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I was right all along
Creatives should follow their own compasses and ignore "what everyone else says is the right way to do things."
So here’s a little story about me.
When I wrote my first book, I had no idea what I was doing. I just kind of followed my nose and wrote whatever struck me, but that didn’t get me anywhere productive. For a long time, that first book was just me telling the antics of individual characters, not paying much attention to making it all connect. It wasn’t a story, in other words. It was just a lot of stuff that happened.
I kept at it, though, and soon enough I figured out that stories needed a compass from the beginning. For years, variations on that basic plan refined themselves: I’d start with a beginning (crazy, I know), then still would follow my nose … but now I’d keep asking myself throughout the draft how I could move the larger plot forward. That’s how the Fat Vampire books were written, how Unicorn Western was written, how The Beam was written, and a whole lot more. Even when I was co-writing with my constant partner Sean Platt who kept me on the rails, I never really knew where the story would end up. Still, unlike that first book, I finally at least had an idea where it was going.
Fast forward almost ten years. Now I’ve got like a hundred books under my belt, writing at a pace of around 1.5 million words (1.5x the full Harry Potter series) every year. You write 15 million words and you figure some things out, such as “what works for you.” So yeah. By then, the wheels were greased. I knew how to tell stories, and because of it I never cared when I got stuck. I knew, from plentiful experience, that the answer was there somewhere … and every single time I hit a wall in a story, it turned out that the answer absolutely was.
But after years of teaching writing, and podcasting about writing, and writing books about writing, and hosting live events of all sizes for writers, I started to get a lot of other people’s advice and processes in my head. I started paying attention to story structure, because that’s what a lot of people did. I started to think in three acts, knowing exactly where the First, Second, and Third Act needed to start and finish. I heard over and over again about story devices and themes and who knows what else. I’d never cared or thought about those things before. My stories had them, but they had them accidentally. I could dissect my books after the fact and find all that good stuff in them, but it came from my gut, not from planning.
After hearing all that advice, though, I began trying to think about a lot of my previously-from-the-gut stuff in advance. I wanted to write better and better books, and that meant growing as a creator. Growth presupposes change. I couldn’t keep doing things the way I’d been doing, could I? No. I needed to keep experimenting, keep changing things up, keep trying new things to get better.
That’s what all the conventional wisdom said, anyway. The way I used to write, I’d decided, was wrong. I just didn’t know better. Moving forward, I started to think about genre — about not mixing genres together, because that was “wrong.” Certainly I shouldn’t write in several different genres; that right there was especially wrong. I thought about point-of-view and what was “allowed” and “not allowed,” because I’d been doing some of that wrong, too. I shouldn’t meander in my writing: focus was better and meandering was (again) wrong. I needed to think about theme, to make sure theme got in there ahead of time. I hadn’t been doing that, or hitting the proper act markers, or a dozen other things … and all of that, too, was wrong.
Yeah. Well. That was 2020, 2021, and 2022, and most of what I published during those years were books that’d been previously written. The few books I managed to actually write in those years were labored and tedious. In the end, I think I cleaned those projects up so that by the time they hit the bookstores, they were pretty good … but they were also very difficult. Very not-fun. Very trying-so-hard. All of my writing flow was gone. The fun was gone. I wrote far, far fewer words in those years, and very little of it was enjoyable.
I got sick of it. Something had to change.
And so, a few months before 2023 began, Sean convinced me to forget all I’d learned. To just say FUCK IT to the “right” way of doing things and instead let my freak flag fly like I used to. It took some practice to unlearn all the “proper” things I’d learned about writing, and instead write from the gut like I used to, but now I’m right back in my doing-it-wrong, totally-inappropriate groove. And I’m happy to report a few things to you:
The “wrong” way I write is a lot easier and creates much better stories in the end.
The “incorrect,” seat-of-my-pants, genre-ignoring, convention-ignoring way I used to write is also a hell of a lot more fun.
Words flow. Fast. I’m currently writing two books at once, putting in more words each day on each of them than most “prolific” writers get on just one project. That was impossible during my “correct” years.
And most importantly, “wrong” feels so right to me. The stories unfold as if they’re already there and I’m just discovering them. The magic is back. Good stuff happens.
So, my friends, I’m happy to report that Johnny is back and as incorrect as ever. I’m happy to report that although a lot of well-intentioned learning came my way throughout the course of my career, so far it seems that I was originally right all along.
Maybe the way I work won’t sell as many books as doing it right. Maybe my books are weird, or too long, or refuse too ardently to fit inside a single genre or understandable box. I don’t really care about those things. My books are me, and that’s all that I’ve decided ultimately matters.
And so I’ll leave you with a lesson I learned the hard way: If you happen to be a creator like I am, I’d like to encourage you to learn what you can … but in the end to ultimately trust your gut. It’s smarter than you know.
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