YOU CAN WRITE GOODER, TOO
Starting with a wink at his own dumb title and a case for whimsy as a writer’s best friend, veteran writer and writing instructor John Vorhaus offers us this latest glimpse inside his writing mind. Drawing on a quarter-century of experience in writing scripts and novels, and teaching and training writers worldwide, Vorhaus delivers a quick, expressive overview of the writing process, how to engage it, and how to beat its common pitfalls. With abundant concrete writing strategies and an empowering generosity of spirit, HOW TO WRITE GOOD joins JV’s classic COMIC TOOLBOX in providing what every writer needs: rules, tools, and a good, swift kick in the motivation.
This book will teach you how to write good. That’s a fact. You may already believe it because you’ve embraced the title, the joke of it, but also its hidden meaning. “Anyone who writes a book about writing,” I figure you figure, “must know enough about grammar to write ‘how to write well.’ Well, if he knows correct usage and yet chooses not to use it, then it must be with purpose. Maybe this guy knows something.”
Well, yes, yes he does. For one thing, he knows how to read minds; he knows that 90 percent of everything everyone thinks is pretty much the same stuff, so the trick of reading other people’s minds is really just getting better at reading your own. (Boy, here comes a convoluted sentence – get ready for it.) I figure you figure what I figure you figure because if I were you I would be figuring the exact same thing. (Told ya. Convoluted as hell.) Mind reading is especially useful for driving characters through story, but we’ll get to that later.
Back to the title, back to how to write good.
Mostly what I want the title to convey is whimsy. As I grow as a writer, I think more and more that whimsy is one of the strongest cards I can play. I’m not talking about funny writing, but rather a writer’s playfulness – her willingness to make choices. Like my choice just here to make she the default pronoun for this book. Choice is made. I don’t second guess. I move on. As a writing strategy, it’s a pretty darn useful one, so let’s put it on a line by itself.
Choice is made. Don’t second guess. Move on.
I had an idea to write a book called How to Write Good. I thought that the title might be sexy and alluring to a certain type of writer, one already predisposed to appreciate whimsy. You, having self-selected as that sort of writer (you’re still here, aren’t you?) might now be interested in seeing how to use whimsy as a tool for getting your writing moving better.
But let’s be careful about the word “better.” Let’s be sure we know what we mean by that. To me, in this context, better is largely just faster. I consider myself a “better” writer when my process is more efficient, when I’m getting more writing done. I don’t consider myself a “better” writer when I’m sitting there staring at the blank page. That’s when I consider myself a worse writer, or worse, no writer. That’s always the point I want to get past. And whimsy is a tool I can use there. Why? Because whimsy suspends value judgments. Whimsy says that any choice is a good choice. Whimsy explores ideas just for fun. Whimsy doesn’t care about broken bits of writing or storytelling. Or grammar. Or syntax. Or complete sentences. Whimsy plans to fix everything later. Whimsy, out of sheer whimsy, thinks of as many ways as it can to express whimsy. Whimsy knows there’s more than one path through story. Whimsy says what the fruck. (And whimsy makes fruck a word.) Whimsy knows the secret of how to write good.
Here it is.
Fail on the page. And fail on the page. And fail on the page. Let whimsy help you. Let whimsy validate any choice you make, because any choice you make keeps you moving forward on the page. You know (because whimsy tells you) that you’ll definitely be going back to fix things later, but that’s not your job right now. Right now your job is exactly this simple:
Keep failing. Then fail some more. And some more after that. Then guess what? Soon you’ll start failing less. Why? Because you’ll be improving your process. Driven by whimsy, your choices will start coming easier and faster. Now you’re saving all the time you used to waste second-guessing yourself, and investing that time in writing instead. You’re pushing that text out onto the page and of course with each new sentence you write, writing sentences is something you’re gonna get better at doing. (And see what a hash I made of that sentence? That’s it – that’s the whimsy. That’s me not caring if I make a fool of myself on the page. Go to school on that. It’s so great to be a writer who doesn’t fear to be a fool. And I have dined out on that particular morsel for years.)
