Here’s some tough love:
There are two types of writers in this world: Those who write, and those who think/talk about the things they’re going to write. Some day. At some point.
Believe me, I know of what I speak because I was the latter writer. Oh the short stories I was going to craft, the novels I was going to start, so on and so forth. Buuuuuut…I needed to get the idea straight in my mind, I needed to get a crystal-clear vision of the story from beginning to end. I had to wait to see what my writer’s group thought. I had to be in the right frame of mind to sit and write. I had to wait for the summer equinox. The holidays to pass. For things to settle down at work.
Excuses, excuses, excuses.
Now, I’m not going to go on with some “punch the keys!” bullshit. No. That’s meaningless because, the truth is, inspiration only gets you so far. Writing is a craft and a job, and it should be treated as such. Owing to that, I have no interest in talking about anything other than the nuts and bolts of how to write faster and more consistently. And, look, while I don’t know a whole lot about a whole lot, I do know how to sit my ass in a chair and get to work. In the past two years, I’ve written three novels, a video game, and twenty-some comics. And I’ll probably do more in 2018. Call it survivalism, call it compulsion, call it whatever you’d like. What matters is producing.
The question is how. How to write so much without sacrificing quality. After all, that’s key. Because if what you write stinks, then fewer and fewer people will want you to write for them and, well, you’ve solved your problem of doing a writer’s work in the worst possible way.
So, let’s get back to the how of all this. It comes down to two things:
- Knowing and sticking to the basics
- Sticking to a routine
First, The Basics: Look, I’ve done the whole writing program thing. I have an MA from Northwestern University, which isn’t too shabby. But you know what? Never—not once—did a single teacher ever utter the words “three-act structure.” Never. I mean, studying language is great and understanding what Nabokov was saying in Lolita is fine, but it’s necessary to have balance in the Force. And while understanding the more high-minded aesthetics of writing and fiction is important—essential, even—it’s equally important to simply know how to structure a story. How to craft a riveting plot. How to develop compelling characters that grow and change.
Learning the basics frees you from a lot of guesswork. There’s a manifest destiny in knowing, clearly, the trajectory of a story. If you’re stuck on ending your story’s second act, well, if you knew that this part of the story typically ends with your protagonists hitting their lowest point you can use that as a springboard to your next step. And you can either subvert that expectation or follow it in a way that’s completely your own. But using that knowledge as a guiding principle can help give form and shape to your story and see you through the roadblocks that stand in your way.
Personally, I like to think that writing is problem-solving. As a storyteller, your job is to present your characters with compelling problems and create even more compelling ways to solve those problems. Studying the basics of plot has enriched my understanding of this relationship, and it has kept my story going. And sometimes, that’s all you need—to keep going. Slowing down leads to overthinking, and overthinking leads to a lack of productivity. And while it seems like I’m saying you shouldn’t think too much, I’m not.
Though, really, don’t think too much.
There’s a ton of resources that can help you learn the basics. Personally, I recommend screenwriting books. They tend to cut out all the bullshit and give you a pure dose of story. And odds are, you already know the rules. The three-act structure is imprinted into the brain of every storyteller whether we like it or not. We’ve been seeing it in action since birth; sometimes, though, we all need for things to be spelled out, and that’s what those books do.
Or, just follow the Pixar model of story structure, which is as simple as it gets:
Once upon a time—every day—until one day—because of that—because of that—until finally.
Seriously, think of your three favorite stories and see if one them defies that order. Spoiler alert: Unless you’re thinking of something avant-garde, they won’t.
(Which, by the way, even if you want to totally deconstruct the archetypal narratives of mainstream fiction, you have to know the rules before you break them. So: Learn the rules.)
Let’s move on to point #2: The Routine.
I’m not really concerned with routines, per se. Like, how you carve out time to write, where you write, on what software—that’s not important. What’s important is finding a groove that works for you, intimately, and stick with that.
Routine should be internalized. It should be grounded in knowing what you want to do and how to do it. If you have that in mind, you can write anytime, anywhere. Habits are good—hell, habits can be life-savers, but what really matters is clarity of practice and purpose.
This point is an evolution from what I said previously about knowing the basics. Now we’re talking about knowing yourself, and in that knowledge comes an understanding of who you are as a writer. What stories you want to write. How you want to write them. What your strengths are. Your weaknesses. You can better command your writing the more you understand what your writing is.
And I’ll warn you: Getting to this place is not easy. The first draft that I wrote of Black Star Renegades was bad. No—not bad. It was hot fucking garbage, and I had to rewrite the entire damn thing. But, at the end of it all, I came out the other side a better writer. I took me writing the book to figure out what the book was and, quite honestly, who I was as a storyteller. I learned how to have fun with my writing and, in turn, how to make the story fun. I learned to take risks and to loosen up. And through all that, I gained perspective on what I was trying to do. I was then able to crank out words like I never had before. I’ve carried those lessons into everything I’ve written since, making my writing process easier and—I hope—my work stronger and stronger.
To me, writing happens in layers. The fundamental layer consists of the building blocks of story, structure, all that. The second layer is what you bring to the process—your voice, your strengths, your weaknesses. Then you build from there, incorporating what the specific story is about—that’s another layer. Another is what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it. But it all starts at the fundamentals of the craft and your own identity as a writer, and you can’t gain mastery over either without a lot of learning and writing.
That said, go forth and get the job done. Keep learning, keep writing, keep going.
Michael Moreci is the author of the sci-fi novel BLACK STAR RENEGADES (January 2, 2018; St. Martin’s Press). Additionally, he’s a bestselling comics writer who’s written Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and other well-known characters. His original series, Roche Limit, has been called “the sci-fi comic you need to read” by the Nerdist and io9 and “one of the 50 best sci-fi comics of all time” by Paste magazine. Moreci is also a regular contributor to StarWars.com and Tor.com. His second novel, an espionage thriller titled THE THROWAWAY, is due out in June from Forge Books and a sequel to BLACK STAR RENEGADES is in the works. You can visit Michael at www.michaelpmoreci.com