My Biggest Mistake Was Writing A Book.
Although I should qualify that statement: my mistake was attempting to write a book from start to finish, in reading order, from page 1 to 500. I started with the opening chapter, I wrote every chapter in sequence, I edited it while I wrote, I bumped into obstacles that totally destroyed the pace, I kept pounding my head against the walls of the scenes that just wouldn’t come out of my mind, I got stuck in frustration on finishing an unwilling chapter before I could start on the next, and I exhausted myself before I finished.
And then I found out that the second storyline sucked and had to be removed, leaving only one side of a zipper without a corresponding side that could be zipped together into a coherent story. So I wrote another storyline that had to be inserted into the existing storyline.
The result was a lumpy, lopsided mess that brought me to despair. And since I’m an autodidact writing suspense fiction in my second language, I had no peers around.
Then I found a writing website, now sadly gone, called Thoughtcafe, where I found my peers. People who read my stuff, told me it was incredible and worthy of all the attention I could muster to polish out the lumps and make it run smoothly like the zipper was oiled with eel’s snot.
My second novel practically wrote itself. I didn’t give a shit anymore about the order in which to write, I wrote the draft for myself without any regard for punctuation, grammar, and spelling, and I kept my inner editor locked away in a dungeon until I finished the whole rough draft.
Only after I wrote the draft of the entire novel did I sit back and reread it while highlighting problem areas and adding notes on how to fix the flaws.
Which is why I always tell beginning writers: ‘Don’t Write a Book, but a Draft‘. Write the scenes in random order, assemble them in a sequence that pleases you, see what’s missing and fill that in until the story flows, then get your editor to help you iron out the wrinkles.
The first draft is ‘For Your Eyes Only, Only For You’. Not to be shown to anyone else until you turned it into a manuscript, which will be read by your betas and editor, who will provide you with feedback to improve the manuscript into something publishable.
But the writing part? That’s yours, and nobody should touch that.
I don’t recognise myself in the ‘struggles’ of my peers, who complain about blocks or not knowing what to write, or the arduous task of editing. I also don’t get bored or disgusted with re-reading my own work for the umpteenth time.
I’m convinced that just because you want to do something, it doesn’t mean you will be good at it. Not everyone has aptitude for writing. Face it, if it was actually that easy, then everybody could be a writer. And despite what people might say to encourage those who are floundering, not everybody can become a writer.
Nobody who knows how to cut a turkey develops ambitions to become a surgeon, but somehow people who got a B+ on an essay in school imagines they could become a writer. Just being facile with words doesn’t make you fit to become a novelist. Stringing words together in a sensible sentence is not an indication for future professional prose.
To become an actual writer requires a confluence of several different talents to come together. And knowing how to write is actually quite low on the totem pole. Your ability to spin stories is much more important, as is your understanding of humanity – psychology, anthropology, psychopathology, interaction, communication. Observation is a crucial skill, as is curiosity. And having the ability to adopt a unique perspective also goes a long way towards being a writer.
If these skills/talents are missing from your palette, you will struggle. And because you don’t know any different, you will assert that writing is this onerous task, a steep uphill battle to put one word after another. While, in fact, you might have committed to a task that is not totally suited for your skill set. While this sounds like a ‘Know Your Limitations’ answer, take heart. You can learn these other skills, and there is no shame in battling uphill to write your book. It’s damn courageous, and I mean that.
And while a talent for writing often goes together with aptitude for the art, the published writer is not always the one with the most aptitude, but the one who perseveres. Perseverance can trump aptitude, easily.
*My disability has been terminated, by the way, sending my marketing budget all the way down beyond zero. So now, I’m relying even more on you, my readers, to do what I cannot do – tell others that you liked my books and help spread the word that my books are worth reading.
I thank you for your support.
“Do you outline your novels beforehand, or allow the story to take you where it wants to go?”
Popular opinion tends to divide Novelists into two camps: the Outliners and the Pantsers.
- The Outliners are this anal bunch who take an almost mathematical approach to the novel, writing down the number of chapters and a synopsis of exactly what will happen to whom in what order. And they rigidly adhere to their Holy Outline, or Hell and Damnation will follow them into a pauper’s grave.
