The Con (Part Two)

(Continued from part one.)

As ridiculous as it sounds, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to saying that you can be a writer, and after you say it enough times, you might actually start to believe it—regardless of whether or not you’ve ever actually written anything. And that’s when the real work of the con has to begin. At some point, you need to sit down in front of a computer or a typewriter or, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, in front of blank legal pad, and start writing. But you can’t just start writing. You need to have something to write about. You need to have something to say. And so you start pacing the room and talking to the walls and trying to figure out what, exactly, you want to write about.

Again, easier said than done.

And once you do, finally, settle on something to say, you need to convince yourself that it’s worth saying. Or not just saying—that it’s worth sitting down in front of your computer day-in and day-out for hours on end, and for days, weeks, months, or years at a time to get this idea out. While all of your friends are out having fun, you’ll gladly shackle yourself to your desk just to squeeze out a few more words. Because it will all be worth it in the end, you convince yourself.

Because…

Because…

Because…

Hmm. Maybe it’s best not to seek an answer to that.

Let’s call it the artist’s prerogative.

So the first con is the con you pull over on yourself. You convince yourself that you’re a writer and, as such, that you must have something important to say. It’s a bit of a circular argument, but it generally works for a lot of us.

But here’s the neat thing about living the con that is being the writer—it gives you plenty of opportunity to hone your skills as a storyteller. Because ultimately what you’re doing is playing a game. Here’s a character. Here are all of the details about her life. Here’s her problem. Here’s how the problem gets worse. Here’s how she eventually gets out of it. If you’re doing your job as a writer, you’re basically convincing your reader that all of these things are real. Or, if they’re not really real, that they could be real. Because just like the “mark” in any con, your reader really wants to be taken in. Your reader wants to believe—or at least to suspend disbelief.  All you have to do is make the story believable.

And how do you do that?

Well, it turns out that there are plenty of opportunities for cons like us to get together. They’re called workshops, conferences, and writers’ retreats, and they’re wonderful. Of course, when I say “con,” I mean it in the best possible sense. Because all writers face the daunting task of looking at a blank page—of creating something from nothing, for all intents and purposes—we’re in a peculiar position. The only real precedent I can think of is God and all that business of creating the universe. And to dare to do something like that—to invent something from whole cloth—takes a lot of guts—a lot of confidence, in other words. And that’s why we writers need to stick together, which in turn is why it’s great that we have all of the aforementioned venues for coming together.

While workshops and conferences are ostensibly there to help us become better writers, the real value of participating in such activities is that they give us, as writers, a chance to step away from our computers—at least for a little while—and get to know real human beings. Talk about our struggles. Share strategies for beating pesky things like writers block and the bigger issues of existential angst that plague us all. Let each other know that we’re not crazy. That what we’re doing is worthwhile. That writing is a perfectly legitimate pursuit.

Is it all just a shared illusion?

Maybe it is. But the bigger question is: what isn’t?

Real estate?

The stock market?

Majoring in English?

At the end of the day, or the end of every episode of The A-Team, anyway, what made Face such a compelling character for me was that no matter how big the swindle, his mark always went away happy. Along similar lines, the writer of fiction is the best kind of con there is because that’s also what we’re looking for—we want our readers to come away happy from whatever we’ve written. So, yes, maybe there’s a bit of circular logic involved in the way we writers convince ourselves that what we do is legitimate. But that’s the whole point of writing—to conjure something out of nothing, to create something that wasn’t there before, to arrange the mirrors to make the world believe in something that doesn’t quite exist but is, nonetheless, real.

A Novel Approach, pt.1, (All the Wrong Reasons)

On Saturday, I gave a talk at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Here’s the description I turned in for the brochure:

So you want to write a novel. Or maybe you’re three chapters in, and you’ve hit a wall. Or maybe you’re slogging through the third or fourth or fifth draft of something you dimly remember loving a long, long time ago and wondering where the magic has gone… Wherever you are in the process, Marc Schuster has been there, too, and he’s here to help you fall in love with your novel all over again.

And here’s the talk:

Apparently, I promised to help you fall in love with your novel again. This happens every year. The guy who runs this thing asks me to come up with a description of the talk I’m going to give, and I come up with something that sounds really awesome where I make all kinds of promises about magic and overcoming hardship and falling in love, and then when I sit down to figure out what I’m going to say, I have nowhere to go with it.

This is largely the same problem I have with writing novels. I’ll come up with a great premise, but two chapters into the project, I’ll lose interest. I’ve heard people say that writing a novel is a lot like running a marathon. Never having run a marathon myself, I wouldn’t know. I’m pretty sure, though, that there’s a lot more sitting involved in writing a novel than there is in running a marathon.

