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Advice on Not Writing

by Jon Evans

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With National Novel Writing Month coming up, various friends of mine are gearing up to write novels. This disturbs me greatly. Please stop. Eighteen months ago, I somehow stumbled and tumbled into a paying gig as a full-time novelist, and let me tell you, it’s a damn cushy job — but it’s also fraught with risk. If I don’t sell books, I’ll be back out on the street, or worse yet, in the office. And the competition is killing me. Every time someone walks into a bookstore, I’m already fighting for their attention with Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, John Le Carre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, the list goes on forever. You think I want that list any longer? You think I want more competition? No freakin’ way.

Offhand I can’t think of any better way to turn potential competition into nonwriters than by having them do NaNoWriMo.

There’s this perception of the publishing business as a walled garden, protected by moats and spiky walls, whose denizens are for the most part actively hostile to wannabe writers and their attempts to break in. This perception is one thousand per cent correct. And now that I’m inside the garden, dammit, I want y’all to stay out where you belong. But the walls are far from impregnable, and if you all keep writing, there’s a real danger that you’ll come in and push me out. There’s only room for so many. So please, allow me to humbly suggest a few rules for you all to follow so’s I can stay here in the pink of my largely undeserved and very jammy existence.

Of course they don’t apply to everyone. There are exceptions; there are always exceptions; there’s always Harper Lee. But if everyone follows these rules carefully, I should be able to continue bathing in caviar for the rest of my days. Please help.

1. Don’t Have Talent

Maybe you just can’t hear the music. If this applies to you, stop now, don’t bother reading the rest — but please, whatever you do, don’t stop writing. Au contraire, please, I beseech thee, write like GK Chesterton and Isaac Asimov’s genespliced son or daughter. Stay up every night dreaming of the power, money, and public adulation that will be yours when your genius is finally realized. Write a hundred pages a week, a novel a month, and — this is the important part — flood publishers with queries and manuscripts. Try to get your friends to do the same. Now that I’m on the other side of the transom, I want those slush piles mounting to Mars, I want the good manuscripts to be needles in a haystack the size of the Gobi Desert. Please, oh talentless ones, please. You’re not my only hope, but you are the most effective.

2. Do NaNoWriMo

Offhand I can’t think of any better way to turn potential competition into nonwriters than by having them do NaNoWriMo.

First, it’s a false gimmick. 50,000 words is not a novel. It should be, and fifty years ago it would have been, but Novel Size has bloated, and books today must be big. (Yes, there are exceptions, there are always exceptions.) My first published novel started at 75,000 words, and this concerned my publisher greatly; even fattened out to 90,000, they thought it scrawny.

Work only when you’re Inspired, when your Muse is visiting, by which you mean, in fits and starts, and never to completion.

Second, writing that much in a month while working full-time is hard. That’s how much I write in a month, when I’m writing, and I write fast, and I write full-time. (Well, part-time, 25 hrs/week. I told you it was cushy.) Writing is like anything else: if you try and do too much of it when you’re already half-drained, the quality of what you produce goes way down. This makes it very likely that NaNoWriMo’s result will be sufficiently crappy that it will be no good either for expansion or revision. First drafts can and often should be bad, yes, but dreadful is often impossible to fix.

Third, a NaNoWriMo book will be such a draining hassle to produce that the writer will have strong negative associations with novel-writing for a long time thereafter — especially if they fail to finish. Even if they ‘succeed’, they’re not likely to think much of their own abilities when they reread their output. This kind of negative experience ought to keep dozens of otherwise capable writers off bookstore shelves, praise the Lord.

3. Don’t Read

A writer who doesn’t read is like a carpenter without wood. And that’s the way I want you. But if you must read, fine... but read, say, one or two books a month, and make sure that they’re almost always the same type of thing. For God’s sake don’t read fiction, nonfiction, highbrow, lowbrow, Nobel Prize winners, glossy paperback thrillers, young adult adventure, devastating character studies, scripts, poetry, newspapers, essays, and every so often a book just because it’s the kind of book you don’t normally read. Because that would be trouble.

