- Wear layers. We are usually in the meeting room, and it’s often quite cold.
- How to find the meeting room: After you enter the restaurant, walk to your left and go all the way to the back.
- You may want to order and pay at the counter when you first arrive. The staff has been very accommodating and tries not to disturb us as we write. Ordering and paying before the meeting seems to work best.
Warning: This essay contains a very minor spoiler (not plot significant) for the third book in the Bloody Jack series.
I’m in the movie theater watching Star Trek: Beyond. I haven’t gone in blind, and I’m finding much to complain about. But although my mind is churning on dialogue problems and weird plot choices, my main experience is this: My heart wants to come out of my chest and go to the screen. I don’t know these new characters; I keep comparing them to the originals; I don’t understand them at all. But they are on the Enterprise, and I feel a gravitational pull to be there too.
Later I’m crying, and it’s not because of the events of the movie. It’s not even because Leonard Nimoy is dead. I’ve known that fact for over a year, and my mind can finally almost touch it, but not quite, certainly not enough to cry. No, this is something more fundamental: I’m crying because Star Trek isn’t real. I can’t live there. There is no Enterprise.
Where can I find consolation? Where can I learn what I should do in the face of this problem? Of course I look to literature for the answer. Here’s what I find: In Under the Jolly Roger, L.A. Meyer puts Jacky Faber on the Pequod, even though his novel is historical fiction and the Pequod is a fictional ship. Why does he do that? It’s so he can live in Moby Dick, through his character. By putting her on the Pequod, he refuses to be left out of fiction; he declares that we’re all the same, and that we’re all in the same world, whether we be fictional or whatever the other thing is.
So, Mr. Meyer, I thank you for this comforting hypothesis. And I see that, in a way, I live in Star Trek when I experience Star Trek stories. I see that if I were an officer on the Enterprise, I wouldn’t be living in Star Trek the story, I’d be living a life on the Enterprise. But still, in the theater the feeling is visceral: My whole body is straining toward the screen: I belong there, not here.
Writing this, I realize: The feeling isn’t that I belong in space, or even on the Enterprise. It’s that I belong in a story. It comes down to that. I’ve never seen it so clearly before.
What makes your heart swell? What makes your soul want to come out of your body and go there, more than anywhere else? I love Rembrandt, I love van Gogh, and my heart moves toward The Starry Night. But it moves toward Star Trek more, toward stories more. I love linguistics and math, and my heart moves toward them, but they are mainly loves of the mind. I love making books and origami, but that is mainly a love of the body, of fingers and eyes. The place that pulls my soul out of my chest is fiction, is words, is story. Literature is my first and truest love. I can’t deny that anymore. I must make it my first priority. What must you make yours?
There’s a fashion for saying to do only your top thing and ignore everything else. But if you need to be creative, doing only your top thing doesn’t work. You have to live in order to get ideas. You have to go deep in other areas if you want to make breakthroughs in your area of specialty.
If you love writing, but it’s not your top thing, keep writing. Maybe write a little less and do your top thing a little more, but keep writing. Keep coming to Write to the End. What you do with us will help you do your top thing.
I won’t stop making non-written art, doing other things I love, living in the moments I’m not writing. What a gift this world is, what varied and wonderful opportunities it contains: Not only to read and to write, not only to study the things I love, but also the meaningfulness of pure experience: to touch the texture of a 20-year-old construction paper cover I made for Uhura’s Song, to hear slow crickets at 2 a.m., to feel the lemony squeeze of tears beginning to form, to look into the night sky and find Antares and recognize the Scorpio that’s not Jessica’s Scorpio, but to think of it, and her, and the times we spent together. Life, if I let myself open to it, is like being in a story.
I promise to write, but I also promise to live, and I ask you to do the same. Do your top thing, and put it first, but let the rest of your life flower, too. The other things you love, the care and depth with which you do them, the appreciation you give to the passing and irretrievable moments of this one life—all will return to you and help you as you work on your top thing, and your life will become a story.
Promise me you’ll do it.
There is no Enterprise but the one we make ourselves.
At Write to the End, we do two main activities: We write, and we welcome all writing. These two activities are the foundation of our group.
Welcome. I welcome you, and I welcome your writing. All of your writing, not just the parts you think are worth welcoming.