- The Pantsers are this hippy trippy bunch who belief that Inspiration is the Holy Grail and that any attempt to harness the Flights of Fancy will result is stale, dull, utterly formulaic Hack Writing that is devoid of the Literary Liberalism that will elevate their prose to the Zenith of Literature.
Truth is, they’re both wrong. Writing a novel is work. Like all work, there are some structural necessities – for instance, you need to write, and if possible you have to write every day. Then someone from the Peanut Gallery will shout ‘You have to set yourself a word count goal!’. Yep, works for some, not for everybody. Just like deadlines get some people off their asses and paralyses other people.
The writers who have written novels can agree with me that the words sometimes flow and sometimes dribble. Distraction can help, but can lead to procrastination. Some turn off all distraction to force the brain into creativity, but that can also lead to despair and alcoholism and drug abuse.
Creative processes can go through phases – like the cycles of a werewolf, or the passing of the seasons. Changing habits can work – people who tend to Outline start to plan less and all for more improvisation, people who write by the seat of their pants realise that structure is not always a bad thing…
Most writers fall somewhere in the middle.
I soaked up a lot about structuring novels through osmosis by reading lots of great books. But my greatest revelation in the art of writing came through the art of sword fighting.
I started writing at a moment in my life when I was sick of the life I was leading, and it was pretty clear that I would die a violent death if I continued down the path I was taking. So I turned away from that path, but I had certain issues that needed channeling into positive activities: martial arts and writing.
I’m never one for taking the easy road. When I chose a martial art, I didn’t chose a martial art that would capitalise on my strengths, like my long reach, strength and resilience, but I chose aikido, which required grace and technique and to use the other person’s strength without using more strength than absolutely necessary. When I chose to write, I didn’t start off with a creating writing course and short stories, but I dove straight into my first novel.
But what did kenjutsu teach me about writing?
Unlike modern kendo, where there’s a sporting element with competition and scoring points by hitting locations on a harness, kenjutsu teaches how to handle a live blade by performing kata with heavy wooden swords (bokken) and no protection.
I was taught postures. Sword in the high position, sword in the low position. There were no explanations, just a series of positions flowing from one into the next. Well, when I say flowing, it was more stumbling. And my teacher would walk around and mold my body into the correct posture, without explaining what was wrong with my previous position. In the beginning I had to do it slow and trust my opponent to light touch his wooden sword to the crown of my head before I moved into the next position and ‘attacked’ him, where he’d wait for the tip of my sword to touch him before he moved. When the structure became familiar, we would move faster and our teacher would comment on how sloppy we became and to do it slower and correct before we moved faster.
And still, no explanation was given. Just more structure, more rules, more positions, but the why and wherefore were absent. Then, when I was taught the third kata, after two years of training, my teacher explained to me why I did certain positions in the first kata, so that now I understood. And with this understanding, my performance of the first kata improved beyond what I had expected. I was enthusiastic, so when I was training with new students, I started to explain to them why they were certain things in the first kata. And my teacher took me aside and told me to shut up. He explained to me that the information was only given after I put my time in. After I showed that I could do something without asking all the time what the hell I was doing. By showing fortitude and polishing my technique until i was ready for the information.
Because receiving the information during the learning of the first kata would’ve muddled my progress. I would’ve been thinking instead of doing. I wasn’t ready for the information, I had to put my time in.
Writing is similar. When I started writing my first novel, I wrote a novel, not a draft. I worked on my first chapter until it was perfect. If it wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t move on to the next scene or chapter. Writing my novel became an exhaustive slog. And when I was finished, I realised that I had put together two storylines of which one was great, but the other sucked. So I had to take out that whole storyline and put in another one, like trying to match two different zippers together. Sometimes I despaired, but I hung in there and managed to turn that mess into a novel. Working on that first novel and all the mistakes I made were my school – the endless rewriting and editing taught me how to polish something until it shone.
By the time you learn the fourth kata in kenjutsu, the teacher no longer has to look at your footwork. You can wear the hakama that hides your legs beneath flowing robes, because the teacher knows that your stances are solid and your steps measure the appropriate distance.
