Episode 5: Kill Your Darlings
There are a lot of emotions found in creative writing. It's one of the reasons we enjoy it.
I remember the first time I got into serious writing during elementary school. At the time, my Dad worked for an engineering firm with more gadgets and gizmos than you could shake a stick at. He brought several of them home with him, many of which the company didn't want anymore. One was an ancient mini laptop that ran Windows 98, complete with Office Suite. Oh the writing sessions I had on that antique! It was exciting and all consuming. Sometimes I wrote for the simple joy of watching my fingers fly across the tiny keyboard. Other times I wrote to play with concepts I learned in grammar (I wanted an excuse to use parentheses).
Those first experiences tapping away on that mini laptop carried me through dozens of projects in middle school. No longer playing with the concept of writing itself, I wrote about subjects and characters that I loved. The structures, planning, and editing were of little concern—I wrote because it was entertaining. I'm sure we've all experienced that emotional high. The unadulterated pleasure without an inner editor filling you with nagging doubts; zero concern if it meets an arbitrary standard of excellence.
Then in high school, when I began planning seriously about novel length projects, I ran into the overwhelming aspects that torment writers. Apocalypse City was an early fruit of this era; a novel I outlined to the best of my then experience. It barely made it past the first chapter before it all came crashing down. Nothing interested me about it and I couldn't make myself write about the subject I'd outlined.
I started and failed many novels during this time; the discouragement heaped up with each attempt. My baby, Final Convergence, was among this group. Some days all I could do was world build for this monstrosity. My entire freshmen year of high school I developed technology, magic, worlds, ships, and civilizations for what I planned to be an epic series of novels. But the longer I spent world building, the farther I felt from actually writing any of it. I remember one summer day in 2005, designing deck by deck every conceivable concept for a starship, I had this dawning realization I was never going to finish this project.
Coming into a writing group my sophomore year shoved me in the right direction—something I needed badly. I was trying the same formulas over and over again without success. I couldn't progress on my own anymore, especially with a few incorrect ideas about the writing development process ingrained in my head. So it was that in 2006 I had a renaissance in my writing experience. A lot of the love and young infatuation that's part of adolescent writing came back into my life. It was during this time that I returned to short stories, countless prompts, general writing sessions, and two important projects: my first FictionPress novel, Extinction, and the group written story that became The Seminary Gang. Both taught me invaluable lessons.
Whatever first got you into creative writing, there are so many reasons to stay. Love of the craft. Love of the subject materials. Love of working with other writers. And of course, love of world building. (You should notice by now that I tend to focus primarily on topics related to speculative fiction.) Sometimes getting into the nuts and bolts can feel overwhelming, especially if we write intuitively instead of deliberately. My goal has always been to focus on deliberate practices—the things that we can control as our writing takes us on to paths unknown. In my humble beginnings, I didn't understand these nuts and bolts, and my writing suffered because of it.
These are a few of the things that helped me.
Write to Practice, Practice to Write
There's a convention most of us have heard: it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a craft. Specifically, I heard that in relation to playing a musical instrument (see your local psychopath about practice on instruments of torture). In college, I heard from one of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, that the creative writing equivalent is around one million words. Since then, I've been religious about tracking my word counts. It's a fairly useful goal tracker that allows me to monitor my output and gauge qualitative improvement over each project. Regardless of the actual benchmark, the general principle therein is that practice makes perfect.
How much time do you spend every day writing? How often do you write actual prose as opposed to outlining or developing? How long does it take you to write one thousand words? How long does it take you to write a single scene? The harder you practice—the more time you commit to your craft—the better you'll play over the long haul. Anyone who's played a sport can attest to this. You only play well when you practice all the time. You only write well when you write all the time.
This is why prompt writing is so important. While you have your baby you're developing, you can't ignore daily writing practice. It's easy to put off, and I'm a case and point example. I've got this nasty habit of diving into a novel's developmental process and ignoring everything else. I can go weeks straight without writing a single scene or a sentence of actual prose. That's bad juju. How and when you decide to write your novels or short stories is up to you, but on the side you need to write something. Prompts are a good exercise to strengthen your writing muscles.
