Hemingway Said, You Do Not Talk About Writing
Rule number one: You do not talk about writing. Rule number two: You do NOT talk about writing!
I always picture Brad Pitt walking around telling a group of authors all the rules before a furious word slinging writers event, in some dark, seedy basement covered in sweat and coffee stains.
Obviously this is not the case. However, as writers we have a series of unwritten laws that we tend to either abide or pretend to be oblivious too. I am Jack’s complete lack of interest.
Writers Have Heroes, Too
As writers, we have authors as heroes just as those school kids look up to athletes. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and Stu Stein, to name a few. These authors broke the first rule of Writing Club: they all have a publication called On Writing.
“Throughout Ernest Hemingway’s career as a writer,” says Larry W. Phillips in his introduction to Ernest Hemingway on Writing, “he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing.”
So what else are we mortal writer’s, superstitious or otherwise, not supposed to do or say? There is quite a list, actually.
I am Jack’s bleeding heart.
As we have established, it is bad luck to talk about writing. Thanks, Ernest. Why, though? Basically, as Hemingway explains further, it is better to just write and not speak of it. In his method of removing all the bullshit and leaving behind only the greatness.
I disagree with this almost completely. Almost. I feel that we are just glorified campfire story-tellers. It is our duty to tell stories. Written down for others to enjoy at their leisure, obviously, that’s why we are “writers”. At the core of it all, however, we tell stories.
Talking about our stories is just in our nature. I am Jack’s gaping mouth. I do agree with the concept that we shouldn’t brag, and we also shouldn’t try to school or teach every passer-by with our knowledge of the process. Just tell the story, mate.
Another no-no myth is that we should write perfect. I am Jack’s decaying ego. As the saying goes: practice makes perfect. I disagree. I used to tell my football teams that practice does NOT make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect. They just looked at me and nodded “yes coach”.
In writing, this same method applies to an extent. If you practice writing you will get better, but only so far as you write perfect. The problem is that no one just writes perfectly out of the box. If we did, there would be no need for drafts and we would just pump out perfect final drafts day in and day out.
James Patterson was said to have written over a million words before he wrote his first novel. Writing makes you write better, but to write better you don’t just write words, you write better words. The one issue I have with this is that trying to write every word perfectly distracts from the art. Instead, I suggest that you just write.
Worry only about perfection while editing and focus on writing perfectly whilst writing the final draft. Otherwise, just write.
Don’t write like your idols. Sigh. I have heard this over and over and over and every time it upsets me to no end. Believe it or not, there is a finite number of writing genres. We are drawn towards certain ones and turned off by others.
I, for example, love thriller and horror and dislike romance and most young adult. Having authors as idols is not a bad thing and if we aspire to be an author then who should we emulate? Our idols. Exactly.
So why are we told not to? The reasons vary from one mouth to another, but the main theme seems to be that we should write our own style in our own voice. I tend to believe, though, that our own style and voice will come out, anyway. We should write like our idols.
I don’t write romance, and would never try to emulate Nicholas Sparks. However, writing horror I see nothing wrong trying to write in similar styles of King, Koontz or Barker.
Will I ever write a book and have a publisher read it and say… “Hey! did Stephen King write this?” No. That will never happen. However, if I am trying to sell a horror book and someone compares it to Clive Barker, then I should feel overwhelmingly excited about that.
Writing like your idols is never a bad thing.
You should never ask your mom for feedback. Again, heavy sigh. Friends and family are essential for writers’ feedback, especially if you are just starting out. While it is true that mom and dad will have a harder time giving you negative feedback (generally) this is not a bad thing.
As a writer, you will experience enough setbacks and hardships and negativity to last five lifetimes. Eventually it will harden you, make you better, make you more fierce. In the beginning though, it’s detrimental to your writing career.
If you start out with negative feedback, you will eventually believe it. Having mom coo and gush over your first few works will help boost your ego and keep you going. From there, you will begin perfect practice and have thousands more words under your belt.
You must seek out your mom and close friends for feedback in the beginning (and again any time you need to return to your happy place of believing you can accomplish this task). It is essential, and helpful.
I am Jack’s boastful pride.
Write what you know. This is tricky and I agree with it to a very limited extent. Readers (and publishers alike) know when you are bullshitting them. If you are writing about car mechanics and you know nothing of repairing an engine, you will turn your readers off.
