Robert Heinlein was a professional writer, most famous for giving away his “Five Rules for Writing” and stating he didn’t worry about competition generated from following those rules, because most people simply won’t follow them.
You know what? He was right. Even when I felt I’d figured out how to get my work going again, after literal years of failing to produce, I discovered a block.
So I’ve whined about it, but today I found out Dean Wesley Smith – c’mon, the man’s AWESOME and writes a couple novels every month – is going to be posting his new nonfiction book about Heinlein’s Rules on his blog this month.
A couple of things occurred to me. I’ve been looking forward to his post on this topic for some time. He said he’d do it a while back, but kept stalling for one reason or another. Now his schedule is clear and he’s going forward with his plan to post.
He does this sometimes. He posts the topical posts to his blog, then cleans those posts up and publishes them as nonfiction books later. I learned his Writing into the Dark method this way back in March-April. It inspired me to actually write my last novel.
Same thing with his Stages of a Fiction Writer book. They were a series of blog posts which blossomed into a nonfiction book. That series of posts inspired me to take a look at my writing and figure out where on that journey’s road I stand. And, it helped me learn the difference between a storyteller and a writer, and to discover I wanted to be a storyteller instead.
So now, Heinlein’s Rules are going to be available, and frankly, I can’t wait. I want so much to see if there’s something else I should be doing that I’m not.
In fact, for the last several months, I’ve been violating the first two rules of writing according to Mr. Heinlein.
But another thing I learned is, sometimes the learning process makes me write.
See above. When DWS published his Writing into the Dark blog series, I firmly believed I’d get nothing out of it. I am, so I thought, an outliner. I love outlines, the discipline and order. I wasn’t writing any of the books I’d outline, but hey, I’m an outliner.
He hooked me when he said a lot of professional writers – a lot of them – are one-draft writers. They don’t have time for writing and rewriting over and over. But because some wannabes or whatever simply can’t hear that, they suggest the multiple draft method of writing.
So the method didn’t allow for more than one draft. Make your first draft your only draft. I had a moment of revelation. Others had moments of WTF. It’s an uneasy thing for writers who believe the myth – yes, myth – that a story is never finished, only abandoned. They’re told they have to write bad for a first draft, then revise after a few months of doing other things, then polish and refine, polish more, refine again, and keep that up. Forever.
But I don’t like that. I never did like it. When I received my first critique (which stung, by the way), the critic said something about fixing it subsequent draft(s). I stared at the screen, and blinked hot tears. But…this is the best I can do. If this isn’t good enough now, it never will be.
I knew, somewhere deep inside, I’d done my best work at the time on that story. It was the best I had in me, and if it wasn’t good enough then, it wouldn’t be good enough some magical number of months later. And, sitting down to write the whole frickin’ thing over again made my stomach flop. It’s no wonder some authors work five, eight, thirty years on a book. They keep revising it.
Here’s the rub, though – when you go back to it, if you’ve done any additional writing in the interim – you’ve improved. No writing? Have you done any reading? Then you’ve grown and improved. There is no way you’re the same writer when you go back to that manuscript that you were when you started it. And that’s why stories have to be abandoned instead of finished – the writer keeps growing, changing, and when they look at that story anew, they see more and more they’d do differently.
And this has always been my mindset. Do your best, right now, don’t write junk or crap with the plan to revise later, and then let it go. Move on. DWS does some math for the amusement of the writer with this wherein he demonstrates how far back writers will hold themselves by rewriting every book. The more you output every year, the more you restrain yourself this way.
Anyway, I noticed that the learning of the method inspired me. So I sat down with an idea for a book and three months and one week later, I had that book. I sent it to beta readers and they gave me great feedback. Then I sent it to an outside copy editor and she gave me a few more hints and tips. Then I bogged down.
I probably should have launched into the next book as soon as I fired that one off to the beta group. While it went through editing and vetting, I could have been down the road on another story, with a new sense of purpose for writing. An excitement missing since…what? 2011? But no. I “celebrated” finishing another book. Ooh, look, my second novel! Yawn.
Too late now. A few months back I tried to jump start a couple of ideas. I also tried to get an old story going for the benefit (in my mind, at least) of my new book. Nothin’. Nada. Zilch. I’d get a few thousand words in and fall flat on my fictional face.
So now I see something interesting, because I’m looking back on the things that sparked writing for me. First was the joy of writing. I wanted to write some dialog and see if I could create three distinct character voices to minimize speaker tags. My wife decided she loved what I had going on and encouraged me to keep going with it. So I did. Over and over again I wanted to end it, and she just kept pushing me to go on. And so I did.
