Passport Please

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” ~Buddha

Ever have one of those days where you feel like any average exposition class, in any average college classroom in the world could take your novel and use it as an example of how NOT to write fiction?

Yeah … me too.

You read other people’s work and you marvel at their adept prose, their adroit pacing, and their irreproachable characterization. Their adjectives are just the right adjectives. The amount of description they’ve coupled with just the right bit of telling, has you salivating. It has you wondering how you could possibly have ever picked up a pencil (because surely that’s where this misguided calling to be an author started, right?). It has you doubting, with no wounded hands to pick at in your search for hope that what you suspect about yourself is wrong.

And all the blogs you read confirm it. Ten Ways to Plot A Bestselling Novel. You hadn’t thought of a single one of them. Why Your Scene isn’t Really a Scene. And your scene apparently isn’t a scene. Does Your Protagonist Suck … if so Here’s Why. He meets three out of five characteristics for a totally unlikable protagonist. Five Ways To Spice up Your Dreary Ending. Didn’t even know the ending was dreary till now, thank you. Nine Ways to Drop  Your Adverb Habit. Terribly true …

You read all those ubiquitous, helpful, posts … the ones that are followed by nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine comments (that have been featured as Fresh Pressed on WordPress AND by Nathan Bransford himself) … and you feel humbled. No, not humbled. Down-trodden. If you drank, you’d head for the whiskey. If you smoked, you’d have a head-start on half-a-pack for the day. If you gambled, you’d bet yourself right out of a career.

Here’s the thing … those posts, and those books on writing that read more like technical manuals, and all those guest speakers (the ones who tell you that without an agent you’re nothing), they can’t tell you what makes your fiction totally unique and therefore, worthwhile. Do you want to know why?

Because they don’t know.

That’s why I usually refrain from posting specific advice on writing. I could, I’ve got loads of it. But, I can’t account for the subtleties of your individual creativity and style. I can’t just tell you to add some tension to your last scene, without having read your last scene. I can’t tell you to just amp up your pacing, without knowing the rhythm of your novel. I can’t tell you any of these things with any sense of reliability because in some cases, I’d simply be wrong.

But, as writers … especially when we’re feeling that oh-so-familiar downtrodden pseudo-depression, we seek consolation in rules and tips. We want to know that we can get better if we just know where to put our right foot first. We want direction. We want guidelines. We want assurances.

In brave writing … there are no assurances.

Everyone in your critique group can whittle away at your manuscript till it’s a different novel altogether than the one that got rejected 34 times, and yet … when it’s sent out again it can still get rejected. Multiple times. And probably will be. But, we do these sorts of things because we want to share the burden. If you get rejected on your work alone, then you can think to yourself, “God, I must suck at this.” But, if you let a group (and this can be agents’ blogs too) tell you how and what to write, and that work gets rejected, then, “It’s OK because isn’t me or my writing. It’s the market.”

We do that, because our doubt is often stronger than anything else we’re feeling. This isn’t always the case, but when we feel it … we feel it.

In this world we live in as authors, we’ll have more than a handful of ‘guided tours’ available to us. But the fear doesn’t completely go away even when you sign up for one of them instead of the solo trek. All I can tell you with any measure of certainty is that the solo trek, while positively the scariest way to go, is the most  beautiful. It’s terrifying because at the threshold, you’re not just handing over your passport to be stamped, you’re trading it in for citizenship. You’re making a decision that will mean, there is no going back.

That’s not to say that you have to travel alone. I’m not guiding anyone anywhere. As a creativity coach, I’m damn good at motivating others to keep on, to keep exploring. But that’s not the same thing as a guide. And perhaps that’s the biggest difference: We’re all traveling together, my footsteps just as unsure as yours are. I find comfort in this. More so than having to stand behind a huge crowd and listen to some schmuck ramble on for hours about the local vegetation.

