Since the San Francisco Writer’s Conference (something that always gets me thinking about my writing process) I’ve been considering the intellectual side of writing as a profession. How can an author go from a hobbyist that happens to get an occasional review or fanmail, to someone making a living at producing literature? It’s a very critical question for any author, of any scale. You’re self-published, small press, sold your first manuscript, or maybe you just got your agent. Doesn’t matter, This is a question which you will constantly revisit. You have to. Well, maybe Steven King doesn’t, but he could basically shit on a piece of paper and it would be a best seller. I’m pretty sure he’s already done that.
Point is, no matter what kind of writer you are, you’re going to come back to the question of, How can I get better? Produce more. Produce better. Sell higher. Edit easier. etc. There are thousands of websites with tips and secrets, advice and cautionary tales, but I’m going to tell you now, success begins with just one thought. This thought, I feel, is best said by one of the world’s greatest thinkers: Yoda.
“Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Now maybe you had hippies for parents and they raised you with “It doesn’t matter if you win as long as you try”, or maybe you even said that to your children. Well, I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong. But I’m not going to stop there. I’m also going to tell you why you’re wrong.
“Try” is a beginning. If you “try” there are one of two outcomes. Either you end up doing, or you don’t. Either you succeed, or you fail. But if you fail, you try again, until you do, or don’t. And if you don’t, the process must begin all over again. Trying is not an end unto itself. “Do” and “Do not” are destinations, and the only road to either, is “try”. So wherever you begin, at the Createspace site, or with a Big Six Editor, there are only two ends: Done, or Undone.
One of the most common stories I hear is that a writer has queried, but gotten a load of rejections. Hope dwindles. Ambitions are sacrificed for things like work and family. The dream is abandoned. “I tried to get published, but it was just too difficult.” Well, you tried, so that must make you so proud.
It doesn’t does it? It’s not enough, is it? You are a writer. You suffer from that strange compulsion to express things that other people go through, to comment upon life, to reason through dillemas, or maybe just to tell a fantastic story, a juicy love scene, or write the next Pulitzer Prize winning artical or Oscar winning screenplay. You must speak. So trying just won’t cut it.
Stop trying. Do or do not. And if you “don’t”, keep going until you “do”.
“Well, Kristina, it’s all very well and good for you to talk about “doing”, but how do I do?”
That’s not up to me. I’m just here to change how you’re thinking. It’s critical. I could give you tips. Oh boy could I! I’m a confirmed geek, and I obsess with the best, but my tips will only be relevent to me and my experience. You have to find what shakes your brain loose.
Start with this one phrase from the Jedi Master. Frustration is a warning sign, like pain. It’s there to tell you to stop and do something else. I can’t tell you what to do, but what I can tell you is that if you’re afraid, you’ll never “do”. Go back to our analogy of the roads and the destinations. If you keep walking down the same “Try” route, you’ll end up at the same “Don’t” destination. You must be willing to sacrifice. You must be willing to reexamine every manuscript. Remove stuff, really consider every criticism, even if you hate the giver with a fiery passion. Whatever you have to do to change your head space you must do, or you will stop at “try” and never get anywhere.
Not many people know this, but the first book I ever wrote is the first volume in a six volume set. Not even my agent has been allowed to read it. Why? Because it’s shit. I love it. It’s my baby. Everyone who has read pieces of it, wants more, but god damn me I will not let it go until it is what I want it to be. This means that the first novel I ever wrote, will be scrapped. Tossed. Garbage. Gone. No such thing as try. Do, or do not.
I’m at the beginning of my career, but I know from talking to other more established authors that the same rules apply. One of my writer contacts is a very well-thought-of and accomplished novelist. Her works are witty and dry, with an Austen-esue commentary on feminism, racism, and classism. After selling her first novel to a major publisher, she discovered her editor had no sense of humor, and was told to remove all the jokes. Every single one. She did it, and went through the agonies associated with changing her vision. The book didn’t go anywhere. No surprise; it was a different work than the original vision. Until another editor picked it up and realized the mistakes that had been made. This editor got the jokes back, and helped her make the book the fantastic foundation of her career. The point is, the author walked a different path, and it invariably led to success.
One of the best editing techniques I’ve ever heard is not necessarily something you’d want to do on a final draft, but it is a useful tool for helping you see your work through another pair of googly eyes. Go through your manuscript and remove one word per sentence (save to a different file, obviously). Do it. Every sentence. If you have to rethink each sentence to do it. Do. Cut out every charming love scene and see if there’s a plot there, if not, dump it. Take out a character and see what happens. If you’re writing Non-fiction, try writing your book as a talk, with slides, and see if your written word can be “presented”, because a reader can hear that flow. Record yourself reading and see if it puts you to sleep. All of these things are worth it, because they change how you are thinking. Think of it as mental exercise. Doesnt matter if any of it goes into the finished product, what matters is your mind.
That is the message of this post. Don’t aim for a good try. That’s not aiming at all. We shoot at targets, we don’t just pick up a bow and see what it feels like to let an arrow fly. That’s pointless. Arrows are meant to stick in things.
Don’t be sheepish or squeemish. If you have to tear that work to shreds, do it. Don’t pander, or let your ego get in the way of a win. “Do not”/failure, is just another opportunity to “Do”.
It will happen when it’s ready to happen. Not when “it’s meant to happen”. I hate that phrase. Nothing is meant to happen; that’s such a “Try” phrase. You don’t have to actually DO anything, because it will happen when it’s meant to. Blah. Things happen when they must. Like a volcano erupting, or a bolt of lightning. Writing is energy, it has to go somewhere. Let the craft and the art build until it shoots out of your fingertips and into someone’s brain. You will DO, but only after a ton of DO NOT’s.
A life of trying and then giving up, is no life at all. I would rather have a laundry list of “didn’ts” than a life of “Tries”.
A person can lose sight of the end goal: the finished novel in a ready form. Frustration grows. That’s when you step back. You can switch projects, shred this one and revamp. You can do whatever crazy things you need to do, as long as you are doing. If you are not doing….well, you’re “not doing”.
There is no try.