BY MIKE MEGINNIS
This is a recurring column called “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their careers can talk about writing advice and instruction — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journeys that they wish they knew at the beginning. This is installment is from Mike Meginnis, author of Fat Man and Little Boy.
1. Write for your own pleasure. My goal is always to write sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters that satisfy and surprise me. Trying to guess what other people want will lead you into dead ends quickly — there are so many people, they all want different things, and you can’t know who will be your audience, or if you’re even going to have one. All you can know for sure is whether you’re having fun. And if you’re not, your readers—whoever they turn out to be—will feel it.
Besides, the rewards of writing fiction are often small and few enough that if the writing itself isn’t a pleasure then there really is no reason to continue.
2. Write “love it or hate it” stories. No one buys a book because there’s nothing wrong with it. You don’t build a lasting audience by winning the mild approval of a broad swath of people. You win readers by deeply pleasing one person, then a second, then a third. The people who truly love one thing you write will always remember that experience, and the people who hate something you write will remember that too. The people with feelings between love and hate are the ones who will forget, who will never buy a second book with your name on the spine.
3. Worry about sentences first and last. Some things make good sentences in your voice and style; others don’t. I have a lot of great ideas that I will never write because I can’t make them conform to the sentences that I write best. There’s a story that takes place entirely inside computer hard drives that I would absolutely love to tell, but that sort of abstract, high-concept setting just doesn’t work in the simple, declarative sentences I do best. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)
Once you’ve found a way to write your story in your best sentences, trust that: in my experience, if you attend to the sentences, the macro-level issues (structure, character, tone) will attend to themselves. If a section isn’t working for what you suspect are macro reasons, fix the sentences until that section works.
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4. Make arbitrary rules to simplify your process. The thing about writing is there are far too many options, many of which are equivalent or very nearly so. I will sometimes spend fifteen minutes typing the word “that” in the middle of a sentence and then removing it. Arbitrary rules can help you to move past these traps. My rule used to be that I would not use “that” if I could help it. In every book, I make rules about page-lengths for chapters—the chapters in this book will be eight pages long, four, or sixteen. In this book, the chapters will be ten pages long, twenty, or five. I avoid three-syllable words where two- or four-syllable words will suffice. None of these are good or bad rules, and none of them should necessarily be yours. You should make up your own. All that matters is that they make decisions easier.
These rules change all the time, of course: now I use “that” wherever I can tolerate its presence. If a rule leads you to make a mistake, you can always fix it later.
5. Get to the good stuff as soon as you possibly can, if not sooner. Inexperienced writers often begin stories with their main character waking up to the sound of an alarm clock. The character showers, brushes his or her teeth, and dresses. Maybe there’s a breakfast scene. Writers do this because we can’t find the story’s actual beginning, or worse, because we think we have to work up to the good stuff. We think it needs context, that the reader needs to be prepared to understand and appreciate it in the right way. Most of the time, we’re wrong; we should be jumping right in. To help myself do this, every time I have a good idea for any part of a story, I try to write it right away, even if it probably won’t happen for hundreds of pages. This helps me to remember to get to my best material as soon as I possibly can.
6. Embarrass yourself as much as you can. When you feel strange about what you’re writing, when you worry what your family will think, when you begin to be just slightly concerned about your future prospects for employment in light of what you’ve written, that’s how you know you’re onto something good. Nothing is less interesting than a story designed to imply that the author is a cool, smart, moral person with good ideas and opinions.
7. Don’t try to make something smart, subtle, wise, or beautiful. These qualities will emerge on their own in ways you could never predict or contrive. Your job has nothing to do with the mind or the soul. Your responsibility is the body. What does the body want? What do your characters want? What do you want for them? Are they hungry? Are you? If you are hungry, then maybe so are they. Maybe you should feed them. Or maybe they will have to wait.
If someone were to ambush you and shout, “SAY SOMETHING PROFOUND!” you would sputter and fail. When you try to say something dumb, you’ll usually fail at that too—you’ll say something smart or strange or beautiful instead.
Mike Meginnis is the author of the novel Fat Man and Little Boy (Fall 2014, Black Balloon Publishing). The Brooklyn Book Festival called Mike one of “the year’s most impressive debut novelists” and The Japan Times said Fat Man and Little Boy “straddles a hybrid genre of historical magical realism.” Mike has published stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, The Collagist, PANK, and many others. You can find him on Twitter @mikemeginnis.