There’s a story I recall about Mickey Mantle, the legendary New York Yankees centerfielder. “The Mick” was blessed with talent bestowed upon him by the baseball gods: he could hit home runs a country mile, had a cannon for an arm, could run as fast as a deer, and possessed an innate feel for hitting. During one season, around the All-Star break, he had the chance to chat with Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox’ legend, and arguably baseball’s greatest hitter. “Teddy Baseball” couldn’t help but give Mantle some pointers about hitting. Mantle needed to drop his hands some, spread his legs out more for a wider stance. Mantle wasn’t about to argue with The Splendid Splinter’s advice; after all, Ted Williams was the last baseball player to hit .400, so if Ted Williams gives you advice on hitting, it’s because Ted Williams knows what he’s talking about.
Right after the All-Star break, once the second half of the season got underway, Mickey Mantle excitedly takes to the batter’s box with all the knowledge Ted Williams has dispensed…and proceeds to go on a prolonged slump. Mickey just can’t seem to buy a hit.
Mantle realizes what’s wrong here: his swing is totally off, because he’s taken Ted Williams’ advice to heart. There wasn’t anything wrong with his swing; he was naturally gifted, after all. So he went back to basics, regained his timing and mechanics, started hitting the shit out of the ball again, but not before running into Ted Williams.
“With all due respect, Mr. Williams, that was terrible advice you gave me!” the Mick told Teddy Baseball.
So why am I telling you this story? Writing, like hitting a baseball, involves timing and mechanics. When you’re hitting well, or when you’re writing well, it just comes naturally to you. You can’t explain it. You have no idea why how or why you’ve been able to crank out 10,000 words in three days. Just like you have no idea why you’ve been able to tear the hide out of the ball lately. But when you’re slumping, just like when your writing has hit the hall, you’ve got a thousand theories as to why you suddenly suck. So now you grasp at straws, or in my case, you grasp at the nice collection of “how-to” books that are staring, no, laughing at you. Read me, they’re all whispering in unison, and they’re all chock-full of wisdom, and all you want is a spark to get your writing going again.
Instead, what happens is your head is filled with more ideas as to why you’re suddenly failing. You know you can write. Those books are like Ted Williams, full of wisdom dispensed with the best of intentions, but maybe it’s not the best advice for you.
Okay, enough with the baseball analogies.
I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve known I possess a strong understand of the basics of writing. I’ve written several short stories, and there’s husks of manuscripts lurking about, many of which will never see the light of day. Right now, WIP #1 is stalled, in third draft mode, and I’ve been tinkering with WIP #2, just to kind of get me away from what’s ailing me from WIP. Kind of like being in a hitting slump, and bunting to get on base.
(Oh, shit, I did say I’d stop with the baseball analogies, right? Okay, I’m done, promise.)
I wrote recently about The Plot Whisperer, and how it’s been something of an eye-opening experience for me. I’ve come to understand the importance of mechanics when it comes to building your novel, and it’s both a frustrating and awakening experience, one that I’m glad I’m able to take in now as opposed to when I was younger, more arrogant, less willing to accept help. The Plot Whisperer might be chock-full of New-Age speak (the whole “Universal Story” theme is a bite eye-roll inducing) but it keeps things simple. What I need is simple; The Plot Whisperer has exposed my WIP #1 as being overly complicated. It’s all over the place.
The problem I’ve found lately is that while I’ve written some compelling characters, and there are many well-written scenes, the plot sucks, frankly. I’m having a hard time getting the plot (superhero takes a fall, superhero rediscovers his purposes, superhero redeems himself) and the subplot (his personal life, and the satirical content involving the other superheroes he used to work with) to really gel with one another. The Plot Whisperer is helping me see what’s missing, but it’s also muddying the waters. The problem I’m having with the Plot Whisperer is that it reads like an instruction manual, and I don’t have the patience for it. The back cover of the book calls The Plot Whisperer “a foolproof blueprint.”
And there’s my problem right there: a “blueprint” suggests a whole lot of work. And writing a novel shouldn’t feel like work. I already work for a living. I deal with project plans and blueprints and other “work”-type buzzwords that are making me chafe. I’m reminded of that line from Animal House:
BOON: I gotta work on my game (golf).
OTTER: No, no, no, don’t think of it as work. The whole point is to enjoy yourself.
I haven’t been enjoying writing. Because it feels like work.
I also picked up – actually, downloaded on my Kindle – a copy of 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, by Rachel Aaron. It was only .99 cents, and, frankly, I didn’t harbor much expectations; I figured it wouldn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know about writing. I was wrong. 2k to 10K has been nothing short of a revelation for me. It’s a short read – 64 pages, tops – and I devoured it in one sitting, and, let me tell you, it’s blunt, funny, concise, and the advice Rachel Aaron gives you is simple (you might even say obvious), logical, and extremely useful. For example, a better way to boost your writing numbers on a daily basis? Sketch out what you have in mind what you want to write. A few sentences, some snippets of dialogue, whatever works. Have a little something to build on. Okay? Now start writing. Guess what? 2,372 words later.
Some more guess what? Writing was a lot more fun this time around. Right now, I’ve taken WIP #1 and started storyboarding it, using her recommendations, and I’m finding that I’m enjoying writing it a lot more again. As for the editing part, Rachel Aaron’s got some extremely useful advice for that as well, which I hope to dispense for you in a later blog. I really can’t recommend 2k to 10K enough.
So if you’ll forgive the baseball analogy, I didn’t need to rebuild my swing. I just needed to take a lot of the movement out of the swing, and simplify it.
A caveat: “How-to” books can be tricky, though. I brought up the Mickey Mantle-Ted Williams story at the beginning for another reason; sometimes the advice a “how-to” book can be given to you with the best of intentions, yet can wreak complete havoc on your writing, your confidence, and your psyche. So tread carefully. “How-to” books, like self-help books, are not “one size fits all.” Some “how-to” book simply dispenses terrible advice.
Some “how-to” books will mess with your mechanics. Don’t let them mess with your mechanics.