When you finished that first novel, and you tackle that second novel, you know the pitfalls of either Outlining into Mathematical Precision or Pantsing like Improvisation is Key. When I began on my second novel, I knew what I needed and how to get it and I wrote down one scene after another, not stopping until I finished the first draft. Because I had learned not to write a novel, but to write a draft. A draft is like the four hours of film a director has when he enters the cutting room and the producers expect him to exit the cutting room with a consistent story of 90-120 minutes.
And your process changes again, because you stop being dependent on structure. When you train in kenjutsu, you reach a point just before your black belt level, where you start to let go. You are not actively thinking or repeating anymore, but the sword becomes an extension of your arm and you can feel through your sword and everything flows together – technique, timing, distance – and you look at your opponent who is not there yet and they are sweating and making mistakes and correcting mistakes and spending lots of energy, while you become so efficient that you only move when necessary and not a moment too soon, nor a step too far. And you look at them and you can see that they’ve almost reached that moment too and you know how happy they’ll be that they hung in there and didn’t search for the shortcut.
Because there isn’t one.
I write drafts that are just a string of scenes that I will transform into a novel when I take them into the cutting room. There is no Holy Outline, but that doesn’t mean there is no structure – I can clearly see the storyline to which the scenes will be hung like pearls onto a silver string. I’m not Pantsing, because I can trust in my ability to come up with the correct scene from the right perspective. And I don’t have to rewrite most of my work, because I become more and more attuned to composing in my head and writing down my sentences without tripping over my thoughts and stumbling into a garbled mess.
I’ve published four novels and four short stories in my Amsterdam Assassin Series – a total of some 600,000 words, but I easily wrote ten times that many words. I put in my time, and these are my rewards.
There are no shortcuts. You can sit at the foot of masters and study their books and adhere to all those rules that are taught in all those creative writing classes, but it’s like learning how to cobble together a pair of shoes from a Youtube video. You have the knowledge, but not the experience. And it’s experience that counts here. The experience of mucking your way through your first draft and finishing that first draft and realising that you have finished a book-length story, and despairing that it isn’t good enough and agonising over the manuscript and rewriting and editing the monster until you tame it into a novel.
Sure, I can give you some tips. Like: ‘Don’t write a novel, write a draft’. Don’t worry about the rules and the grammar and whether everything fits together, just get it all down. Make it 150,000 words, because once you drag that beast into the cutting room, that draft will lose all that extra weight until the lumbering beast has become lean and hungry and ready to feed on the brains of the readers.
And by that time, you realise that it doesn’t matter whether someone outlines or improvises, as long as the process has the desired results – a solid draft that can be polished into a publishable novel.
Having children is one of the great joys of my life. I don’t share too much about them on this blog (I hope), but I have shared the story below in an answer on Quora concerning when a child can be considered a ‘creative genius’. I think my five-year old daughter Nica shows considerable talent, but I’d hesitate to call her a genius or even gifted. Nevertheless, the response on Quora to my answer was huge (28,000 views and 120 upvotes), even getting comments from people interested in buying her drawings/paintings.
Nica loves to draw and colour. A few of her works show that she has some talent in the direction of the creative arts. If you bear in mind that she’s came up with these drawings herself:
This Purple Cat drawing (made when she was four) she explained to me that up close you see dots, but when you look at it from a distance it’s a cat:
She had never heard of pointillism…
This robot drawing she made after her fifth birthday:
Which is reminiscent of the CoBrA movement, especially Corneille.
After showing these drawings on Quora, I got some requests from people about posting more of my daughter’s ‘art’, so I posted some more:
I’m the pirate on the left, with my eyepatch for glaucoma:
I have a lot of these random sketches. My daughter explained to me that this is the ‘Paas Mevrouw’ or Easter Lady:
Police officer stopping a motorist at a zebra crossing for driving through a red light:
Fish Bowl with Tropical Fish:
Cat and house painting:
This is a ‘very fat rabbit’:
This is a machine for making candy:
I put up more of Nica’s Art on her own photo page: Nica’s Art
Because the words will kill you if you don’t.