I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice, which is a practice of noticing and writing down first thoughts, “the way the mind first flashes on something.” This is a form of welcome. Writing practice is not choose what you receive but rather receive what you have already flashed on, even if it doesn’t make sense. All first thoughts are a gift. When we welcome them, we notice more first thoughts. When you welcome the tip of a thread of a story, it lets you pull it, and more story comes through. It’s scary to do, but don’t close off. I’m scared, too. I close off sometimes, too. But I’m always trying to improve my skill of staying open, of welcoming first thoughts, of allowing the thoughts to come through. (I am calling them thoughts. I don’t know what else to call them: visions, images, words—they come in many forms. You know what I mean, though: the things that arrive that aren’t you, that aren’t something you choose or make up or figure out. The things that come from the Place.) You don’t have to do anything with these thoughts later. You can choose what you turn into a piece; you can choose how you edit and what you publish. But if you welcome first thoughts and write them down, you’ll have something to choose from.
Steve DeWinter of Fiction Silicon Valley recently asked me what fiction I like to read. (I fished around in my brain and came up with Philip K. Dick and Julio Cortázar.) I welcome what I read because I choose it. But sometimes it’s necessary to welcome something you didn’t choose. You can turn off your biases and judgements, your desire to find fault with something in order to seem cool. For example, it’s easy to go into a new Star Wars movie in a defensive state, ready to complain about every tiny thing that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I might not seem cool for saying this, but I will tell you that I loved the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens. I was able to love it because I went into it blind on purpose. I turned off everything and just watched the movie as though I were a blank sheet of paper. I saw it for what it was, and even though there were a few moments of cheesy dialogue, and maybe some other things I could have complained about, I forgave it all and let myself love the movie. This is a beautiful and vulnerable thing to do. You should try it sometime. You don’t have to try it with Star Wars.
And here’s what else you should do: You should try it with your own work. Try turning everything off, all your judgement and smartness, all your desire for something to be a certain way, all your expectations of greatness or awfulness or anythingness, and just go in blind and see what you wrote for what it actually is. Let it affect you the way it wants to. Let yourself be defenseless against it. This is hard and scary. But you do it for others’ work. If you come to Write to the End, you practice every Tuesday doing it for others’ work, at least I hope you do. People write anything here, from disconnected notes to scenes of novels, from sonnets to To Do lists. And then they read these things out loud: what they just wrote, during the previous twenty minutes. And everyone turns off everything and listens; they take it in without context; they don’t expect anything from it.
When you sit in this circle, you listen to someone read something that you didn’t choose, and you appreciate it for what it is. You don’t try for it to be something else. If you aren’t doing that the first day, you learn from the example of people who have been here a while. If you start out faking it, pretty soon you’re really doing it. Write anything. Welcome everything. It’s hardest to do it for yourself, for your own writing, but try.
This time, when you read what you’ve written, turn off everything. Be blank. Be blind. Be nothing, and become what you read. Let what you read be all there is in that moment. We will support you. If you start to crack or even break, the structure of the group will hold you. And most likely, what you’ve written will become the glue that sticks the pieces back together stronger than before, and you will be a better writer for it. This is why we welcome all writing. This is why we welcome you.
What’s the right thing to say to someone who has just shown you a manuscript of the worst prose you’ve ever seen, which they say is a story, but you can hardly even find a character let alone discern a plot?
Wait, I’ll make it worse: They’re looking at you expectantly, as innocent as a baby seal waiting to be clubbed.
Hold on a sec, it’s still not bad enough: You like this person very much and have known them for years. Maybe you even love them. Maybe you live in the same house.
Okay, now go ahead: What’s the right thing to say?
This is why you shouldn’t show your work to your friends.
(You’ve probably already made this mistake. Go ahead and use the comments section below if you’d like to tell us the terrible things people have said to you. Remember, they didn’t know what to do! They were trying their best to help! Let’s try to forgive them.)
But what if somebody really is showing their work to you? Seriously, what should you say?!
Everybody has to start where they are. Most people who eventually write amazing things at one point wrote horrible things. If you don’t believe me, and you like Harlan Ellison’s work, go find a copy of his collected stories and read the one about the snake. “But he was a kid when he wrote that,” you say. Yeah, and he was also a beginning writer.
What would you say to the nine-year-old Harlan Ellison, if he was showing you that story? I bet you have no trouble coming up with an answer this time, because you’re thinking of a kid (even if it’s Harlan Ellison). I bet you would say something like, “Wow, you wrote a story! How about you write another one?” And I bet you would mean it.
And you know what else? I bet it would be exactly the right thing to say.
Everyone is always telling you that you need good mechanics, so why am I wasting your time talking about it too? Well, if you already study regularly and frequently in your never-ending and joyful quest to master grammar, punctuation, and word usage, then please skip this article. But if your motivation or practice falls below that level, I hope to inspire and encourage you by letting you experience from the inside one of the reasons you need to continually, on-purpose, improve your skills. And then I’ll give you a few ways that you can improve them without having to take a class.
