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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

Let's review. If I'm not trying to sell you anything, and if I truly believe that—

- Good craft skills and work habits are more important than raw talent and inspiration

- People can't be taught to become writers

- No ethical person can guarantee to turn you into a published writer

- In any case, success in the almighty Free Market, blessed be its name, is not necessarily a valid measure of writing quality

Then what exactly is the point of The Friday Challenge?

Believe it or not, there actually is a coherent theory and methodology behind The Friday Challenge, and the above credo does make sense, even if parts of it seem self-contradictory. Over the course of a thirty-plus year professional career I have run into an incredible number of people who want to write, and then when they find out that I'm a writer they want to talk about it—Lordy, do they want to talk about it—but time and again, I see that they are stopped from actually writing by the same handful of simple and stupid things.
Digression: Actually, I run into two distinct groups who are commonly mistaken for each other; those who want to write, and those who want to be writers. The easiest way to tell the difference is to think of the former as people who enjoy the actual act of writing and daydream about the stories they want to tell, while the latter want to have written and daydream about how witty and fascinating they will be when they're plugging their book on Oprah.

What, then, are some of the more common roadblocks?

I'd like to write, but I've never taken any Creative Writing courses.

So? Having taken a lot of university creative writing courses, I'm convinced most do more harm than good. What makes you a writer is that you write, not that you spend endless hours agonizing over the underlying metaphor of the simile of the subtext before painfully excreting your first word—and then pausing, to spend a week considering the post-modernist implications of your use of the apostrophe. Do you think Twain ever took any creative writing courses? That Dickens agonized over the gender-theory implications of his every word? That Shakespeare cried himself to sleep at night over his failure to finish his MFA?

The "I've never taken any creative writing classes" dodge is just that; an evasion, in the form of an Appeal to Authority. You want someone to lay hands upon you, declare you a Real Writer, and in some weird way give you permission to write. Well, if that's what it takes...

Okay, I'm an authority. I'm a real live award-winning professional writer. You have my permission. Go thou and write!

Hey! Who died and made you emperor?

Isaac Asimov. I've got a postcard from him right here that says that.

Seriously, no one, and I'm not. (Although I do have the postcard from Asimov.) This is just my web site, and my methodology. If you don't like it there are umpty-thousand other sites that offer competing methodologies, and I invite you to go explore them all and report back when you've finished. Start with Orson Scott Card's site. Or better yet, Rob Sawyer is doing a workshop in Toronto at 11 a.m. today, and if you hurry, you might catch it. Quick! Go! Scoot!

I have this great idea for a story... oh, but you'd just think it's stupid.

Which is why this takes the form of a challenge: then it's my fault, because it's my stupid idea. You are totally off the hook and not responsible for any possible stupidity that consequently may or may not ensue.

In truth, very few ideas for writing are inherently either brilliant or stupid. Ideas for that matter are a penny a hundredweight, which is why I give them away freely. What matters (as hundreds of litigious nitwits learn every year) is not the idea per se, but what you do with it.

As this site demonstrates with some regularity, six people can start with exactly the same idea at the same time and end up taking it in six wildly different directions. This is a feature of The Friday Challenge method, not a bug.

I want to write, but I'm just not feeling inspired today.

Another evasion; you're putting the blame for your failure to write on someone else. Perhaps you're waiting for the Muse to fly in through your window, tap you on the forehead with her magic wand, and inspire you.

Hey. I know the Muse; I've known her for years. She's a fickle, flighty, and sometimes astonishingly dim-witted little fairy. While you're sitting there waiting for her to show up, she's off wasting all of her time and energy on Dan Brown. You just cannot count on that little b!tch!

But you can count on your own work habits, which brings us to—

I have this great idea for a story I'm going to write someday.

No, you're going to write it now. Because the deadline is Thursday. If you don't start and finish it by then, it won't matter, because starting Friday, there will be a new challenge.

The arbitrary deadline is a pretty simple mechanism, but it works. The entire object of the "contest" structure is to ingrain the habit of writing now, and not putting it off until it's more convenient, because I can pretty much guarantee you that like tomorrow, "someday" never gets here.

If the deadline is synthetic and arbitrary, then what's with this Door #3 business? That, too, is a pretty simple mechanism; it's positive reinforcement, in the form of a token prize. If we were doing this in person I'd be giving out big chocolate chip cookies, but they don't mail well. Hence, Door #3.

I want to write, but I just can't take criticism.

If that's really true, then I'm afraid I can't help you. But what I've more often observed to be the case is that would-be writers simply have not yet learned to separate criticism of their writing from criticism of themselves.

Unless your plan is to write only in your secret journal that you hide under your bed and then have your writings be discovered after your death and acclaimed a work of stunning literary genius, this is something you simply must learn. Writing is all about communicating with other persons. To communicate effectively, you must put your words in some medium, and then give those words to someone else.

And then, like it or not, that someone else is apt to have a reaction to your words. It might even be a negative reaction. And strong.

Therefore, unless you enjoy cringing in terror every time you open your literary mouth, this sense of distance and detachment is something you simply must develop. You must come to understand that when someone reacts to your writing, they are reacting to some words you have written, not to you, personally. From this understanding grows the ability to truly hear their reaction, and then to learn from the useful parts, and to shrug off the rest.

Hence the open and public judging of the entries in each week's challenge, and the repeated invitations to readers to comment and vote.

As for the criteria we use in judging entries; that's a topic for another time. But I will close with a piece of breaking news: as of today, we are a troika.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
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