I recently came across a list of advice to a young writer – it was the standard: read lots, shut off the TV, get a good thesaurus, learn the rules before you break them... all good stuff. A couple of new ones on the list caught my attention (or ones I had not seen before):
Find what interests both you and others.
These ones gave me pause, and then I went, yeah... that's right. The interest one might seem common sense, but I think I'm only finally learning it now. When I look back on some of my earliest works, I was big into what interested me, but I didn't give a wick about the reader. Hey, if this bores you, then move along buddy. Go find something in the romantic post-apocalyptic fiction section (is that a genre? Most likely. I love you Bob, but the world has ended. I love you too, Sue. See you in the radioactive desert later.)
Definitely you need to write about what interests you. I mean, if I'm boring myself, then sure as shinola I'm boring the crap out of everybody. I also won't finish anything I start.
I have come to see the main difference between professional writers and wannabees is that the pros finish stuff. As simple as that. If I meet one more person that says they have a whole novel in their head and all they need to do is write it down, I'm gonna poke my eyes out with a burnt wiener stick. So here's maybe the most important advice I can give anyone wanting to become a real, honest-to-Pete, writer: finish shit.
Digression complete. For now. (More on who Pete is, later)
Back to the interest thing. In that first draft you gotta keep yourself interested, but it is in the rewriting where I start to look outward to a potential reader. It is really one of the hardest things to do. Are you able to judge objectively what is interesting to others? How do you take that step back?
I hired an editor for my latest novel (coming out this May, 2017 btw!!!) I hired her because I was having a hard time creating that objective view. I knew something was out of whack, but I didn't know what. One of the things that she pointed out, in her substantive edit (not a copy edit), was where she lost interest. She was too nice to say I was boring her – but that's what she meant. One of the main goals of the novel rewrite was to address those less interesting parts, or just cut them right out (which I ended up doing).
Often, we just can't see the boring parts. This is when you need another pair of trusted eyes. By trusted, I mean someone that you know is a skilled reader, but also someone who won't hold back. If all your beta-readers can say about your work is they like it and it's good (kinda like asking your spouse how she feels, and she says fine. Well, you know there is more under the surface of that).
I really do want someone to tell me - you know that whole chapter bored the complete shit out of me. I've read more interesting Algebra problems. It means I got some fixing to do.
Here is where the adage of putting a work in a drawer for a month or two really plays out. But sometimes even that isn't enough. I've said before how we all need editors - God, how we need them - but I guess I'm clarifying here, that the need is not just about fixing your misplaced modifiers, and dangling participles (I've heard you can get a cream for those.) Moreover, editors can tell you what interests them.
I just used "moreover" in a sentence. I feel like I've accomplished something here.
The other point about simplify also struck me. As talked about in a previous post, just like George Saunders I also had a Hemingway boner for the first five (ten?) years of my writing career. It's why I loved Carver and Ford and anyone that could strip stories, and better yet, sentences down to their simplest forms. Kill those modifiers on sight! I laughed when Saunders in an interview said that during his Hemingway phase a lot of his stuff sounded like this:
Bob went into the Walmart. It was pleasant.
Of course, when I revisit Hemingway, I see that he wasn't all that simple in his language. Sure, he cut to it, but the layers in the writing were deeply complex - his whole iceberg theory thing. So to simplify, even in terms of Hemingway-esque prose, means more than just sentence structure and word choice.
I'm just riffing here, but I wonder if it has to do with asking yourself: So what is this story about? Don't give me all you serpentine bullshit about the human condition. Just tell me what this is about. Simply.
Again, this is not a simple task. In fact, I think I've spent the last 16 years trying to figure it out. In an interview with my publisher, they asked me about my revision process.
As I gather comments, and my own insights from leaving the manuscript rest for a while, I begin to revise by asking two main questions: “Why?” and “Is this true?”
This idea of making something simple reminds me of an anecdote I heard about the chef Marco Pierre White. To paraphrase... when asked about making something simple, like an egg. He said, "simple does not mean easy." Those are my quote marks, and TBH I'm not even sure it was White, but let's say it was. The whole point of the deal here is to create a simple beautiful story, or even just one sentence - Hemingway said (and this time I know it was him), “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Sounds easy right?
Oh, and make it interesting while you're at it.
Here's MPW putting some poor chefs through the wringer... about eggs.