A student of mine once wore an aphoristic T-Shirt that said something that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since, “Swag,” it said in bold letters, “Don’t come cheap.”
The student didn’t say much else, but we’ve always been…(alright I need to stop the Gatsby alluding before it gets out of hand—sorry).
Ah, swag, that essence of the gods. It certainly don’t come cheap now, does it?
Of course writers know this just as well as high school football players. Swag in writing, that lucid prose that illuminates the mind and sings to the soul and catalyzes the glands—that don’t come cheap either. It requires a process with strict, conscious discipline to rules and ritual.
So here is my writing process. Well, it’s actually more of a rule of writing life.
(by the way this is part two of my writing process blog tour. Read the previous post and check out Brie Gowen’s website. She’s the one who invited me on the tour!).
Rule 1-Don’t write.
This one I’m good at. Instead of writing, try to commit to something actually worthwhile like watching TV or working or spending time with family.
Honestly, there are too many writers out there and too many books (seriously, if you have a critical synapse in your brain and search Amazon or Twitter for books indie or mainstream, you will cry over the quality and quantity of books).
I’m not saying that fewer people should write. Writing is a great hobby. Even this post is an exercise in that. I’ll write it tonight, throw it on my blog, and someone will read it. That’s great.
But writing a novel—dedicating hundreds of hours to one project with the risk that no one will read it or it will be the same as everything else—is a terrifying concept. I did it, and I’m terrified. What percent of novels are great, truly worth your time when there are so many good shows on Netflix (have you seen The Wire? I haven’t and I might be missing out big time if I read/write a novel instead)?
Don’t write. I’ll say it again: Don’t WRITE! Try to find something worth writing instead. Try to find meaning in life. Try to hear the voice of God. Then if you’ve heard it; if you truly believe you have some truth to share in the midst of this metal world (to borrow an idea from David Rosario the narrator in my upcoming novel), then write. That’s when you skip to rule five.
If you are obsessed with a character and his/her life for years, write it. If you carry around a notebook and laugh out loud in the supermarket line because you think of a joke your character says, then write it. Write it again. Write it a third time. Have someone smart edit it (for me it’s my brilliant wife).
Then get it published. If no one wants to read it, well you got to hear the voice of God. Not a bad way to spend a decade.
Rule 2-Notice everything.
If you’re coworkers say something interesting, write it down. If you can’t write it down, or are busy eating cake from the treat table, remember it, at least. Remember the cadence and the syntax. Remember the emotion. Remember the glow of synthetic light. Remember everything.
Write everything down.
Borrow your wife’s iPhone, because yours is not smart; then jot down how the character felt at some dance in high school. Then go home and realize it is horrible, delete it. Feel the same emotion later, notice where and chronicle how the molding around the stage in this old theater looks like ivory soap, then realize that simile sucks and move on.
Rule 3-Listen to your favorite album, something with complexity, something that doesn’t gloss over the reality of life.
Listen to that same album over and over for a long time. Write about a man killing a dragon. Only it isn’t a dragon, but really, it is. Have that be the climax of the novel.
Then eat a scone. You’ve done well today.
Rule 4-Go to Church
While I don’t write “religious fiction,” my fiction is inspired by my faith more than any other area of my life. Actually, I don’t really see any area of my life being separate from faith, which is important for the reasons below.
Believe the world is sacred. Believe people can be made holy. Then fall in love with the richness of an ancient faith. Spend time weekly with people saying words that are ancient and beautiful and true. Find beauty in routine.
There are novels that have inspired me, that have made me need to write, but more often than not it’s a sunset or a sacrament that gets me to steal my daughter’s marker and write on the back of a bulletin. It doesn’t mean that I’m writing sermons or theology. The robot fights in my book came to me during a 9-hour summer grad class about theology. Never be preachy or didactic in your fiction (unless a character is), but do write after hearing a sermon or lesson.
Rule 5: Location, Location, (I hate myself for writing this cliché, but it’s a blog, right?), Location.
If your kids are awake, you need to leave the house and go to Starbucks or Caribou or that awesome hipster coffee shop two towns over (the problem is that their tables are sticky if it’s humid out, and it’s humid right now).
If your kids are asleep, sit in your blue Lazy Boy (that isn’t actually a Lazy Boy and isn’t blue because it has a chair cover to match the earth tones in the basement). Put on a record; obtain the following supplies:
- Sunflower seeds
- Seltzer water
- A bandana (shout out to my boy DFW)
- A computer (or notebook or typewriter or alphasmart [seriously, not a bad option]).
Place those items next to the chair. Realize that you need to shave. Shower and shave (preferably with a safety razor or something retro). Then turn on some music and write.
Rule 6: Win the Pulitzer or Something
We began with an aphorism from one of my students, let’s end with one: “Let Your Haters Be Your Motivators.” Actually, this smacks of rap tropes, and it may be from a song, but I learned it from one of my student’s essays.
My point is this. MFA programs and undergraduate creative writing classes have taught us to be good at receiving criticism. They have taught us to write clean prose that says something beautiful about monotony. That is noble. But that isn’t what gets you excited about writing. You get excited about Jay Gatsby, about Fitzgerald’s obsession with Zelda and perfect prose. You get excited about Shelley saying ironically, “Look on my works ye mighty and despair.” You get excited to see that Hemingway told Fitzgerald to “Kiss my ass,” after receiving criticism on A Farewell to Arms. So write something bigger and better than everyone else. That should be your tertiary goal (behind hearing the voice of God and writing something beautiful and true).
Listen to other’s critiques, but don’t write for other people’s approval. Write to say something beautiful, true, and unique. Otherwise, you might as well catch up on The Wire.
I’m not saying I’ve done this. But I believe in that lucid prose that draft after draft recedes before me. It has eluded me before, but that’s no matter—tomorrow, I’ll sit in my blue chair, pound on my keys, and watch letters create words that create something eternal. And one fine morning…
So I beat on, against the current of contemporary fiction, borne back ceaselessly into…another dimension where my MC Rey Pescador lives…it’s kind of a long story.
But don’t worry you can buy it soon. Follow me on twitter, or follow this site for news on pre-ordering my novel soon.
It was all true,