These days, I find that get asked about various aspects of writing surprisingly often, so I thought I’d write some of these things down in one place instead of repeatedly writing forum posts or e-mail about it. I don’t claim to be any kind of an authority as such, but I do write for a living, so I guess I must be doing something right. I’ll probably update this post if/when new things that seem relevant crop up.
Also, while I’m focusing on writing in this post because that’s my own field, I do think that most of this stuff definitely applies to just about every kind of creative work in principle.
“I’ve got this great idea, but I need to figure out what to do with it first.” This is something I hear a lot. I’ll get into ideas in a bit, but a lot of people seem to feel that they can’t start working on a thing until they know exactly what it is they’re going to do with it. That’s understandable, but I think the useful length of time spent on that kind of thinking tends to be a lot shorter than many people seem to think.
I’m not saying that planning is a bad thing. Of course it isn’t! But I think it’s common for people to fall into the procrastination trap where they keep “thinking about it” and “planning it,” but in reality they’re just screwing around without getting anything done. There comes a point where you should either shit or get off the pot, and it typically comes much sooner than we think.
At the heart of this whole thing is this idea that you need to know exactly what you’re going to be doing with a project before you can start actually working on it — you need to know what’s going to happen at every turn of the plot before you can start writing it, for example. How could you start writing the story before you know how it’s going to unfold? You need to work it all out!
The problem with this is, that’s not how the creative process usually works. That first draft? That’s you, working it out. Until you actually put pen to paper and lock some things down, you won’t know how well your ideas actually perform, or how they relate to each other, or what the whole really conveys to the reader, or if the pacing works, or any number of other things that you may not even have realized could be an issue before you have something you can evaluate.
Until you make actual decisions, all you’ve got is a weird miasma of unrealized potential, full of contradictory concepts that don’t actually fit together in any useful way. Chances are, you don’t even realize that, because you haven’t done any of the actual work trying to put them together in a way that forms a coherent and useful whole. You’ve just been dicking around, indulging yourself.
You’re not supposed to figure it out perfectly before you start working on it. You’re supposed to perfect it by working on it. First drafts need work; that’s the nature of the first draft. That’s okay; now you know where the problems are and what parts are doing what you want them to be doing, and you can start working them out. A good second draft is a beautiful thing.
And really in, the end? Insisting that you need to have it all nailed down before you can start working on it is just arrogant. You’re essentially saying that your first ideas are so good that you won’t come up with better ones later on. That’s rarely the case.
(I should stress that I’m emphatically not talking about planning a larger project that involves multiple people or multiple disciplines. That’s a completely different thing.)
Here’s another thing that crops up a lot — “I’ve got these great characters and plots and everything in my head, but when I try to write about it, nothing comes out.”
I don’t want to state flat out that writer’s block is not a real thing, but I will say that it’s an amazingly convenient excuse for avoiding work. “I got great stuff in me, but it’s just not coming out! Not my fault!”
Personally, I find that when I go to write something and nothing comes out, that’s not because I’m “blocked,” it’s because I don’t really know what I want to do, and the things I try don’t work. Typically, it means that the great idea I have just isn’t that great, and it’s time to kill that darling.
That’s not to say I never get into a state where I just can’t get anything done, but that’s got more to do with being unable to let go of bad ideas, or being too stressed out, or lacking focus, or lacking motivation, or any number of other reasons. It’s not some kind of a magical state that just overcomes me.
That said, sometimes you just need to take your time — this isn’t like painting a wall where you can just keep going at a steady pace for as long as your arm and back hold up and you don’t run out of paint or wall. Creative work is hard and tends to require focus and drive — but not being in a state to get something done is not the same thing as being blocked, and I think self-deception tends to play a pretty big part in that — there’s a certain romantic inevitability to writer’s block, and the best thing is, it’s not your own fault.
(In Alan Wake, Wake himself suffers from writer’s block that keeps him from writing his next book, a departure from his established main character and essentially guaranteed popularity. Being unable to write drives him to a self-destructive and self-indulgent cycle of substance abuse, wild parties and poor judgment. Gosh, cause and effect are so hard to figure out, aren’t they?)
I’m not a big believer in talent, to be honest. Some people clearly have it, but I really can’t tell if that’s because they were born with it or because they made the commitment to develop it. I’d bet that in most cases, it’s the latter. I tend to be of the opinion that most people can learn anything reasonably well if they really put their minds to it. I’m not a big believer in genes — I’ll freely admit that they have an impact, but in most cases, people who moan about their “lack of talent” are just taking advantage of a free pass. Sure, they’d love to work, but why bother when there’s no talent? Gosh, what an unfortunate turn of luck!
Which may be an unnecessarily harsh thing to say. And when you run across some young, super creative guy who’s producing absolutely amazing work like a seasoned professional, I know this may seem like bullshit, and maybe it is. I guess what I’m saying is that I believe the vast majority of people who are really good at something didn’t get that way because of some mysterious, innate talent, they got that way because they had a passion for something and were willing to put in the effort.
It’s a bit of a chicken/egg problem, I admit — did somebody start working hard in their field because they had a talent for it and it came naturally, or did they become talented because they put in that hard work? In the end, that’s missing the point — essentially everybody who’s good at something works hard at it. There may be exceptions to that, but what’s that got to do with you and me? Not a lot, I’d bet. True savants are few and far in between.