4. Don’t Write

There are those who don’t actually want to write, they just want to be writers. I love you, you’re perfect, don’t ever change.

Then there are Idea People, who come up with story ideas and think that this is some kind of big deal, and treat the actual writing as a kind of connect-the-dots monkey-job. Don’t ever tell these folks that when it comes to writing, ideas, all ideas, are cheap and worthless. It’s only the execution that counts. Let them be convinced that some day they’ll bother doing the gruntwork. It’s kinder to everyone, really.

It’s not ready. In fact, it’s never going to be ready. You have to revise it until it’s perfect, perfect. And it’s never going to be perfect.

Related are those with Grandiose Plans, the people who have ten-volume fantasy epics “all plotted out” but have never written more than the first fifty pages and disconnected bits and scraps, because somehow they find themselves replotting and rescheduling and weaving new characters into their Grandiose Plans rather than actually writing anything, because of course their plans have to be perfect before they can ever actually write the eight thousand pages, which of course they’ll never do. Please, if you have such plans, perfect them, or scrap them and come up with a nine-volume science fiction epic (one book for every planet in the solar system) instead, and don’t ever, ever, think of starting with something small.

There are so many other ways not to write. Writer’s Block, for instance; it’s not you, it’s your condition. Or the need to research every little thing about your historical period before you start writing about it, and I do mean every little thing. Or work only when you’re Inspired, when your Muse is visiting, by which you mean, in fits and starts, and never to completion.

But of course they all boil down to a failure to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. And write something, regardless of how little you’re so inclined, how many distractions leap to mind. And again. And again. And again. On a schedule. Whether you feel like it or not. I beg you, don’t do that. And if you do do that, at least don’t make it a real priority in your life. I don’t ever want to hear you saying “I’m sorry, I can’t come to the movie/make it to the party/have dinner with you, I’m writing tonight.” Because if you start saying things like that, you’ve become dangerous.

The rule of thumb is that most writers — most talented writers — have a million bad words in them before they start writing good ones. A million. That’s four thousand pages. That’s ten novels. There are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But if that number seems unthinkably huge, you may not be a writer. If you’re pushing thirty and you haven’t yet written an entire novel, you may not be a writer. Because, you see, what writers do is, they write.

5. Don’t Finish What You Write

About a hundred pages in, that’s where it usually hits: that’s the point where all the inspiring ideas and images have been stained by ordinariness, tarnished by their translation from dreams to words, and the story seems stupid, and the characters vapid, or even if the setup looks good — and it probably does, because setup is easy — the payoff doesn’t seem worth writing any more, and it’s all so banal and pointless that it’s really best to just stop, because now you’ve got this other idea buzzing around in your head, and it’s really amazing, clearly better than this piece of crap, no sense throwing good money after bad, law of diminishing returns, let’s write this off as an educational experience and move onto the real story, the good story, shall we? Yes. Let’s.

Or maybe you just have trouble with story structure, so you don’t know how to move from the beginning to the middle. Or maybe you can’t do endings. I sympathize. Endings, as Elmore Leonard says, are hard.

Even if you get to THE END, just remember one thing: it’s not ready. In fact, it’s never going to be ready. You have to revise it until it’s perfect, perfect. And it’s never going to be perfect. Like Continuity in Mona Lisa Overdrive, you will be working on your novel, and you will always be working on your novel. And I will be over here, smiling.

6. Fall In Love With Your Work

Hemingway famously said “The thing a writer needs most is a first-rate bullshit detector.” I assume he was talking about reading your own work. And boy, was he right.

You may find, when rereading your own work, that you hear two voices, like the famous angel and devil on your shoulders, murmuring to you. You may not have these voices. You may have them but not hear them — in which case, rock on, stay deaf. But in case you hear them, this is what they do: when you reach certain passages, Voice 1 will quietly mutter something like “I don’t know about this bit,” after which Voice 2 will emphatically shout it down: “Are you crazy? This is perfect! This is the best part of the book! The bit about the vines on the wall is an amazing symbolic analogy for the way his family has stifled him! And just listen to the way it reads, it practically skips off the tongue, it’s prose poetry, for God’s sake, if you save anything from this book, save this passage!”

