This story is trying to kill me.
It’s late at night. And I am starting this story over for the fifth time in four days. As is usual lately, what I am writing is not a revision— this is a cold write-through.
Every word on the page grates my teeth. Every sentence is cold coffee in a stained mug. My head hurts. My eyes twitch. But I keep going because I have a deadline to make and a promise to keep that I made to you last week in There’s A Tale About Me I’ve Been Itching To Share.
What I’m showing you here is how writing actually works.
There’s no swell of string music as I round past this first draft for the fifth time this week.
There’s no lighting pretty enough to mute three days of hard work from my face tonight.
What you are reading was not written in five minutes of flash-forwards and horn music.
The piece you are reading now took fifteen hours to write/rewrite/revise/edit and copy edit, and it still could use another polishing.
So I am polishing it right now.
Some weeks you run hot. Some weeks you run cold. Writing is not about luck or inspiration or muses.
It’s not about throwing dice. It’s not about your ancestry. It’s not about your class. It’s not even about your education level, though some would have you think so.
It’s just this. You, here. The page, there. Silence. Or music. Morning. Or night. Heart and eye and pen jumping. Or no words at at all. Sitting stultified for two hours in front of a flipping blank screen. Or keening gawp-faced at a head full of words that would take a week’s untangling.
Any which way you turn in your silent room: It’s you. You are the engine that drives the machine.
You know how gamblers say, “Never bet against the House?”
I say, never bet against the clock.
The clock, like the House, always wins.
So you want to be a writer. Stop reading this page for a sec and take out a sheet of paper.
And get a pen too.
It’s okay. I can wait.
Write down the first two good things that come to mind when I say:
Don’t rush. Don’t look to me for answers. Just write down your two things.
Now come back.
What did you say? Did you say glamorous? (Or something similar?) Well, I don’t know any glamorous writers. Not a one.
The really good ones always seem to be slightly doglegged— you want to smooth down their hair, or offer them a snack. You worry those brilliant writers might wander into three o’clock school traffic when you’re not watching— because their minds— gosh, you can see the hand-machined parts smoking, their thoughts turn so quick.
The others, the scrappy-eyed ones with the preternatural skills, carry hungry panthers hanging from smooth-limbed trees inside their heads— groomed tails twitching, eyes reading right to left, left to right— you don’t worry about them going into traffic, you worry about turning to make tea and getting pounced. Those writers will eat you whole in pursuit of a story, and tuck your white rib bones in their pockets to mark pages in the books they’re reading at bedtime.
Oh, wait. I misheard you. Sorry about that! You said successful. Now, here’s a question for you to consider: What’s success? A lot of people who don’t write, or who want to write, but are afraid to commit to it, or who can write really well but are lazy about it have some pretty airy notions about what that means.
Are you talking bestseller money? Well, yes, that’s possible, I guess. But what kind of bestseller money? Because there are a few ways you can shoot for that mark—write something shocking; write something revealing; write something that anticipates a trend—but people do that all the time and fail to find a publisher. (How do bestsellers get published? Well, it’s like any other amazing thing— right people, right place, right time. All three elements have to show up on the same doorstep and even then— things happen.)
And then there are books so gloriously written, so thoughtfully considered, everyone reads them and feels, in some way, transformed by their shape.
None of these writers, mind you, are working alone. They have personal readers (like Joan Didion)— readers who know what the writer is trying to do, and helps him/her get there. Most 20th Century writers had editors who championed and shaped their work: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had Maxwell Perkins, who saw what both of these writers could be from the start. Potential is potent, but it isn’t the story.
As an editor, Perkins took Hemingway’s work, Fitzgerald’s, and with gentle constructive criticism shared in letters and notes and meetings, helped both writers create masterpieces, plural, in their lifetime.
A professor told me once, Any great book you love carries many fingerprints; no great book is written alone.