Prompts need not be anything elaborate or lengthy. Most writers I know start with a single sentence and run with it. "The dragon is in the castle." "He's lost in the woods." "A portal opened in the classroom." "The zombies are attacking." You can adjust how general or specific the prompt is based on your writing preferences. There is no shortage of websites that can provide on the fly, easy prompts with a simple Google search. It's less about the actual prompt and more the fact that you're writing at all. That's why I tend to develop prompts for myself, because I can stick to what I like to write.
If you want to stretch yourself further, you can give yourself a word or page count to hit. A writing buddy from my early college years taught me about a concept called Morning Pages. The idea was to write three pages of narrative each morning. You can decide whether your brain hits the creative juices in the morning or later in the day. At first, I wrote specifically for three pages and quit at the bottom of the third page. With time, I found it more efficient for me to write somewhere between one and two thousand words. That was the time it took me to get through a simple scene prompt and work my writer's muscles. When I write Morning Pages consistently, it makes an immense difference approaching my larger short stories and novel projects.
Whether you use simple daily prompts or stick to your bigger projects, consistent writing is the practice that makes perfect. It helps you develop a natural storyteller voice. You learn what works and what doesn't. And most importantly—in my opinion—you learn what interests you and what doesn't.
Ideas are a Dime a Dozen
Too often we get enamored with a glorious idea. The character, story premise, or even world that is the be all end all to our passion as a writer. Final Convergence was my glamorous prospect in early high school, and it was all I could think about in terms of creative writing. The trouble with this is that these ideas largely remain untested. We spend so long in development and not enough in writing the narrative that we have no idea if it's worth pursuing.
If the idea is grandiose enough, you'll run into World Builder's Dilemma, which is essentially spending all of your time creating the worlds in your story instead of actually writing a story in it. If you prefer to world build over writing, then that's perfectly fine. Do what you love. But keep in mind that audiences aren't too interested hearing about this neat world you dreamed up—we're interested in reading a story. The neat world is there to enhance the story.
An idea that can't last past a single prompt probably isn't worth pursuing. If you haven't practiced with your writing, then your world building muscles may be as strong as all get out, but they can't abide a narrative driven by weak writing muscles. Early in your writing experience, prompt writing will allow you a maximum efficiency of topic exploration to sort through ideas, situations, genre conventions, tropes, and characters that play to your interests.
A recent example of this in my writing came through the ill-fated novel Audacious Paths. I spent about four months drumming up ideas I found interesting from a conceptual perspective. I labored unceasingly on organizing cultures, geopolitics, planets, unique magic systems, place names, a relevant conflict arc, and a host of characters to act as a POV for experiencing it. Then after all these months of developing, I sat down to type the first chapter…and nothing worked well in the prose. I forced myself to write for a month, making it nearly sixty thousand words and seventeen chapters in. The whole way I ground my teeth, but told myself I would get through it and find renewed passion for the project down the road. Instead, I found glaring problems and errors I wasn't aware of until I started writing about them.
Frustrated, I resigned myself to stop writing Audacious Paths, aware that unless I reworked much of the structure, its present form wasn't something I could finish. Then, on a whim, I created a small set of bullet points for a simple prompt exercise that would become Raquel in Cadence. Development lasted all of a couple of hours. In a week, I had the first draft finished, as well as an abounding interest and structure in place for a series of novels that became The Epochal Chronicles. And while these entries suffer from their own errors and problems, they were far less fatal, and the structures were such that they leveraged my writing muscles.
Ideas are easy to come by. That grand, wonderful prospect you've been fostering in your heart can just as easily be replaced. This is particularly true when we are young writers or new to the writing scene. If you haven't developed your writing muscles, then that baby of yours needs to be put on the sacrificial alter. If it's a good idea, it'll survive another go around when you're better developed as a writer. Don't let an idea hold you back—no matter how much you love it.
First Drafts Suck
There's no beating around the bush on this one. Especially if you are new to writing. If you think you'll get it right on the first try, then you're in for a rude awakening. It can seem redundant to say here, but I've talked with friends and other writers who ignore or forget this.
