aka My Manifesto to Aspiring Writers
For me, reading merits hazard pay. I have to steel myself. And not because I hate reading–heck, before I started writing, I often devoured a book a day. But since I started writing, reading has turned into something else entirely.
And when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.
John D. MacDonald said it best—and not as Travis McGee, but in a preface to Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. I first read it more than three decades ago, but I hear the echo to this day. It was one of those moments when a writer rose off the page, cupped a hand to my ear and leaned close enough for me to feel his breath as he whispered. It was lightning clear. A bolt, a connection, a current passed. I sat up straight, eyes wide. Because when that sort of thing happens—when you know that writer has reached you—it’s wondrous. That thing writers can do—climb off the page and grab you, tickle you, caress you…to understand you in a way that no one else ever could. That’s what it’s all about, baby.
So about Mr. MacDonald’s preface: among the many wonderful things he wrote to aspiring writers, he said, “You read everything with grinding envy or weary contempt.”
Grinding envy: check
John Green writes contemporary YA. Mildly gritty, authentic YA, and when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.
John Green also writes shimmering, emotional, compelling YA, with gracious good humor and effortless aplomb. My kids have caught me laughing hysterically at one of his passages, only to find me sobbing four pages later. And it’s times like that when I think what the fuck, dude. What did you just do to me? I mean have enough trouble keeping forward momentum, what with the mom-gig and the day job. Did you have to make it so hard by making it look so easy?
John Green probably doesn’t mean to crush my spirit (maybe that’s just a perk, or why else would he keep doing it?)
And maybe it’s not John Green that sparks that ache in you—the one that kindles that envy-measure: maybe it’s Faulkner, or Maya Angelou or even Dan-fucking-Brown.
You close their book and think: It’s hopeless.
I can’t do that.
Cause they had that voice-thing going, and that lovely translucent metaphor, and that heart-pounding tension and then you pull up your own manuscript and—
The cursor blinks.
So you poke at a few words from that scene you wrote yesterday, but the shine has worn off. And was that the most tired line of dialogue you’ve ever written or what? So you delete it and try to think of the next scene, but then you remember you really have no idea how you’re going to pull it off—how to get your protagonist to the intersection of plot and plausibility, and just as you’re about to slam the lid of your laptop closed—Stop.
You’re doing it. That comparison thing, and it does you no good. And even if you don’t believe me, you have to stop because you have a duty.
Don’t compare apples to oranges
And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.
You heard me right. There’s a reason you feel called to do this, why you get up early or stay up late, why you keep putting words down in the face of astronomical odds. Why it itches like poison ivy between your shoulder blades if you don’t just friggin’ write.
It’s because your own unique set of circumstances and your particular talents are going to enable you to say something that no one has ever said before. Or, at the very least in a way that no one else has said it.
The Great Gatsby has been said—but your story hasn’t.
If you are called to write, it’s because you have a unique message for someone. A message as myriad as the sum of the days of your life that have brought you to this moment. A reason for doing as unique as any random collection of 100,000 words.
What message you have, I don’t know. And maybe you do. Or maybe you only think you do.
But in the meantime, you have a duty to be there, be present, try hard and do your best. And doing your best means reading other writers. You have a duty to challenge yourself, to be brave. Just periodically vomiting words on the page doesn’t make you a writer any more than being a drunken, self-absorbed womanizer makes you Hemingway. And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.
Now stay tuned for the second part:
Don’t compare apples to apple pie
You’re going to reach someone
When you read Joe Bestseller of the NY Times bestseller list, or N. Ational Bookaward, remember you are reading something that has been through 1, 2, 3 drafts. plus forty-eight revisions; a book that has been vetted by industry professionals, including multiple editors and proofreaders plus a literary agent or two.
Look, if your first draft doesn’t suck then you’re doing it wrong. And if your second draft doesn’t suck then you’re probably still doing it wrong.
The odds are (n)ever in your favor
And since we’re being all honest here, there’s one more thing: if you’re aiming for the bestseller list, or hoping to crack a six-figure advance on a debut novel, the odds are not in your favor.
However, the odds are very good you’re going to accomplish the real reason why you’re doing this. Which you probably don’t even realize. And it’s small and it’s simple:
You’re going to reach someone.
You’re going to reach out through the page, take one reader by the hand, and lean in close enough to for them to feel your breath tick against their ear as you whisper…
Because that’s it.
That’s all there really is. The point of everything, the purpose of every collection of words written since the beginning of time. That’s what writing is: a vessel. A vessel to pass a message from one person to the next.
So stop with the comparing already. They have their message and you have yours.
Read more, compare less. Write and repeat.
Chop chop darlings—you have work to do.