Sometimes the books that become bestsellers bear those same loving fingerprints— take Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love as an example— that book was written by a language athlete who was at the top of her game. Her writing muscles are ripped as hell, y’all— but Gilbert had three other books under her belt and dozens of stories, and a short memoir piece she had written for Esquire get turned into a really bad movie that you’ll remember but won’t know was hers— before she hit the jackpot. At each turn of her career Gilbert showcased levels of skill and talent that most professional writers don’t have to that degree at all. (You can be sure she’s got great readers, whom she does mention, and a fantastic editor on top of her native megalith of talent.)
Why use Eat, Pray, Love as an example? The writing in that memoir is as exquisite as the best meal you’ve never had. Then there’s the self-deprecating humor with the drop-shot jokes. And the brutal honesty.
However, she could have all of that, and still… no bestseller. (A great book, though. Plus, Gilbert had a long-term contract with a publishing house already.)
Right people, right time, right place.
Gilbert wrote this book in a place of failure, expecting failure. She wrote this memoir for her damaged self, her self that had damaged herself, and the next self she was trying to become.
I did mention that the prose is glorious right? It’s music that fits right in the cup of your ear.
And I did mention that Gilbert expected to fail? I did? Do you know why? Her readers up to Eat were primarily men— that’s right, Gilbert was famous for writing for men about men and men’s issues. She identified with male themes. Were men going to want to read about her divorce? Her crying on every third page in the first section? Albeit well-written, albeit totally on dit— no, the people who read The Last American Man were probably not going to “get” this one.
But she had a bestseller, two of them now— and I can’t think of a writer more deserving than Gilbert of any and all honors. I adore her work, and I just want more of it, when she’s got it.
I bought a bestseller last year that I have on my lap as I type.
I cannot stand this book. It’s so badly done. All of it.
In fact, it is not actually a book, it’s a bestselling doorstop with words in it.
I could roll up my sleeves, lay out the cards, and dish some more snark about a number of writers who have made bank in the last three years— mad bestseller bank, I tell you— but whose writing is not merely bad, but nearly unreadable.
Leave those bad writers aside. Consume the most beautiful writing you can find— good words in, good words out.
And consider this, only:
You want to write well? Then write well.
It’s still late at night. It’s just a different night. I’ve got guppy-sized spots swimming before my eyes from the exhaustion of three days of back to back deadlines. My language feels thick, heavy-heeled. I’ve field-stripped this story three times and cleaned it, and I still have at least an hour to go (five hours, six hours… Damn those swimming spots!) of revisions.
Not edits. Revisions. My hand, my voice, my eye, my ear must go line by line, rearranging words, moving whole paragraphs, yanking out the conclusion twenty times and rewriting it from scratch. The conclusion must cup tightly as a clean fitted sheet around the whole story when it’s over.
And its hanging right now. The whole story hangs badly around my heels. Of course.
Here— watch me. I am still going at it. I’m still struggling with the word and the page tonight.
Primarily, though, I am wrestling with my writing self.
Be ruthless with your words, your blind spots, your weakest points— but never be cruel to the whole of you. You have to be your own coach at each hard turn of the writing process; your own doula assisting at the quickening before the birth; your own conductor, adroitly setting the tone for the entire orchestra to pull together and sustain that one long note—
—before the coda.
I wish you could see me now. I washed my hair today, but I forgot to comb it, so I will wake up tomorrow with a sort of hair macramé thing going on that my scowl won’t fix. I am exhausted, but still standing. I feel as I always feel when I am truly fatigued— as though the best parts of me have been scooped out with a melon baller. I am hollow.
But, tomorrow, when you read this, I will be waking up a bit late to that feeling you only have when you know you’ve written something that people might read. I get that feeling when a big story of mine runs in a newspaper, or when my column ran in that magazine, or when my book came out ten-twelve years ago— it’s six birthdays and five Xmases all wrapped into one moment of awareness: I write. Period.
Need has two sides.
