Most of us live in a haze of constant self-deception. Not you of course. You’re immune to it. None of this article applies to you, so you can just ignore it. But, just for fun, let me ask you this: are you a good driver? Are you, in fact, a better than average driver? I bet your answer is yes. How do I know? Am I a seer? Nope. 90% of the population believes they’re superior drivers. Obviously, you don’t need to know much about math to know we can’t all be above-average drivers. This is only the smallest example of how we deceive ourselves. We do it all the time. Let’s look at how this reality distortion field can kill your quest to become an artist.
If you want to become an artist, someone who says what’s really on your mind, tells the truth, doesn’t compromise, and lives authentically, then you’ve got to slay self-delusion with absolute ruthlessness. In other words, you’ve got to become self-aware. Before you can really change what’s wrong you have to know what’s wrong. To accomplish that you have to be able to see clearly. It’s probably no surprise that most of the time you can’t/don’t/won’t. Much of the time we’re like people trying to change a clock by moving it around the room. We see the world through a constant distortion field that we can’t perceive. We’re a collection of beliefs and thoughts that are unexamined hand-me-downs and reactions to the particular circumstances we grew up in. We’re tossed around by echoes of the past and visions of the future like a small ship caught in a terrifying sea storm.
Psychologists call this state of self-deception cognitive dissonance. What the hell is that, you wonder? That’s where we believe something that’s just not true, despite all evidence to the contrary. How does this happen? Well, we don’t like to feel pain. So, we make shit up. We look for internal harmony with beliefs that just can’t and won’t fit together. Most of us are masters of self-deception. Even worse, most of us don’t know how much we lie to ourselves. If you pay close attention, then you’ll be surprised at how often you whisper something to yourself that doesn’t really line up with reality. In particular we tend to overestimate our skills and downplay our weaknesses. This self-delusion is death to an artist and it must be destroyed with total ruthlessness. As an artist you have to gut yourself and look inside and not be afraid by what you find there. You have to see your story naked as if someone else wrote it.
I talk with writers just starting out quite often. Actually, I try to avoid this as often as possible because 99.9% of the time I find the same sets of self delusions that are common to anyone starting out and unfortunately many people who’ve been at it for awhile. What usually happens is someone emails me or comes up to me and says they want my opinion, they want criticism of their idea and story. They say they want to understand what it takes to become an artist. They say all that, but they don’t really want it at all. What they really want is for me to tell them their idea is perfect, their first draft is already wonderful and that they don’t have to actually dedicate any time to writing. They secretly hope that books will just magically write themselves and appear by their bedside one day, after waking up from a good night’s rest, with a quote from Stephen King on the cover saying that this is a breathtaking new author. They’re hoping they’re different and that writing is easy. It’s not. It’s fucking hard work. It takes time. There are so few exceptions that they are statistically meaningless.
How do you fix this? You face the truth. You look at your work like it was somebody else’s. You tear apart your assumptions until they stand up to questioning and scrutiny. You accept nothing at face value. Over and over again, you set aside your fear, sadness, rage and depression and you take a look at what is being said and you try to find the core value hidden in the criticism you’ve received. Often you can do this by looking for patterns. If a number of people have said the same things, you should start there.
This is all hard work. You will fail at it much of time, even after you get good at it. If you’re just starting out writing, I hate to tell you this but the chances are your self delusion knows no bounds. Hearing this now and knowing it, even at the intellectual level, is a good start. It will save you time.
Now, if you are thinking of sending me something or asking me about your work and you’re a new writer, or even someone who’s been at it for a bit but have not broken through, let me save you some time by predicting and answering your questions ahead of time.
Q: How’s my idea?
A: More than likely it’s not polished, too long, too wordy, focused on irrelevant details, rambling and been done before. Work on it.
