Thursday, August 4, 2011

Guest Post: Two Infallible Writing Truths

Over the past six months, I received a lot of advice from people on writing. No one has helped me more than writer Jeff Ambrose. I'm happy to say that he agreed to do a guest post for my site, and it's one that no writer should miss. This advice is important. In fact, it's helped me in ways I never imagined. So follow it closely, and you'll no doubt see the same positive effects on not only your writing, but your writing habits.
Two Infallible Writing Truths

by Jeff Ambrose

Today, I finished a final edit of a short story. Next stop, my wife, who will proof it for me. Then it's off to press.

Like almost all of my stories, this one (which will remain nameless) started with great promise and excitement. Coming off a writing workshop, I had real hopes for it. But unlike most of my short stories, this one ended (for me) with a thud.

That's to say: I don't care too much for it.

Yet, I'm going to publish it. Why would I do such a thing? Because about a year ago I accepted two infallible truths about writing, and both have served me well.

The first is this: Writers are the worst judges of their own stories.

A few days ago, a good friend of mine, obviously trying to encourage my decision to become an Indie Writer, told me that you can't trust editors. Editors, he said, will often reject what you think is your best work and accept what you think is your worst. I nodded and smiled because his point wasn't about the business, but about encouraging me. So I was grateful.

But, in fact, he's wrong. Editors, for the most part, buy books and stories they both like and fit within magazine and/or publishing house they work for. If they buy a story I think stinks, it's not because they don't know what they're doing, but, rather, it's because, when it comes to my work, I can't tell good from bad.

Simple fact is, I'm too close to the story. Even if I let the thing rest for a couple of days or weeks, the story exists in my head. What I think is there, may not be there; conversely, what I'm sure isn't there, may very well be there.

Don't believe me? Well, C.S. Lewis was often amazed at all the symbolism readers and critics found in his Narnia series. Sure, some of it was intentional, but most of it wasn't. If storytellers do their jobs correctly, they write the fictional dream they see in their head, and it can be very difficult to separate the dream from whatever realities went into forming the dream.

Another example. Go to the library and grab a copy of Stephen King's Everything's Eventual. Read the short story, "A Man in the Black Suit," and then read King's "Afterword." In it, he says he thought the story was pretty bad. Yet, it won him the O. Henry Award.

A final example. The science fiction grandmaster, Harlan Ellison, wrote a story called "Grail." Ever heard of it? Probably not. That's because it's largely been overlooked by readers and critics alike. But that's a story Ellison is particularly proud of. It's a story he spent time writing, a story that he ranks as one of his five best. Considering that Ellison has written something like 1,700 short stories (and no, that is not a typo), that's saying a lot about "Grail." It's a story he was sure was going to Get Noticed. But we haven't noticed it. What story by Ellison have we noticed? One that he wrote in one sitting: "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."

Which leads me to the second infallible truth about writing: A story is not an event. It doesn't matter that Harlan Ellison spent a long time writing "Grail" and only one night writing "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." All that matters is that the readers like one very much and have largely forgotten the other.

I'm not sure Harlan was ever particularly distraught by that. You don't write 1,700 short stories if you're banking on every one of them to be a home run. As Harlan has often said, when he sits down to write, he sits down to do the best damn job he can. Sometimes, he hits a home run. Sometimes it's a single. And other times, he just strikes out.

When I first heard this infallible writing truth, I didn't believe it. It's not something we writers really want to believe. We want to put our heart and soul into everything; we want to make everything perfect. And maybe, for some of us, that's exactly what we have to do. Look at Harper Lee, for example.

But most writers -- even those who write so-called "literary" fiction -- write a lot. And the only way you can write a lot is if you see your stories story simply as the product of a set number of hours of work. If I write 250 words in fifteen minutes, I can write a 5,000-word short story in five hours. At that pace, it would take me 80 to 90 hours to write a novel.

If you see your work in any other way, I'd say you're seeing it wrong. Sure, the five hours it takes to write a short story might be spread out over five days. We don't want to see that short story as the fruit of a week's worth of work. Because it's not.

If you don't believe me -- and if this is the first time you've heard the phrase that a story is not an event, you probably won't believe me -- then here's a challenge for you. Over the next two months, write a short story a week. I guarantee you, you'll realize a story isn't an event.

All of this leads me back to my original question: Why would I publish a story I don't really like? The answer is based off these two infallible truths.

First, as the writer of this story, I have no way of knowing if it's good or bad, and unless someone is going to pay me to make serious changes -- or unless a top-notch writer or editor were to show me where I went astray -- I'm not going to risk ruining it because I think something might be wrong with it.

Second, in the end, it's just a story. If it's good, readers will buy it. If it stinks, they won't. A few weeks from now, I won't even be thinking about it, and a year from now, it'll just be another story among all my other stories. It might sell, or it might not. I dunno.

But what I do know is this: If I were to focus all of my attention on making this one story my masterpiece -- if I demand that this story, as well as every other story I write, be a home run -- I'd quit writing. That's a lot of pressure to put on one story. I'd much rather relax, have fun writing new stories, and accept that infallible writing truth that some will be triples, some will be strike outs, and a few will be a grand slam.

One last note. "Grail" by Harlan Ellison is one hell of a story.

Jeff Ambrose has wanted to be a writer since the sixth grade. When he turned thirty-five, he decided it was either time to run for president or get serious about writing. He writes science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and crime fiction. Sometimes he commits literary fiction. He lives outside of Dallas, Texas, with his wife and four children. You can find him on the web at or on Twitter: @JeffAmbrose13