Good ideas surface on Twitter with some regularity, especially when you follow intelligent folks, as I do, but the platform doesn’t lend itself to meaningful discussion or expansive opining. So I thought, why not gather some items of interest related to writing that I’ve fished out of the Twitter sea recently and take a moment to reflect on each one.
Some of these folks I’m more familiar with than others. A couple I don’t know at all. Regardless, their words of wisdom and inquisitiveness appeared in my feed, and so here we are. If this proves interesting to people, maybe I’ll make it a semi-regular thing. But for now, let’s dive in.
I’ll start with a question that comes up frequently, even though I don’t have anyone in particular to attribute it to right now. “Is it important for a writer to write every day?” The question often comes across as if people are going around asking it until they get permission to slack off. That might be a little unfair, but isn’t the answer to the question obvious? A writer writes as much as she wants, and the more she writes, the better she gets and the more work she produces. Write a word a day and call yourself a writer, for all I care, but let’s see how that’s working for you in a year’s time. I would add that there’s something to be said for keeping your hand in your craft with some consistency, whether it’s writing, music, art, or whatever. Maybe that amounts to daily exertion for some, maybe not for others. I try to do what it takes to make me feel that my blade never has a chance to go dull, and to keep the Big Dark from seeping in. That way, if nothing else, it feels less like starting from scratch whenever I do sit down to write. Maybe that means a blog post is enough writing for one day. And maybe the next day I won’t be able to settle down until I’ve made serious headway on a short story or added a couple of chapters to a novel and followed that up with a poem or two. You get the picture.
Now, on to the attributable tweets.
Septimus Brown recently wrote, “What novel has been the biggest inspiration for your current WIP?” The answer that springs to mind for me is that there isn’t just one. When I write, I try to tell the story I want to “hear,” and that comes from a thousand different influences, some from life, some from the arts.
And how about this advice from Duncan Ralston: “Looks like that ‘I would never lower myself to self-publish!’ article from The Guardian is making the rounds again. Don’t be fooled into clicking it. Let it fade away into obscurity, like its author.” A polarizing topic, to be sure, but there’s room for nuance, I think. The paradox is that it’s never been easier to put garbage out into the world through self-publishing, and it’s never been easier to get high-quality work into the hands of serious readers. I used to take a pretty strong stance against self-publishing, based, in part, on several experiences I had purchasing unreadable garbage. Now I engage in the process myself for my book-length works, while continuing to publish one-off short stories and poems in the traditional small press. I hope to one day enjoy the reach that a traditional publisher can provide for novels and collections, but until then, I’m enjoying the freedom to publish my work exactly as I wish and at a pace of my choosing. I’d say that I’m glad I waited until I’d tested my mettle for a dozen years before wading into self-publishing. I learned a lot from that process. But I’m also glad that I’ve turned to self-publishing at last.
You might recognize Ahmed G. Writes (if that really is his name) as the generous soul who periodically invites all and sundry to reply to his tweets with links to their published work. He recently tweeted, “Your first draft is supposed to suck it’s where you dumb [sic] all the dirt to shine later. Do you agree?” This is a slight cheat on my part, as I did actually respond on Twitter: “I don’t agree that it should suck, but I do think steady progress is much more important to a first draft than quality prose. As with most things, there’s a balance to be struck. It’s easier to polish a gem than to turn a lump of coal into a diamond.” I’ll stand by that. I’m not convinced that a draft that truly sucks is salvageable. There’s a special kind of fire that needs to be present for writing to be any good or show any real promise. As long as that’s there, I don’t think even a hastily written first draft will suck. It will have some inner shine to it that can be coaxed out through revision.
Stephanie Parent expressed curiosity about the finer points of prose: “Do other people change the content of their sentences just for the sake of the rhythm or am I insane?” I’m not saying we can rule out insanity, but correlation does not imply causation. Stephanie’s tweet calls to mind the age-old question of what’s more important, story or prose? I say, why choose? Under duress, some readers would select a book with a ripping story over one with beautiful prose, while others would rather enjoy excellent sentence-level writing than a page-turning plot. But who wouldn’t rather read a book that marries the two perfectly? And who wouldn't want to make that their goal as a writer? I realize this is going beyond Stephanie’s point, but that was the springboard. To answer her question more directly, yes, I definitely do change sentences for the sake of rhythm. This sort of fine-tuning tends to be the primary focus of the last draft or two of a piece for me, even though I will have given it much consideration throughout the process.
C.R. Langille shared the following brush with rejection: “I've received two rejections this month. A standard, thanks but no thanks & the other a positive feedback where they liked the story but saw I had left it open for sequels & couldn't commit to publishing any follow on tales. It's part of the process, but man I'd like a win soon.” Rejections that come with positive feedback are such a double-edged sword. At least you might learn something from negative feedback. Praise from an editor who’s rejecting your submission, on the other hand, can leave you a little puzzled. “Oh, she liked it. Great! Wait, she’s not going to buy it? Wtf?” I’ve come to see the value of the “nope, sorry” brand of rejection. (It can be worded a little more politely than that.)
Alan Baxter offered up this thought-provoking opinion: “Say it with me: THERE ARE NO RULES OF WRITING! There are conventions, there are tropes, there is good advice, there are rules of language and grammar, but there are no RULES of writing beyond: You must write. Everything else is negotiable.” Mostly I think he’s right, as long as we acknowledge that the more pieces of sound advice we have floating around in our heads, the better the odds are that the right one will stick when it’s needed most. (Baxter made a similar point in his follow-up to the original tweet, to be fair.) It’s a foggy subject, though. We all have a sense that there is such a thing as “good writing,” but so many different styles and approaches fall into that category that it becomes hard to define—not to mention the fact that such claims are always going to have a subjective quality to them (note how Baxter’s tweet posits that there is good advice, but no rules; does everyone see a difference between the two, since you can ignore the one and break the other?; and what about the distinction he makes between rules of language and grammar and rules of writing in general?). Analogies to other art forms occur to me, but I'll keep those thoughts reined in for now. Still, these things are worth mulling over, even if we don’t draw definitive conclusions. It lubricates the brain cells, as my dad used to say.
And that’s all I’ve got this time around. It was fun. Feel free to tag me on Twitter with your writerly thoughts. You never know; you might end up in the next installment of whatever this is. And do check out the people I've quoted above, maybe give them (and me!) a follow on Twitter.
Thanks for coming along for the ride!