I don’t much believe in inspiration, either.
That’s not to say I don’t think it doesn’t exist — sure it does, and when it strikes, life is good. Very good. But you can’t build a career on inspiration — hell, you can’t get much of anything done if that’s what you’re banking on.
As the old joke goes, creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You want to finish, or even get started? Better roll up those sleeves and get to work, because unless you’re just an enthusiastic wannabe who’s content to get by on the occasional burst of energy, you’re gonna have to earn your goddamn keep. People who wander around in search of inspiration are typically far more enamored with the idea of being a writer than the actual act of writing.
Am I being a jerk? Possibly, but you hear that a lot — “I’m just waiting for inspiration!” That’s great, let me know when it strikes. In the meantime, I’ll be over here in the real world, dealing with real deadlines, trying to get shit done.
Ideas are another thing more or less in the same vein. I’m not even talking about the old “where do you get your ideas?” thing, although that’s a part of it — but what I find annoying is this persistent misconception that in order to do good work, you need good ideas.
At work, we recently had a writer position open, and we got about 200 applications — an amazing number; we don’t usually get anywhere near that many people applying for a job. I don’t want to get into details here; that kind of thing is sort of confidential and the process is ongoing, but I don’t think I’m betraying any confidences when I say that in addition to many wonderfully talented people, there was a considerable number of people who had no writing or game industry experience at all, but they felt they were very creative and had great ideas, and that this somehow qualified them for the position. (Typically, these applicants neglected to even include their resume or writing samples or anything with their application.) Many of these people probably weren’t very serious when they sent off their application, but you could tell that some of them were.
For some of them, that was probably a Dunning-Kruger effect moment — that in this particular field, they were essentially too incompetent to understand just how incompetent they were, or why, but I think there’s something more to this than just that. I think there’s this modern myth of “great ideas” that’s fairly pervasive — that if you just have that great insight, if you just can rattle off great ideas and have this wonderful and entirely non-specific creativity pouring out of every orifice, that by itself is enough to guarantee success.
I really don’t think so. On the whole, ideas are completely overrated. Creative people have no shortage of ideas; if anything, their problem is that they have too many of them, all the time. The challenge lies not in getting ideas, but in finding good ways of doing something with them. Sure, some ideas are better than others, but I don’t think anybody who’s even halfway serious about doing creative work is typically going to be seriously whining about not having ideas. I’m sure there’s the odd exception to this, but the vast majority of the time, the topics of lamentation tend to be more about lack of money, time, resources, opportunities or motivation — you know, real problems. Ideas? Ideas are cheap and plentiful.
And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely bad, boring, banal and downright stupid ideas, and some people just have enormously bad judgment when it comes to evaluating them. Good ideas are important. But they aren’t scarce.
When I think about this, I always think about Elmore Leonard, whose actual plots are often amazingly simple. His ideas, to be frank, often aren’t that interesting in themselves. And yet, Leonard’s writing just flows — what’s actually happening may not be all that complicated, but the magic is in how he tells it. It’s all in the execution.
There’s that old thing about every writer having a million bad words inside them, and once you’ve written them out of your system, the good words will come. There’s a lot of truth to that — practice does make perfect, or at least adequate. But if you want to write, what you really need to do is read. Just read. And think about it as you do.
That’s easier said than done — you kind of need to train yourself to pay attention. Why is the writer saying that, instead of this? Do you like the phrasing or the pacing? If not, why not? What would you do differently? How would you do it? What is the writer really telling you here? What is the writer telling you by omission?
I don’t mean that it should be some kind of a deeply spiritual exercise where you engage in thinly veiled navel-gazing and get off on how smart you are now that you “get” this book. I just mean you should make it a point to pay attention to things other than the content in the story you’re reading.
It’s obvious that you should read things you love, but what may not be as obvious is that you should also read at least some books that you hate — how else are you going to learn to articulate what it is that you hate about them? I’m not talking about literary criticism, I should add, I’m talking about craftmanship. It’s all an opportunity to learn. And while there may be a single book that really blows your mind and unlocks something in your own head, that’s rare. Mostly, this is an ongoing process. The choice to read or not read a single book is probably not significant, but whether you read five or twenty — or fifty — books a year is.
And yes, by all means, emulate. Steal like a motherfucker — and I don’t mean “plagiarize,” and if you don’t know the difference, that probably means you’re not ready, yet. Your work is inevitably going to be informed by the work of other creators, and that’s how it should be. Is your work too derivative? All that means is you need to get better at stealing — or, to quote somebody who put it much better than I can:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
— Jim Jarmusch
If this sounds like some kind of a “stop whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, I apologize. I’m honestly not a big fan of that kind of rhetoric, and I swear I don’t mean it like that. But I do think people love to mystify the creative process to a great extent and ignore how much of it is just commitment and hard work. Writing is not easy work, and it can take a lot out of you; if nothing else, to do it is to open yourself up to criticism, and that can be downright harrowing.
Craftmanship and dedication count. It’s not a coincidence that people who get things done tend to excel in both of those things — and people who prefer talking about being a writer to actually writing don’t.
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