. 

16. Do not research your topic. Your intuition is more compelling than facts.

If you're writing a historical period piece, that's one thing. If you're interweaving bits of life experience with anecdotes, journal entries, and news articles – that's a different kettle of piranha, as they say in England. A story or a novel is more than just an array of facts, no matter how artfully arranged.

17. Do not ever read for other writers. Critiquing will just cloud your mind and take your focus off your own work.

Skip to Statements #22 and #23.

18. If an editor critiques your writing, stick to your guns that it’s his fault he didn’t understand “what you really meant.”

Most editors' suggestions, in my experience, will raise your game. That only makes the boneheads stand out more, such as the one who change a quote of mine, about a rock guitarist who questioned his manager's agenda. The quote changed from, "He sussed him out, good and proper," to, "He cussed him out, good and proper." Apparently, the guy had no grip on the subtleties of British slang, but did he ask me? I didn't find out till the back issues hit my PO box. Yes, I went ballistic, but I couldn't fix the damage after the fact. Every time I see that quote, I get irritated all over again. Trust me: sometimes, it's best to stand your ground.

19. If a reader gives you feedback that something in the plot seems to be missing, ignore her. Better yet, prove it’s “all there” by pointing to page 224, where three words in the middle of a paragraph at the end of the chapter “explain it all.”

Like editors, readers can help by pointing out things you've missed, or call attention to issues that might slip past you. Or, as I've seen on many a Goodreads site, or forum – they can also bang on endlessly about minor points, dredge up irrelevancies that don't matter, or miss the point you're trying to drive home.

20. Never back up the electronic copy of your work. It’s good for your creative juices to be in constant fear of losing your book beyond the event horizon of the cyber black hole.

Now this statement actually makes sense! But you can't force people to back up their data. Nor is it a new issue, as I remember from seeing people in journalism classes rush to share their latest scoop, and snap on the tape recorder, only to watch their faces sag when you heard: "Fzzzzzzzz....

 The “I've Gotten Away With It So Far” Club is stuffed with too many charter members who left their creations in the laps of the digital gods – and suffered accordingly. It's one reason why I write out a lot of my stuff in longhand first, or even dictate it into a digital voice recorder. Different strokes, different folks, and all that.

21. Forget the idea of practicing any kind of writing other than your book. It’s just a distraction.

Didn't hurt J.D. Salinger, did it? As he famously noted about his best-known work, The Catcher In The Rye, he claimed to have spent 30 years – essentially, whatever life he'd lived, up till then – in preparing to write it. As I've aleady noted, some people thrive on that kind of single-mindedness.

<Failure is not an option.>

22. Do not stoop so low as to take the advice of writers who have walked the path before you. You need to find your own path in your own way.

23. Never show your writing to anyone.

These last two statements mirror each other, so I'll tackle them together. Generally speaking, you will have to figure out your own path, because you may encounter people who try steering you in their direction -- whether it makes sense, or doesn't -- or fail to understand what you're doing.

Getting feedback is a good idea. Just remember, though, it's not always infallible. Take the oft-told story of Van Halen's producer, Ted Templeman, goading Eddie Van Halen, into re-recording one of his guitar solos...again. And again. And again.. Finally, after many frustrating, fruitless hours, Eddie went into the studio alone, late at night, and recorded the solo he felt like doing. But he didn't breathe a word to anybody. The next day, Templeman heard the results, and -- so the story goes -- said: “Great!” Don't feel surprised if this happens to you once or twice in your travels.

Let's face it – allowing list articles to guide your creative destiny is like asking your friendly neighborhood fortune teller if that job offer (Chief Rat Killer) is the one that you've really wanted all your life. Except the fortune teller's batting average might end up a tad higher than the list article. --The Reckoner

<Photo & Artwork: The Recokner>

Links To Go (Hurry, Before 
Somebody Writes Another Damned List Article):
Bookbaby: How To Fail As A Writer:

Odyssey: A List Article
About Why I Hate List Articles:

The Daily Telegraph: 
Xenophobic Hack Or Master Storyteller?:

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