Thursday, March 3, 2016
Writing With Gaiman
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.