Once you lose a reader because you don’t know what you are talking about, they will never believe another word you write, if they even finish the book. However, just writing what you know will severely limit what you write about.
And what about things that no one knows about? Aliens, vampires, deep space… if we only ever wrote what we knew, then books like Lewis’ Narnia or Tolkien’s ring quests and hobbits, would never exist. I take the phrase “write what you know” and change it slightly to “write what you believe.” A simple change that allows the author to have a slight edge in the truthfulness in the story.
I am Jack’s cancer-ridden mind.
We Don’t Know Everything
Certainly no one knows about hobbits, but Tolkien believed in them so much that what he said about them was a gospel of truth. No one doubts hobbits because Tolkien didn’t doubt them. However, we can’t always write absolute fantasy. So you should know your material.
You need to know how wounds heal, how radios operate, or how television signals work. Otherwise, if you bull shit these small details, then Roald Dahl wouldn’t have such success with Willy Wonka.
Sure there is a great deal of fantasy in that chocolate factory, but imagine if Dahl had simply made up how television signals work? We would never believe that it was possible to travel through those television waves and might have put the book down.
Believe what you write and learn what you do not know. Don’t be afraid of research and get the small details right.
Don’t write cliche. The main problem I have with this “advice” is that we then have to define what is cliche. Then, further, if we don’t write cliche, there wouldn’t be cliche to write. The issue there is that cliche works.
That is why it is cliche. Now you are asking yourself how many more times can I possibly say that word in one paragraph. The answer is 97. However, I will refrain.
Yes, the works can be overworked or even trite. They are important. This is never more obvious than when you get ideas for stories. Just like Hollywood, the literary world goes around in a circle.
For example, right now we have an influx of super hero movies that followed a slew of Romance and Romantic comedies. True, too, will be that the literary world will follow suit. Wizards and broom stick games followed by vampires and werewolves.
It’s all a Cycle
Horror is popular when Young Adult is on the decline and Romance blooms when Fantasy fades. Just because you write cliche projects (96) don’t worry about it. You may have to put it in a drawer and forget it for a few years, but soon and once again, the time will be right and people will be clamoring for that long-forgotten cliche (95) to be unleashed.
Don’t be afraid to complete a project, just because the market is currently flooded with a similar style of work doesn’t mean it won’t get noticed.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.”
You must find your unique voice. Umm. This is such a convoluted piece of advice. Yes, you do, but no, you do not. Confused? You should be. I spent too many wasted hours trying to follow this seemingly simple “fact”. Hours I will never get back.
Quickly (as I have other posts and pages about voice here that go into deeper detail), voice is not how you talk or the sounds that come from your characters mouths. Voice is, in essence, a style. The catch, however, is that your book’s voice is unique to that book. Your voice will change from project to project. Do you need to find it?
The real answer is that you will notice the voice emerging as you work. From draft to draft your project’s voice will emerge and you can then focus more on it. For now, in the beginning, it isn’t such a big worry. It will come and if it doesn’t, then that is one tale-tell sign that perhaps that particular project isn’t making the finish line.
Finally, the old tale to ensure you write every single day. You must write X amount of words, or for X amount of hours every single day if you are going to be successful. There are so many “facts” to support this: King writes 2000 words every day and won’t stop until he’s done it. Or, Koontz ensures, he writes for a minimum of 2 hours each day.
Yes, that method works for some, even a lot of, people. However, these famous authors are paid to write. Are you yet paid to write every day? I know that I am not. I have work, and children and family and friends and shopping to do and places to go.
Let’s be frank. You need to make the time to write. It does need to be a habit that you can do and get into. If it’s ever a chore, then perhaps it isn’t for you. It is nice to have goals. However, I will fight to the death against anyone that says I must write a certain amount or for a certain time every single day.
We Have Lives
I have a life. You do too. While you, like me, want to make a career from writing, you also have other obligations and other spontaneous things that appear that take our time, focus and attention away. Go with it. Get a break. Take a day or even two off.
Go outside. Research. Read. Watch a movie. Get some sun on your skin. Go shopping. You do not have to write every single day. Just as long as you don’t fall in the hole and make not-writing the habit.
I am Jack’s exhausted colon.
Write. Write often. Get lost in it. Talk about it. Get positive feedback. Enjoy what you do and do it with a fervor and a vigor that rivals pure passion.