A lot of us want our writing to be exactly perfectly on the first go. It can be discouraging when you have in your mind this beautiful image of how it's supposed to look. When I got serious about writing novels, editing felt like a concept limited to spell check. I could see in my mind what I wanted—it was supposed to just be that way when it appeared on the page. And when your scene descriptions and prose don't appear as witty as your favorite author's, it makes you wonder if it was ever worth trying in the first place.
The problem is that it's not only first drafts that suck—it's first writings. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has this philosophy that you have to write five crummy novels before you finally have one that's any good. If you're new to writing and you're on novel number one, even two or three drafts in you still don't have a lot of the experience and practice under your belt to make it shine. That's okay. That first novel is a launch pad to your next, and the next one after that. As you develop as a writer, those old novels will always be there for you to retool in the future—much like you would a second draft.
That's the point of revisions. You start with what you can muster, you give it your all, and then you learn from your mistakes. Sometimes that means a few more drafts. Sometimes that means a few more novels. You keep writing. You keep building upon what you already created. A lot of what you start with is the foundational material for the better writings you'll pen tomorrow. It takes a lot of todays to get to all your tomorrows.
And for those of us that consider ourselves pros—or at least bear a few years of experience under our belts—don't let your skill, time, and talent distract you from the flaws of the first draft. Again, this may sound redundant, but we don't spew liquid gold on our pages. And a key component of revising our drafts is seeing them with fresh eyes. Especially if those are someone else's fresh eyes.
Writing isn't done in a vacuum. (Though if you write for yourself, that's perfectly acceptable. I'm speaking to those of us who intend an eventual audience.) There's only so much you can do for your baby by yourself. You have to network. You have to find writing groups. If nothing else, you need to find another reader who can offer you a perspective outside knowing everything about it as the writer.
Part of putting your baby out there is the willingness to let others cut it to ribbons based on their reading of it. Some of my best sources of feedback came because someone tore my work to pieces. They shattered my illusions of perfection and conceited notions. Did it hurt? You betcha! But I'd prefer my pride stung and that I walk away with knowledge to turn my story into something far better. This has factored both into projects I needed to improve and projects I needed to kill. There was a short story I toyed with once called Angie, and boy howdy did it have problems. It was the case of a face only a mother could love. When a beta called out on the rough edges and ugly plot holes, I knew I had to kill it. The retooling process was not something I was looking forward to at the time, but that criticism gave me insights should I ever return. And it gave me a few key learnings to take into new projects.
At the heart of workshopping your writing is the idea of bridging the writer's view with the reader's view. We're a little blind to our prose because we see what we want it to be, not what it is. The reader never knew what delusions of grandeur we saw in mind; they only see what is on the page. Because of that, they can hone in on areas of focus we don't realize we need to tend to. That's why criticism offered by your readers must be treasured. It is a teacher that will help you focus your efforts for the next draft and the next story.
I should mention at this juncture that being a speculative writer and writing this piece aimed at speculative writers, you'll want to network and workshop with other speculative writers. Particularly in your genre and surrounding your genre tropes. Any reader can offer feedback, but the degree of usefulness of that feedback is directly proportional to how familiar your beta is with the conventions you write with. Every genre and subgenre has a target demographic that best fits the kind of feedback you need.
Give it Time
This hardly bears repeating, but I'll do it anyway. It takes a lot of todays to get to all your tomorrows. Put in your ten thousand hours of practice. Write your million words. Every day spent toning your writer's muscle is a tomorrow filled with that grandiose novel you've been dreaming about in all your yesterdays.
Similarly, what you think you can write about isn't necessarily what you should write about. Specialization is the name of the game. No one wants to be a "jack of all trades but a master of none" when it comes to creative writing. Discover what you're passionate about. Write about those things. Write about what keeps you up at night and won't leave you alone. Write about the things only you can write.
Along the way you'll develop a craft that teaches you how to write scenes. You'll learn the rules of your medium and your genre. After a million words and five crummy novels, you'll find your next enterprise leaps forward with amazing results.