Category: hack

Sincerity vs. Perfection

I read a lot.

That’s actually an understatement. But there’s no way to make you understand how much I read without giving you a count, and no way to make you believe that I’m not lying. In 2013, I read over two hundred novels, ebooks, and comic books. Who knows how many short stories, one-shots, articles, etc. I’m a reader and I always have been. That’s what I’m trying to make you understand. And when you do anything interpretive long enough, you realize there’s a natural progression from consuming material to creating material. Reading led to writing. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. Even before I realized someone could grow up to write for a living, it was what I wanted to do with all of my spare time.

But eventually, it clicked–it had to be possible to write for a living because the people who made these books were authors. So I went to Pratt to “become a writer.” I studied style, structure, word choice, perspective, theme, resonance, setting, metaphor, and a million other concepts. I learned to edit my own work and the work of others’ with brutal detachment, to cut everything I didn’t absolutely need, to keep working and striving for perfection, to pour my soul into the prose, then cut it out when it got a little too obvious that it was my soul–right there, see where it was?–and go back and work on it again. Write. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. Edit. Rewrite. It’s still not good enough. Fail better. Write what hurts. Kill your darlings. Etc., etc.

But I didn’t study reading. Or, more specifically readers. Here’s something they don’t tell you in writing school: Readers will forgive almost anything if the story is good.

[Honestly, I can understand why they don’t tell you that. When you walk into art school, you’re so full of stock metaphors and melodramatic prose and the certainty that no one is as deep intellectually or emotionally as you. But I think by the time you’re ready to walk out again, the reader thing should at the very least be mentioned.]

What do I mean by a “good” story? A story that stays true to itself, characters who do what only they would do, but more than anything, sincerity. A writer who wants with all of their heart and soul to tell you this story. The books I love the most, the ones that affected me the most, I could feel the author dying to get the story out.  They didn’t hold back just because someone might’ve called them an un-self-aware hack and they didn’t give up when they couldn’t get the words on the paper as perfect as the words in their head.

It might sound like an obvious logical step, but it took me forever to realize just how connected writing and reading really are. I spent four years learning how to look at my work the way a writer would, then went out into a world where most people are readers. When I finally had a story worth telling, I couldn’t get it perfect enough to fit the dream I had for it.

There’s an awesome list of rules for storytelling that Pixar put out a year or so ago. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around #8. “Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you can have both, but move on. Do better next time.”

“But can’t I do better this time if I keep trying?” you might ask. I did.

Maybe you can do better, but you can’t grow. And sooner or later, you’ll realize that you can’t remember what was so important about that story you had to tell. You might even destroy everything sincere and replace it with some amalgam of what you imagine the rest of the world thinks of as perfect. Trust me, that will be much, much worse than accidentally using the same body language in two different places to show happiness.

Don’t think I’m directing this tirade at you. I’m telling myself all of this. I have to, over and over again, or I’ll never finish anything. I worked and worked on How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town. To the point where I have anxiety attacks just looking at its folder on my desktop. If I forced myself, I could keep working on it. I could tell myself, “Just one more draft–this one will be perfect” for the thousandth time. But I need to let it go. I need to move on. More than anything, I need to get this story out into the world because there was a time I was so on fire with the need to tell it that I breathed, ate, drank, and bled it.

Near the beginning of 2014, I will be publishing How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town. It won’t be perfect, but it will be sincere–which I’m finally learning is the more important of the two.

Update 12/21/13:
A few readers have expressed concern that I’m attacking experimental or painstakingly careful literary writing. I understand their concern, but I’m definitely not. We all know I have a chip on my shoulder about elitism (you might say I’m an elitist-elitist), but this is a completely different matter. There’s a sincerity and passion to experimental and literary writing, too. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in, if the sincerity isn’t there, the reader will feel it.

I’m also not attacking the editing process or saying that less editing is better. But there is such a thing as over-editing. It’s a fine line, but once you’ve stepped over it, you can feel it all the way down to your soul. It hurts. It turns your story from your labor of love into something more like Frankenstein’s monster. It starts to feel out of control, beyond help, and disgusting. That’s what I’m attacking, the impulse to keep fixing until we’ve undone all the good work along with the bad.

