Starting from Sucks
It’s so easy, in this fiction writing caper, to suck.
It’s so much harder to write copy that shines, dialogue that rips along and reveals, characters who come at you with their faults and foibles, and the indefinable stuff that makes you want to think about them off the page and continue the story in your head.
Then you need a plot or a theme, both, to wrap it up neatly in three or four acts. And a pace and a voice that makes readers stick to the page, the book, the experience of the narrative they’ve laid out good cash and time they might’ve been doing something else with.
It’s no wonder it’s easy to suck.
And even when you do the graft: read like a fiend, write like a dervish, cop the most brutal critique you can muster, re-write and re-write because you just know to your creaking bones every sentence is a flat, dead, dreary mistake, it’s still easy to suck, because your best work, the least suckiest stuff you’ve poured heart and hard fought expertise into can still suck in the eye of the beholder.
It sounds like a whinge. Okay, yeah, it is a whinge. Because sucking sucks.
No writer sets out to suck. And it’s not as though suck comes with its own warning system. There’s no flashing light to accompany it, no shrieking alarm, no evacuation order. If only there was, the whole sparkling dialogue, scintillating characters, teeth gritting plot and sticky attachment would be easier to achieve.
You’d have a nirvana of unputdownableness. In the first fricking draft.
But instead to be a fiction writer means you start at sucks and chip away, chip away at it until you get to hardly sucks at all, assuming the reader actually gets you in the first place.
It’s harder to outright suck in the corporate world of copy writing. That’s where I learned my craft.
It’s both cleaner and dirtier than writing fiction. It’s cleaner because there is no sentiment. There are in effect few darlings to kill. Plus stricter rules of assembly depending on the type of copy, for example, exact word counts, no short-forms, very little dialogue and almost no description. Corporate writing is words with a task and as such is focused and tight. There is no place for whimsy, and little for flair or individual voice.
It’s also dirtier because the writer rarely retains ownership. The words belong to the community which pays for them and must serve its agenda.
That’s what makes it harder to suck. The code is different. That’s not to say the stuff you write doesn’t, it damn well does, but before it goes live in most cases it’s gone through a rigorous analysis by everyone in the near vicinity who has ever typed a sentence on a keyboard, regardless of their ability to compose a sensible sentence, and been edited to within a pixel of its life.
By the time it goes live it’s been given the green light in an organised, systematised process that labels it appropriate, good, best—even if it no longer resembles the brief or even communicates well.
But no one will tell you it sucks. Unless of course it fails to do whatever it was intended to do, before the vested interests weighed in and made it into something lopsided and out of touch with its particular power to persuade.
When that happens they just sack you, or never hire you again, or give the task to someone else. It’s brutal efficiency. It’s business. And if you survive as a writer in that world you’ve quickly let go of the kind of ownership that makes you fret a sentence over long, labour over a the description of an emotion, or worry about sucking.
But fiction writing—bring on the suckfest.
It’s you alone, out there with your unsanctioned, loosely analysed, highly descriptive, darling filled, heavily sweated writing that has no brief, no particular customer and only the hope that enough people will interrupt whatever else they were doing and pay for it, then read it, then like it enough to think it doesn’t suck.
And when you put it like that—totally sucks.
I got to thinking about all this when I read a tweet from Jane Litte of Dear Author. She was about to post a First Page Unpublished Manuscript and was worried about its reception.
I was curious and stalling on doing something more fittingly productive (a lot like now!). I went to the site and read the piece, grimaced on the first line, suffered a few paragraphs and scanned the rest. Then I went back to what I was supposed to be doing, but I was caught by the notion that the writer who’d presented a less than good manuscript bravely for an open appraisal was only doing what I was doing—trying not to suck and not being sure exactly how to do that.
I went back and I posted a response. I was aiming for something honest and firm, but not soul destroying. I talked about this notion that all fiction writers start at suck. Then I went to bed with a book via an episode of True Blood, which I only watch for the dialogue. (Yeah, right, it was the one where Eric sun bakes nude). You can read the original piece and the commentary on Dear Author here. (You should definitely watch that TB ep, for the dialogue).
In the morning my email and twitter feed was rippling with follow up responses. It seems that other writers feel the same way about starting from sucks and knowing that only hard work, relentlessly hard work, can shift you from sucks to sparkles.
I got lucky. I bring with me to fiction writing, the discipline, skill, ability and knowledge of corporate copywriting. For someone slinking in sideways from another profession, another full life, it must be much harder to learn the rules, test the ropes and find your feet (in all the clichés!).
For all the advantages of my background, I still start at suck, so for someone fresher, newer, wider-eyed, knowing what sucks and how to fix it is a much bigger deal to negotiate.
So if you’re one of those people, you rock. You are daring and mighty. You’ve embraced the need to suck, perhaps unknowingly, but so what, you’re out there doing the work to create something amusing, or diverting, entertaining or enduring. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing.
As writers we suck, therefore we are.
We suck so that we can suck less and less and less.
And no matter what else happens to what we write—we should be proud of that.