The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Machine

I’ve had a model of writing success I call “The Machine” or “The Garden”, depending on who I’m talking to, and specifically which metaphor works better for that personality.
It is a description of process related to the creation of books and stories and generally creating a sustainable career.  The idea begins with the thought that it is valuable to consider “the ability to motivate yourself to do something” as part of the definition of “knowing how to do it.”
In other words, if you don’t exercise, it might be a useful lie (one of the most valuable things in the world) to say that you literally don’t know how, since understanding the value and the way to motivate yourself and sustain motivation might reasonably be considered part of “knowing how.”  Understand?
Well, I frequently have conversations with unpublished (or under-published) writers who have, to me, obvious interruptions in the process that would allow them to successfully publish.   I’ve taught semester-long courses, coached people for years, sold thousands of “Lifewriting” sets and been paid obscene amounts of money to lecture on this stuff, but I constantly search for simpler and simpler ways to express it.  In other words, if someone is willing to follow directions, what is the smallest amount of information they need to get where they want to go?
In the realm of consciousness, the minimum can be written on the back of a postage stamp (variously: “wake up”, “pay attention”, “go deeper,”  “Who are you?”  “What is true?” and so forth) so it stands to reason that writing would require no more.
Thus, “The Machine.”   Here is a version of it students have found useful.
1) Read and research constantly.   (Approximately 10X as much reading as writing.)
2) Write a story a week, or a story every other week.   (Stories are hugely more educational than novels.  Until you have published and been paid for five short stories, stay away from the longer form.  And trust me, I’ve heard every rational reason to try novels first.   None of them pass the smell test.)
3) Finish what you write, and re-write.   (Spend all the time you want re-writing, but remember: you have to finish an average of 2-4 stories a month).
4) Put it in the mail, and keep it in the mail.
5) When it is rejected, send it back out.  Continue until you’ve submitted it at least ten times.
6) Starting from now, set a goal of at least 100 stories.  (Give yourself room and time to fail, and fail and fail.  Get tough, dammit. The arts are not for sissies.)
7) Don’t try to be clever.  You can run out of clever,  but you can never run out of the truth.  The kernel of every story should be something you care about.  Deeply.  Preferably, enough to die for. After all—one day, one of your stories will be the last you ever write.  Assume it will be this one.  

That’s it.   I might dive more deeply into those, but I have this urge to empty myself out of everything that had gotten me this far in my life.   One of these essays will be the last I ever write.
Maybe this one.


1 comment:

Laphael Knight said...

Inspiring. I've never heard of starting with writing short stories first, before moving into novels. Thanks for sharing this. I've followed your work since Gorgon Child and respect you as a writer and teacher of the arts.