Then I finished it, and started a sequel. And it was popular with those who read it, but it eventually died because I’d been pecking at it so long and including “fans” (they weren’t real fans) in it, and so forth. Then my flash drive died and took all the editing I’d done on my first book with it. Well…most of it, anyway. And so I just sort of stopped writing.
Then my buddy Bryce introduced me to writing coach Larry Brooks, who introduced me to the first really clear method of understanding the incredibly vague Three-Act Story Structure to me. (In fact, it’s easier to understand if you break it into four parts instead of three.)
So inspired by my new grasp of this concept, which had eluded me for so long, I wrote a novel. In just about three months. Using this “new” (to me) method of planning and plotting.
Oh, I thought, NOW I have this licked! Now I have the secret to faster, better writing figured out! I’m going to use this method to create “story maps” for ALL my books, and have a lot of really great stuff written! And I can use it for short stories, and for flash fiction, and for…
You see where this is going, right? That led me down a rabbit hole of outlining and plotting.
The next thing that came along was [insert dramatic music here] – The Hero’s Journey! Chris Vogler and his work at Disney, coupled with the wild success of the Pixar Hero’s Journey-mapped stories, led me down yet another rabbit hole. I had ideas! I had stories! I mapped them onto a template I created! Then another template – a better template! I was a Hero’s Journey hero! (It’s like being a jukebox hero, but with better vocabulary and fewer panty-throwing girls.)
I found it! I found the magic elixir! I like this better than the four-part story structure template I’d been using! And it’s so flexible! All I do is leave out the bits I don’t want to include, and voila! – instant story! And I can use it for novels, and short stories, and flash fiction, and…
So then I discovered, quite by accident, Dramatica theory. And its completely symmetrical rhythms and structures. Four signposts, developed in four acts, each made of four sequences of four scenes. Sixty-four scenes, every time, developing the story in a never-fail method of completeness and solidity never achieved before. I ran one of my Hero’s Journey outlines through Dramatica’s meat grinder and found it was missing things. I shored them up. I rewrote the outline. And I never saw that story again.
Now it’s 2015. I last produced something longer than an outline in 2011. More than three years, and not a single new word of fiction. Not one.
(Well…okay, I did a 4,000 word story exchange with my buddy Bryce somewhere in there.)
Things, now in the rearview mirror of course, look clearer to me. It’s the learning that inspired me. New method for learning craft, new ways of actually writing and telling stories gave me the most traction.
Yes, learning new structural methods was interesting and very exciting too – in fact, my last novel seems to fit with the five-act Shakespearean format better than the three- or four-act structure, all by accident – but the things that inspire me most, the things that get me writing again, are learning things I didn’t know before at all.
Learning structure – the first time – got the juices flowing. I wrote a book. Learning structural variants after inspired, but not so much as craft-knowledge did, and I didn’t write any books. Or, y’know, anything else. Learning the Writing into the Dark method inspired me, and I wrote a book. Learning another writing method – the Algis Budrys method – inspired me too, but apparently not enough to produce a story. Yet.
But I like that last guy. It’s a great method; easy to use. It directs the author’s path, leaving him wide open for creative thinking. The next thing in the story is already set up, you just have to decide how to escalate it and get the story there. (I think I’ve already explained this, but maybe on my author blog I’ll go over it again.)
Now, the thing is, the next thing I tried in my learning…well, it didn’t work. It was supposed to help me get past this hurdle, this little block, this invisible barrier I can’t figure out. But it didn’t work, and things that don’t work add up, financially.
The next one I want to try scares me. It’s more expensive than anything I’ve done for my writing in a long time. Maybe ever. The only things I could do that are more expensive, actually, are buying a computer (did that already, and it didn’t work either), or going to a writing conference (can’t see doing that any time soon, frankly). It’s a huge investment, and one I can’t make lightly. Or repeatedly. If it doesn’t work, or is full of things I’m already doing…gulp.
To make a long, LOOOONG story longer, the point has been I think learning things about the craft inspire me to write. Somehow. And reading helps too. (One thing that inspired one of my novels was The Dark Tower Cycle by Stephen King.) But finding something inspiring to read has been easier said than done. I’ve just not gotten the bite from anything. *Sigh*
But at least another tiny piece of the puzzle seems to have dropped into place.
Now it’s in your brain cells, and you’re stuck with it. 🙂
See ya next time.