William Goldman meets Somerset Maugham

In answering a question put to him during an English Lit class, Maugham is said to have made the following now well-known observation:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

In the realm of screenwriting, and in a documentary titled Tales from the Script, William Goldman makes this point (I’m quoting from notes taken while watching the DVD):

We have no idea what we’re doing. If we knew exactly how to create a great film each time, we’d be doing it.”

This is where a little light went off for me, when these two thoughts bumped up against each other. The world around us, our perceptions of it, and the language we use to communicate them are continually, constantly, always changing. We try to nail things down with our binary-think ways, our categories and stereotypes and narratives, but this—in my opinion, anyway—is an illusory sense of coherence.

So maybe one of the reasons we can’t formulate and repeatably create great films and novels is they are moments in time built from and reflecting the daily flood of experience. Each of us captures our own constellations of moments and data points, each of us responds a little differently to what we read and encounter, and every day we’re a little further away from experiences collected last week, last month, last year. On separate days, the same person can react differently to the same thing, depending on an assortment of causes and circumstances.

Are we not told, as writers, to keep submitting our work, because it might land on the desk of multiple agents and editors before someone reads it at the right time on the right day and decides it should find its way into publication? (Of course, we are most likely also refining and revising between submissions.)

So go ahead and dive in. Write that crazy impossible tale. Maybe a rule or two will be broken or reconfigured in the process, but get the story down. It’s your story. No one else can tell it the way you will. Sometimes a new sort of narrative has to be created in order to tell the tale you have in mind. The guideposts for it won’t all be laid out because no one’s done it—yet.

Encouraging & new experience

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I’ve been getting feedback from writing groups for some time, but I’m relatively new to working with a professional editor. The editor I’ve worked with has reviewed three of my stories at this point, and over a period of as many years so we aren’t in touch regularly.

The most recent story she’s helped me with is about Stevie Ray Vaughan. An intimidating project, to put it mildly, with someone so well-known and loved at its center. Not to mention someone whose own work is so stratospherically good and who must have put in his 10,000 hours by the age of 14.

How did I end up with such a daunting project? At first it was more of a writing exercise, focused on a quality of his that I admire. Then I submitted it to a writing group and discovered nearly half the people who read it had never heard of him.

That was well past the last reaction I’d expected. As in a few galaxies past the last thing I’d expected to hear. It was too much, too crazy, and a little alarming. There’s no knowing how much difference a story of mine can make, but that’s when it stopped being a private project. I had to make it as good as I was able and send it out there.

You can’t just bring your A game to a project like this. You have to run it through boot camp a few times between drafts. That means finding tough reviewers, which includes working with a good editor.

So the encouraging thing that happened is a while ago the editor I worked with sent an article link to me about a musician who passed away recently (in Prince’s shadow, someone who is not as widely known). It included a few passages about Stevie Ray Vaughan helping this musician out, nudging him to do a few things that were helpful and going the extra mile to lend a hand (one of the themes of my story).

I was so touched that she’d sent the link. It felt as though the story’s point had made contact. At the very least I hoped it meant I’d managed to put SRV front and center and avoided getting in his way.

It also made me realize how important it is to only send your best work out there. Imagine burying a good point inside a story that’s not really finished and having it kind of skate past everyone, or hit people in a way that doesn’t at all resemble your point.

Of course all those things can happen anyway, but let it at least come from the best we can do, not something we tossed together and decided was good enough for now. And I have to say, sometimes a first draft is so hard for me to get down—at least in a way that resembles what made me sit down to write—it can feel as though I’ve climbed Everest and finished the project.

But it’s only the beginning.