5 Things -- Quotes
Before I get into this, I have to apologize.
I started writing this post a long time ago, and I lost a lot of it. If you read my post about tapping that save button (for the love of God, remember to do that!), you know this story. I thought I would get right back on it, but I was so proud of the way this post was originally written, and I had made it say exactly what I wanted it to say. I had to distance myself from those original words so I wouldn't be sitting here, paralyzed, staring at the screen and trying to conjure the exact things I'd written before. A little break gave me a fresh start, and now I'm proud of this sucker again.
Most importantly, I've made sure the autosave feature is doing its freaking job. So, I apologize for being silent a while, but thankfully, now we may proceed. There's this thing that I do on this blog. It's called
Five things that influence, motivate, or have to do with my writing in some way. Today I've got my top favorite quotes. ...I'm sorry, that's actually a lie. My "top" favorite quotes is not a list of five -- it's a list of 50. At least 50. There are so many good quotes from so many talented writers, famous or everyday, that it's impossible to pick so few from the hundreds I've read over the years. How did I select the five posted below, then? Glad you asked. These are the quotes I've found myself using a lot as part of my "brand": in the writers group I run at my library job, on Instagram posts, and over and over in blog posts. One of them even lives on my website. If you've met me, and if you've asked me about my writing process or writing in general, one or more of these quotes has come out of my mouth. Guaranteed. Most importantly, though, the reason I chose these quotes as my "top five" is because I read them all a long time ago and they stood the test of time in my mind; these quotes stuck with me since reading them, by default influencing much of the work I've produced over the last ten or so years. Some of these quotes helped break me out of some serious ruts, i.e. the dreaded writing-editing loop that never let me write past a certain amount because I was too busy self-editing to make significant progress. So, although these are part of a longer list, here are the quotes that helped me get where I am today.
I encountered this quote while taking a college fiction writing class. At the time I was calling myself "an aspiring novelist" and telling everyone I had this novel in the works that I hoped would set me up for life as a career writer. I was suspended in the comfy world of being in college, a world that let me be an adult and a kid at the same time in a lot of ways. These years are the bridge to the real world, the years where you study hard, discover your passions, and work towards graduation. At the time, I'd discovered I wanted to write like a novelist, not a journalist, and was basking in my newfound (or re-found) passion for storytelling. Naturally, I looked to the authors I'd grown up loving, and Faulkner came up almost immediately.
Faulkner has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager. Aside from his southern voice, which I relate to and brings me down home every time I read him, his writing style was one of the first to strike me in a significant way as a young adult. He oscillated between grandiosity and plainness, knowing when to write with flourish and just tell the story. I coveted his instincts, his distinction; I wanted to write just like him.
But I had to write. Yeah. That pesky detail. I've talked about this before. A lot. A lot, a lot. I will keep talking about it, because this is the first breakthrough I ever experienced with writing, one of the first bits of advice that got me over the dreaded middle-of-the-manuscript slump -- writers, you know the one. You get an idea, get all excited about it, start writing like crazy, then after you've introduced your beloved characters and established your exciting plot and built your amazing world, the enthusiasm dies off when you realize you need to keep the story going with the same energy. That's the hard part about writing, one of the hardest parts, but keeping it up is what makes us writers.
"Don't be a writer -- be writing" is what helped me remember the reason why I like to write. More than the fame I craved and the future I envisioned for myself, I've always just loved telling a story. And the reason why I switched my major from journalism to English -- as I mentioned above and numerous times before -- is because I wanted to write freely. Faulkner's quote secured the habit for me, and I've been on a roll ever since.
Speaking of habits!!!
This is the quote that made me realize that my romanticism of the writing process was keeping me from... the writing process.
I used to believe in inspiration, and, for the record, I still do. Inspiration is what gets me story ideas, and buddy, I have quite a few of them. I love the way inspiration makes me feel, the way it gets my heart going and my eyes all lit up. (I've even talked about this sensation in another blog post.) I love running to a notepad or a keyboard and quickly jotting down the idea before it leaves me. Inspiration as a means to keep writing, though? I don't believe in that anymore. And Octavia Butler's words are the main reason why.
