In Writing, it’s Okay to Rob the Dead

How does one become better as a writer without risking failure, and what do those discarded words eventually become?

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There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. I have some scraps of a story I wrote when I was in college. I thought it was brilliant. I honed the mythology, I wrote up character bios for future stories I hadn’t pieced together yet, I started turning it into a comic script, sent it off to artists, and then I lost my passion for it. Now that I look back as a more experienced writer I can see a million problems with it. Influences that were too obvious, narrative issues, clichés I hadn’t realised were so apparent.

If you consider successful writers and their books, what you remember are the finished products. Along the way, they will have put together dozens of drafts, spent days grinding away at their desk trying to resolve everything and they will have abandoned a hundred stories that we’ll never hear about.

Whilst some call this the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to become an expert at something, I like to say you’ll have to write a thousand lines before you reach your first perfect line. What matters is this: whatever your first idea for a story, novel, play, script or poem, it’s probably not great. You may be wholly in love with it—and that’s fine—but to grow, you’ll have to learn to shed it, to kill your darling.

Alternatively, it might be an outstanding idea but you, as a writer, might be lacking. I know writers that announce a new project every month. I’m just as bad, I have a new project every few weeks but while I may have the writing tools, there are artistic tools I need to bring them to life that I haven’t begun to develop yet.

Some people never move past that first idea. Some like the idea of being a writer more than they actually love writing because when you finally get everything out and you find yourself looking at your finished draft, it’s not always the story you thought you had. You almost certainly will find characters and plots you hate in your novel, or you will find images and themes liberally stolen from other writers staring back at you, or worst of all, when you finally see it written in front of you, it might just be bad.

This is the point where most people give up. To write is easy, we’re taught to do that as children. What’s hard, infuriatingly so, is to be good. You find yourself reading your writing and thinking, Why isn’t this the piece I wanted? Why isn’t this as good as the people I’ve read? Why isn’t this like the things I love?

Creativity is a muscle; it needs developing. There are no literary prodigies. No one picks up a pen for the first time and finds themselves writing a bestseller. It doesn’t happen, no matter how much we want that romantic notion. We have to prepare ourselves to do the heavy lifting or else we will be crushed under the weight of our own ambition.

This is the point where someone will cite their favourite writer who magically produced the greatest piece of writing ever written in the span of a week, and they’d never written before, and they had to take care of their dying mother while they did it. This is the mythos of a writer. Despite what you’re told, Hemingway spent hours a day at his desk, so did Bukowski. Oscar Wilde wrote “I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out” because that’s the truth of writing. JK Rowling may have hit it big on the first book she released but she spent six years writing it.

A success may be a failure who didn’t know when to quit, but if you don’t risk that failure you won’t produce anything. You have to be prepared to sacrifice your stories on some high altar, bury them in a quiet corner of a literary graveyard and let them rot. Leave them. Those stories will not rise from the dead as zombies and give chase, they will just sit there being dead, and you will be the serial killer that put them there. Until, one day, you will run out of ideas and you will be faced with the impossibility of continuing.

This day might not happen until you’ve put out a dozen novels or you’re the most widely published poet of all time, but eventually you will find yourself walking through that graveyard. You will find yourself walking and you will remember the watch you buried in the pocket of a short story, that one shining moment in something you thought dead.

You can dig it up!

You can pick the pocket of any corpse you’ve buried anytime. You can let other people walk through your graveyard and let them do the same, and you can do the same with theirs. Everything you read, every piece of advice, even this article, is a burial in your graveyard. In writing, it is okay to rob the dead.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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