Be Worthy of Your Reader’s Trust
Mechanics are a big part of your relationship with your reader. Every mechanical error you make reduces your reader’s trust in you. Every error takes the reader out of the flow of your writing and into a state of doubt.
This Is What It Feels Like
Let’s say you’ve sent me a text.
I follow the convention (very common) that “captain” is capitalized when it stands in for a name, but otherwise not. The following text follows this convention:
The captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the captain. Everyone started to get ready. The captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.
If you were to write this text with “captain” capitalized all the time, it would FEEL like this when I read it:
The Captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the Captain. Everyone started to get ready. The Captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.
See how distracting that is? See how it reduces trust (“Why is this person hitting me over the head with these crazy huge C’s?”)?
My point is not to teach you this particular convention, but to get you to consider: What if this type of experience is happening to people when they read your work?
So, What Can I Do?
Using good mechanics is a skill, and you can’t become a master in one day. That’s the trouble with most articles that tell you to “watch your mechanics. It bugs editors when you make mistakes.” You can watch your mechanics all you want, but if you’re not regularly and frequently improving them on purpose, then someday your work will do this to someone. It probably will anyway, so don’t worry about that! But you want to have a good enough foundation in place that your reader will trust you enough to keep reading.
I have very good mechanics skills. But there is a ton of stuff I don’t know. Just recently I was proofreading a manuscript, and I spent over half my time looking things up.
What to do, then? Here are some actions you can take and habits you can cultivate that will help you improve your skills, without investing a big chunk of time:
- Pick a style guide. If you don’t have one in mind already, take no more than 15 minutes, right now, to look around online and find a style guide seems to be pretty common for the type of writing you most often do. Get a copy of it (or an online subscription).
- While editing, rewriting, and proofreading, look things up! (I recommend using your own physical (paper) copy of reference books. It may feel slower, but I’ll bet what you learn in passing will save you time in the end.)
- If you have any doubt at all about the precise use of a word, use your dictionary.
- If you have any doubt at all about the precise rule/convention that applies to a sentence, use your chosen style guide.
- Never, ever grab a synonym off a list without looking it up in a dictionary to make sure that’s what you actually mean. (Avoid the salad bandage!)
- Do real work. This will help you more than any “study” ever will. For example:
- Beta read, and look things up.
- Proofread the same document as a friend. (It’s best if you do this for the manuscript of another friend. That way everyone gets to learn, and you help someone’s manuscript as a bonus.) Talk about why each of you marked the things you marked. Find outside documentation to support each choice. (What if you thought “captain” was always capitalized, and you marked it, but your friend didn’t? You’d look it up in The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook, and you’d learn that a rule you thought you were applying correctly was not real, and you’d get to improve.)
P.S. I’m sure there’s at least one mechanical error in this article. If you saw any and want to point them out to me, I will fix them and be glad for the opportunity to improve my skills. Thanks!
Syntax gives us the power to say things that don’t make sense: Ideas can’t have color (or crash a car), and something colorless can’t also be green, but I can say “colorless green ideas crashed my car,” and you can understand me, even if you’re quite not sure what I mean.
The structure of a story or other piece of writing gives us a similar power. You can write about something that no one has ever experienced, and people will experience it through your story. This is not what I mean, and it makes my introduction about syntax sound like an analogy, when I’m trying to say something profound about the magic of language.
Let me try again. If I break the syntax—“green a the car colorless my”—you might not be able to follow what I’m saying anymore. You might say this string of words makes even less sense than “colorless green ideas.” However, with enough structure of other sorts, even such unconventional syntax can create deep meaning. For example, e.e. cummings: “anyone lived in a pretty how town / (with up so floating many bells down).”
What I’m trying to say is, write anything. You can change things later if it turns out you need to. Natalie Goldberg uses the example, “I cut the daisy from my throat.” This doesn’t make sense, but people’s minds will make sense out of it, and it will come to have meaning based on the context. If I say that colorless green ideas crashed my car, you’re going to start forming hypotheses about how this can happen: Maybe the “ideas” are aliens, and they are transparent but also green. That’s not what I mean either! The mind makes meaning. If you use syntax, you can say anything, and our minds will create it, even if it doesn’t “make sense.” If you use story structure, you can say anything, too. Story structure has underlying “bones” the way language does.
