Hemmingway Was Wrong About a Few Things

Hemingway On SafariIt is customary to hold the great authors up as the sources of all wisdom in our craft and we can’t have a conversation about the greats and the wisdom they bestowed on us without bringing up Ernest Hemmingway. So, despite my status as a mere mortal I would like to raise a few objections to some of the facts that we now take for granted because a genius said them.

Keep in mind I’m not saying he was wrong, but I would argue that his advice was only right for people like him. He was a genius with a pen, but we are not all Hemmingway. The good, even great writers of our age are all very different people so what worked for him won’t necessarily work for us.

First of all, the first draft of everything isn’t shit. That’s so incredibly unfair and dismissive of one of the most beautiful things a writer can make. Yes, the first draft is often rough and messy but it’s full of great things. It’s full of half formed ideas, fledgling characters and silly throwaways that you put in just because they made you smile. Maybe those things will be built on in later drafts and maybe they’ll be removed completely but they are beautiful in their imperfections.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to treasure your first draft. You don’t need to overedit it, examine it or make it perfect but as you write it appreciate how wonderfully flawed it is. Your first draft might be the truest expression of who you are as a writer, with all of who you fear you are and all you hope to be included.

Supernatural-Authors-Montage1This isn’t just about Hemmingway either, it’s about all the greats. A lot of great writers gave a lot of very good advice but not all of it applies to you. People give advice based on what’s worked for them in the past and maybe it helped Hemmingway to believe his first draft was going to be garbage no matter what he did but that doesn’t mean that’ll help you. You can take advice from Stephen King, Shakespeare, Terry Pratchett, all of the above or none of them but the idea of idolising great writers until everything they say is unquestionable gospel is harmful to you as a writer.

Unless I’m wrong in which case feel free to ignore me too.

I’m not saying you need to trust yourself only, just pick and choose the advice that’s right for you. My first draft is my precious baby and building on it is an act of nurturing and love that I couldn’t hope to do if I really believed it was shit.

Oh, and don’t write drunk, even Hemmingway rarely actually did that according to his family. He drank after he was finished for the day or during particularly foul cases of writer’s block.

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How to Start Writing

I’m going to start with what is, in my opinion, one of the most important quotes about writing.

“The worst thing you ever wrote is better than the best thing you never wrote.”

It’s a fact of life that the hardest part of being a writer isn’t planning, it isn’t even writers block or finishing. The hardest part is the starts: you have to start every stage, and gather up that motivation over and over and over.

This makes ‘how to start writing’ one of the questions I get asked pretty often.

Now I’m not talking about how to write words, that’s a matter of sitting down and pumping words out. This is about how to start on a project. That novel you’ve got in you.

So here’s what you need to get started.

Put Judgement Away

This is one of those things that’s both that simple and that hard. Judging yourself is the enemy of every writer, from the first timer to the seasoned professional. Some people can make a career of writing and still never get over it with each and every new story. The problem is that judgement is a vital tool, it’s how we ensure that we do our best work, but the fact is that the start of a story isn’t the time or place for it. This is the time and place where you get things done.

Start your work free of judgement, free of the fear that you aren’t good enough, because even if you aren’t right now you will be by the time the job is done. You can always come back and fix those problems in editing. There are several stages of rewriting and fixing where judgement can enter a little more into your process but in the early days you need to open yourself up to new ideas, not to lock them away.

The Right Amount of Preparation.

The right amount of preparation for a story is a question that’s hard to answer and mostly depends on the kind of person and writer you are. Some of us like to write out our outlines, characters and motivations, where others just throw their characters into the situation and let the story unfold as it may.

Chances are if you’re having trouble getting started and you currently have a document full of ideas and details then you’re the first type. If you’re the second type you’re ready now, I hereby give you permission to stop worrying and just do the thing. It’ll be fine.

For those of us who need to prepare, the trick is having enough preparation to get the work done, but recognise that there’s a limit to how much prep you can do before the work begins and you can always prepare more as you go. Go forth from a position of strength, not paranoia.

The best rule of thumb I can give is that if you can say that you know the plot, characters and setting pretty well that’s well enough for you to begin.

The Perfect First Sentence/Paragraph/Chapter

Does Not Exist.

It’s as simple as that. You cannot write the greatest first part of all time, and agonising over making something perfect before you move on means you’ll never move on. Settle for good, even settle for ok for now. There are several more stages where you can fix what’s wrong.

Get Excited!

You’re doing something awesome and remembering that is vital to the starting process. You’re doing something awesome and so often the start of writing seem like a chore. It’s important to remember that this is something you want to do. This is a good, exciting thing! So talk to your friends about it, think about or even work on the fun parts. Imagine the sense of accomplishment you’re going to get when the job’s done.

Writing is a labour of love, so remember to love it!