I want you to listen to me very carefully. Ignore Voice 1. Voice 1 is always wrong. Listen to Voice 2, and only Voice 2, and you and me, we’re going to get along just fine.

And know this: If you finish a novel, you’ve done something amazing, something incredible, something momentous. Bask in it. Print it out and stare at the stack of paper. Wait a couple months without writing anything, to catch your breath. And again, after you’ve done the second draft. Think about sequels, or affiliated short stories. Do not, repeat not, shrug, catalogue its many flaws, mutter “OK, onto the next, maybe this one will be better”, and the very next day, start a new one.

7. Write Short Stories

I feel bad about this one, because I love short stories. But honestly? From a professional standpoint, in today’s market? You go and write all the short stories you like. Hell, get ’em published. I don’t care. I don’t think you’re Alice Munro or Jhumpa Lahiri. I don’t think anyone’s going to give a shit. You may, may, get a tiny fraction of a microsecond more attention from an agent or publisher if you can mention that you’ve had stories published in Literary Quarterly or what have you, and this does work to your advantage — but I’m pretty damn sure that this is outweighed by the opportunity cost of spending all that time and effort working on stories instead of novels, where the money’s at. I’m sorry. I hate to say it. But nobody reads the damn things any more. So if they’re what float your boat, my condolences, best of luck, I fear you not even a little.

8. Don’t Send Out What You Write

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Because if you finish what you write, then you might have to do something with it. You’re going to have to show it to people. You’re going to have to risk crushing, soul-destroying rejection. Are you ready for that? Are you? Don’t you think you want to do one more pass? Don’t you want to show it to your workshop one more time? How about a new workshop? You’ve only got one chance to make the all-important first impression. Is it ready? Is it really ready? Are you sure? I didn’t think so.

If you get this far and stick, I’m a little worried, as there’s still a chance that you might get hit by a truck or off yourself (occupational hazard) and your heirs will send out your masterpiece instead, a la John Kennedy O’Toole (well, sort of, his story was complicated). But it’s only a slim chance; publishers will tell you that first novels, even the ones with immense promise, almost always need rewriting.

9. Don’t Understand The Business

Don’t be professional. Don’t understand that it’s a business. Query agents who don’t accept queries; send manuscripts to those who want queries first. Phone them. Repeatedly. Send humble, self-effacing query letters in which you all but cringe before their all-powerful might. Or tell them that you have a guaranteed New York Times bestseller. Be mystified by the way in which all your friends and acquaintances love your writing, while the publishing Powers That Be keep rejecting it, and tell yourself that it’s all an incestuous sucker game and you have to know someone to break in. Don’t understand that when the general population reads something, they’re looking for reasons to like it, whereas when an agent or publisher reads a submission from a no-name, they are looking for a reason to reject it, and it’s your job to prevent them from seeing any such reason.

Or decide that agents seem like a waste of time — why try to jump two bars when you can jump one? — and go straight to publishers instead. Sometimes it works. There are exceptions. There are always exceptions.

Or schmooze. Go to writers’ conferences. Meet agents. Sign up to feed your money into the the vast crud of the Would-Be Writer industry. You know what? It may work. But if you’ve got a good book, you don’t need to schmooze. Yes, if you’re good at sales, and if you haunt the wannabe circuit, you can eventually sell a mediocre book — but I’m arrogant enough that I’m not worried about those.

It’s the good books that frighten me. Keep them out of the bookstores. Please. My future depends on it. Help me, teeming masses struggling to cut me off at the knees, you’re my only hope.

Jon Evans’ first novel, Dark Places, mixes exotic locales with Internet forensics. Oh, and murder. Horrible, gruesome murder. It has been published in the US and Canada, and in the UK and the Netherlands as Trail of the Dead. His second book, Blood Price, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005.