Write Every Day: Gem-Tactics

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Let's see if I can possibly format this so it looks good:

We play at pasteTill qualified for pearl,Then drop the paste,And deem ourself a fool.

The shapes, though, were similar,And our new handsLearned gem-tacticsPracticing sands.

-Emily Dickinson, Poem 320

When I was in college, I wrote short stories.  I wrote a LOT of short stories.  I'd inflict them on my friends, printing my little monsters out at four in the morning and running down to Kinko's to bind a half-dozen copies to pass around the next day.

Almost all of the stories were routinely terrible.

I didn't care.

Perhaps I should have cared more.  I didn't do much editing in those days; I was much too interested in whatever story I was going to write next to think about the people cowering in the closet, hiding from unseen monsters (or aliens, or robots, or whatever).

That story was done.  I'd finished it.  The notion that it might take two or ten or fifty more passes to get it to a true presentable state was unthinkable to me.

Editing?  I had writing to do!

I've since learned to edit myself.  It was a lot of trial and error, but I think I may, finally, be getting the hang of how to go through my stuff without demolishing everything in my path, how to refine without taking away so much it all starts to taste like chicken.

The first step was acknowledging that I had to edit at all.

The second step was resolving myself to the plain fact that first drafts are not finished stories.  Or novels.  Or whatever your particular brand of vodka might be.

Still, there is great value in first drafts.  There's great value in stories which might never, ever see the light of day (gosh, I'm terribly sorry poor college friends -- please forgive me).

All those terrible stories I wrote in college -- some of them with lone, glimmering ideas shining through the muck and the grime -- are collected in a single binder in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere.  And on the cover, in my own barely legible handwriting, are the words "Gem Tactics".

Yes, I lost the hypen.  Even then . . .

It might have been Freshman year when I picked up a beat up, used book of poems at one of the bookstores on campus I visited seemingly on a daily basis.  I wrote poetry in those days.  Nothing special.  Mostly just dipping my toes in the water, same as any other young writer getting their sea legs.  One of the poems I came across was Emily Dickinson's poem up there at the top of this post.

It struck a chord.

Now.  I wasn't nearly as self-aware then as I pretend I am now, but some part of me recognized that the stories I was writing, often churning out five- or ten-thousand word  stories in a single night, they weren't quite up to snuff.  Bad?  Maybe.  Sometimes I'd go into a story planning it as an experiment.  Can I write an entire story showing an empty room, telling the story by the setting and not the actions of characters?

Stuff like that.

Some of them were genuine ideas.  Sometimes I just had a line I'd thought of -- Ernie floored the car and drove through the plate-glass windows, wiping the blood from his eyes with his free hand -- and I wanted to see where it would take me.

I was warming up.  Stretching my legs and back before getting onto the treadmill (in those days, I might only have needed to stretch my legs -- ah, time).

This is a valuable thing.

No one runs the marathon on their first try.  It took me two National Novel Writing Months before I was confident I could see a novel through to its conclusion.  Not from the standpoint of "do I have a story to tell?" but from the standpoint of "can I physically and mentally sit, night after night, and tell a story?  Can I pull that thread every night until I unwind the whole sweater?"

Writing those terrible short stories was my first step toward that goal.  I didn't even know that's what I was doing -- imagine Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid waxing Pat Morita's cars -- but it was.  At the time, I was just having fun.  Playing around.

And every night, like clockwork, there I was, hunched over in the dark typing away whatever odd little something had caught my crow's eye that night.

Am I telling you to write?  Duh.  That's what this whole Write Every Day thing is all about.

But with this, I'm giving you permission to be awful.  To let yourself be awful.  To relish the awful as a necessary element of your growth as a writer.

Everyone writes a stinker; but every stinker has value if we can learn from it.  Learn what worked and what didn't.  Try to figure out why that might be.  Most importantly of all, see if you can spot your own voice coming through in your work.  What sort of writer will are you?  What sort of writer will you be?

Waiting to write until you're good enough to write will mean . . . wait for it . . . you're never good enough to write.  Let's see what's on TV.

If this blog was about weight lifting or hockey, I'd be telling you to hit the gym or get out onto the ice.  Wayne Gretzky didn't wake up one morning, throw on some skates, and magically become totally awesome.  He worked at it, day after day, for years on end.

Too often, the notion of talent gets waved, like a flag, over the heads of writers.  "If you've got talent, that's enough" is a sentiment most writers would do well to disabuse themselves of damned early.

Is talent important?  Absolutely.  Will talent get you where you need to go without practice?  Only in the very rarest of cases.  We're not talking about 1% -- we're talking about 0.00001%.  And that's a very optimistic number.

So, play at paste.  Write awful stuff.  Torture your friends and family and let yourself believe them when they, doing their best not to avoid your eyes, tell you, "No, I liked it.  This one was . . . I liked the . . . yeah!"

The pearls will be there when you're ready for them.  When you're confident in your own storytelling prowess so that story you've been holding close to your heart for years and years (mine's called Painted Ocean, and I'm hoping to write it in 2014) suddenly seems not only possible, but like something you could really do justice to.

Write.  Be terrible, be wonderful.  Have fun.  Marvel at how unreadable what you wrote yesterday was.  Write more today.  Eventually, you'll leave paste behind and find yourself creating pearls.