So I think the better comparison is to being in a relationship. We all know that there are all kinds of relationships, but I’m going to start with the really, really bad kind. The kind of relationship where it starts off kind of cool, because you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m talking to this person!” or “I can’t believe this person is interested in me!” because he’s so hot or she’s so cool or I’ve never actually ‘been on a date’ before, and this is all so new to me!”

And then a few dates into the relationship, you start to notice weird things. She always talks about her ex-boyfriend, for example. He always gets his mother to drive. You find yourself thinking about the latest episode of Glee when you’re making out on the couch. And you don’t even watch Glee. You don’t even own a TV.

But you keep with it for all the reasons people stay in bad relationships. She’s so hot. He’s a really nice guy if you get to know him. You’ve put so much time and effort into this relationship, it would be a waste to break up now. And, besides, who else is going to date you?

I’d argue that the same rationale keeps a lot of people working on projects they hate for far too long: It’s such a great idea! It’s bound to be a hit! I could probably make it work if I just changed the point of view or added some comic relief or told the story in present tense. But the bottom line is this: If you don’t love the project you’re working on, you’ll eventually start to resent it.

To put it another way, you should be writing because you want to, not because you feel locked into it. Writing because you feel locked into it is the best way to kill a project, or at least to produce a stillborn project. At worst, sticking with a project for all the wrong reasons might even kill your desire to write. So that’s my first point: Know when to quit a project—or at least when to put it on hold.

Michael Chabon speaks to this very issue at some length in his essay, “Diving into the Wreck,” and his novel Wonder Boys does a great job of bringing the quandary to life. In the latter, the fictional novelist Grady Tripp is struggling with a manuscript that’s already 2600 pages long. His sunk costs in terms of time and effort are immense. But the book is a millstone around his neck. An albatross, if you want to get literary about it. And it isn’t until he abandons that project that he frees himself up to start not just a new novel but a new life.

Sorry if I ruined the ending for anyone.

(Continued tomorrow.)

Getting the Most Out of a Writers Conference

Today I’ll be speaking at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Over the past few years, I’ve spoken at a handful of conferences in addition to this one, and I’ve found them all to be valuable in one way or another. For one thing, they give writers an excellent opportunity to escape the solitude of banging out words and to talk to other writers in person.

In this sense, conferences present an excellent opportunity to network; attendees can meet other writers, discuss ways to deal with various problems that come up over the course of the writing process, and get the good feeling that comes from realizing that one is not alone in one’s struggles. We writers tend to be a solitary bunch, and it’s just nice to talk to other people from time to time.

Of course, there’s that other sense of networking to consider as well: not just meeting other writers and possibly striking up friendships, but meeting professionals in “the industry.” For better or for worse, the focus of many writers conferences is publication, and most writers conferences offer attendees opportunities to pitch their ideas to agents and editors.

Yet while meeting with an agent or an editor can be an especially valuable experience for anyone whose manuscript is completed and as close to “perfect” as it’s going to get without further professional input, I worry that the emphasis that so many of these events place on such meetings takes away from the real value of writers conferences: learning about craft.

Perhaps one reason I’m especially sensitive to this issue today is that my talk on novel writing is scheduled in the same time slot as the “pitch sessions” at this particular conference, but I really think that the focus that many conferences place on finding an agent is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Personally, I started learning a lot more about writing when I stopped going to conferences with the intention of wooing an agent with my half-completed manuscripts and, instead, started listening to what the speakers and panelists had to say about the actual day-to-day stuff of writing.

Here’s how it usually worked for me: I’d spend the whole day obsessing over what people in the industry would call my “elevator pitch.” That’s the one-sentence explanation of the novel that you give to the agent or editor you’re meeting with in the hopes that they’ll like your idea enough to ask for the first ten or twenty pages of your manuscript. The trouble was that I’d keep going over it my head and, as a result, I wouldn’t hear anything that anyone was saying during any of the workshops or lectures I’d paid good money to attend.

To boil it down to dollars and cents, I was basically spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 or more per conference to speak a single sentence to a complete stranger when I should have been getting my money’s worth by shutting up and listening to the collective wisdom of writers who actually write. Math has never been my forte, but once I figured out the crass economics of the situation, I started listening and, more to the point, I started learning.

Personally, I think that the best way for a writer to get the most out of a writers conference is to forget about the agents and the pitch and concerns about getting published. All of that will come with time — and only after you’ve honed your craft. Sure, it’s good to have a basic understanding of how the publishing business works. But for my money, the best writing doesn’t occur when writers have “the industry” at the forefront of their priorities, and it certainly has very little to do with being able to boil a 90,000 word novel down to a single sentence. Rather, it occurs when writers sit down and focus on their work, and conferences are a great place to learn how to do that.