Here’s what I mean: Meaning is not dependent on making sense. Meaning exists even in things that “don’t make sense” in a conventional way. Look at the e.e. cummings poem I quoted above. Read the whole thing. It “doesn’t make sense” (the syntax is crazy, the words are used in ways you’ve never seen before), but its meaning is there nonetheless. In fact, we could argue that its true meaning and effect are only possible because cummings breaks the syntax and does things in this unconventional way. I’m sure it took him a long time and many revisions to get that poem into its final state.
I’m giving two pieces of advice here, for two different parts of the writing process:
- When you’re writing your first draft, write anything. Don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Keep going. Write until you get to the end, and save the editing for later. (If you need a process to help you do this, I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, detailed in her book Writing Down the Bones.)
- If you’re editing a piece, and the effect you want to create requires breaking syntax or creating an unconventional story structure, or doing something else that “doesn’t make sense,” DO IT! Your loyalty is not to some idea of social or literary convention, but to the entity you are trying to bring to life. You can trust your reader as the co-creator of this entity. Work hard. Make your language and structure ever more precise until what “doesn’t make sense” means exactly what it needs to mean.
I’ve been reading stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (most recently “Tunesmith” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.), and it is like being hooked up to an IV.
Have you ever been pretty dehydrated and then gotten an IV? A few hours after I gave birth to my first child, I passed out. The doctors said I was dehydrated, and they gave me an IV. I had been feeling perfectly fine: tired, sure, and maybe a little thirsty. But after they pumped a liter of saline solution into my body, I realized that what I had judged as “fine” was actually pretty bad. Like, wrung-out rag, crawling through the desert bad. But I hadn’t noticed. That’s what Fiction Deficiency Syndrome is like.
You know what else it’s like? It’s like being locked in a windowless room by yourself for days or weeks, and it feels perfectly normal. But then when you read, it’s like suddenly a good friend shows up, and they bring a picnic and take you out in the sun. You spread a blanket under the trees and talk and eat, and maybe a couple of other friends show up, and their kids play in the background, and you lean against somebody’s chest and breathe in the sweet air, and you realize that this is what life is, not the windowless room.
So here I am, lying around under the trees with Llyod Biggle, Jr. and Poul Anderson (“Call Me Joe”), and I can see Theodore Sturgeon walking toward us and waving, because I have an anthology.
There’s plenty of room on this blanket, and we’ve still got almost a gallon of lemonade.
Why don’t you come join us?
What do you do with the pieces you don’t yet have the skill to finish?
I used to leave them around in notebooks and never finish them. Half-abandoned, half-forgotten, they were a source of nebulous anxiety, though I vaguely planned to get back to them someday. Sometimes I’d remember one and think, “Hey, I know what to do with that now!” but usually I wouldn’t be able to find it.
Since I started believing in myself enough to organize my writing, I have found a way to give those pieces a better chance at life. (I use Scrivener on my computer, but you can use this method with any computer’s file system or with paper folders and manuscripts.)
I keep my short stories organized in folders that correspond roughly to stages of completion, with later stages closer to the top (see image). For example, near the top is a folder for stories that are being submitted to markets, and below that is a folder for stories that are in beta. Below that come the folders of my finishing pipeline. But what I’m talking about today only requires a single folder, which I keep right below the finishing pipeline. It’s called “I want these but don’t know how.”
In it, I keep the stories I don’t yet know how to finish. The folder is right there, in the middle of my workspace, so every now and then I look into it and read through some of the stories, and every now and then I discover that I do know how to finish one of them. Or sometimes I’ve recently read something that gives me a new structure or technique I can try on one of the stories, and I try it. Maybe I still don’t know how to finish the story, but I learn a lot. Maybe what I learn helps me finish another story.
This folder is also important for its symbolic meaning. By using this folder, I declare, “These stories I’ve started are important to me, and I give them space in my life.” By using this folder I accept that I want something, even though I don’t know how to get it yet. By using this folder I take my work seriously, I act as though I believe in myself, and I thereby increase my confidence as a writer. I intend to write for my whole life, so I need systems that support that goal.
If you don’t have a place to keep the pieces you don’t yet know how to finish, you might try making a special folder where they can live. And if you have another method that works for you, I’d love to know about it! Please put a note in the comments (below).
P.S. I got the idea for this post because I just finished a story that used to be in “I want these but don’t know how.”
When I write a first draft, I grab character names off the nearest shelf in my brain. I’ll bet at least 50% of my characters started off named “Carla” or “Carlos.” I try to find a more fitting name in the second or third draft, but usually I don’t get much more adventurous than “Edna” or “Lawrence.”
