Some Maxims For Writing

Hey look, it’s Monday. Fine, okay, none of you seem pleased about this. It’s still a nice-ish day, though, even if my local weather-human is telling me it’s going to snow tomorrow. But between now and then, let’s talk writing.

I talk a lot about “rule 1” which is Writing is the act of making decisions, which is to remind you that you’re in charge of the words and worlds you put forth, not the other way around, and you can have whatever you want for however long you want, until you change your mind. For the curious, the next few rules are: everything is fixable; the only failure is when you give up; and don’t beat yourself up, this is about evolution not single-instance rewards.

But let’s look at some more.

Risk is the yeast that makes your story grow. I have fond childhood memories of my mom laying out bread dough and covering it with a towel, then hours later the dough practically mushroomed and spilled out over the top of the pan. It seemed magical. It seemed related to the magic of pouring soda into a mug and watching it fizz up, or the time I put pretzel salt in my bottle of Coke. Science aside, the sense of change and flow translates nicely to writing. Risk, loss and the possibility of that loss (more on those two in a second) help a story expand. Sure, okay, if you’re writing a children’s book about puppies, there’s not a lot of reason to risk things, but if you’re writing about characters with an arc and a plot to resolve and the general sense of “things gotta change”, risk is a great way for that character to take strides forward. Likewise, risking yourself as an author, creating stories that are outside your comfort zone, working in new habits rather than however complacent your old ones are, putting your guts on the page, that’s how you discover new facets of your craft. Your craft, developed your way, tailored and shared by you. It’s one of the unique expressions in existence.

Loss isn’t the enemy, it’s part of the engine. You build a character. Give them looks and a plan and wants and dreams and talent. So that’s their length and width. If you want to add a third dimension, take away something. Maybe not in the pre-story times (meaning they start the story with loss), maybe during the story, maybe the story IS the loss, but it’s the darker side, the sadder side, the melancholy and the meandering away from sunshine and rainbows that takes a character from “Oh yeah” to “OH YEAH!” (Kool-Aid man sold separately)

There are going to be times when you have to hear things you don’t want to. Accept them or not, but understand they’re not always fruitless. You’re going to face tough spots in your road from Point A to Point B as a creator. Whatever your course, which is dependent on what you do and how you do it, you’re going to face criticism, rejection, disapproval, lousy reviews, weird social politics, melodrama, excuses, cowards, bullies, sycophants, jealousy, boredom, regret, and a thousand dozen other things I can’t rattle off the top of my head. Some of this stuff, good and bad, is going to be groundless and petty and come out of left field and hopefully you’ll be able to shake it off. Some of this stuff, good and bad, is actually important and has been told to you in an effort to help you. The notes about your draft? Likely some of it is helpful. The aberrant one-star review that cites the problem being the name of your main character? Not helpful. The conversation where people tell you get your shit together? Hard to hear, but ultimately helpful. You have to weigh each piece individually, look at what it’s trying to accomplish, don’t get too out of shape about the delivery system (because tough things to hear or read don’t get pretty packages and bows), and learn something from it. 