I think I know where you’re at now. You’re not as productive as you want to be. Not as prolific. Not as at ease with your craft. Not yet its master, for sure. In the back of your mind you hear a panicked little voice that clamors,
I’m falling behind in my existence!
How do I know you hear that voice? Because I hear it all the frucking time! I’ve heard it all my life. I experience it as exactly this: the gap between the writer I am and the writer I want to be. I’m furiously interested in closing that gap. You are, too, I know; that’s why you’re here. And here’s the thing I want to tell you. You will close the gap. I have. Not all the way. But some. And consistently more and more over time.
And I can show you how.
When I started my so-called “writing” so-called “career,” I couldn’t write for fifteen minutes at a time without falling apart. Fear retarded my growth, impeded my progress, stopped me cold. Day in and day out, I had this weird practice of not-writing, of doing everything I could think of except putting words on the page. I was simply too afraid to put words on the page, too afraid to commit to my choices, any choices at all. I was always afraid that I’d make the wrong ones. I hadn’t yet learned this stunning truth:
In writing, there are no wrong choices.
Muse upon that for a second. Decide for yourself if you think it’s true. If you happen not to think so, I would here ask you to pretend otherwise. Imagine that it’s true and see what impact that new point of view has on how you approach your work. I suspect that its impact will be exactly this: You will become more free ‘n’ frisky on the page, simply as a function of your reduced or eliminated fear of being wrong.
And that’s what we call a useful fiction. A useful fiction is a lie we tell ourselves to serve some strategic purpose (like getting to be more free ‘n’ frisky on the page). We know it’s a lie, but pretend it’s not, for the sake of some strategic gain.
I have some experience in this area. Often, a young writer on a writing staff I’m running will come to me and ask, “Do you believe in me? Do you think I can do this job?” I always answer yes, and I always identify my answer as a useful fiction, i.e., I tell her I might be lying. The truth is, I don’t know if she can do the job or not – probably, that’s what we’re there to find out – but I do know that if I don’t express my faith, real or imagined, I will in no way be serving her efforts to become the writer I need her to be. So I explain about the useful fiction and propose that we both believe she can do the job unless and until evidence demonstrates otherwise. That’s a useful fiction disguised as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s a very handy tool to have. You can use it on yourself. Just fake it till you make it.
(If you recognize fake it till you make it as a buzz-phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous or other types of addiction recovery programs, that’s not by accident. All real writers are addicted to writing. Get used to it. It’s not the end of the world.)
(For the record, we’re not trying to shed our addiction, we’re just trying to manage it better.)
These days I can’t wait to write. I feel no fear at all. I allow every idea I can think of to have (or at least contend for) a life on the page. I make a choice and move on. Make another choice and move on. Make another choice and move on. I know that every choice I make is a choice I can unmake later – but not if I don’t keep moving on! ! Because the first goal of every writing project, for this completist writer at any rate, is to get the first draft done, and that won’t happen in the presence of fear. So I kill fear with whimsy, like killing snails with salt, and the words keep flowing out. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t judge. Right this very minute, the editorial me wonders if “killing snails with salt” isn’t too graphic an image for what I’m driving at here. The editorial me wants to cut it. But whimsy says, “Ya know what? Let’s leave it for now. We can always fix it later.” And then the words keep flowing out.
See how that works?
Try how that works.
I don’t mean that rhetorically. I mean it like this: Right here and right now, sit down and try how that works. That’s an important part of this book – the most important part, in fact. These are tools, Jules, and they don’t work if we don’t use ‘em. So when I say write, I mean write, right? It’ll do you no harm, I swear.
I’m aware that this freedom to choose and not care puts me on a certain slippery slope. Liberated from the need to judge, I might become completely indiscriminate. I might let every word I write live in this book exactly as I blooted it out of my brain onto the page. You’ll never know. Did I edit that sentence? (Did I edit that one?) It sure looks like I didn’t. It looks like I’m letting any idea and every idea live on the page, with no thought to economy, no thought to style, no thought to quality, no thought to how these words will later be judged. I’m just writing. I’m working on my active practice.