You’ve probably popped in here to get my long-awaited words of wisdom on plot. Yeah, sorry to disappoint but that post has been delayed yet again. Just think how insightful it will be when I actually do get around to it though! Nope. This one is about getting it right. That’s pretty much the be-all-end-all of what you’re writing. Write right. Hemingway once said something about it. His idea when he sat down to his little moleskine notebooks was to write one true sentence. Tim O’Brien took that theme a little further in his section on war stories in The Things They Carried. Buddhism has hammered it into maxims that I am constantly forgetting: right speech, right thought, and then I lose track.
I know what you’re probably going to say: “But, dude. I write about vampires and stuff.” I don’t care. Get it right. You can’t possibly tell me that your four hundred year old bloodsucker is perfectly fine with taking his senior year over again for the three hundredth time. That’s the trick.
Now here’s the extra crispy corollary to that trick: You Will Fail. Actually You Must Fail. One of the most charming and amazing thing about reading Hemingway, to me anyway, was how his characters failed so beautifully. If you’ve read A Moveable Feast it isn’t too hard to see how Hem himself failed gloriously. It takes an amazing amount of talent to wrap your most painful failure between two covers and publish it posthumously. What a jerk. Failure, after all, is its own amazing truth. It’s right, in other words.
Now, not content to stick completely to one topic I’ll tell you why this is so important. See, I spent a good long time farting around with my writing: plonking out little stories where and when they’d strike me. I was sort of aimless. Y’know? Just putting words on the page, whipping up some characters with some stuff and throwing them in a blender and seeing what came out. It wasn’t a lot of fun, actually, but it was writing and that enabled me to call myself A Writer. Yes. In caps. Just like that. A Writer can scribble away for hours in coffee shops. A Writer has an opinion on books that you must listen to because he’s A Writer.
The thing is, I kind of cracked my mind a few years ago and after that just cranking out any old story wasn’t good enough. I wanted to write the stories that I actually felt and frankly I wasn’t really feeling any of them. I could make it look like I did and – just to polish my own beret – some of them were pretty good. So once I got my head back together I started working on stuff again. At first it was simple little stuff. The Short Man. Just a little story about a detective trying to find a killer. But it fit. And it fit well. It might not have been terrific but it fit well. And it was a hint of something that was… yep you guessed it. Right.
Now I’m not saying that it was true. In fact, I really didn’t know shit about writing mysteries. Truth be told I still don’t. I really don’t think anybody does. Mysteries are messy, which is why writers are constantly reinventing them and why defense attorneys are still so mighty popular. You put a guy on the floor with holes in him. How did he get that way? Yep. Sounds simple enough and for some writers that’s where it stops. Intrepid hero finds the bad guy and saves the day. But it’s never that simple as any attorney – prosecuting or defense will tell you. Heck it’s not that simple for a detective. Stand yourself in front of a witness who has every reason in the world to tell you what happened to the dead guy and have them lie to you. You know they’re lying. Why in god’s name are they lying? And that’s just one aspect of an investigation, right?
Well that’s what I mean by getting it right.
After a while with my detective I realized that I could make this thing sing. Maybe you don’t see it if you’ve read them, but – again being honest here – I don’t care. I feel it. I can see the potential and I want to get it better, why? Well it’s simple. But before I get to that let me hop back one more little step to explain something else about me.
I tend to yell at the tv a lot. And the radio in my car. Which I foolishly keep on the news. That should tell you something about the dire state of musical radio in Milwaukee that I’d rather listen to the news. One of the things I yell most often (a running theme of my rants of which my cats are avid listeners) is that none of it is actually helpful. In fact, it’s the opposite of helpful. Which is hurtful. Thanks. I know. I’m getting to that. And lately I’ve been feeling that way about fiction and TV too. I grew up in a time where… well… they created characters like Magnum, Indiana Jones, Han Solo. We were outside until dark when we could be and hated rainy days because it meant being forced to play boardgames with your brother or *Gasp* share your toys with them. Which meant sharing your world. Yikes. The Horror. I know you’ve heard all this claptrap halcyon days shit before. I won’t bore you with it. But my point is that it was – hell – it is good to look at guys like Magnum, who always tried to do the right thing, and want to be that guy some day.
