The Twelve Posts on Writing, Day One: The secret

It’s December! How about some snow? Seeing as I live in the desert, this WordPress effect is the only snow I’ll likely see this winter. But you never know…

In light of the holiday season, I’ve decided to do a series of posts sharing some things I’ve learned about writing. I’m calling it The Twelve Posts on Writing. Kind of like The Twelve Days of Christmas. But don’t expect any partridges or pipers piping. Well, maybe a piper. But no leaping lords. I have some standards.

So let’s get started.

The Twelve Posts on Writing, Day One: The secret

It’s Thursday night and I’m sitting in a classroom with ten or so other writers. We’re wrapping up our critique session of a classmate’s submission. This is a novel writing studio, but most of us have taken it three, four or more times. It’s the literary equivalent of an AA meeting. We take this class again and again to stay in touch with our community, with those like-minded neurotics struggling to blaze their paths toward publication. And we take this class to keep each other accountable. Keep each other writing. We all know this business is rife with rejection, and just how far even a little encouragement goes.

At the front of the room sits our guru, James Sallis, award-winning crime novelist. He sips from a thermos of tea and answers our questions in his easy, affable manner.

A new member of our support group raises her hand and asks, “But how do we do this?” She means, How do we get to the point where we’re writing compelling stories full of layers and textures that read like velvet and leave the reader with a residue they can’t wipe off?

Our guru smiles, and I can’t help but smile as well. How many times have I asked him this very question? Asked? More like begged. Whined. No, really, how do I do this? And not just write, but write well? Raymond Carver well. Stephen King well. Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Pen Warren, James Lee Burke well. How?

“Oh,” he says. “You want to know the secret.”

Ears perk up. Yes, here it comes.

I already know what he’s going to say. I could mouth the words along with him.

“There is no secret. You learn how to write by writing.”

Disappointed students slump back into their chairs.

But he’s right. It took me a couple of years before I believed this for myself. It took me a couple of years of writing to understand.

Writing isn’t passive. You don’t read a How-to book on writing and suddenly pump out stories that read like James Joyce’s or novels the likes of China Mieville’s. Writing is work, and the more you work at it, the more you understand how to do it. The more you understand how you do it. Everyone does it differently, and part of doing your writing well is finding out how you work.

I know. It’s annoying. I want there to be a secret, too. A magic bullet, a special mantra or ritual to follow and voilà, perfect prose flowing forth in abundance so as to rival Niagara.


But be encouraged. It’s not all bad news.

Writing begets writing. The more you use that creative part of your brain the more it creates. Soon you’ll find yourself being struck with flashes of story and snippets of scene when you least expect it. (Note: Keep notepads handy around the house and office.) The more you write, the more you’ll have to write, and the more you’ll have to write about.

If there is a secret, it’s this: Do your time. Keep your butt in the chair. Write and don’t stop.