Are We There Yet?

More blood, more bodies, more regret.
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[Little Racer]I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.
— Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, ‘Apocalypse Now’

Pretty gruesome stuff but I believe it describes beautifully the hell writers face every time we get ready to publish something. The question lingers. Are we there yet? On the one hand, more revisions. On the other, we publish, dammit, we publish.

The Writing Life
Stepping back, let’s look at the process. Writers write because (a) we have a burning desire to get certain words on paper that we hope will inspire or (b) we’re too lazy to do honest work and we figure we can support ourselves writing what we believe people will pay cash money to read.

If you’re in the latter category, good luck. Though I’d like nothing better than to earn a living at writing, I am currently more interested in publishing stories that get to people. What do I mean? I mean that instead of the polite smile your Aunt Fern gives you when reading your “witty” birthday card, I want the person’s palms to sweat and their heart rate to get dangerously close to myocardial infarction. I want drama, people, pure and simple.

Personally I do this by writing mostly horror and suspense. To be completely frank, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. Which leads me back to my question—Are we there yet?

Walk Before You Run
When is my story ready to publish? Okay, there are obvious hurdles that have to be overcome—Rubicons to be crossed. First of all the thing has to work as a story. It has to have someone we care about who has one helluva problem and we can’t for the life of us see how they’re going to solve it. It has to have well written dialogue that rings true because we’ve all read the drivel that sounds like some kind of ninth grade English assignment. And it needs a hook.

Say you’ve done all that. Now you have to polish the story and, more importantly, you’ve got to answer in advance all those niggling questions your reader is going to ask. Why did the hero make that choice when his girlfriend already gave him a way out? How can someone kill a guy using nothing more than toenail clippers? Since when do bears ride the subway?

Fine. You’ve answered all the stupid logic questions. Now you send the thing off to the editor and they clean up your less-than-perfect grammar. You end up with—wait for it—a story. But are we there yet?

I don’t know about you but I spend a lot of time agonizing over a comma. True story. My guts churn as I wonder whether I am inventing future clichés. I beat myself up over the fact that everything—I mean everything!—has already been done—and probably better. And guess what. It’s normal—I’m a writer.

But say I dismiss those sweat-stained, paranoid delusions and press ahead. Does that mean my story is ready to publish? I mean, what gives me the right to unleash a malformed, Frankenstein’s monster pile of primordial ooze on an unsuspecting public when there are far better writers out there churning out gold?

The Answer—Screw ‘em
That’s right, you heard me. When I decided to get into this game, I took on the mantle of reluctant hero who goes out into the world and fights the good fight. Of course having said that, this phrase usually means you’re going to lose. Nevertheless I gamble. I pray in fevered dreams where dancing sugar plum fairies are poking me with sharpened No. 2 pencils that the spark of an idea I originally had in the bathroom dealing with a bout of irritable bowel syndrome is actually worth reading. In short I put myself out there.

This isn’t to say that I publish crap. Ask Sue Grafton about that sometime. Sure, she pissed off a lot of indie writers with her comments about self-publishing but you know what? Generally she is right. There is a lot of crap out there. And it’s because there is no gatekeeper, no voice of reason. It’s just me, my laptop and Smashwords, baby!

On the other side of it, you cannot keep editing and agonizing and tweaking forever. At some point you have to say ¡Basta! and publish the damned thing. I haven’t asked a famous writer this but if I did I’m pretty confident they would see things in their early work that maybe kinda could have been said better. Because the more we write, the better we get. It’s that simple.

Which gets us back to the ideas. Most of the indie writers I’ve read recently have amazing imaginations. But in a lot of cases, the execution needs work. Nine out of ten times, it’s the simple fact that they don’t hire an editor. Again, the basics. Other times it’s the amateurish cover. Lastly it’s the formatting itself.

So How Do I Know When It’s Ready?
This is a really tough question. Anthony Bourdain tells a wonderful story about risotto in his highly entertaining book Kitchen Confidential. On the one hand you have the Italian line cook who, when browbeaten by the overbearing, impatient chef, caves and serves up the risotto before it’s ready. On the other, you have the Ecuadoran who patiently nurses the risotto despite the onslaught of vile invectives and thrown utensils until it’s actually ready. This guy knows when the risotto is done because that’s how he was taught.

Like the Ecuadoran line cook, you just have to know.

Also you have to trust that you are talented and have something amazing to say. You need to share your work with friends who will give you the right kind of criticism. I mean, Why don’t you ever write about Unicorns? isn’t very helpful. Finally you need to trust yourself. Somewhere in you, you know the answer and can say proudly, “Yes. We’re here, dammit. Now be quiet and drink your boba tea.”

And now for a little bit of fun courtesy of ‘The Simpsons.’


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