On Writing

Enough Rewriting Already!

This is an old post, but it kept springing to mind when I was writing An Intervention for the Literary Lothario. What’s described below is the Lothario’s polar opposite.

Hope you like it!

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Remember this thing? It was awesome.
Remember this thing? It was awesome.

By day, I write and edit for a magazine called The Lawrentian, and the job allows me to meet a lot of interesting people. In a recent issue, for example, I worked with the inimitable Ken Hakuta, the inventor of The Wacky Wallwalker – that sticky, octopus thing that could be found on the bottom of just about every box of cereal that was sold in the 1980s. It was one of the most popular toys of the decade and earned Hakuta (aka “Dr. Fad”) a fortune.

For those of you who never saw one of these things in action, The Wacky Wallwalker was tossed upon a wall where it would stick for a moment or two before gravity would take hold and make the thing crawl down the vertical surface to the floor below. That was what it was supposed to do, anyway. Sometimes it just fell on the floor with an almost-but-not-quite-gross-sounding “plopple.”

Moms hated The Wacky Wallwalker because they assumed it would leave a slimy snail trail in its wake. It never did, but their suspicions were never entirely allayed. This made playing with the toy almost naughty, really, as it encouraged you to invent parent-pestering games. (“How many times can I throw this thing against the wall before Mom threatens to take it away?”) And if you pestered Mom to the point where she did take it away, so what? All you had to do was open another box of cereal to get a new one.

Anyway, Hakuta wrote a playful article for the magazine titled  “How to Create the Next Big Thing,” where he provided some advice for aspiring fad-creators. Aspiring writers, however, should also take note of one of his nuggets of wisdom:

Get a Move On One of the things I hear most when I’m talking to would-be fadmakers is that old lament, “As soon as I’ve gotten my gizmo just a little better (a little cuter, a little shinier, a little uglier, a little bouncier), then I’ll be ready.” …Often tinkering is symptom of birth pangs, a fear of letting your baby out of the garage. You’re wasting time.

I have earned my keep through writing and editing for the past 17 years. During that time I have seen and worked with a number of writers who endlessly tinker with their prose. Some fixate on details, rewording the same sentences over and over again. Others take perfectly fine ideas that are developing well, and perform the writing equivalent of a teardown; they scrap everything and start over for reasons that are inexplicable – even to them.

Both of the above examples illustrate procrastination in action – an especially insidious kind, for it cleverly disguises itself as “working.” Procrastination isn’t only about watching TV and messing around on Facebook, it’s also in evidence when you spend lots of time fixing things that don’t need fixing.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewriting is every bit as important as writing, and everyone needs to do a lot of it. That being said, you also need to periodically ask yourself if your endless tweaks or teardowns are necessary or if they are just a tactic to avoid sending your work out to be scrutinized by editors.

Being judged can be very hard – especially if you spend a particularly long time crafting and honing a piece of writing that’s personally important to you. The longer you mess with your story, however, the easier it is to keep hanging on to it in order to make it “just a little better.” It’s a vicious cycle, really; the longer you keep your story, the harder it is to let it go. The longer you keep it, the more painful the rejections will be when they start to arrive.

But, like rewriting, rejection is also part of the writing process. It’s gonna happen no mater how good you are. So accept it and get your work out there. Throw it up against a wall; maybe it’ll stick, maybe it will hit the ground with a disappointing “plopple,” but you’ll never know if you don’t let it go.

On Writing

The Prose Poseur

They don't give these mugs to just anybody! (Thanks again, Sarah W!)
They don’t give these mugs to just anybody! (Thanks again, Sarah W!)

I went to my first children’s book critique group in 2006 at a local Borders Books & Music. Arriving with a few copies of my manuscript in hand, the group welcomed me with open arms. Better still, the critique I received that night was positive and thoughtful enough to give me a lot to chew on after things broke up. I was jazzed and energized. I wanted to get started on a revision right away.

So instead of going home, I set up shop in the café to slurp a latte and edit. I was working there for about 15 minutes when I noticed someone watching me. The woman, let’s call her Becky, was a member of the critique group. She had not brought a story, so I had no idea what kind of a writer she was. I did know, however, that she wasn’t a very good critiquer; her comments that evening were unfocused, benign, and across-the-board positive. At the time, I had pegged her as the type of person who went to great lengths to avoid conflict.