Mainstream movie character names are similarly non-diverse. But movie credits! The names of the real people who worked on the films! In movie credits, there are many, many, MANY names that I’ve never heard of. There are whole sets of names that have a familial sound to them, as though they all come from the same language (which they probably do), and I’ve never even suspected that sound to exist, let alone any of the names.
You could name a whole story’s worth of characters out of a single “unit” in a movie’s credits and be guaranteed that the names have some sort of coherence. (Whether the characters match their names culturally is up to research. But if you happen to be writing a Spanish village, and you find a movie that has credits for a “Spain Unit,” I’d say you’ve at least got a head start.
Next time you watch a movie, stay for the credits and see for yourself. For now, I’ll give a few examples.
Names from The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman
(Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen this movie.)
Alexandru Miron, Giani Roberto Ivan, Liviu Pojoni, Constantin Moldoveanu, Dragos Ionut Badea, Mihai Marius Apopei, Mats Holmgren, Bogdan Talpeanu, Vera Belu, Anneli Oscarsson
Last names from Blade Runner
Barberio, Ripple, Wash, Cranham, Spurlock, Bakauskas, Van Auken, Polkinghorse, Mirano, Wetmore
First names from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Sukhita, Robynne, Darin, Pietro, Gareth, Pranee, Nardeen, Fenella, Wineke, Gudrun, Sourisak, Huia
I got a fortune cookie last time that said “Believe in yourself and others will too.” That’s probably true, but it’s not very helpful as advice. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you start? People who already believe in themselves will say, “Just do it. Just believe in yourself.” But this is the same as saying “I don’t know.”
Here’s how to believe in yourself, which is backwards from the fortune cookie: Hang around with people who believe in you, and eventually you will believe in yourself. This is the reason you need a writing group.
And not just any writing group. You need a group like Write to the End: one that’s full of people who believe in you. (You need this even if you already believe in yourself, because we all need to believe in ourselves more than we do.) This is possible within many different writing group structures, but I think it’s easier to find in a structure like ours, one that’s focused on writing together and sharing our work with each other, rather than on critique.
If you want to start you own group, I’d recommend using a writing structure rather than a critique structure. I know people who swear by their critique group, and I’m sure those groups are filled with people who believe in each other. But a new critique group can’t get off the ground unless the members already believe sufficiently in themselves. Most critique groups I have experienced did not have that minimum, and they either self-destructed in an implosion of shame, or they churned members forever and ruined people’s pieces at every meeting.
In our group, we write together, share what we write, and encourage each other to keep going. This is a long process, but it helps people come to believe in themselves.
I wish I could instantaneously take away Casy’s trepidation, because that would turn her into a sun. What can do it? I know of nothing fast. At the group, we are participating in the slow process of transforming ourselves into suns. Every Tuesday, people take my writing seriously. Every Tuesday, people I admire and respect act like it’s normal to write, and act like it matters that I write, and act like what I write matters.
When my arms were injured, Betsy typed up the first draft of my story “Chen.” Sometimes I still boggle over that: Why? Why would anyone possibly do that? (Though I’d do it for any of us, and I bet you would, too.) Also, she sent me an email to say she’s glad I’m planning to publish flash fiction. The logic is inescapable: she believes in me. Other group members do other actions that have the same inescapable conclusion: they believe in me. And it’s working: It is forcing me to believe in myself.
We do this for each other. It peels away the scale, bit by bit. And writing does, too, but we’ll talk about that another time.
I believe in you. Keep going.
This is the process of turning into a sun.
Here’s a fun way to get titles. You can use this method to title a piece you’ve already written, or you can use the titles as prompts and re-title later if you write something that doesn’t fit.
Titles from Poems: The Method
- Find the text of a song or poem you like. Prose doesn’t usually work, but you might have luck with a very dense and image-rich block of prose, such as something by Dylan Thomas. If you can’t think of a text you want to use, just grab anything by Shakespeare.
- Look through the text and mark the interesting phrases. (This means phrases you like, phrases that sound like titles, phrases that stand out for no apparent reason, or phrases that give you ideas.)
- Pick one of the phrases and use it for a title. (Or be inspired in some other way, follow your inspiration, and come back to the titles later.)
Example: The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I’ll do an example with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W.B. Yeats. Phrases I think could make good titles are marked like this. You will probably like different phrases, which shows what a good method this is. (Note: Lately I am interested in longer, weirder titles such as James Tiptree, Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which comes from John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci“.)
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By W.B. Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Do you like any of those? Want to go through this poem yourself? Or, better yet, how about trying this method with a poem or song you love?