We now live in a world that loves to believe its much more complicated. Somehow we’ve come to believe that we’re deeper, wiser, more intricate. Fact is, it’s the same world but we’re sorely lacking in folks to help guide us through it. That, I believe, is what makes us think it’s a lot more complicated. It makes us feel better that our problems are bigger than us. We’re helpless little waifs in a dangerous, wolf infested world. But it’s really a damned lie. It’s the same world only more people are out there shouting wolf all over the place and keeping our heads spinning. Yes. There are wolves. There always are but it’s getting a little hard these days to tell a wolf from a poodle and while you’re waiting for some gibbering head to tell you which is which your sheep are all gone.
And that’s where I pull this long segue back to writing. I figured I could do it right. Right by me and right by the world I wanted to help make by writing. I wanted good people. I wanted people who worked hard to be good, honest, right, true. Sure Meg’s a smarmy wise-cracking detective but I know there is some part of her that believes in the good she’s doing. But that’s not to say she’s a starry-eyed upholder of the red white and blue. No, she’s seen far too much for that, and so have we, but that doesn’t give us the permission to be exhausted by it. That’s what I mean about right. Write right. Write true and keep in mind the world you want to create, a world you may feel is slipping by the wayside. Meg’s my avatar to hold back the crap i yell at on the TV.
So that’s what I’m doing and some folks are going to say ‘that’s not realistic. Realistic is gritty, dirty, putting a jaundiced eye on the ugly things in the world and not flinching.’ I say that’s bullshit. People flinch. They should flinch. They should turn away from the awful things in the world. Witness doesn’t mean staring vacantly at the terrible. It means being human – being affected. It means you didn’t want to see but you did and now you’re just a little bit haunted by it. I’m not interested in being presented with the realistic on a silver platter. What sort of horrible platter is that anyway? ‘here folks, it’s a yummy four course dinner of pain and suffering, get used to it because tomorrow you get more of the same until you insist it’s steak tartar.’ Screw that. Resist the awful. But be right and true.
Now I’m not saying ‘go forth, minion writers and create an army of captain america’s to fight the demons that plague us.’ Nope. I guess I mean: unless you’re ready and able to stand over a slaughterhouse without batting an eyelash don’t pretend that the slaughter is just okey-dokey, or that ‘hey, this is really going to be an awesome motivator for my main character’. Unless you’re willing to chat with the devil and shake his hand don’t pretend you are. Write what you feel and make it true. If it pisses you off enough to yell at your television, put that into your characters, your plot, your settings but work really hard to be true to them too. Seek that authenticity if you can. If you write about firefighters get out there and talk to some. If you write about soldiers, find some. If you write about housewives, etc. Take whatever they tell you and put it through your own experiences. How do YOU feel about this or that. That’s what I’ve been preaching about with the seminar’s I’ve written about and the TV Shows i bitch about.
Think about why you’re writing. Ooh. There’s another eightfold path thing! Right action. If you’re motivated by adoring fans and people being dazzled by your riches and awesomeness please try to think deeper about what you’re doing. You are creating worlds. You’re creating readers. You’re creating the taste by which you’ll be enjoyed. Someone famous said that. Byron maybe?
Shelley once said ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Sad thing about that is we’re doing about a good a job of it as the actual legislators of the world.
If you ask yourself the question ‘why am I writing this’ and the answer is ‘cuz buff dudes with swords are cool’. Try again. You can still have fun but make it matter. Trust me: its way better when it actually matters. It’s even more fun.
Oh yeah, and Fail – but make it worth failing at.