Flip it one way, and need can keep you sharp and honed. If you want to be successful, you must stay a little bit hungry, right at the pit of yourself, okay? That’s the good kind of need. It’s the bright anxiety of a fighter waiting for the bell. It’s the tremor of the dancer waiting at the wings. That need is so simple it doesn’t even require a massive paragraph here.
But bad need will take your talent, your ability, your drive, and shove it aside to make room for its own demands. Bad need wants a big name, but not the work that it takes to make that name carry itself into the room. Bad need wants the clever jacket cover of the hardback book, but doesn’t care if hundreds of thousands of readers can’t read the rushed and squishy prose crammed inside it. Bad need takes your daydreams and tacks onto them bigger lights and better reviews so that you can never write the book because it cannot possibly be as clever as the book that need scrawled inside your head.
4. (An Epilogue Hinting at a Prologue)
So… Wait— Are you even still here?
Next week, expect a follow up story. (And if you keep reading further in this story, a surprise!)
This is what I want you to do: Take your need and look at it. If it’s the bad kind, get a stick out of the backyard, work that greed out of the grooves of your dreams (you may need an ice cube or a little butter), and fling bad need in the trash. Your homework is to go and find a hero/ine that you love who made beautiful writing, but not a ton of money. I want you to rewrite that person’s story in your head so that the lack of money isn’t a tragedy.
Why? Because a lack of good writing is a tragedy. A lack of good money is extremely painful, but there are ways to get by. (I didn’t say whoop with joy, did I? Get by is get by.)
If it’s the good kind of need, but it needs a little repair, grab up that travel sewing kit and go all over your need under a lamp with a good bulb in it. Are there any holes? Darn them gently with your thread to pull the edges together. Are there rents in it? Get one of those iron-on patching kits, and whipstitch around its edges at the end. You must stay a little hungry, a little wanting— and you must be protective of this side of yourself because all too easily hope and desire can get unthreaded by events in life. Trust me.
Good need is where it starts, but writing daily is where you hone the sweetness of that need.
A GIFT FROM ME TO YOU:
For an entire week, starting Monday (or Tuesday for my friends in the Southern Hemisphere) I want you to sit down and work on one story or poem or essay or any form you’d like.*
You are going to keep working on that one piece all week.
In other words, for seven days, I want you to: Write this piece. Revise this piece. Edit the piece.
Each 24 hour cycle (by 10 a.m. your time, the next day), you will send me a copy of that day’s draft-work.
When you finish on day seven— that’s next Sunday, April 28, 2013 (or Monday, April 29, 2013 for the Southern Hemisphere)— before midnight (your time zone), email me your final, copy-edited draft at bluebirdblvd (at) att (dot) net.
As a gift for all of your hard work, I will give you a free manuscript evaluation by email at the end of your seven day project. A week from Sunday, you will receive an email reply in which I will discuss your work in depth. Your work!
*I have written in every major format. Short film scripts, experimental playwriting, experimental forms. Whatever your writing pleasure, I can and will coach you. Two exceptions: No student academic papers, please. And no prior/current projects.)
READ CAREFULLY: I cannot stress this enough: This offer is open to new work only. It has to be a project that you start specifically for this challenge because what I am trying to teach you is lost otherwise.
Please do not send me five pages of your current long-term project. Why? Because that is not the specific service I am offering for free here. (If you’d like to hire me, send me an email and we can discuss terms.)
If you send me five pages of some other project you’re working on, you’ve put me in a bind.
Because you are my friend, I won’t want to say no. Because I am a professional writer and editor, I absolutely will tell you no because this is a work-related matter.
The good news is that I take what you are going to write this week quite seriously. But! That means you have to take this week’s work seriously too.
To read some of my credentials, go to The Bluebird/About Courtenay Bluebird.
1600-2000 word limit. (5 1/2 double-spaced pages.)
12 pt.Times/Times New Roman font. (Except for screenwriting: 12 pt. Courier, please.)