Failure is My Business

I love Raymond Chandler. His writing is my favorite kind of beautiful. From drunken descriptions like, “I smiled at him. He smiled back. Hawkins smiled at me. I smiled back. Everybody was swell.” to the revelation of complex emotions in the most cynical way possible (“I hoped she was paying her own rent. It didn’t make any difference to me–I just liked it better that way.”). I could spend a whole day talking about Raymond Chandler and not feel like I wasted a second of it.

Right now, I’m stuck in the worst stalled revision of Halo (a.k.a. How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town) that I’ve ever been in. I spend most of my day marinating in thoughts like, “I should roll it back a draft and say, ‘Screw it. It is what it is.’ I should throw this story away and work on something else. I hate this story. I love this story. Why does it hate me?”

I don’t want to give up. I know I’m on the edge of something good. If I can just finish this revision without killing myself, all the plot holes will close up–I just know it–but working on it feels like trying to pull teeth from somebody much bigger and less sedated than me.

So, how do you make yourself keep going? No, seriously, I’m asking. Not having any idea is almost as frustrating as not wanting to work on this revision when I’m so close to the end.

Whenever I don’t know what to do about something (anything, really, not just writing), I default back to reading. All of my favorite books and stories, the things that made me want to write in the first place, things I’ve never read before that people have said I should, classics, trash, articles, research, whatever. I still haven’t found any answers, but I did find something encouraging in the introduction Raymond Chandler wrote to Trouble is My Business.

“As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. […] There are things in my stories which I might like to change or leave out all together. To do this may look simple, but if you try, you will find you cannot do it at all. You will only destroy what is good without having any noticeable effect on what is bad. You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else. Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.”

Okay, I realize that to some people this might read like Ecclesiastes, where nothing under the sun is new and everything is futility and death. But guess who has two thumbs and also finds Ecclesiastes encouraging?  There’s just something about knowing you can never do as well as you hope to do that makes me feel good about being alive. Like, if I’m going to fail anyway, then I’d like to fail as spectacularly as possible and have fun while doing it.

At another point in his introduction, Chandler says, “As a writer I have never been able to take myself with that enormous earnestness which is one of the trying characteristics of the craft.” That’s probably the best thing any writer can shoot for–not to take themselves too seriously since we’re all going to fail anyway. And if somebody other than me enjoys the end products of my failure, I’ll be happy. I just have to get to that end product.

I Doubt It

Just yesterday night…um, last night, I guess…I reached a milestone in my story (which I would have to explain if I told you what it was, and which I suppose I could have done here in fewer words, but won’t) and the page 400 at the same time.  This isn’t that big of a deal since some stories are really long, especially single-title romance novels which cover epic stretches of time, but it’s a big deal for me because this is the first time I’ve ever estimated how long something would take to happen (a few weeks ago Joshua asked me how long I thought it would take to get to this particular milestone and I said “It ought to happen by page 400.”) and been right.  I’m not sure, but I might be well-known for thinking I can fit a story into a certain amount of space (20 pgs, writing school kids?) and realizing later that the story was in fact a very arduously compressed novel.  So I’m pretty excited.

I’m also pretty excited that I’ve reached page four hundred because it’s the farthest I’ve ever come on a project (2/3 of the way, baby!), although it presents me with a new problem: repetition.  A four-hundred page novel is bound to repeat phrases from time to time, but if you’re a writer and you’re anything like me you remember exactly how you phrased everything on every page…

What I’m trying to say is, when there’s no other way to write that “____ slammed the door,”  “slammed the door” really starts to grate on your mental ear.  Suddenly you start feeling like everything you’ve written has been written before and you start to wonder whether you’re just phoning this book in, but there’s nothing else you can do, you have to say that they slammed the door because they did slam the freaking door, and–

And your brain gets paranoid.  Which it probably shouldn’t bother doing since you (meaning me) are going to be called a hack for writing a romance novel anyway whether you use the same phrase over and over again or not, so you (me again) should just do it up right.

Good advice, self.  That’s what I’ll do, then.