Thursday, March 3, 2016

Writing With Gaiman

I have no idea who Neil Gaiman is; I do not intend to look him up until after I've written this post.  It could well turn out that he's some embarrassing internet personality I'd rather not know and would make me look pretty dumb for quoting him.

However, I find that I must agree with this.  I wouldn't call these 'rules,' however; obviously, that's a click-bait term intended to avoid saying something like "realities" or "unavoidable issues" . . . for that is what they are.

Through this post I intend to use the words 'write' and 'writer.'  Understand that in the context of this post that I am making a distinction between people who scratch words on a pad or type words in an email for the purpose of everyday communication and the process of setting out ideas that are excessively structured and sourced from great deliberation.  Without doing this, the first of Gaiman's rules is worthless.  "Write" must be synonymous with "think."

That said, the critical action of writing is putting one word after another.  I have met many who have expressed to me a candid incomprehension at how I am able to write books, to which the only answer is that I put words in a row and I keep doing it until the entire book is written.  This takes a long time.  It would also take a long time for me to walk to North Carolina.  That does not make it something that's difficult to comprehend.

Finishing is the goal.  The worst malady of any writing, particularly novels, plays and epic poetry, is the poison that compiles as the work continues.  One might think that progress would be its own balm but quite the contrary; the longer the work gets, the more concerned the writer becomes with what's already wrong with the work and what will need to be fixed before the work can be complete.  This produces a swelling toxin that slowly consumed the work and the writer - until the writer can no longer bear the malignancy and either returns to the beginning of the work to do it over again (thus moving ourselves farther away from the end of the project) or quitting altogether to go work at something else.  This is something that nearly everyone experiences; a very few blessed people are able to begin every project and end every project without this contagious contamination - most of these people, I have found, also love to crow about it.

I have never read any such person and found their work to be anything but complete shit.

I believe that writing is an act of bravery; it is charging the guns at Fredricksburg, shouldering one's way into the bullets as if through a gale (as the Union soldiers were said to do at that battle), as irrational as that sounds.  Those who do not feel those guns nor any reason to duck one's head and dive into that flying lead clearly possess so little self-awareness that they are unable to make any character or context in their work reflect humanity.  It must be marvelous to be without self-awareness.  It's a terrible attribute for an artist.

For those who feel that I am "over the top" in my description of writing, that it isn't as bad as Fredricksburg must have been, I suggest a thought experiment.  Imagine yourself upon a stage.  Imagine that the audience is full of both your family, all your family, and that they are joined by every person in your entire life that you have hated or that has hated you.  Imagine every boss, every miserable co-worker, every disappointed teacher and professor, every mean old woman who frightened you as a child . . . they're all sitting out there in the audience.  Now you're going to start reading.  Out loud.  Not someone else's work, no.  Yours.  Not for some five-minute school assembly performance, either - but for 24 continuous hours.  24 hours of your audience getting restless and impatient, 24 hours of your audience thinking about getting up to get something to eat, 24 hours of your audience thinking that they might have something to say about what you're saying.  24 hours of your voice getting tired, of your knees buckling, of your words beginning to ramble as you fall off point.  24 hours of growing ever more conscious of the noise out there, of people mumbling and talking to each other, as your feet hurt and your hands holding the book begin to tremble and your confidence wanes.

Ask yourself: is that process going to get easier as you get closer to the end?

Nevertheless, finishing is the goal.

Damn right put it aside.  You cannot trust your own perspective.  You will never be able to trust your own perspective.  When your work is on trial you are entirely unsuitable to be a member of the jury. You cannot be the judge nor the prosecutor.  You're the defendant and the only evidence you have is the work; and every time you try to call yourself up as witness for the defense, you're steadily destroying your own case.  There are many writers in the world who don't get this.  They can't get this.

Once upon a time writers had an editor to act as their legal defense and to keep them off the stand.  The most interesting thing for this generation of self-published authors is watching them lose every case because they can't shut up about the work.

Yes, when someone says something is wrong, then something is wrong.  Those three words, "something is wrong," defines the difference between a good writer and a bad writer.  A bad writer focuses on the word 'wrong.'  A good writer focuses on the word 'something.'  999 times out of a thousand the thing that is wrong is nowhere near what the reader has said.  That's not the reader's fault.  They don't know the work intimately and they have no real idea of what the goal is or why the characters are making these choices the writer has made for them.  It is up to the good writer to piece together the clues of that reader's concern and figure out what the right changes are. This is often very difficult.

Bad writers start to throw all their ideals away and start making changes randomly or worse, exactly according to what the reader has said.

The word 'fix' is synonymous with the words 'write' and 'think.'  When a would-be writer is able to identify all three words as the same word spelled with different letters, the 'would-be' can be dropped.

Rules 7 and 8 are where Gaiman goes right off the rails.  

"Laugh at your own jokes" is a euphemism for "I'm being a real downer with these rules and I'm trying to sell something to an audience, so I should say something peppy and friendly so buyers won't think I'm a total asshole."