But, there are no assurances. I chose to take that chance and while it looks appealing from where I stand and eavesdrop (read those posts like gospel) … looking at that group of tourists all taking pictures of whatever the hell that spikey thing is … I wouldn’t be any more confident over there than I am here. And right now, for me, is one of those moments where I’m sliding on pebbles and having to stop every five minutes to empty shit out of my shoes. It’s OK though, because you’re with me.

And because I have no choice, but, for it to be OK. I’ve handed over my passport.

16 responses

  1. That’s exactly what coaching is all about. I do it too with fitness instruction. It’s about saying that there is a bright spot on the horizon, encouraging people to pursue it, and cheer when they succeed. You cannot get anyone fit, or write someone’s book for them. They have to want to do it themselves.

    I love how you talk about the pseudo-depression. I have been feeling it acutely lately (ah, the dreaded adverb again) and am starting to pull myself out of the muck I’ve wallowed in. And thank God, too! I’m sick of it.

    Great post, Breanne. Keep up the great work.

  2. Great post!

    I leave advice on my blog, but I emphasize again and again that it worked for me. Whether or not it works for anyone else is another question entirely.

    Besides, those so-called “rules” are mostly guidelines. Nothing is of any value if it doesn’t fit the context of what you are writing.

    I mean, maybe I WANT my one main character to be unlikeable.

  3. I use the books as a critique for myself. Is my writing as tight as it can be or scattered with weak verbs and my unruly addiction to adjectives and adverbs. Can I make the action more active, my quiet passages more lyrical, my love scenes “lovelier”? What needs to be cut to make the story read easier?

    Every time I sit down to write a new novel I do it a different way: sometimes with notes that get changed as I write, sometimes I just dive straight in and have to go back and fill in the background notes as I write (which I find takes just as much time as being organized in the first place!), and sometimes a combination of the two. I’ve always admired people who can write from beginning to end without making a single note; I just can’t do it.

    Doubt rides one shoulder nearly all the time, and while it’s annoying, it helps Creativity on the other shoulder to be that much sharper. I’ve come to realize it’s my choice to which one I listen. Right now, Creativity gets her voice. Doubt will be able to chatter (quietly) when I do my edits.

    Leah, hang in there!

  4. I despise books that tell others how to write. Each writer has a unique voice, and how they write is also unique. The only time I’ve ever seen a book tht came close to being worth its salt was Janet Evanovich’s “How I Write” because the title says it all. The rest…

  5. Great post. Very accurate. There have been so many times I have thought, “God, I must suck at this!”
    Finally, I just decided…”Well, I hope not.”
    Your post helps though! To know we all struggle with the same inner demons.


  6. The first year I pursued writing my first novel, I listened and followed all those blogs, books, and members of critique groups. When I stopped spinning my wheels.
    I had no clue where I was, as a writer or with the craft. Now, I go with my big ol’ gut. I’m done listening to all that BS advice people swear by.

    I mean, Snooki got a book deal while plenty of other damn good writers were opening yet another rejection email. Either you have a story people want to read or you don’t. At the end of the day, my story, I still love to read. That’s what matters to me. 🙂

  7. This post was such a comfort to me. Thank you for pointing out what should be obvious to any artist: we are each unique in our creativity, and nobody, nowhere, nohow can or should tell us how to do what we do best!

  8. I LOVE Charli Mac’s comment. “At the end of the day, my story, I still love to read.” Wow. That says it all for me. That’s what writing’s about. It’s not all these rules, cutting adverbs, tightening this or that sentence, pacing, plotting, etc. It is, simply and totally, WHAT YOU LIKE TO READ. The best ‘technical’ writer in the world can leave you cold if you don’t like what they’ve written.
    For me, it’s a bit like the snobbery involved in drinking wine. Just because it’s expensive, it HAS to be good. Total rubbish. Wine is only ‘good’ if you like the taste. Taste (as in what your mouth likes) has nothing whatsoever to do with cost. Same with writing. Your taste in books has nothing whatsoever to do with the techincalities of writing. We ALL do it differently. And so we should! How boring if we all wrote the same!
    And just for extra kismet, a recent blind taste study in wines showed that when blindfolded, even the most experienced wine-critic fared no better in telling the difference between cheap supermarket plonk and the expensive stuff than ordinary shoppers did.
    Ha! Take that, critics!

