I’m not going to keep you in suspense…but in addition to writing ability, having the time, and actually having a story inside your head, there are two things you really have to have if you’re going to write. Earnest Hemingway put it somewhat graphically when he said that you gotta have an iron-clad bullshit meter. You do, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
The second thing you need is a pair of brass-plated cajones…and if that needs to be clarified to you…you’re probably in the wrong article.
What Hemingway was talking about is the ability to look at your own stuff and be able to detect when it’s good and when it’s crap. A subset of that concept, and equally important is: you need to know if a sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter is furthering the story. This is particularly apparent in the beginning of a modern novel. Times have changed. If you’re already an established writer, you may be able to get away with verbosity, though it’s iffy. If you’re just getting going, however, you have limited time to interest the agent, editor, or, most importantly the reader.
In the first iteration of my novel, The Antlers Inn, I slaved over the first chapter, second chapter…getting the dialogue just right, the scenes alive, tension between the two main characters, and it wasn’t until I arrived at…(are you ready for this?) page 167 where the couple actually arrived in Jubilation, PA…hugely pissed with the world, that I realized the story actually started. I traipsed downstairs, poured a cup of coffee and said to Pamela, “I just discovered that the story begins on page 167. Down in my gut, I knew it was the truth. It was very hard to press, DELETE, but it was the right thing to do. And…I learned a lesson. If you open up your latest masterpiece and nothing is really going on, scan ahead and consider what might have to be done. That’s the bullshit meter.
Having brass ones, though it includes the ability to press delete, encompasses a whole slew of other things. It sounds like a gimme, and yet it isn’t. Being a writer is inherently a gutsy thing to do. You have to commit to telling the truth for every one of your characters, you have to be willing to tell the whole story, even if your mother-in-law, wife, or God knows who else might find it distasteful. If you can’t do that, get into another line of business. If there’s anything at all that frightens you so much that you can’t tell it like it is…time to move on.
And there’s more. If you look back at writers whom you admire, or even ones you hate but acknowledge, most of them had the intestinal fortitude (brass ones) to stick to what they wanted to say. When J.K. Rowling sent her first manuscript to be critiqued, she was hammered by the fact that it was waaay too long to be a children’s book. She could have shortened it, but she didn’t. Stephen King had the brass ones to follow a small but highly effective premise: “What if?” Thomas Ruggles Pinchon, writes books that many just can’t, for the life of them, figure out. And in a world propelled by exposure, he has eschewed all exposure. That takes guts. The list goes on and on and on. Tom Clancy was out of work and had no history of writing, In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden wrote the entire book in third person and then realized it really should be in first person. Believe me, that’s really, really harder than it sounds. But he knew it had to be done.
And what was the genesis of this short article? I am currently in the middle of what was supposed to be the final, final line-edit of Lord of the Mill, just prior to our sending it out. I awoke at 4:30 about two weeks ago with a news flash from my Muse. She had presented me an alternative ending for the book. What that means is 100+ pages on the back end of the book had to be deleted. The Muse, bless her soul, had a much steeper arc for the plot and I’m racing to catch up. It’s been a while since I’ve had to toss that much work, but if it makes the book better…reach down and confirm that you’re still a writer.