I love that title. It would make a good book title. But then I started thinking about what I would write, and it was mostly about what a fool the reader was for buying a book on writing. Don’t get me wrong. I love books on the finer points of writing. But I hate books about how to write in a general sense: “How to Write a Best Selling Mystery.” That stuff just disgusts me. The best writing advice is to stop reading whatever writing advice you are reading and go out and write!
Just the same, I think that the art of writing is fundamentally the art of reading. What writers most often lack is a sense of what is good and what is not. I remember many years ago, I wrote a short screenplay — for what would be maybe a 20-minute film. It was about this guy who was addicted to messing with telemarketers. I loved it. It was very funny with a great denouement. But a writing friend of mine hated it. I forget exactly what she didn’t like about it, but I am convinced that it was nonsense — something about realism, as though that matters in the least.
But as an insecure writer, I took the advice and wrote draft after draft. And with each draft, it got worse and worse. And my friend never liked it because she just didn’t like the whole idea of it. By the end, it was a mess with far too much motivation and far too little fun. But it is a good example of the life cycle of a piece of writing. There were many drafts before I showed it to my friend. And that was the point at which it was as good as it would ever be. The problem with the following rewriting was that it was at base about making the screenplay into something it wasn’t.
Knowing when to stop is critical to the writing process. You must know when something works. New writers tend to think that everything they write is golden. There is rarely any point in rewriting because they can’t tell what crap they are writing — even though they can often tell this in other people’s writing. This is what we can probably call “kiddie writing.” There’s an obvious solution to this: read a lot more great writing and write a lot more of whatever it is you are capable of.
But not knowing when to stop can also mean endless revisions — never stopping. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t tell what good writing is; it often means you can tell, but you just aren’t a good enough writer (Yet!) to accomplish the kind of work that you know is possible. This we can probably call “middling writing.” And I don’t mean to disparage it, because it is usually pretty good. It’s always important to read great writers, but clearly the issue here is to keep writing. But that means different writing projects, not beating a work to death trying to perfect it. If you find you are in your sixtieth rewrite, it is time to set it aside and try something new.
And that brings us to serial killers. I read an article the other day, 5 Myths about Serial Killers and Why They Persist. This bit of it really struck me, “Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning…” Ah, I think I understand that! This is what writers need!
In as much as I can write, it is because I have been writing like a serial killer for decades. I’m obsessed with it. I know lots of people who used to be far better writers than I was and now they have nowhere near my skill. It’s because they don’t care about writing like I do. And they are better off for it! But if you want to write, you need to write. And you need to write a lot.
In 1985, Frank Gilroy (father of Tony, Dan, and John) made a film called The Gig. It’s really good. Yet it is totally wrong about the way that expertise works. In particular, there is a trumpet player who has a nice cushy life. He’s a professional-level player, but he’s not interested in being a professional musician, because it sucks as a lifestyle. Then there is a clarinet player who practices and practices but will never play at a professional level. And there is a great line in the film, said by the one professional musician in the film to the clarinet player, “It’s not religion — devotion isn’t enough.”
This is a common idea that has been beaten to death by writers who really should know better. Now it is true that there are limits. Regardless of how hard I work, I will never be David Foster Wallace. But anyone can become a professional writer. You just have to be like a serial killer. It really has to matter to you. Being a natural doesn’t take you very far at all. But it might make you more inclined to do all the work that you need to do to become something really worthwhile.
I always feel a little weird talking about this kind of stuff on Frankly Curious because the writing here is pretty much all first draft. This is stuff that I knock off without much thought. I usually have only the vaguest of ideas about what I’m going to write before I start. And if things go sideways, I usually let them. I’m actually a much better writer than any article here would indicate. But I’m not a great writer. What I am is a garden-variety professional writer. But people have been paying me to write for almost 25 years now — back in the days when I couldn’t write nearly as well as I do now — when my final drafts were worse than my first drafts today. It doesn’t take much to be a professional writer.