Wednesday, March 10, 2010

After a Million Words of Crap... the Right One

The other day, I received a lovely compliment from a reader and aspiring author, who told me how much she wants to write like me.

Flattered as I was (and I can tell you no one laps up praise more happily than I do) I quickly thanked her and hastened to add that that's the wrong idea. Because no matter which author you admire, you'll never be more her than she is. But you're the very best at writing like yourself.

The trick is, writing enough words (Raymond Chandler is said to have insisted that every writer has a million words of crap to produce before getting to the good stuff) to break through to your authentic voice. More than likely, you're imitating other voices, other styles, and/or those you perceive as big successes for about half a million of these. You spend a few hundred grand more floundering, and the last ones grinding out some pretty decent prose that's not quite ripe yet. (When I go back to my old short stories, I see the raw material for what I'm still becoming. And believe it or not, I'm grateful for the rejections that gave me more time to develop.)

At some point -- and this point comes at a different time or number of words for every one of us -- you'll start to realize where you're different from whatever else is out there. You'll recognize the things you're good at, and how you sound in your own head.

Only then, can you capitalize on the uniqueness you bring to the table. You'll wrestle that individual voice into a marketable form.

Will you sell it? There are no guarantees on that one. But there's an intrinsic reward with finding that after your proverbial million words of... let's be kind and call it compost, you've finally grown the perfect crop. Even if no one else ever reads them, you've still written them, and that's worth something.

Because how many people find their own voice in the chaos of this world?


Dolly said...

I found this post very inspiration. Voice is such a vague topic that until one finds it, it's hard to get a handle on it. I don't think I have written a million words for fiction yet, but getting there. :-)

Jen Singer said...

Very nicely put. I think it takes a few years of massaging and editing and trying this and that before your voice matures enough to be uniquely yours. Until then, it's like Peter Brady when his voice was changing.

Colleen Thompson said...

Thanks, Dolly and Jen.

And I laughed my head off at the Peter Brady comparison. Dead on!

Scott Marabi said...

@ Jen and Colleen: That Peter Brady part cracked me up too!

@ Colleen: Excellent column! It reminds me of what Augusten Burroughs told us when about 200 of us foaming-at-the mouth admirers saw him at Books, Inc. in San Francisco.

"JUST WRITE!" he advised. "Don't try to sound like me. Write, write, write and develop your own voice. You'll become better. Trust me."

I took that advice to the bank. But I'm still tempted to try to write like Junot Diaz.

Colleen Thompson said...

Thanks for the kind words, Scott, and I feel your pain re. the temptation!



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