  9. I’m on a LinkedIn writing group and the topic under discussion is whether someone can actually be taught to write or if they have some sort of inate ability to begin with. What we’ve come up with so far is that books and teachers can teach you grammar as well as something about dialogue, plot, and scenes, but in the end it’s the blood, sweat, and seat time that makes a story not just good, but great. Sitting and thinking about writing makes out (maybe) a plotter, but not a writer. You have to get in there and bloody the ends of your fingers on the keyboard.

  10. Yeah, the eye-opener for me was that I really almost never feel that doubt while I’m writing…only afterwards, when my ego gets involved.

    I had a freeing moment about a year ago that completely changed my writing. A pro writer told me (who’s won multiple awards and written over 90 books) that rewriting usually just takes out the voice of what you’re writing, and that people buy books for voice, which is unique to you, so 9 times out of 10 you’re actually doing significant harm to your writing by editing your own stuff. She had a whole explanation about how you edit from your critical brain and write from the subconscious and that the critical brain is actually “dumber” than the subconscious so will ruin things you write from the more creative parts of your brain.

    It goes against the dominant mythology on what it takes to write a good book, but it felt so true to me that I’ve really followed her advice since…to stay out of the “critical brain” and write from the subconscious whenever possible and avoid over-editing. Her words also gave me permission to enjoy writing again, and not feel like I wasn’t “doing my job” if I didn’t take a hack saw to whatever I’d written afterwards. She said in 90% of cases, you only ruin your work anyway. Same is true of most people that hang a shingle and call themselves “editors,” sadly, or members of your average writing groups…they often really don’t understand what it is about your book that makes it “work” so they nitpick it to death. Now I wouldn’t let anyone mess with one of my manuscripts unless they were a pro (meaning they were paying me, rather than the reverse, as in an industry pro) editor. I’m just tired of the B.S., as someone said above, and I honestly don’t think most self-proclaimed experts in this area know what they are doing in the vast majority of cases.

    Of course, I’ve been writing for years now, so I can do the basics. I do think there’s a period for all beginning writers (before they’ve written their 1Million words, or whatever the threshold they quote for that) where you are still learning the basic building blocks of craft. But beyond that, you’re often just destroying things for imperfections that can actually be the quirky aspects to voice that make it “human” and give it a broader appeal.

    It’s that whole thing of being humble and taking advice, but not letting other people destroy your creations either. Not sure if I’ve found the balance of that yet, but I feel like I’ve regained some of my confidence in my own voice, and (more importantly) am totally enjoying writing again, and taking more chances with what I write.

  11. Wow. This addresses exactly what I just tweeted about setting my pen down. You have contributed to my day in ways so awesome, “awesome” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    • Never set that pen down. Just keep writing even if what you are writing feels like slogging through hip-deep mud. You will eventually get out and the writing will flow, cool, and even and beautiful. Those are the good days!

  12. Wow, I’ve literally just been wondering about all these rules and things – it seems as though everywhere I turn there’s someone with contradictory advice. I guess what you’re saying is true, that we should just get on with it and let our individual voices come through, but it’s scary! I kinda like rules for the structure they give, but at the same time I hate being told what to do! Brilliant post though, very helpful!

  13. Thanks for the great post-I’m emptying shit out of my shoes right now! Quick question: could you please tell me the source of that Buddha quote? I’ve never come across it before. I hastily thumbed through my copy of the Dhammapada, but couldn’t find it, so assume it’s from a source I’m unfamiliar with. Thanks in advance.

    • You know, I’m not sure where I got it from to be honest. I will normally google quotes on whatever topic I’m looking for, and gather them from places like Quote Garden or Brainy Quote. I know … it would be so much cooler if I were well-read enough to get all of my quotes from the sources directly.

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