When I came across this quote, I'd never heard of Octavia Butler. I was thrilled to discover she was not only a writer of color and a woman, but she also wrote in the realm of speculative fiction. The only work I had managed to complete by this point was the aforementioned manuscript from college, a paranormal fantasy novel. I hadn't read many books in that genre -- or any related genre -- by people of color, mostly because I hadn't discovered some greats, like Butler, but also mostly because the representation wasn't really there. It's gotten better since I discovered this quote, but overall, writers of color are a minority in the publishing world period, never mind in the spec fic realm. I had been having such a hard time finding representation for my novel, and I know now that most of those struggles stemmed from me not knowing how to navigate the publishing world. I was a novice, and I looked, wrote, and smelled like one. Agents could smell it from a mile away. Being a woman of color, I had to be the strongest contender, and I was not. I encountered this quote while struggling with the decision of whether I should shelve my paranormal fantasy novel for a later time and write something else. I had a few ideas, but I just couldn't come up with the same enthusiasm to write any of them. I was sitting around during my off time between stints at my part-time job, staring at my computer and trying to become inspired. It was a weird, in-between time right after college, and I hadn't found a job related to my major, and I needed to work to make money, and I was angry about not being a rich and famous novelist yet, and I couldn't figure out why I didn't want to write anything.
Then, this quote.
Luckily, the light bulb switched on for me immediately, and I took Butler's words to heart. I wasn't producing anything because I was waiting for it to spring from my fingers as easily as it had the first time. In college, the thrill was finally finishing something. Now that I had done that, what was the point of writing that much, that fast, or at all, really? Obviously, it was because I wanted to be a writer.
So, along with that first piece of advice by Mr. Faulkner, I connected the dots and decided that if I was going to "be writing," I had to make a habit out of it. This quote made this list because it has been essential to my career as a writer since I discovered it. It has helped me feel like not such a failure of a writer. It has helped me realize other writers -- prolific ones -- don't have gold flowing from their fingers every time they sit down to translate a story in their head into something tangible, that it isn't always instant. It has helped break me out of that purgatorial writing-editing loop multiple times, but especially there in the beginning. It has helped me see writers as people, humans who start out with raw material just as I did, and do, and work it into brilliance... or, at least, something publish-worthy. Writers write every day, all the time, no matter what comes out, then they craft, refine, and mold what they've got.
I vigorously pass this bit of advice on to my writers group members who are slogging through that mid-manuscript slump or trying to find a reason to continue with their project. The ones still waiting for inspiration. It's the way writing has been presented to us forever -- a writer comes up with a brilliant idea, writes in a frenzy of inspiration, and is satisfied. No one shows the hard work behind it, a writer putting words on paper even when they don't want to, when they have nothing more to give, all of that unromantic mess. Well, Butler, a successful writer, showed me. She gave me one of the main keys to being a writer. I take successful people's advice.
Bonus points for the rest of this quote, which says:
"You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
Well, this one is self-explanatory, isn't it? I don't think I need to spend a lot of time telling you why this one is on my list. On theme with the "be writing" message of this post is this quote by Jodi Picoult, another bit of advice from an experienced writer that has served as a constant reminder to produce, produce, produce, even if it's not perfect -- especially because it will rarely, if at all, be perfect. Even when it's been published. I encountered this quote back in 2014, when I was trying to find representation for We Are Eternal. While that manuscript was a done deal, this quote did push me to keep perfecting it while I waited for someone to request to see more than the first 10 pages. Picoult's words helped me be unashamed of any imperfections I would find in it and subsequent novels, pushed me to find and tweak what I found and make it better, and reminded me that while bad pages would happen, it's what I did with them that mattered.
When I did finally sit down to edit the beast that is Way Down Low, my current manuscript, which was in a very rough draft stage, this quote made me grateful for my "bad" pages. I was grateful for them because they were there. For a writer, there are few worse scenarios than staring at a blank screen or page and trying to make words happen. We wish and pray and scream for the stories in our heads to just sort of... appear there.
Thanks to Faulkner, I had written.
Thanks to Butler, I had kept writing.
And now, thanks to Picoult, I was grateful for what I had written, the good, the bad, and the really, really bad. I had written this manuscript, and now I could edit it. There was that aforementioned raw material that I could work with, and I was so happy to have it. Going forward, along with the above quotes, I know bad pages aren't the enemy, something to avoid. In fact, they're the goal.