Go Back to Step 1

Yep. I’m sorry to say it but once you’ve done this and written the story you have to go all the way back and start a rewrite, then to plot edit, then to detail edit, each time with a little more room to get it right.

Don’t worry, after every start you get to enjoy the fun parts. It’s a good process with a satisfying ending and room to grow your craft and work. Every time you need to start you can come back here. Do your prep, stop judging yourself, get excited and go for it!

 

For those who’ve started all right but are having trouble getting to the end check out ‘The Fine Art of Finishing’ on the Ouroboros blog.

~Robert

Robert is the author of the Laughing Man Chronicles

Visit Robert’s bio here

What If Your Characters Are Smarter Than You?

To anyone who doesn’t write this is going to sound profoundly strange, but I’ve loved to write my whole life and sometimes I need to write characters who have powerful intellects, master schemers and magnificent bastards. The problem with that is, I am none of those things. I am not a master strategist, I don’t have a history of warfare or science and I have never had the need to plot to destroy someone’s life but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it.

Pretty sure. Don’t test me, but still.

Yet somehow, I still have to write all of those things and make them convincing, I have to figure out the plans and plots that are going to unravel. So, here’s my advice on writing brilliant characters despite maybe only being semi brilliant yourself.

Research Research Research

Try not to be wrong. Being wrong will undermine your character’s ability to seem intelligent. I’m not saying you need to be a genius at whatever subject you’re working on but not making obvious mistakes would help. I’ve been dragged out of some of the better stories of my life because a character who’s supposed to be a master got some obvious thing wrong. You don’t need to be an expert, just know your stuff. If you’re writing a master strategist, at least get familiar with some of the classic manoeuvres. If you’re writing a brilliant scientist know something about the field so you don’t end up with a ‘hacking scene’ that involves two people typing on the same keyboard.

Yes, that actually happened.

No, I didn’t ever take those characters seriously again. Shame too, I liked them.

Manage How the World Makes Them Right

This is a bit of a challenge for some writers, including myself. See, you’d think it’d be easy, you can just make their decisions the correct ones, can’t you? Well yes and no. The problem with making your character right, is that you have to make them believably right and to do that you have to determine why they’re right. Is it because they realised something about other characters no one else did? Because they planned for this exact situation? Because they have a secret no one else knows? Have they just read more books or do they have sharper instincts?

The worst thing they can be is right just because they’re a genius. The question is what does that genius mean? What does the fact they’re brilliant mean they can figure out before anyone else? You can make their leaps of logic correct, but there needs to be a clear reason why they made them.

Don’t Make Everything Go Right.

One of the best quotes I heard form a character who I actually believed as a master strategist was ‘being a good strategist doesn’t mean having master plan, it means having a bunch of plans, and fall-back plans, and contingencies. We try things, sometimes they even work.’ One of the most believably intelligent things you can have a character do is respond well when things go wrong. Yes, it’s much easier for your character to have a master plan from the start where everything goes right, but to your smarter readers that’s going to come off as contrived. It can be so much cooler for a reader to watch your character react like a genius than act like one.

Deal With Their Frustrations

This is the part that’s going to seem weird to some people, but characters have a level of autonomy in your head, and yes, sometimes the smarter ones are going to get upset with you. If they planned some master manoeuvre that you just couldn’t figure out they’re going to get annoyed with you, which is going to seem a little strange as the process continues. This might hurt your brain a little in the early stages, but it’s something you’re just going to have to deal with. Like every other annoying little issue remember that this is something you can go back and fix later, so quiet the voices in your head and keep working. Like everything else, you can fix it in editing.

It’s a surreal experience the first time you realise you might not be clever enough to properly write a character that you thought up, but if you know your stuff and are willing to put in the effort, you’ll have them about their dastardly or benevolent brilliance soon enough.

~ Robert

Robert is the author of the Laughing Man Chronicles

Visit Robert’s bio here

Living the Dream

If you’d asked me what my dream was my entire life up until a year ago I would have responded the same way. Something along the lines of the fact that I like telling stories, and ultimately my goal was to publish a book one day.

I never really thought it would happen; it was just a dream I kept in the back of my head, to take out and look at when I needed it. Sometimes the dream would be fame and fortune, other times I just wanted the acclaim and satisfaction of having a few people who loved seeing me do what I love. I imagined the pride I’d feel looking at my work and saying ‘yeah that’s mine. I did that.’

Now I’ve done that. My life’s dream has been accomplished which, as you can probably guess, is a much more complicated thing to have happen to you than it might seem at first glance. So I thought now would be a good chance to look at what got better, what got worse and what got weird.

