Blog/ Writing

The most original thing a writer can do is write like himself. It is also his most difficult task. — Robertson Davies

Sporkalicious (whose username I admire) asks three questions: “how do you go from writing an idea for a story to writing the finished product? and also, how do you manage to do it without worrying that it’s really a stupid idea or that someone else has already done it?”

I’m gonna respond to these in reverse order.

  • If someone else has already done it. Depends on what level of “it” you’re talking about. Quite a lot of people have written about vampires, for instance, but it should not stop you from pursuing your own unique bloodsucking dreams. If, however, you find yourself inspired to write about a peculiarly sparkly and brooding vampire whose object of desire is a clumsy high school girl, that would perhaps be more accurately described as fanfic. Which is totally fine. As a matter of fact, I think writing fanfic, in addition to being fun, can be a great way to familiarize yourself with an author’s voice, and figure out via reverse-engineering what aspects of the author’s work you find especially appealing. Just don’t try to publish it somewhere other than a fanfic archive. Also fine: combining ideas previously used by others to form something new. “It’s like Harry Potter… BUT IN SPACE!” (Harry himself is something of a mashup of British boarding school stories and high fantasy.)
  • If it’s really a stupid idea. Other writers who are reading, back me up on this: it is extremely rare to write something and NOT be convinced, at some point, that it is epically stupid. And by “it” I mean not just the original idea, but each individual detail of character and situation that you have developed. You second-guess yourself and think maybe you should just give up. But if you let yourself get hung up worrying, you end up never finishing anything. Heed the wisdom of Anne Lamott, advocate of shitty first drafts (that link there is a PDF, btw — thank you, Professor Morales, for putting the excerpt online) — get the words down first. Worry about fixing them later. Weird Al agrees. So does Lynda Barry. (And if you haven’t read Bird by Bird or What It Is, I recommend you do so as soon as possible.)
    • Caveat: the questioning that comes from initial, paralyzing self-doubt is distinct from the sorts of questions you ask yourself when revising. Once you’ve got a draft to revise, you can and should ask questions: whether an action makes sense for a character, if an incident would be stronger if it happened earlier or later in the story, and even if — yes — that one scene is just really stupid. And I’m not gonna lie: sometimes it is. If it is, either you cut it, or you stare into the middle distance, trying to remember why you thought it was so important in the first place, and if you’re lucky, that leads you to figure out how to express the ideas more clearly.
  • From an idea to a finished product. Persistence. And here is a hard truth: even when you have that finished product, revised and polished to the best of your ability, it will probably not be awesome. But working through the process means your next story will move some incremental step in the direction of awesomeness. My artist friends talk about doing hundreds of bad drawings before you get one good one. A similar principle holds for writing.

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  • sara z.
    December 19, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    I back you up on point 2. Well, I back you up on all of them. And re: point 3, yes, I was just talking to someone today and telling him when you’re a writer you pretty much always live with at least some small sense of failure because even your most well-executed stories will not be as perfect as the vision for them you once had.

  • Sara
    December 19, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Re: some small sense of failure — indeed.

    Also, belatedly responding to your response to an earlier post: absolutely, we must have a writing date when we are in the same city. When will that happen?

  • sara z.
    December 20, 2008 at 10:27 am

    I really hope to get back to Portland in the spring!