Right away her presence in the café struck me as peculiar. It had been 15 minutes since the meeting broke up and I was seeing her only now. She also seemed to have no intention of buying anything.

So when our eyes met it wasn’t an “Oh, hey, you needed a coffee too, eh?” kinda vibe. It was a bit more like a stalking. Not a legit, creepy one – instead, her stalking attempt was a lot like the way she critiqued my story: unfocused and benign.

Because I had noticed her, I had forced her to be social. “Oh, hi! I really liked your story. Really liked it.” she said as she approached the table.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“I was planning to have something to show for this meeting but I just couldn’t get around to it. I just couldn’t find the time.”  

“That can be tough sometimes.”

She nodded. She looked at her feet. Then Becky said, “Can I talk to you a minute?”

I did not want to talk to her for a minute. I had three reasons why:

The first reason was purely selfish; I wanted to revise my manuscript without interruption.

The second reason was because of the weirdness of this encounter; I wasn’t threatened by her stalkingishness, but I was uncomfortable with it.

The third and most important reason was that no one who asks, “Can I talk to you a minute?” ever follows it up with something you want to hear. Never. Ever.

But it’s almost impossible to say no to a “Can I talk to you a minute?” On its face it’s such a minor request, isn’t it? A minute? Anyone can spare a minute, right? What are you, some kind of selfish jerk? And even if you are a selfish jerk, do you really want to telegraph your jerkiness by saying no? And if you do say no, you then have to follow it up with more than a minute’s worth of lame reasons why you said no and, well, that’s just opening up a whole new can of worms.

So she said, “Can I talk to you a minute?” and I said, “Sure.”

So Becky began. “To be completely honest, I really do have time to write,” she said. “I just can’t. At night, after the kids are in bed, I pick up a book and read. For hours. I know I should be writing, but I don’t. I know I’ll hate myself if I don’t write, but I still don’t. I’m like, ‘Just one more chapter and then I’ll write.’ But then I go ahead and read another chapter and another chapter until it gets too late to get started. Then I feel guilty that I didn’t write and I go to bed hating myself. So I say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll write tomorrow.’ But then tomorrow comes and I do the same thing. I spend another night reading or watching TV or whatever.”

Her story went on for much longer than what I wrote here – a lot longer than a minute – but the above is the gist of it: procrastinate, guilt, repeat.

The two of us had been there together for about 20 minutes before she finally lobbed a question in my direction.

“What should I do?” she asked.

By the time this question came my way, I was fed up with Becky. I would’ve killed to have the amount of time she had to write. Not only did she squander this precious time night after night after night, but at this moment she was squandering my time, too.

So I said, “What should you do? Here’s an idea. Write something. Either that or acknowledge that you’re not a writer. From what I’m hearing, it sounds like you just like the idea of being a writer.”

It was as if I punched her in the face. And, in a way, I suppose I had.

Immediately I tried to soften my view without abandoning it. “Writers don’t have to be published or anything,” I went on. “But they do need to have a fire, you know, a desire to write. Do you have that?”

“Yes, I do!” she hissed, summoning a rage that I didn’t think she had in her. “I know I do because I want my name on book more than anything!”

That didn’t answer my question, but at that point, the answer would suffice, thank you. Whatever ended it.

Things wrapped up quickly after that. As she stormed out, Becky vowed to have a story to be reviewed next month and I was left alone. I had a knot in my stomach and was too ashamed of my jerkiness to focus on my story. The evening was a complete wash.

Becky didn’t show up to the next critique meeting. In fact, I never saw her again. A big part of me feels terrible about stomping on her dreams. They may have been pipe dreams, but they were hers and I had no right to lace up my hobnail boots.

Another part of me, however – the part that’s seven years older and enjoys forgiving myself – wonders if I might have done her a favor. Maybe that fateful night she learned something about herself. Maybe my actions gave her permission to enjoy her evenings without guilt. Maybe, after she puts the kids to bed, she can read and watch TV in peace, knowing who she is. There’s no shame in not being a writer. Quite the opposite, really.

Then, once in a while, I imagine that what I said was the kick in the butt that prompted Becky to act. Maybe she writes now. Maybe she found a new group. Maybe she’s published. Maybe I did a good and noble thing.

And maybe I have a few pipe dreams in me, too.