Don’t tell it too soon. How to write a novel–part 23

The lion speaksOkay, I know I’m supposed to yammer on about dialog, but it can wait. This is more important, especially if you’re still in the early stages of learning to write fiction, and more specifically, commercial fiction. It’s a bit of advice I first heard from my father–a damned fine screen writer and director, by the way. He told me to keep my stories to myself, at least until I’d finished the first draft.

I couldn’t imagine anything more stupid than that, probably because I was in college at the time and already knew everything worth knowing. Since then reality has given me scores of well-deserved beatings, and I now fully appreciate and endorse the wisdom of his remark and recognize the enormity of the gaps in my education. Sparing the rod did me no good whatsoever.

IdeaSo, let’s say you’ve got a splendid idea for a story. It’s something that’s completely your own–a brilliant new concept, a clever approach, an amazing new character, a plot twist so devious no one would ever see it coming. You’re in high mental cotton at this point. Your synapses are firing like roman candles, and it feels so good you can hardly think about anything else. Your first inclination is to tell someone about it. It’s too good not to share. You’re convinced that anyone you tell will instantly burst with envy for failing to think of it themselves. You’re ready to feed off that feeling of utter superiority, and you’ll want to tell more people so that they, too, will recognize how insanely clever you are. Right?

Uh… No.

It almost never works that way, for a few really good reasons. But rather than shoot down that perfect bubble or put sand in your creative gas tank, let’s assume that this idea of yours actually merits all the superlatives I’ve been hurling about. Glühbirne defektAfter you’ve blabbed about it to your buds–those who’re sober enough to pay attention–and you’ve cornered your spouse, your accountant, the hairdresser, and all your neighbors, and you’ve regaled them about your idea, it won’t seem quite as neato-keeno as it was before you opened your mouth to talk about it. You begin to shorten the delivery as details which you originally thought essential get sloughed off like bonus dog hair. After awhile you’ll be down to bare bones, and the awesome idea you had–about which you were so elated before–you’ll now think of in terms of yesterday’s news. It’ll be ho-hum, yawn, put-yer-ass-to-sleep, tepid. It’s not just a store-bought cookie, it’s a dull, tasteless, stale store-bought cookie which you happily consign to splooshthe literary septic tank.

Why is that? What happened to that brilliant bit of creativity, that shooting star of sensation, that riveting rush of realism, that fantastical flash of fable? Short answer: you talked it to death. All the excitement and enthusiasm of discovery dribbled out, a bit at a time, until there wasn’t enough left to interest you in writing it down.

The solution? Keep it bottled up inside. Let it fester, smoulder, percolate, or whatever else your shit does when it’s in mental development. When the time’s right, get it all down in actual words and sentences. Write it as fast as you can. Don’t worry about pretty. Don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or mechanics. Get that magnificent, raw creative cookie dough down.

Of course, when you do the first read-through of the first draft–which we all know should be done OUT LOUD–you’ll find no end of stuff wrong with it. But that’s okay! It’ll still be interesting. You’ll massage it and revise it and poke at it and pull on it until it becomes something almost worth someone else’s time to read it.

And then, before you show it to any-freakin’-body, put it away. Let it cool off. Work on something else. Go pay bills, wash the dog, mow the lawn, muck out the barn, shovel snow. Do whatever you have to do to cleanse your mind of what you just wrote.

THEN, and only then, you can go back over it one more time, OUT-bloody-LOUD, and fix the stuff you missed before. Realize that you’re not finished with it yet; there will be many more changes ahead, but at least when you finish this pass, you’ll have something read-worthy.

At that point you may share it. But be sure to mention that it’s still a work in progress, because unless you’re an extraordinarily wonderful writer–which, I promise, you aren’t–it’s going to need still more work before it’s ready to print.

Next up: Assuming I don’t go back and finish ranting about dialog, we’ll talk about a pecking order for ideas.



About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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