You don't need assurance or confidence to write whatever you want; just a willingness to overcome fear.  No story ever needs to be written.  You have no choice but to write things "the best that you can."  If you don't give a shit, you're still writing the 'best' you can.  Rule 8 is just an addendum to Rule 7:

"I don't think they really understood that Rule 7 was meant to be encouraging; I better spin out a bunch of cliched bullshit encouraging statements from the salesman's encouraging statements handbook so they know I'm really sincere about wanting their money."

I understand where Gaiman is coming from.  I want donations too.  I want my readers to have good feelings too.  But I'm not going to pretend that it is a 'rule' that anyone who really tries with a lot of assurance and confidence to do the best they can is going to write better than very badly.  Writing isn't hope.  It isn't need.  It isn't gosh-golly-gee-willikers I'm going to slap words together and be a writer today!

It's brutal self-abuse.  It takes years and years of writing well enough to be able to laugh at your own jokes (unless you're a fucking idiot and you think this is funny).

UPDATE:  I have looked up Neil Gaiman now and I do recognize some of his books - Coraline, for example.  It really isn't the sort of stuff I read but I'm gratified to find out he isn't a corporate writer hack.  I suspect those last two statements were forced on him by executive meddling . . . or else he feels endlessly guilty for the dark fantasies he writes.


Andrew Brownlee said...

Neil Gaiman is the 800 pound gorilla...the man writes his own checks, he's so revered. He's an excellent writer that makes it look easy. I only like about half his stuff but I respect the rest.

7) I can understand. He's basically saying to not take yourself too seriously. A tall order for any writer, as any writer will say.

8) Seems more like a generalized wrap-up and weakens the rest of the list, but I doubt its executive meddling, given who he is.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The writer of Coraline is the 800 lb. Gorilla? No wonder in my mind I'm always competing with writers who are dead.

It is plain from the rules that he doesn't think writing is easy.

Andrew, please take this the best way possible: if that's what Gaiman meant when he wrote Rule 7, then he should have used those words. If the words Gaiman used aren't definitive of what Gaiman actually meant, then he's a pretty crappy writer, isn't he? In any case, I can't think of anything more ridiculous in our modern era than hearing an artist say, "Don't take yourself too seriously." Yes, by all means - let's not be Goethe, Hugo, Hemingway or Austen. Let's not be Joyce, Byron, Coleridge or Fitzgerald. Let's not be Bukowski, James, Williams or Shaw. Let's be fucking Gaiman.

Because he writes his own checks.

Big woop.

He may be a very practical and readable fellow, he may be extraordinarily kind, he may be good to animals and children, he may give his time and his kindness to people who come speak with him, he may be generous and friendly when praised, he may be jovial and funny while speaking. He may be a wonderful and considerate human being. However, we were taking about WRITING.

The written phrase, "Laugh at your own jokes," falls flat on its face. It sounds very nice where applied to our personal happiness and the happiness of our friends. But tell me; precisely; don't hedge words; I'm waiting; how does the laughter actually improve MY ability to write jokes that OTHERS will laugh at?

I don't think you know, Andrew. I won't hold it against you. I don't think Gaiman knows. That's why it fails so hard following the six precise and practical pieces of advice that come ahead of it. It's the clunker, the piano key that's out of tune, the fart at the end of the soliloquy.

Giving him the credit that the first six points won the man, I'm very sure he's smart enough himself to know he blew it there. We all blow it as writers; gawd, it's the worst thing. Damn it, if we'd only written that one damn sentence when we were having a better day.

That's what this is; something that needed point 6. Something that needed a fix. Perhaps he's just demonstrating that he's let the six rules go before they reached perfection.

Daniel Osterman said...

From what I understand, Gaiman is far better known for the Sandman series of graphic novels, American Gods , and Neverwhere than for Coraline .

And I would offer an alternate interpretation of what Gaiman is saying with Rule 7, which is that you must think what you are writing has merit. Which is implicitly redundant with the first six rules.

There are a number of ways to interpret that particular phrase, and all of the ones I see are not nearly as powerful as the first six rules. It looks to me like Gaiman decided to go for something soppy and trite rather than sensible.

Jomo Rising said...

I preach the first six in my writer's group. I waited six months between finishing and editing my last book, also had accumulated a stack of feedback from folks. Going back and reading the 1st draft was like studying a turd.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I know Coraline because there was a movie. I remember the author of Coraline being interviewed, without ever knowing or caring about his name. I remember he was PISSED about the way they'd treated his story.

I never felt any need to dig up the book and read it.

Archon said...

Neil Gaiman is an excellent author - American Gods is a very good book, as far as these thing go and Good Omens is one of my favorites. He could be better, though, and he tends to have very cult fandoms.

How I interpreted rule 7 was much like how Daniel did - write jokes you think are funny, not jokes you think that people will think are funny. Becuase many writers these days try to write things they don't understand or care about, and fall flat on thier face.