Among your three Horror World columnists, I've been decreed by the vicissitudes of cosmic whim to be the one who writes about writing. Matt gets to tell cool, witty stories about his life in (and, let's face it, of) horror, and Lucy gets to talk about all the neato technology that makes writing and reading better.
I, on the other hand, explain some of the basic principles of writing as I have learned them. We've talked about criticism (twice!), voice, and other topics.
The irony? I don't believe writing can be taught. It can be learned, of course--but only by actively pursuing the craft, compiling your own book of writing advice gained largely through trial, error, and discovery.
I'm well-trained, writing-wise. I have a Master's degree in English. I've directly studied under James Gunn, Kelly Link, F. Paul Wilson, Samuel R. Delany, Michael Swanwick, Joe Haldeman, Holly Black, Doug Winter, David Morrell, and a host of others. I've read easily a thousand books on writing, now shriveled on my bookshelf to a handful of essential titles.
With all of that learnin' under my belt, I'm here to tell you my important discovery.
None of it matters.
If you're hopelessly clueless or have nothing to say, no rules can save you. If you have passion and verve, no rules can stop you.
It all comes down to verve.
Some people just call it chutzpah or balls, but those terms don't really capture the holy trinity of verve: fun AND determination AND individuality.
The terrible truth of writing is that no amount of training or encouragement can help you if you don't have these three things in your pocket. Writers and teachers can show you the motions, offer some tricks, provide some structure. But if you don't have something interesting to do with those tools, you're done for.
Now, I'm mostly a horror writer. People sometimes ask me what really frightens me. Here are the real horrors that keep me awake at night:
- Our culture is currently more dominated by people who want to speak than by those who want to listen.
- Technology has made it easier than ever before to talk, and the market is flooded with a million gibbering voices, all crying out to be heard. It is easier than ever before to get published...but harder than ever before to be heard.
- Vast percentages of people clamoring to write will never "succeed" in the terms they expect, partly because too many people are talking and partly because too few people are listening.
- Huge numbers of the people teaching you to write are doing so because, alas, the market is such that one makes more money teaching others to speak than actually speaking.
Pretty bleak. And, if you've browsed the Internet lately, unquestionably true. Truth be told, I've felt a little guilty writing these columns, encouraging people to pursue a difficult craft that might be better chased by only the truly motivated...or insane. If you're one of those, nothing I write will help you or stop you anyway. Yay for verve!
What ameliorates the horror? One simple idea: none of it matters if you're having fun, being yourself, and keeping on as long as it makes you happy.
The only thing that will make your voice audible above the shrieking din of your fellow monkeys is something truly unique told with an entertaining voice. Your only hope to do that is to follow the unique things you love and hate as closely as possible, saying interesting things in interesting ways...if only to yourself. Then, if all else fails, you've at least had fun.
That's the real courage of writing. Trust your love and hate, follow where it goes, and hope that it finds the people who share it, too.
The key, though, is verve. Wallowing among the slush of every magazine are the dry, still-born, corpse-stories written by people wanting to be famous, wanting to be writers, wanting to impress other people, wanting to be loved, wanting to be heard--wanting everything but to be fully involved with that particular story.
Yet also in that slush, twitching with energy, are the few stories written with verve, written with a sense of unique enthusiasm, voice, and enjoyment.
What might save you from the slush pile is pulling a fast one, talking so quickly and entertainingly that nobody's paying attention to just how closely you followed the rules.
Oh, how I've followed the rules. All my worst stories have perfect structure, perfect grammar, and perfect characterization...perfect for anything but that story.
All the rules I know about writing, the collected epiphanies of two decades, fit on a single sheet of paper I call the Writing Law. Some readers, desperate for answers, will probably ask to see it. I'll politely refuse; your Writing Law needs to be different than mine, and gathered the same way--through stumbling and accident. If you don't assemble it yourself through your own realizations, it is just another set of arbitrary rules.
So the lesson? Stop reading how other people write and go out to write your way. Will it sell? Will it reach an audience? Here's hoping. But each story's only shot is to be flamboyantly, weirdly you. At least then it has an audience of one instead of zero.
What will save you won't be rules. It will be fun. Not giddy, 100%-all-the-time fun, but the fire of curiosity and interest that keeps you hunched over your keyboard, giggling maniacally when it goes well and tearing out clumps of hair when it doesn't.
Your only hope of saying something that lasts is to enjoy writing enough so it doesn't matter if it lasts. You've got to love the act more than the secondary consequences of money or fame. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for true horror, a life pursuing something for empty reasons.
My columns from now on won't be about writing. I'm leaving it all up to you. Here are the keys to the writing industry jalopy with all its creaking springs and wobbling tires and leaking hoses. All I ask is that you jump in and stomp on the accelerator with everything you've got and steer bravely in your own direction.
Your only hope isn't to polish the car but to take us somewhere interesting in it.
Will's debut collection, Cthulhu Fhtagn Baby and Other Cosmic Insolence contains some of his best work. His poem "My Old Man's Seance" is available in issue 345 of Weird Tales. You can learn more about him at his website, www.will-ludwigsen.com.
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