This post, by Steven Ramirez, originally appeared on his Glass Highway site.
I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.
— Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, ‘Apocalypse Now’
Pretty gruesome stuff but I believe it describes beautifully the hell writers face every time we get ready to publish something. The question lingers. Are we there yet? On the one hand, more revisions. On the other, we publish, dammit, we publish.
The Writing Life
Stepping back, let’s look at the process. Writers write because (a) we have a burning desire to get certain words on paper that we hope will inspire or (b) we’re too lazy to do honest work and we figure we can support ourselves writing what we believe people will pay cash money to read.
If you’re in the latter category, good luck. Though I’d like nothing better than to earn a living at writing, I am currently more interested in publishing stories that get to people. What do I mean? I mean that instead of the polite smile your Aunt Fern gives you when reading your “witty” birthday card, I want the person’s palms to sweat and their heart rate to get dangerously close to myocardial infarction. I want drama, people, pure and simple.
Personally I do this by writing mostly horror and suspense. To be completely frank, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. Which leads me back to my question—Are we there yet?
Walk Before You Run
When is my story ready to publish? Okay, there are obvious hurdles that have to be overcome—Rubicons to be crossed. First of all the thing has to work as a story. It has to have someone we care about who has one helluva problem and we can’t for the life of us see how they’re going to solve it. It has to have well written dialogue that rings true because we’ve all read the drivel that sounds like some kind of ninth grade English assignment. And it needs a hook.
Say you’ve done all that. Now you have to polish the story and, more importantly, you’ve got to answer in advance all those niggling questions your reader is going to ask. Why did the hero make that choice when his girlfriend already gave him a way out? How can someone kill a guy using nothing more than toenail clippers? Since when do bears ride the subway?
Fine. You’ve answered all the stupid logic questions. Now you send the thing off to the editor and they clean up your less-than-perfect grammar. You end up with—wait for it—a story. But are we there yet?
I don’t know about you but I spend a lot of time agonizing over a comma. True story. My guts churn as I wonder whether I am inventing future clichés. I beat myself up over the fact that everything—I mean everything!—has already been done—and probably better. And guess what. It’s normal—I’m a writer.
But say I dismiss those sweat-stained, paranoid delusions and press ahead. Does that mean my story is ready to publish? I mean, what gives me the right to unleash a malformed, Frankenstein’s monster pile of primordial ooze on an unsuspecting public when there are far better writers out there churning out gold?