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May 2nd, 2010

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11:59 pm - The Secret of Writing
 One of the nice things about working in a publishing house is that there happen to be a lot of books around.  Go fig.  So I had this book on my desk, Stable Strategies and Others  by Eileen Gunn.  I was using it to guage how much finger-room I needed to make galley margins and such and such things, it had been on my desk for a while.  A few days ago I happened to open it up to the table of contents and was shocked to discover that inside this book was the secret of writing.  Naturally, I was curious.  wouldn't you be? To think that it had been on my desk for weeks, and I had no idea.  

"The Secret of Writing" is a mere one page recollection of a conversation Eileen Gunn had with William Gibson, and it is actually Gibson who has discovered this secret, who shared it with Gunn, who shared it with us.  I'm not going to transcribe the whole page, although I'd like to.  It just seems counterproductive of me to freely post too much content from my own publishing house on the internet.  So here we are, briefly, the secret of writing:

Two weeks later, at home in Seattle, I answered the phone. It was Gibson. “I forgot to tell you the secret of writing,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s the secret of writing?”
A beat, for emphasis. Then: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”
It was the most useful writing advice anyone has ever given me.

This is exactly true.  I think that if you don't, on some level, hate your own work than you probably aren't writing as well as you think you are.  Slush piles are full of prospectors who think they just shat gold, and won't take perspective for an answer. The other side of the coin is that if you hate your writing too much you're...what, Kafka? Sure he was a genius, but it was no party to BE Kafka.  So, no you're probably not Kafka, who I don't think hated his writing so much as he hated vaginas or something.  The point is if you hate it too much you'll hate yourself, you won't write, and that's not going to get you anywhere.  So, hate your writing by all means, and then follow Mr. Gibson's advice and overcome it.

Now here is some more writing advice via Dean Wesley Smith, who is a writer, who has a blog, who I was linked to via io9. This is from his blog post on researching your novel (Emphasis mine):

Researching for a novel is one of what I call the half-truth myths. Yet I have known writer after writer that have had entire careers stopped cold by this myth. It takes a writer a certain time and distance to find the right half-way-point with research in novels.


I was teaching a workshop with young professionals just this last week and this topic came up as a pretty solid roadblock for one of the writers. Of course, that writer was a full-time nonfiction writer and was carrying over the belief system into the fiction.

So let me repeat here clearly what I told that writer. If you have this myth issue, print this out as a big sign and put it over your computer.


Yup, I shouted that. Fiction, by its very definition is made up. Duh.

So now comes the really ugly word that I had to look up to spell right: Verisimilitude: An appearance of being true.

That's the exact definition from my dear old Oxford American Dictionary.

So, in fiction, we writers make stuff up. I give my job description as a person who sits alone in a room and makes stuff up. But what I make up needs to have the appearance of being true, if not in detail, in character action and emotions. There is where the myth is true and not true.

In every story we need enough detail to make it feel right. That does not mean it has to be right, it just has to feel right.


Or, let it put it as bluntly as I can: Writers with the problem of never writing because of research have chosen to not write.


As with many things in writing, the answer is "It depends on the story you are writing."

But I can safely say this after listening to other writers for decades on this topic and knowing my own patterns with research:
You will almost always do too much.

And finally, because aparantly this is something I CAN'T STOPT TALKING ABOUT HOLY CRAP DO I HAVE A PROBLEM I DONT THINK I DO, a word on genre stigma.  Several words actually, but don't worry, they aren't mine.  They are Ursula le Guin's from her essay,  "The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists", and it this here clip is about how people need to suck it up and accept that all genres are valid forms of literature and worthy of academic notice. Of course she says it better than I do.  She says most anything better than I do *romantic sigh*:

I’m not saying people don’t read fantasy; a whole lot of us people do; but our scholars and critics for the most part don’t read it and don’t know how to read it. I feel shame for them. Sometimes I feel rage. I want to say to the literature teacher who remains wilfully, even boastfully ignorant of a major element of contemporary fiction: you are incompetent to teach or judge your subject. Readers and students who do know the field, meanwhile, have every right to challenge your ignorant prejudice. Rise, undergraduates of the English departments! You have nothing to lose but your A on the midterm!

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2010 07:21 am (UTC)
Kafka wrote a lot, though, even while hating himself and his product all the way.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2010 07:50 am (UTC)
yes, but BEING Kafka was a total downer
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
They should make a movie called "Being Kafka". It'll be like "Being John Malchovich"(sp?) but more depressing.

And only college students and depressed, precocious teens will want to watch it.

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into fucking Kafka."
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)

Also poor Gregor already was Kafka, that was the point. ...poor, poor Franz.

There is a short film called Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life I've been meaning to see. I think it's on youtube.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2010 12:04 am (UTC)
...I may have seen this movie
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
that's what I'm here for!
[User Picture]
Date:November 20th, 2010 04:41 am (UTC)
So every so often I come back here and go through people's journals, and this one really helped today. I'm sorry I missed it all this time, but it was so needed today.

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