- SPECIFIC FORMATS:
Poetry, fiction, essays: .5 margins for fiction and essays.
Research-driven work: Industry standard for your subject. (MLA, APA, AP, or Chicago.)
Poetry: Justified to the left. No center justifying, please. No cute fonts. Times/Times New Roman
Playwriting/Screenwriting: Industry standard. Courier 12 pt.
- THIS IS A LIMITED TIME OFFER:
Contact me before midnight on Monday with your first (sketchy) draft—
at bluebirdblvd (at) att (dot) net
NO PRIOR OR CURRENT PROJECTS. NEW IDEAS ONLY.
SUGGESTIONS AND GUIDELINES:
1) Work in a form or forms you know already for this project.
2) Figure out on by early Tuesday how you plan to attack this project. Do you like start-to-finish revisions? Do you work best in sections? Do you have to sketch it our first, then fill it in and work backwards? Don’t be afraid to try a new approach or to talk about your approach in the comments section below.
3) Read every day’s draft out loud five times while you are working on it.
4) Line up one to three other people to read your drafts this week.
5) Ask any questions about the process of writing, revising, editing, and copy-editing in the comments! I’ll be right here!
6) Don’t forget to send me a draft a day— that works out to about one really roughed out sketch, four drafts. I don’t care what time of day. But it needs to be in some way newly revised, and it needs to be in my inbox before 10 a.m. the next day. The final draft, is due on Sunday at midnight, for Northern Hemisphere writers, Monday at midnight for Southern Hemisphere writers.
ABOUT MANUSCRIPT EVALUATION:
Everyone who follows the guidelines above and sends me those seven drafts of a NEW story, essay, poem, or piece this week will receive a free manuscript evaluation session by email.
How that works— Roughly, I’m going to talk with you about your piece— what it might need and where you might go from here with it; what you might consider for later; and a bit of general advice tailored only for you.
(A warning: What you think is finished, I will not think is finished at all. So expect more work to come— but it will be happy work. A good critique should give you an a-HA! moment that will make you itch to go right home and write.)
When I read your work, you will watch me peer into the heart of your story/poem/piece for the flicker of light, the yes that jots color in the darkness, and when I find it, I will look up and tell you, “This. This is what you’re trying to do, right? Let me show you the best way I know how to get to that bright and shining place that only you can see, but haven’t created yet.”
If I do this well, you will slowly blink like a sleeper roused with care from a fever dream. And then, only then, will you look down at your page, and realize that there’s more to be done. More life, more flesh, more breath, more work.
And without fanfare, without fear, you will set down my letter, and begin to write.
 (I hate muses. In my experience, the only writers who court muuuuses are men with torqued ideas about real life women.)
 There are two sides of need in this story, but I’m sure you and I can think of a dozen more flavors of need in different circumstances, right?
 Sometimes the lack of money is a tragedy, so don’t think I’m belittling that experience. Believe me. I know exactly what that looks, feels like— the long-term stuff, not the “In college, I couldn’t afford McDonald’s, teehee!” experience. So don’t go there with me, okay? I know a few things that would curl your teeth. We can talk about class biases some other day.
Back to your hero/ine writer: Pick someone without an outrageous tragedy. We are not living in the nineteenth century and you do not have the croup, so someone different, less Dickensian. Don’t hold your hero/ine writer to modern standards either (unless, they too, are modern) or Western standards—
 Listen, you don’t even want to know what I charge for the writing consultation services I’ve offered you here. Okay, I’ll tell you: Per consultation, my scale starts at $100 per hour. That $100/hour is standard scale for my education, my expertise in a variety of writing fields, plus my editing background.
A NOTE ON THESE PHOTOS: I took these self-portraits at three a.m. on the second night I re-wrote this piece from scratch for the third time.
A NOTE ON NEXT WEEK’S “PLAYBOOK”: More writing advice! What do you most want to know about writing? Talk to me in the comments!