Ugly Writing Truths New Writers Need to Know
The writing bug. When it bites, it bites hard, and oftentimes it bites those who haven't a clue what they're getting themselves into.
Like a shadow in the night, this slick and filthy creature sinks its comma-curved fangs into the brains of the unsuspecting to inject a tangled mess of plot lines and characters, causing its victim to twitch, confused and disturbed by the images slowly coalescing.
Then the victim's fingers begin to itch for a keyboard . . . or a pencil, pen, quill and ink, chalk and blackboard—any damned thing to serve as a conduit through which he can spew the escalating chaos screaming to be set free.
Now known as the “aspiring writer,” the victim sits at the computer for hours, ignoring the urge for food and sleep, and driven by this thrilling new desire; he foregoes nearly everything in favor of finishing the novel that will elevate him into the much-coveted realm of published author. Each paragraph is perfect, every sentence pristine. Not a character, nor plot thread, nor piece of dialogue harbors so much as a single flaw.
He proudly shows off his work . . .
And reality hits.
“What do you mean my plot has holes!”
“My characters have depth!”
“They're supposed to have thick accents!”
“Wordy! I'll give you wordy!”
“What in the hell is SPaG!”
“No one understands my writing!”
Unfortunately for the victim, the writing bug had not only injected a tangled mess of plot lines and characters, but also a blind indignation to which a new writer can easily succumb—every challenge to his story is a challenge to his writing ability, and a question of his worth as a writer.
How dare they criticize him after all the effort he'd put into his work!
An ego freshly wounded, and the writing bug slinks into the shadows whence it had come to lie in wait for another unwitting victim and turn yet another vulnerable mind to notions of story creation and prose manipulation.
But the aspiring writer need not stay victim to the whims of the devious writing bug, nor suffer the pangs of a wounded ego; a few writing truths can serve as an antidote to the venom injected and counteract any havoc caused by a reality “kick in the shins.” Knowledge is power, and this can help a new writer gain control.
Below are some truths for aspiring writers—ugly, to the point, frustrating, uncomfortable, and sometimes infuriating truths. Learning what these mean to a new writer looking to become a serious author is important; applying them, more so. And any writer worth his salt had once come across these truths in one way or another and had to accept them at some point in time.
Truth #1: Writing is hard—very hard—work
The first lengthy string of prose is generally not complete. The term “rough draft” holds specific meaning: this is the initial stage in which a writer dumps out his mess of plot lines, characters, events, dialogue, internal monologue, narrative and scenes, usually without regard to SPaG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) or interconnections.
When finished, new writers make the mistake of thinking, “This is it, I don't have to do any more”—an error through which later defensiveness take root in the proud display of a piece rough-chiseled.
So, after completing a rough draft, a new writer might want to lay his project aside to learn story writing techniques to create a believable world and multi-dimensional characters in plausable situations. These techniques can be learned through independent study (using credible resources) or under the scrutiny of a knowledgeable mentor, not to smother creativity with rules, but rather create a proper framework in which to construct a tale.
“But . . but . . . that would take time!” you cry.
Yes, and coupled with any research involved, it may take months—years—to fully develop a novel, depending on its genre. A historical fiction piece or a science fiction project is likely to need more research than a humorous piece, but even a fun-to-write fantasy has to have a scientific and/or magical base to create a believable world.
So yes, of course it would take time. Consider this, though: a well-constructed story reflects both a writer's skill and attention to detail, which in turn displays professionalism to prospective agents and publishers; important for a writer on a career writing path, no?
“So, what about SPaG?”
Tight prose that wraps the reader into a story has an advantage: it hooks and holds, creating mental images so distinct the reader isn't even aware of his surroundings. Garbled prose, convoluted sentences, punctuation misuse, and spelling error after spelling error (i.e. a SPaG-ridden disaster) all make it difficult for a reader to sink his mind into a story.
So revise, and revise again. And again. And . . . well, you get the point.
“But that would take even more time!”
“Pah! Once I'm signed, in-house editors will take care of any SPaG.”
Not necessarily. You see, your first readers (after your betas) are agents and publishers, and you need to impress them before they would consider taking you on as a client. A SPaG-ridden disaster shows laziness, or worse, a poor grasp of your native written language.
So remember, a rough draft is a story's first base. Rarely does anything develop right the first time, and revisions are nearly always necessary, with multiple drafts (second, third, fourth, sometimes more) par for the course. Until the final spit and polish, a story is “half-dressed,” and not ready for an agent or publisher's scrutinizing eye.
Yes, writing is hard—very hard—work, and the faster an aspiring writer realizes this, the sooner he will edge toward achieving success.
Truth #2: Writing is not for the fragile ego
Most people want to be liked, and the majority of us desire others' acceptance of our creative outputs. Normal, considering we're social creatures with innovative tendencies, and we like to share that which we're proud of. So, when the feedback is positive, we feel good, but when the feedback is negative . . .
Watch out—wounded ego.
Many writers are aware their work is somewhat of a self-extension—characters harbor snippets of personality traits; situations, settings, and secondary characters may be modified versions of real-life ones; dialogue may be snatches of conversation overheard or exchanged with friends—and without this input, a story may lack vitality.
New writers, however, often make the mistake of believing their stories are a critical part of themselves, like an internal organ or a fifth limb. Worse, they think the story and its situations are them. True, people love to share bits of themselves, and for a new writer who has in a sense “woven” himself into a piece, any negative feedback is a stiletto stab to the heart. Like a threatened cobra, the aspiring writer dons his defenses and often strikes out.
