For the next two weeks, I’m hunkering down and getting some projects finished. Instead of leaving the blog all quiet and empty and alone, I’m reposting some of my favorite posts about writing, starting with this one, originally published on 12/28/09.
When I was a kid, my family went camping. A lot. I’m not talking KOA-comfort, complete-with-showers camping, either. I’m talking the rugged, dirty, go-behind-a-tree type here. And on these trips, we always took our fishing poles.
Mine was black with white stripes around the pole, and a smudgy white button that pinged when pressed. I liked to poke at water bugs and crawdads at the shore with the tip.
My dad and brother were hard core fishermen, getting up before the sun to wet a line. “The fish are whistling,” dad would proclaim in those dark hours when mom and I were still curled in our sleeping bags.
Mom and I did our share, of course; but we were more apt to get sucked into our summer reading and forget to mind our bobbers. Lost a lot of salmon eggs from my hook that way.
Most nights we’d eat fresh trout around the campfire. Some nights, though, we’d have to rely on canned stew. The stew wasn’t as good as the trout, but we didn’t mind. We knew we’d be back out there on the lake the next day, and we trusted the fish would be biting.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
You write a story. You revise it. You show it to a couple of trusted writing friends. You get feedback and revise again. You decide it’s ready. You send it out.
You get rejected.
You send it out again.
You get rejected.
You send it out again.
You get a nibble: a nice rejection. “We like your writing, but this story doesn’t fit our needs right now. Please submit to us again.”
You send it out again and get rejected.
It feels like your story will never get picked up. You consider packing it up, reading a good book instead.
But you send it out again. And again.
And then, it happens. A bite. “We’d like to run your story in our next issue.”
You reel it in. You celebrate it. You savor it because there’s nothing like the taste of Yes.
Then you write another story. Revise, critique, revise, and send it out. And it all starts over again.
Do you see it? Do you see how submitting stories is like fishing?
When you’re out there on the lake, do you give up after the first cast? Of course not. You send your line back out. You check to make sure your bait is still appetizing. Sometimes you change your bait from salmon eggs to worms. Sometimes you move to another part of the lake. Sometimes you move to another lake altogether. You watch for rings in the water. You watch for your bobber to bob. You ask the others out there fishing if they’re getting any bites.
You cast your line out again and again. You go back out onto the lake the next day, and the next.
You don’t give up.
The fish are whistling.
Oh, the wonders of the human brain.
Did you know there are about 100 billion neurons in your brain? That’s the same number as there are stars in our galaxy.
Did you know your brain generates more electrical impulses in one day than by all the telephones in the world?
Did you know that on an average day, your brain generates 70,000 thoughts?
Also awesome: These three-pound masses of grey matter are efficient machines, firing off synapses to conjure up in a nanosecond a word for your Scrabble game, the phone number of the friend you need to call, the next scene in your novel.
This efficiency can work against us, though, as writers.
While you write, your brain supplies you with ideas, words and images. But being the efficient machine it is, your brain uses the synaptic pathways of least resistance. It selects the images and words it’s seen and used many times. Like reaching into the front of a filing cabinet, your brain reaches for the easiest, most familiar thing first.
Need a bank robber in your scene? I bet your first thought involves a ski mask and a note slipping across a teller’s counter.
How about a businessman? Did you think clean-shaven, dark suit, power tie, carrying a briefcase and a medium latte?
Or perhaps a high school cheerleader. Is she blonde with perfect hair, legs and teeth? Is she in love with the quarterback of the football team?
This idea applies not just to character, but to plot, setting, dialogue, diction…pretty much every aspect of your work. If you’re not careful, your brain will lead you to write the book you (and everyone else) have read a million times.
What can you do to avoid writing the overdone? Examine each image, detail, plot point your brain offers. In other words, filter your ideas. Reject your ideas.
When you need a bank robber and your brain gives you ski mask with gun in pocket, you must stop and consider. Is that image too familiar? If yes, reject and go to the next image. If the next idea is also too familiar, reject again and go for the third idea. The fourth. The fifth. And so on.
If you run with the first idea that comes to mind, you’ll end up writing what you already know, what readers have already read, what agents and editors see too often. You’ll write the overdone, the tired, the familiar, the stereotype, the cliche.
Instead, train your brain to reach further back into the filing cabinet of your subconscious until you find a fresh idea. Sometimes you’ll succeed at this while writing your first draft; sometimes you’ll catch them on the rewrites. If you do this — if you reject the first, second, third, even fourth ideas that come to mind — you will write unique stories. Interesting stories. Stories that capture readers. Stories that get published.