The Jagged Slope

Progress is never even. In everything you do, some days you're a whiz, and other days you're a dud. Writing is no different. It's like everything else in life. So, when you have a bad day, don't despair. Just keep plugging away, because how you handle your slumps is what makes you or breaks you. And it's not all bleak because it will get good again—always. You will bounce back. I guarantee it. Not only will you rise out of your slump, but you will reach your best level of writing, and you will exceed it—if you keep at it. Then you will dip down—and rise again. You will always lose it, and you will always get it back—and then some. Think of writing as a relationship with another person. It's at least as thrilling—and at least as miserable. You don't get one (thrill) without the other (misery). But in writing, the thrills make up for the misery.

Speaking of misery: Some writers take years to write a novel. Joseph Heller took 10 years to write Catch-22. Tom Wolfe took 10 years to write A Man in Full. That's one end of the spectrum. At the other end is Nabokov, who wrote Lolita in three months. James Hilton wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips in four days. Now, Goodbye, Mr. Chips was a slim little novel, but at the rate Hilton took to write it, Heller would have finished Catch-22 in a month or two.

So, what accounts for the difference between the 10-year novel and the four-day, four-month, or 1-year novel? Well, I can tell you that Heller and Wolfe were not banging away eight hours a day, five days a week, on their novels for 10 years. No—they were struggling, straining, spinning their wheels, doing all kinds of things other than writing. The difference between them and the writers who do it in days, weeks, or months is not how much time they spend writing, but how much time they waste trying to write.

Wasting time and energy is what you're going to learn to avoid. The point is: it's easier than we make it. But it's hard to make it easy—unless you know how.

Of all the advice writers give out, there is only one thing they all agree on. They all say: Stick to it. Don't quit. Don't give up. Keep writing no matter how awful it feels. Do your daily writing. Remember, it's no different from the rest of your life, with its ups and the downs.

A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit. Not quitting is vital. The other equally important factor is guidance. Sadly, 99 percent of all writers never publish. It's not that they quit or don't try or don't write their hearts out or don't do what the writing books and courses tell them. They don't make it because they have no guidance or poor guidance. Sadder still, they could publish—if only they learned their craft. Craft is the key, but you can't learn it on your own. You can teach yourself golf, tennis, or basketball—up to a point. On your own, you can learn enough to get around eighteen holes, hit a ball over the net, or make a basket, but how many successful athletes learn on their own without lessons or coaching? How many teams play without a coach? None. Professional athletes are on teams getting coaching and lessons for years before they make it.

For writing, guidance and coaching are just as important. As in any discipline (sports, music, dance, painting), you need to practice until it's a part of you, until it's reflex, until you perform without thinking.

Again, my personal estimate is, the right guidance will get you there at least ten times faster. Guiding you and giving you the tools to guide yourself are the goals. This course is designed to make a short trip out of what can otherwise be an endless journey.

What you'll learn is technique—how to do it. Technique is neutral. You can use it to write any kind of story you choose (science fiction, romance, adventure, fable, fantasy, mystery, crime, literary). With proper technique, whatever you write can be shaped into a complete story. The complete story is what all great story writers write (Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald). A complete story is the most fulfilling, because it has the shape of our most meaningful experience. Whether it's comedy or tragedy, it gives us what we need from experience. What we need from experience and stories, along with how to put together a story that fulfills that need, is what the next three chapters are about.


What is a story, and how does it work? That's where we're headed. If you're in a hurry to get there, to get the tools so you can jump in and get started immediately (this is Immediate Fiction, after all), then skip ahead to chapter 3. Come back when you have time. But if you want a fuller sense of why we have stories and what they do for us before you start, then stick around. The deeper your understanding, the better you'll write.

Stories happen not only in movies and books and on TV. Stories are playing out in us and through us continually. And they didn't arise because someone sat down one day and said, "OK, everybody, we're going to have stories. This is how we're going to do it." No, stories were here at the beginning. They were here when the caveman started scratching pictures on the walls of his cave. They evolved right along with us. More than anything else, they're an expression of who we are and how we work. They're our way of keeping in touch, of finding meaning and understanding. That goes for all genres—tragedy, adventure, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, comedy.

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