So what will happen once a story is submitted . . . and rejected?
To avoid a wounded ego, the aspiring writer needs to let go—fast. He needs to unclench the fist clinging to the notion that he and his project are one in the same, and any criticism to his work is an equal blow to him. Or: he needs to learn how to receive a constructive critique (or rejection letter), and to keep his temper-driven ego securely caged.
No, not everyone is going to enjoy what you write or how you write, or be as smitten as you are about your work. Some might even deliver hard news in blunt ways. But in taking the time to step away from the project, the aspiring writer might come to see some validity in, rather than take offense to, words of a more seasoned writer.
And ultimately, this loops back to the first truth—with his ever-growing knowledge of the writing craft, a new writer can spot those who know the business from those who are still learning; he develops a sense of who and what to listen to, and when. With each critique received, the new writer matures until one day he suddenly realizes . . .
His project is just a project, and nothing more. Beloved, sure, but a distinct entity, not a crucial part of himself.
Now what do you think will happen once a story is submitted . . . and rejected?
Back to the old “revisions board.”
So take that first step—and let go. Then tune your mind into what the dual-edged blade of criticism really is: a chance to improve your creation and an opportunity to toughen your tender feet for the rough path of career author.
No, writing is not for the fragile ego. Avoiding (or ignoring) advice from those who have “been there, done that” is neither smart nor possible, and the faster a new writer reins in his ego, the sooner he will follow those who've survived the “war wounds” of criticism.
Truth #3: You will get rejected . . . again and again and again.
Project finished. Query letter sent. Months pass. A self-addressed, stamped envelope finally arrives.
Your heart pounds as you rip open the flap to reveal a typed letter—formal, concise, unsigned . . . and not even addressed to you.
We apologize for this form response, but we don't feel your project will be a good fit for our company. . . .
You sag. Excitement dissolves into bitter disappointment. How could they not see the potential in your work, or in you, as an author? You offered them a chance to snatch up the next best seller, no? Isn't that what your friends, family, and beta readers told you?
Rejection. It happens, sometimes all too often, if you ask aspiring writers. Yet, like multiple drafts and constructive critiques, rejections are an integral part of the writing and publishing process for a budding author.
“Right.” Sulk, scoff, huff. “They hate my work, don't they?”
No. Well, maybe. It depends.
For an agent or publisher, a lot goes into considering a new client. They search for potential money-makers, sure, but they're likely concerned with an author's skill and professionalism, and the future impact on their own reputations, as well. They “kiss a lot of frogs” out there and need to be selective.
“So, what—you're calling me a frog now?”
No. Well, maybe. It depends.
Point is, for a writer, a lot goes into selling a project. Completing the manuscript is only the beginning. A writer must then construct a bang-up query letter and a detailed synopsis, both of which are more difficult than the story itself, and research possible agents or publishers of his chosen genre. Each query must be individually tailored (no “Dear Sir/Madame” or “Dear Agent”), and guidelines must be adhered to; unsolicited material might be discarded, the query unread.
“So many damned hoops to jump through!”
Yep. And not only is a writer going against selectivity, but also subjectivity; what one agent or publisher absolutely hates, another may love to its core. It's a matter of targeting the right people with a highly polished piece of work, and even then there are no guarantees.
“Why bother, then, if it's just going to lead to a rejection anyway?”
Because an aspiring writer on a serious career writing path will refuse to give in. He will settle for nothing less than his best output and the highest degree of writing professionalism. He will write and revise, study and practice, research and submit time and time and time again, ad infinitum. Or until he dies. Whichever comes first.
And this is what separates the wanna-be's from the truly committed—a determination that will drive him through the toughest times to achieve the goal of becoming a published author, knowing only one agent or publisher needs to say “yes” for the long-pursued dream to become a reality.
Thus, we come back to the first two truths—secure knowledge and application of the writing craft, as well as a subdued ego and a thick skin, will help an aspiring writer weather the hailstorm of impersonal rejections from agents and publishers.
Yes, you will get rejected . . . again and again and again, but take these as they come, and remember that even the most popular names once clamored for attention in the crowded frog pits of literary agencies and publishing companies. Difference being, these frogs never gave up, and neither should you.
Truth #4: Chances are, you will not be the next . . .
. . . Rowling, Koontz, Brown, King, Grisham, Clancy, [insert name of successful writer here]—big-time authors who have no doubt lined their agents' and publishers' pockets with the golden fruits of their successes. Unfortunately, aspiring writers see this and think, “Hey, they made tons of money from their writing, so can I!”—a belief that's likely to disappoint a decent writer.
Yes, it's normal to want a monetary reward for a creative output; however, a completely money-driven mindset—the “Oh, writing is an easy way to get rich quick” conviction—is not only unhealthy, but entirely erroneous.
For the above mentioned authors, hard work and talent (though some may argue the latter) set them on a career writing path. Mass appeal skyrocketed them. Big chance for an agent or publisher to take? Sure, since no one truly knows what triggers an author's massive readership. When it happens, it happens, and if it happens to you, then—congratulations! But don't ride solely on the idea that career writing will launch an author into the lap of luxury. A writer does well if he can make a modest income to support himself, and even that's difficult to accomplish.
So no, you probably won't be the next big name pulling in a hefty royalty; what you will be is yourself. And if you sharpen your writing skills, toughen your ego, and soldier on through rejection after rejection, chances are you will accomplish the right measure of success tailor-made just for you—a personalized reward richly deserved.