The very first thing you need to get right as a story teller is your premise. There are several techniques out there to learn how to do this. Pick one. Work with it. Try them all. Some say it has to be one sentence or two or three. Some will insist it’s phrased a certain way like “when so and so happens, this happens.” It doesn’t really matter. I prefer to get it down in one sentence, a la the Truby methodology. Some people think that you can’t describe your story in a sentence or two. I encourage you to reexamine that belief. You most certainly can. In fact, it’s safe to say that if you don’t, your premise won’t just be unfocused and rambling, your story will be too. You don’t want that. Work on it. Work on it over and over until almost everyone you pitch it to says man that’s a good idea. Do that BEFORE you start actually writing anything else.
Q: Is writing a lonely life like Hemingway said?
Q: Can I ameliorate some of the loneliness by writing with other people or in groups?
A: No. Writing is done by you, with as few other distractions as possible. Disable the internet, except for research, turn off the TV, your music, your phone, put down the alcohol and the drugs, get away from your friends and family. Focus. By yourself. This is the essential part of writing and it is not a team sport.
Q: Can I kill the loneliness by socializing, drinking, taking drugs, hanging out, and/or doing something else?
A: No. It never goes away when you are actually writing new material. It’s can only be overcome again each day by WRITING.
Q: Is writing with groups a good idea?
A: Almost never. See above two answers.
Q: Should I go to writing conferences?
A: This is generally a complete waste of time, unless you are just socializing or have a polished story to sell. You are better off writing, reading, or reading something about writing, rather than talking about writing.
Q: What about writing seminars?
A: These can be excellent, depending on the teacher and their method. Anything that focuses on craft is important to your development.
Q: How’s my first draft?
A: It’s a mess. Seriously. Unless some miracle has happened, it’s not that good. In fact, it needs a lot of work. This was true for Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner and whomever else you feel like throwing on the list. Their first drafts sucked. Yours does too. And no, you are not special. Sorry. Does this mean you never churn out a chapter or a few chapters that are great due to some wave of unexplained inspiration? Nope. Of course that happens sometimes. There might be a number of bright, shining spots in your work. It’s just that it probably doesn’t hang together very well. Taken as a whole it doesn’t work yet, even if you went through an outline phase first. So put it aside and then work on it again.
Q: I can write a funky non-standard query letter and that will really stand out to agents/publishers.
A: No. It won’t. It will most likely make you look like an amateur.
Q: There are no rules to writing.
A: Wrong. There are a lot of them.
Q: My story transcends the rules.
A: No, it doesn’t. Very few writers can transcend the rules of good story telling like creating powerful conflict, rising tension, and a character that goes through a profound change by story’s end. If they do transcend, they might find a brand new way around one of them, at most two, but not more than that in a single work or over a career.
Q: I got a bunch of negative criticisms and bad reviews. None of these idiots know what they’re talking about. They’re all just biased, mainstream story lovers and stupid. They didn’t understand that I was going for something different and unique. My story is actually amazing and everyone else just can’t see what I am trying to do.
A: No. More than likely they’re right. It’s not that critics are never wrong. Some stories are so different that people may not be ready for them, because they have no context to judge it against. Chances are your story is not one of those. If it is one of those, you’ve already moved well beyond the thinking I’m outlining here. You know your first draft sucked, you know what scenes you really struggled with, what themes had to get tossed out because they didn’t work. In short, you’re self-aware enough to know that it will take some time for people to get it. This happened to Melville. People hated Moby Dick. Unfortunately, even knowing it may not be enough. He was so distraught that people hated it, that he gave up writing for the rest of his life. It’s hard to live with the realization that something you feel like you worked hard on sucks. It’s painful. And that’s why we lie to ourselves, and then swear it’s everyone else. Look, the publishers who rejected Harry Potter were wrong, but these are the outliers. Most of the time, the public gets it right. Really. They’re not all knuckle-dragging morons who can’t figure out what they like and don’t like. In reality, there is something wrong with your book and you need to dig in, put aside your rage and fear and LISTEN. After that, MAKE CHANGES. There are no exceptions to this order of operations. Or just leave it like it is, because it’s already perfect.
Of course, none of this applies to you right?