Unexpressed stories tend to eat you from the inside until all that’s left is a withered husk. And you won’t get back your vitality.
You see all those old people, desperate to tell you their unwritten stories? That’s because they looked in the mirror and saw the words clawing to get out, tearing at their flesh from the inside, gnawing at their muscles until they became too weak to stand without assistance, and sucking the moisture from their skin until they became wrinkled prunes.
And the old desiccated human husks know that if they could just tell your their stories, they might not revitalise themselves, but they can stave of death for another day and maybe inspire you to look away from that television set that sucks away all your creativity, and sit down and write. Write to express yourself, to tell your stories, and to let out all these stories so they will stop haunting your dreams and start haunting other people’s dreams.
And then you can finally lay down to sleep, huddle beneath the covers, knowing the monsters aren’t under the bed but in your head, and that they’ll only be mollified for a day or so, so you’ll have write again tomorrow, but at least you’ll be able to sleep.
But if I’m wrong, and you’re already too numb to feel the stories gnawing at your insides with their blind craving to be set loose on the world, then perhaps you have already become that walking empty husk, and perhaps there’s no need for you to write your story.
In that case, forget everything I said.
Too many would-be writers allow themselves to be held back by ‘rules’ like ‘Write about what you know’.
If authors would only write about things they’ve experienced, there would be no science fiction; authors would only write from the perspective of characters of their own gender, race, and age or younger; there would be no books from the perspectives of rabbits (like Watership Down) or other animals; all books would be set in the same location the authors have lived in; all novels would feature contemporary times; et cetera.
I’m a white male in his late forties, married with two young children, and write suspense fiction about and/or from the perspectives of:
- a Dutch white female freelance assassin, specialised in disguising homicide and close quarters combat
- a Dutch white male blind jazz musician, strategist, and martial artist,
- a Jamaican black male Rastarian session musician who grows cannabis,
- an American white female DEA agent with a drinking problem,
- an American black male DEA agent living in the Netherlands
- a Colombian male DEA undercover agent,
- a Dutch white male biker,
- a Chinese blind man in his late seventies,
- a Dutch female lesbian sculptor,
- a Chinese deaf-mute enforcer for a triad,
- a Japanese male Yakuza posing as a club owner and martial arts instructor,
- a Japanese male undercover agent for the DEA,
- a Canadian female professor of music,
- a French party girl caught in a stifling marriage,
- a Dutch legless biker running a bar,
- a Dutch nomadic pickpocket caught in a web of lies,
And that is not all of my characters, just the major ones.
While I do write a lot of stuff from personal experience, I write about shooting guns while being fired at (I handled a variety of handguns at a shooting range, but I’ve only been shot at by Nerf guns); sustaining gunshot wounds and fleeing from the law; being blind and playing saxophone in a full jazz club; dying from drowning in my car at the hands of an assassin; dying from being stabbed in the throat and suffocating on my own blood; being a woman and having sex with a man; detonating a bomb in a parking lot across the water; being interrogated while spreadeagled naked on a bed and tied to the bedposts; being force-fed whisky while held motionless in a vacuum bed; et cetera.
I could go on, but it’s clear that most writers have to write about stuff they haven’t experienced in person. That’s why it’s called fiction. Writers imagine stories and make them as close to the truth as possible, and readers immerse themselves in stories that gives them experiences they could never have, on worlds that may or may not exist.
There’s a necessity on the part of the reader called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, where the reader will believe what the writer tells them, as long as the writer fills the story with the verisimilitude necessary to keep believing. The reader has never flown a dragon, but when the writer writes about the main character flying a dragon, the reader imagines themselves astride the broad neck, inhaling the dragon’s sooty exhalations, feeling the smooth scales under their buttocks, the wind rushing through their hair, and the exuberance of flying unprotected miles above the earth through cold clouds that leave a sheen of water pearls on their leather jacket.
But it’s a tough job getting readers to keep their disbelief suspended. One wrong word, one author intrusion, one mistake, and the whole illusion comes crashing down and the book gets tossed in the waste bin. That’s why good writers treated with such high regard for their ability to enthral with mere words.
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