I found this quote as I was trying to find my voice. I was 24, had just shelved the paranormal fiction novel I had been dead-set on getting published, and was starting over. I had an idea I was really excited about and wanted to write (aka We Are Eternal's embryonic stage), but, while the passion was there, and I had discovered what it took to complete it -- Butler's above advice -- I wondered if there was a point to writing it. I've mentioned before that the atmosphere of We Are Eternal is heavily inspired by YA works like Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Whenever I sat down and tried to conceive my own spin on this trope, I kept writing like the authors who inspired the story I was currently trying to write. I had been so caught up in the pain and the exhilaration of first love and high-stakes medical issues that I couldn't even tell myself what set my story apart. And I knew that if I couldn't set my story apart, agents and publishers wouldn't be able to either. And if they couldn't, they wouldn't buy it. This proved true when my original manuscript failed its first run of queries time and time again.
Growing up reading all my mom's boxes and boxes of books from college, I rarely saw books by black people. All the stories I adored -- and eventually stole from her (sorry, Mom <3) -- had no one like me in them. The epic romances, the historical fiction, the YA and very limited amount of sci-fi -- all from the 70s and 80s, none of it featuring girls like me. Or men and women like my mom and dad. As I got older, I found and devoured as many multi-ethnic narratives as I could, and at some point I became sure I was going to add my voice to this pool.
Growing up, I knew of Toni Morrison, of course, and I had read a couple of her works. I knew she had been writing for a long, long time. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner, for God's sake. She knew what it took to stay in the business, but more importantly, she knew what it took to start and stay in the business as a woman of color. Oh hey, I thought, I'm one of those. Let's see what wisdom I can glean from her.
And wisdom I did glean. The above quote helped me while I was drafting and rewriting We Are Eternal. The characters were mine, and a few of my personal life events had gone into it, but the concept and voice were not yet mine. They were John Green's and Nicola Yoon's voices. The above quote told me it was worth it to keep writing this story, keep trying to make it my own, and keep trying to get it published. I knew I wanted to see more stories like this out there for people like me, girls like I had once been, and if I wanted to see them, I had the power to make them happen.
It was one of the most epic realizations of my whole career.
Let me take you back to a time when I didn't know much about adverbs.
I was a senior in college, so clearly, as someone who had been studying the English language at a high level for over seven years at that point, I knew what adverbs were. I knew how to identify them, I knew their function... I knew everything there was to know about them in the practical and literal sense. What I didn't know, until then, was how much they weakened my writing.
As a young reader, I never noticed when adverbs occurred in a book I happened to be enjoying. I definitely didn't notice a lack of them, and well-written books wouldn't contain a ridiculous amount of them anyway. In college, however, I read a particular book series, the name of which I won't mention, but I have discussed elsewhere on this blog; if you find the post, great. At any rate, I fell hard for this series because the concept was different from anything I'd read before. I devoured it for the story the way someone dances wildly to a song with an addictive beat but lazy or offensive lyrics. To put it another way, I didn't notice the words, I noticed the story as a whole and how it made me feel. That series not only got me reading more YA novels, but it pushed me to finish my own as well, driven by the desire to see myself in a narrative like it (as mentioned above, even if I hadn't encountered that quote yet). So, during my senior year, after the novelty of it all had worn off and my novel was completed and I had taken a few more English literature classes, I discovered something about this particular series that I hadn't realized before:
The writing wasn't strong.
Among other personal problems I had with the story, I found the author relied on a ton of adverbs to get their point across, and it was distracting. The pesky little literary device weakened and elongated sentences that could have been condensed with better words. Worse than that, when I looked through my own writing, I discovered the same issue. I'd been writing to emulate this book series, and it was evident all over the pages.
To this day I'm a big user of adverbs, especially in early drafts of my projects. Sometimes you just have to write the way the words are coming to get them out. As the above advice stated, you can edit bad pages, but they have to be written first. The problem was before, back before I saw what they did to a piece of writing, I was using them to tell my stories for me. I wasn't elevating my language in any way. When I looked at my "bad" pages, I didn't see excessive adverbs as part of them.
Of course, adverbs aren't the enemy. They're there for a reason, and their presence alone doesn't weaken one's writing. But when your page is full of them, you gotta cut some of that mess out. Relying on them is the issue.
This is all to say: Mark Twain's quote became a handy little editing tip for me once I discovered it. Over the years it's helped improve my writing and made me more mindful of modifiers in general. After forming the habit and finding meaning in the stories I wanted to tell and finishing them and going back to edit the bad pages, I have a humorous, memorable way of tightening up my work, given to me by a talented writer.
And I'm [damn] grateful for it.
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