Sunday, March 18, 2012

I simply cannot do it alone

Before I started writing, I had this idea that writers pretty much wrote in solitude, from conception of the original idea through to publication. I knew there were editors, but I had some idea of an editor's job as being like a vastly simplified version of what a copy-editor does - some light proof-reading, and that was it. (This is wrong on both counts, by the way.) I thought that getting stuck meant the idea wasn't worth writing, and that asking for help was right out, or at least something that was only possible in a collaborative situation. Because, after all, if you needed to ask for help, you couldn't be a writer. I would laugh at how wrong I was, but it's just sort of sad.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which writing is not solitary, or, to choose perhaps a better word, not independent. Part of this is because one of the courses I'm teaching is a writing intensive course. It requires that the students participate in peer review, and that they revise a major assignment. It's the kind of class I would have hated and resented as an undergrad. I mean, I could write. I got A's on my essays, no problem. Most of the time, I didn't even need to try. Peer review sucked, because I knew damn well how to write, and I didn't need anyone's help. I know a number of my current students feel this way - that revision is for people who can't get A's the first time, that the writing center is for people who can't write.

I don't know where I got the idea that being a good writer meant being able to write by myself. I mean, I'm one of those people who always reads the dedication and acknowledgements. I'm not sure what I thought those people being thanked had done - provided moral support and sandwiches, maybe? But I'm very glad that I've been able to recognize this false idea for the insanity it is.

Twice now, I've sold things without asking for beta reads. Once, this was purely by accident - the person I was asking for a beta read sent me a contract as his opinion of the story. The other I revised myself, but I had known it was close when I finished the draft. But most of my sales have not been like this. In most instances, I ask multiple beta readers for help. Sometimes the help is small - a beat here and there that needs to be clarified. Sometimes, in the case of my most recent sale, they very kindly tell me that I am a silly person who stopped writing halfway through the story, and that they were sure it would be lovely when it was finished. (I had. Almost exactly, in terms of word count.) 

This weekend, I finished a novella. It was a scary project for me. It's probably not a story length I would have attempted had I not had an editor ask for it, since my short fiction tends to fall within the 1500-3000 word range. It was almost a disaster. I got about halfway (if all we're doing is counting words) into the piece, and realized it was rubbish. Rubbish that had some gorgeous writing, a couple of fine set pieces, but it wasn't a story, it was a hot mess. This is not false modesty. It was so bad I thought I would be better starting over with a completely new thing, and had started to make notes that would let me do that. Thankfully, one of my writer friends suggested I send it to another writer friend, to see if he could save it. 

It took him about three sentences to do so.

Sure, I had to toss a lot of what I had written, but not all of it. And I didn't have to start over from nothing.

The key to being a good writer isn't the ability to never have to ask for help. You don't need to be perfect in the first draft. At the end of the day, the reader won't know whether a piece has gone through one edit, or more than twenty (and yes, I've published pieces on both sides of that spectrum.) It is true, that you are the only one who can write your story. But nothing requires you to write it alone.


  1. This is SO, so true and wise. If I did not have an army of people--and especially Christopher to constantly bounce things off--I would never finish anything. Or, at least, if I did it would be terrible.

    1. It's been a constant learning process for me - oh, it's okay to rewrite things? Oh, people will help me fix it once it's finished? Oh, I can ask for help while I'm writing? I'm so glad of the help.

  2. Great post!

    We need our people - especially our writerly people - because it's so easy to get wrapped up in your own worlds and words that you can't even see the path out.

  3. I feel like I end up thanking you in at least half of your entries -- but I need to thank you for this. It is both timely and encouraging. This morning, I realized that I need to ask for help. That I know that something needs fixing, but I cannot do it alone.

    I needed the reassurance, I think, that asking for help is okay. So, again, thank you.

    1. You're welcome.

      I write these posts not because I think that I am the Giver of All Writerly Wisdom (I am very aware I am not), but because they are things I wish I had known. If they ever help make things easier for people, then I'm glad.

    2. They do help. Also, if there is a Giver of All Writerly Wisdom, I think we can agree it's Shakespeare. ;-)

  4. Nice post. As someone interested in words, I thought you might like to look into the word play in cryptic crosswords (if you aren't already into them). I have been doing a series of posts about cryptic clues and how to solve them. This is the first one in the series:

  5. I used to feel the same way. I thought that good writing meant I had to exist in a vacuum. I discovered that good writing means embracing everything outside of myself.