What Got Better

The obvious is probably the best place to begin: I now have a book to my name, which is about the strangest thing to have happen. I still occasionally get a little flush of quiet accomplishment knowing that I’ve done something I always wanted to do. I talk to people and hear that they’ve always wanted to write a book, how they’d always had a story in them. I love the idea of being a positive example rather than a cautionary tale for once, and every time someone quotes my work on Facebook or tells me they recommended it to a friend I feel a happy buzz.

I got what I wanted most from life – so many people never get to do that, so I won’t pretend I’m not lucky, and I’ll never forget what it was like to open up my first box of books.

What Got Worse

I’m only twenty-six years old and I’ve already done the only thing in the world I’ve always wanted to do, which is a confusing situation to be in. I love writing, but I now have a much greater mountain to climb to reach my next potential step. Living off my work is something a lot of authors never achieve, and having already lived my dream I have no overriding goal to accomplish.

It resulted in a sense of malaise that lasted months after I got my first book out there. The fact that not everything changed when I did the only thing I had ever wanted to do was difficult to deal with. My world didn’t turn on its head and honestly, I kind of expected it to.

The world seems so much bigger now, and apparently that’s where things begin. I now have cons, promotion, marketing, trying to meet the right people and get my name out there which are things I have no idea how to do. Something I loved is a job now, which takes something away from the favourite hobby I once had.

Where to go from here?

I know how monstrously self-indulgent this sounds. I’m droning on about how my life changed when I got everything I wanted but the idea that twenty-six might be my peaking achievement is so strange. I don’t know if this is a thing most writers go through, but there’s a possibility. For so long my entire life, and maybe yours, has been about doing this one thing we’ve always wanted to do and once that’s done we end up with a sense of aimlessness that takes some considerable getting over.

My Advice to Other Writers

If you feel like I feel my best advice is to find another goal to work toward quickly. It doesn’t have to be ‘live off my writing’ (which mine is, as insane as it sounds to write that down.) It might be to find a way for writing a sequel to fit into your life or building more effective writing habits. It might be to write something outside of your usual genre, or write something that impresses and pleases you on a level your current work doesn’t.

If all else fails, work on your magnum opus. It’ll never be good enough to satisfy you, but it’s a lot of fun to try.

~ Robert

Robert is the author of the Laughing Man Chronicles

Visit Robert’s bio here

Pursuing Passion Despite Pain

All my life I’ve had to struggle with mental illness. On occasion it’s been hard to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve lost entire days, weeks, months of my life to my issues but I am aware that the world doesn’t stop for me. I’ve still had to write, publish, market and sell my work to the wider world as well as little things like food and rent. In addition to the normal problems of a writer in a saturated market I’ve also dealt with many pains all my own. I’d like to talk about them but that’s not my usual MO. I like to help if I can.

Here’s some of the advice I’ve managed to assemble over the years on how to deal with my own issues in the hope that no matter your problems and passions you won’t have to let your disability get in the way too much.

Lesson One. ‘Too Much’

Expecting, allowing or even hoping for the idea that your disability isn’t going to impact your passion is painfully naïve. I’m sorry, I know that’s upsetting and it certainly was when I realized it but that naivete opens you up to being hurt later. Spending too long wondering when your disability will get out of your way and allow you to work will stop you from ever getting it done and nothing will end up disheartening you more than having a few good days and thinking it’s finally going to get out of your way and having that fall apart on you.

Trust me.

Keeping a realistic idea of what you can do might be a difficult compromise to come to terms with, but it’ll be good for you in the long run.

Lesson Two. Keep a Schedule.

Yes, it’s boring but it’s also necessary. Having scheduled times to follow your passions and managing your expectations and behaviour patterns and work around them. I realize this can be difficult for some people but if you search you can find things that’ll work for you. Whether it’s voice recognition, special art supplies or whatever equipment you need for your passion an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of effort.

Lesson Three. Accept Help

This one was the hardest for me. I was raised to be proud and do my best to stand on my own two feet. That’s not easy when you’re hurting. When it’s hard to go outside and provide for yourself it’s sometimes hard to be proud and sometimes it’s harder not to be. Giving up a little of your independence in exchange for a little help can feel like handing over a lot but remember these measures are in place to help you.

Whether it’s government programs, or the friends and family who love you, you might need to put aside some of the pressures society puts upon you to make you earn, to make you feel less than for your disability. Don’t believe that for a second. It’s okay to need help.

It can be hard to accept limitations, but you need to acknowledge them in order to transcend them. There’s no reason you can’t be a disabled artist. You can chase your dreams living with a disability especially if you’re truly passionate about it. People with disabilities have a harder time finding room for our passions, but for some of us our art is reason to get out of bed in the morning. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice that.

~Robert

Robert is the author of the Laughing Man Chronicles

Visit Robert’s bio here

If you are experiencing mental health issues and need to talk please see your GP or contact your local hotline (click here for worldwide listings)