Thursday, January 28, 2021

How Many Cooks do You Need?

Last week I mentioned coming across notes on the writing process from Joe Lansdale, which meant I read them immediately because anything Joe Lansdale says about writing is worth knowing. Imagine how gratified I was to learn my process has been evolving toward what he does.


That doesn’t mean I’ll reach Joe Lansdale levels of accomplishment, just as my appropriation of David Milch’s concept of “resting transparently” sets me up to approach HBO about rebooting Deadwood. It’s still nice to see, having already moved in this direction, what Joe might have to say I haven’t thought of.


On first readers, Joe writes*, “Frankly, I'm my first and second and third reader, and then the editor is the fourth, and finally the proof reader, and myself again.” I read each chapter of the first and last drafts to The Beloved Spouse™, then send it off to the publisher for editing and proofreading; in between it’s all me. I used to run books through a laborious process of reading damn near the whole thing to a writers’ group a chapter or two at a time, until I moved far enough away that getting back there twice a month was a chore. What I might be missing worried me until I noticed the books still received the same feedback as before, even though I invested a lot less agita in the writing.


That’s no rap on the group. I wouldn’t be half the writer I am now were it not for the two writers’ groups I worked with ten years ago and more. The things is, as Joe puts it, “I decide to have faith in myself and do. Sometimes my faith can let me down a little, but mostly it doesn't. I've learned the hard way in years past that I don't want to muddle up my thinking with someone else's, as I lose my power over the story, my feeling for it…Early on I showed manuscripts and even created a writer's group. There were enough opinions there to confuse and contradict, and frankly, in the end, all that mattered to me was if I liked it, and if the editors liked it, paid me and published it.”


Joe and I operate on entirely different levels of the industry; that’s fine. Talent, like water, finds its own level. This may be even truer for me than for Joe, as I’m not making a living from writing, so I have no concerns about a disruption of my income stream if my editor or published decides to give a book a pass. It’s like the man with a two-inch erection picking up a woman. She gets a look and says, “Who do you expect to satisfy with that?” He says, “Me.” I like to think my books are at least three-and-a-half-inch erections, but the point is still valid.


I’ve commented in the past on what I call “bestseller style” and why I read so few bestsellers for that reason. I suspect bestseller style is often a result of writing by committee, everyone feeling they need to make a “contribution” until there’s little to distinguish the writing of one author from another. Quoting Joe on waiting until he decides he’s finished: “By then the cake had been baked, and I'm willing to listen and see if they have some good ideas for the icing. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they aren't aware I don't like coconut in my icing, so I ignore certain things and demand my own brand of chocolate, but I don't mind listening to their advice about how to smooth it on with a cake knife.”


That kind of advice is always welcome, even if only two reasons would apply. (There are more, but these are the big ones.)

  • 1   I know what a specific sentence is supposed to mean but people not resident in my mind may not.
  •  I am not always the most elegant cake icer. Sometimes a little smoothing out is in order.

That’s said, not all cakes need to be white (read: vanilla), and I detest coconut in any part of mine.


My level of accomplishment may give pause to some about listening to my advice, but I have always believed the author has to remember whose name will be on the cover. Acknowledgements can share the credit, but the blame will all be yours. Well-meaning constructive criticism is not a synonym for improvement.


*-- All Joe Lansdale quotes used with his permission.


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