The Big Literary Questions

I think, for fiction authors, we all have this moment.

Call it the breakdown.

Call it the enough is enough.

Call it bringing straight talk to the people.

Call it what you will, but in all honesty, it’s us taking a very deep breath, breaking the fourth wall, and saying: “The secret to literary success is…”

Specifically, it’s a lot easier when we directly address the questions we are, in turn, pelted with by legion.

  1. How do you find the time?
  2. How do you know if you’re good enough?
  3. What is the hardest part?

Sure, they seem like simple enough questions, but no matter how often they’re answered, still they rise again and again. You’ve long since learned that we writers possess the secrets of alchemists’ ancient knowledge, that we have horded the wisdom of the sages and have access to all those brains the scientists claim to have (and use it to dissect things with—we just do that in writing!).

This is pretty secret stuff, though, so if the words happen to cause an Ark of the Covenant ala Nazi effect on you, just know that I warned you.

  1. Time? What is time? Yorick, do you know what time is? Fine, don’t talk, Yorick. Excuse me while I giggle. Oh, time. If we’re not procrastinating, we’re furiously scribbling off a thousand other details for a thousand other projects, right?
    Don’t get me wrong, the day to day shenanigans of the world are rough. They exhaust us and beat us down with details; god help you if you have a family to manage in addition to your own life.
    Truth? More often than not, you make the “time” you want. It’s not a matter of finding time, it’s a matter of making time. Has every self-help book from here to Timbuktu said the same? Yes. It doesn’t make it any less true. Success or failure, you will never have more or less time than you do right now—life doesn’t stop, and neither should you.
    There was a time we had things known as pens. If you can still find one, get it, and use it where you have spare moments. Oh, don’t look at me like that, I know you have them—minutes that is. Minutes at the dentist’s office. Minutes waiting for a phone call. Minutes spent dreaming of what you’re going to be having for dinner. Write, damn it. And if you ask me this question again while simultaneously playing Farmville or Bejeweled, I will smack you upside your face. With a pen.
  2. We all ask ourselves that question! Of course, what we should be reminding ourselves is that if we can find some way to express a story, we’re already succeeding. But, naturally, you mean good enough for them. The ill-defined them. The mystery people. The grand cabal lurking beyond the boundaries of time and space, waiting to judge your every word.
    Here’s a fact: if you can talk, you can write. Hone your voice, hone your writing. Make it distinct. You hear of so many people defining themselves by others—it’s nonsense, really. Stephen King does not write like Neil Gaiman. Robin Hobb does not write like George R.R. Martin. Mary Roach does not write like Carl Sagan.
    …and, alright, did I just lose track of my thoughts because now I have a host of glorious authors swirling about my head? Maybe. But you? Focus, blast you. The point: each of these people is readable, engaging, and downright enjoyable on their own merits. The more you question yourself, the more you craft a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worry after you’ve created. Worry about grammar and spelling and all the million little things a spellcheck harps at you about all throughout the process (or your mother, if you’re going old school editing on this)—and as you go back, picking away at those, then look at your dialogue and your metaphors, your imagery and rhyme. Do they make sense? Would something work better there? Then make it happen.
    After that? Sit on it a little. Go back. Reread one more time. Does it still work? Then submit it. Don’t keep picking at yourself. The only way you’ll know is if you try.
  3. Beginning. Or maybe I should just say the writing portion of writing. Yes, that’s definitely the trickiest part. There are any number of little ways to make it seem more foreboding than it needs to be—we’re all very good at it, too. (Stupid brains.) The way to work through it is for that first step, don’t think big. Don’t try lassoing the Cosmos—bring it down to what’s around you. In other words: write a scene. Focus on one little dot; the rest will wait, the rest will come. Believe it or not, you have time. If you’re writing a book, chances are you already know how it’s going to go—so write what interests you at the time. You’re not the reader—you don’t have to read the ninth chapter to engage the tenth. Write at your own pace. In doing so, you may even find that where you thought you would begin or end are nothing like where you now actually begin and end; your book could have entirely different shape by the end, when you’re framing and patching it all together, and you know what? That’s okay too. As long as you write.

Most importantly? This soap box I’m standing on it a lie. If you’re listening to me you’re not writing; you’re taking tips instead of developing yourself, and so I’m going to go get a rolled up newspaper now. You have until I get back to start writing.

Write. Don’t make me hit you on the nose.

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