Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The First Step to Writing Well...


You can always tell when I'm swamped with work. Either I don't manage to post on this blog or else I offer writing advice.

For today's writing advice, I'm going to tell you the first step to writing well. And that is writing badly.  This is absolutely essential. William Gibson once observed that the first duty of a writer was to overcome a perfectly justified loathing for the sound of his or her own voice. Similarly, in order to write well, you must be willing to put down words on paper in such dreadful combinations as you would blush to let anyone see.

There are two distinct stages to this dreadful writing. The first is when you're still unpublished and unaccomplished. You must write and write and write even though almost everything that flows from your mind/pen/fingers is loathsome. This is, alas, the only way there is to learn. And, as an adjunct, you must treasure every paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that comes out well.

The second stage is when you're published and have a career going well. You must write as well as you can, of course, but that's rarely going to come flowing out of you in final form. So you have to be willing to write badly and then correct/improve/rewrite. It's possible to raise your standards for yourself so high that you never publish anything again. I've seen it happen.

But, no, I'm not going to let you see one of my first drafts. Are you mad? No.

End of sermon. Go thou and sin no more.

Above: My desk at the current moment. There are no conclusions to to be drawn from the tidiness or lack thereof of an author's desk. Everybody has their own style. Gregory Frost's office is as neat as a pin. And yet he writes beautifully. Go figure.



Unknown said...

I have always taken comfort in the idea that the work that we do eventually show is informed by, and couldn't possibly exist, without the garbage.

Kevin Cheek said...

Instead of "Go thou and sin no more," should this have ended "Go thou and sin muchly, and then correct/improve/rewrite those sins"

HANNAH'S DAD said...

One of the most inspiring things I've read was a first draft of a James Thurber piece - it was flat, humourless, and devoid of any interest.

Kevin Cheek said...

If you ever get the chance to compare the first draft of Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds with the final draft, it is illuminating. He changed the book completely--taking the main character and splitting him into two different individuals, and tying the overarching plot together into a beautiful conclusion. The first draft was fun if a bit indulgent. The final novel is a beautiful accomplishment of fantasy literature.

Mark Pontin said...

'And, as an adjunct, you must treasure every paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that comes out well.'

See, that's almost Unca Mike-type advice. Because that's the bad wannabe writer's biggest problem right there -- they treasure their crap precisely because they believe it's gold.

Moreover, the problem is bigger than just Dunning-Kruger playing itself out in the writing realm. Novice writers actually can have paragraphs, sentences and whole passages that they think have come out well, and be correct about that. Yet the structure in which that good stuff resides may as a whole be crap or at least it's not working -- not yet, anyway, those novice writers tell themselves. And so they labor on that project, and labor some more, and years go by and the thing never gets finished. And they might more profitably have abandoned that project and sunk their work into something else that was finishable.

You yourself have indicated that you've got 40-50 partial stories and fragments waiting around till you can figure out what next to do with any of them. It's just hard to tell if a thing can be made to work till it's finished and it does work.

Michael Swanwick said...

I'm sorry, Mark, but in this (and I'm sure in nothing else), you are wrong. Being not only unpublished but unpublishable is a necessary step in becoming a writer. And it is a horribly, horribly depressing one. Every glint of light should be cherished and celebrated if for no other reason than to keep the darkness at bay.

Unless you're never going to become a writer, of course. But that's the subject of an essay I may or may not ever get around to writing.

Unknown said...

You can always tell when I'm swamped with work. Either I don't manage to post on this blog or else I offer writing advice.
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