Excuses do not put words on the page or tick items off the to-do list. Maybe you’re not a paid writer. Maybe you’re not working on deadlines for a magazine or periodical. Maybe you’re just someone who reads all the writer blogs and comments about how this post or that post is a shot in the arm, but then later, in those hours when you could be writing, you’ve elected to watch a show about pruning hedges that you’ll later complain about on social media … yet that’s what you chose to watch. Maybe you’ve got real responsibilities and people counting on you, maybe you promised to pay people and run businesses and stand up and be accountable, and now that seems friggin’ huge and terrifying. Maybe you wake up everyday and slog off to a job you hate, for a boss who doesn’t respect you, and then come home to dishes in the sink, bills in the mail and your roommate four months behind on their share of the rent. And you do all this, because you raise up this shield of excuses. There always seems to be a reason, always seems to be some way that what you want to do isn’t getting done, and very seldom does it have anything to do with you. That guy’s late with the check (and you’re not hounding him for it). You want to make a thing (but you’re not writing diligently, nor organizing others to aid you). You’d love to be someone who does X or Y or Z, but you don’t own the shoes/you’re so tired at the end of the day/someone might see you/that might be when the ninjas attack. Guess what? You might think those things are important, you may elect to make those things important, and act as though they’re the big damned deal, but … they don’t have to be. Excuses don’t get the work done, they don’t ease the stress, they don’t make the problems do anything than just get bigger later. It’s a stall, and stalling on stuff isn’t the best attitude or strategy for being the sort of pro-active, disciplined, healthy, boundary-having, responsible, upright person that so many of use state so clearly that we want to be. You know that phrase, “See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.”? I propose a new one – “Make an excuse, you’re just afraid. Take the action instead, and find your way.” Take the action, dispel your fear. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Own the successes as quickly as you own your mistakes. I know a lot of people who love to point out what they did wrong. You ask them how something went, they’ll tell you it went okay but then spend the other 80% of their conversation talking about what went wrong. This stems from having unreasonable expectations on how things have to be or how they have to behave (in order to get acceptance or esteem or love) or from assuming that in the presence of shortcomings, they’re less than who they are. Hint – mistakes happen. The coffee comes out cold, your shoe comes undone, you practically ruin your intimate night running to the bathroom after the mushrooms in your appetizer don’t agree with you. No one sets out to make the mistakes. It’s the response to mistakes that matters. Throw your hands up, surrender, make excuses, complain, and stop forward progress and you’re not changing any circumstances. Realize that mistakes are a part of action and evidence of effort and that no one’s really freaking out about these things to the same degree as you are, because coffee’s coffee, because you can tie your shoe or because everyone poops, and take the step forward. Get past it. Find the successes. Maybe you didn’t spill anything on your outfit. Maybe even with terrible bathroom trauma, you still got quite cozy. Maybe you discovered a pretty spot to sit and tie your shoe. Figure out for yourself which you give more weight to, the failures or the successes, and consider applying that to your writing. Is it really failure when you knock out 300 words the day after you did 1000? You’re still up 1300 total words in two days. That’s pretty awesome.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. The phone rings. The kids are acting up. The dog has to come in. The wash is done. The TV is too loud. It’s almost lunch. You don’t know what you’re having for dinner. Life is made of all these events, all these actions and reactions and when all you’re trying to do (and saying it that way makes it sound so insignificant, right?) is write a story about a sexy lady looking for a sexy guy for sexy times in the sexy not-present, these distractions, these things seem to keep you from writing. Okay, yes, you can’t always tell your kids that you’re writing and expect them to be as silent as people in a dentist’s office. But have you tried telling them that while they watch the cartoon about the googly eyed kid, you’re going to be writing, and you won’t interrupt them if they don’t interrupt you? Take it another way – If you want to appreciate A, you really need to have a B and C in your life to give some perspective. And managing the time you spend on them, and doing your best not to co-mingle them, is part of the discipline of creation.

Be willing to be wrong. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to goof up. You’re going to say the wrong thing, bite off more than you can chew, make a misstep, or plan for one thing and get another. This is part of all processes, though writing makes it feel particularly pointed due to the emotions involved in making stories and in offering them to hungry readers. Just as we can look at the math and know that not everyone is going to like what you write, and it’s kinda irrational to expect so, we can look at the math and say for all the opportunities presented to you, you’re going to muck a few up. And those mistakes might be costly. They might fracture your ego, sap your resolve and sour you on being creative. Wrong happens. In any instance, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of being wrong, not because your “right” isn’t “good enough” (I might get cramps from all these airquotes) but because you weren’t “right” and it’s not about “right” or “wrong” it’s about doing something, then reacting to its outcome, then basing your next action on what just happened, and repeating that until the universe decays or the Jets make a smart draft pick. You’re not perfect, and nothing is gained by holding yourself to some ever-elevating standard that you can’t reach. (I’d also like to point out that you’re the one who keeps raising your own bar, so why are you doing that to yourself?)

May your art be awesome this week.

Happy writing.

0 thoughts on “Some Maxims For Writing

  1. Hi, I’m a new reader.

    You mention “rule 1” is that writing is about making decisions. I looked over your tags (which I love by the way) but didn’t see a tag for “rule 1.” Or “rules.” The “writing maxims” tag doesn’t seem to extend beyond this post.

    What are some of your other posts related to making decisions as a writer and/or “rule 1?”

    Thanks!
    –Dither

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