Delusions Of Grandeur, Premonitions Of Doom – or, The Ups And Downs Of Writing

seesawThis story is great. No, it’s garbage. Everybody will want to read this. Nobody will get past the first page. I’m going to be rich and famous from this stuff! I might as well give up right now.

Sound familiar? I’m convinced that writing fiction is one of the most manic-depressive jobs in existence. Every single writer I’ve talked to has had to deal with the twin demons of fame and failure, at least at the beginning. Every stage of the writing, rewriting, and editing process is besieged by delusions of grandeur or premonitions of doom, with remarkably little room for anything else. In my own case, these opposing thought forms can switch places daily.

Here’s the secret for you, one that I believe every writer needs to find: they are both wrong.

It starts slowly. A turn of phrase, a delightful metaphor, a paragraph that does its job, shines on the page with that special twinkle. That’s pretty good, I thinks. That’s worthy. People will like this one. They’ll pay money for this. Hell, they’ll even tell their friends. I can do this. It’s easy, in fact! Just string a bunch of these excellent paragraphs together and I’ll be able to find an agent. They will get me a bidding war. I can feel that first advance cheque in my hand already, brimming with big, fat zeros. Then I’ll do it again, piece of cake. I’d better pick up a smoking jacket.

All this time – an hour, a day – my fingers haven’t been moving. My mind has been captured by the fairy of future greatness.

Or the words don’t come. I reread yesterday’s work and it’s tripe. It feels like I’m rubbing the paint off the delete key. I can’t see the story for the inner fog, and it’s no use. I can’t do this stuff. Nobody will like the story anyway, several of them have already said so. That last rejection letter had a coffee stain on it, at least I hope it was coffee. It’s too hard. I might as well give up now. It looks nice outside, where all the normal people are. There’s no story in here anyway, at least not anything interesting. I’m done.

So I leave the keys. The depressive swing of the seesaw has stopped me for days, even weeks.

But I noticed that the two demons were never far away, and they were completely arbitrary. The first time I saw them switch places within the space of three sentences, I actually laughed out loud. Then I kept writing. I’d found the secret – all they are is distraction from the work that needs to be done. All they are, when it comes right down to it, is the writer’s mind doing what the writer’s mind should – making up stories. If it’s doing its job, then your mind will make you believe the unbelievable.

So forget about it. Laugh at the delusions of grandeur, the premonitions of doom. Be entertained by them, even. Just so long as you don’t believe them, and don’t let your fingers stop moving. That’s what a real writer does.

Published in: on December 5, 2014 at 5:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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The First Sentence – or, How Lee Child Gets It Right

lee childI picked up the latest Lee Child novel, Never Go Back – well, grabbed it out of my wife’s hand as she walked through the door – and opened it up to the first page. After the first sentence I had to pause. ‘He nailed it,’ I thought to myself, ‘the bugger did it again.’ Then I dove back in and didn’t surface for two days.

Let me explain. I’ve been studying writing for a few years now, learning anything I can about how to get it right. More and more in today’s world of instant hits and fast rejections, ‘getting it right’ means catching the reader from the first page and not letting go. Ideally you want to engage the reader in the very first sentence. You want to bring them personally into the story, introduce tension, ask a question, intrigue and excite your reader as soon as you can.

Not too much to ask from a sentence, is it? Let’s see how it’s done by a master.

“Eventually they put Reacher in a car and drove him to a motel a mile away, where the night clerk gave him a room, which had all the features Reacher expected, because he had seen such rooms a thousand times before.”

Even if you’ve never encountered this series before, you’re interested. Sounds like a strange sort of guy with a nomadic past, messed up with some sort of people who have control over him. Maybe you’ll read some more. Maybe you’ll even like it.

If you are a writer, or a student of writing, you’re gobsmacked. Stunned. In 41 words Lee Child has managed to accomplish everything.

Bring the reader into the story, into the middle of the action. The very first word does that. One word – Eventually – tells you that lots has already happened, has you arriving in the middle of something juicy. What’s happened? You really want to find out. It’s even okay that the novel starts with an adverb, for heaven’s sake. One single word, and you are hitting the ground running.

Pose the reader a question. Well, how better to throw out a question than to use the universal bogeyman, ‘they’? We don’t know who they are. We know there’s more than one of them, and we know they are strong enough to control and dictate the movements of a nomad. They even have enough cash to spring for a motel room. That’s enough. We want to know more about who ‘they’ are, and we are willing to invest the reading time to find out.

We’re on word two now, in case you lost track.

Introduce the character. Okay, his name is Reacher. Assuming the very mention of the name doesn’t ignite a passion for unstoppable vigilante justice in your breast – that you’ve never read a Reacher novel, in other words – you’re still intrigued. Nice name. Evocative. Is he being overpowered by these people, or going along for the ride? Why has he been in a thousand motel rooms? He seems singularly unimpressed with this turn of events. Maybe you’ll read more. Consider the character introduced. You’ll have to wait a page or two before he destroys his first round of opposition and you really get to know him. For now, you’ll just keep reading.seedy motel bed

Okay, almost done. Throw in a taste of description, the dash of seasoning to set the scene. A motel room, a car, everything you expect and nothing more. We’ve all been there. We all know the place. We’re instantly comfortable. We don’t need to know anything else in order to get on with the important stuff.

The hook is set. In one sentence. Wow.

Lots can be learned from studying the really good writers, especially once you have an idea what to look for. Of course, Never Go Back turns into a ripping good read and Lee Child has a bunch more to teach us along the way – but you’ll have to pick up the book for that. I highly advise it. Just make sure you have a day or two with nothing else on your schedule.

Published in: on December 9, 2013 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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