Look. I’m going to be square with you. I’m nobody. I talk and write like I am, but I’m not. And that’s okay. I wrote about that a couple weeks ago. And there’s really no reason to listen to any writing advice I have to give. Some of it may be right, some may be wrong. But there are far more accomplished writers out there worth heeding. Read Stephen King’s On Writing. Follow Brian Michael Bendis’s Tumblr. Men whose high levels of success give weight to their advice, methods, and opinions.
That said, I have been asked in my life for advice by young writers. Occasionally online, sometimes during the brief moments (film festivals, panel discussions) where I am draped in the illusion of being someone worth listening to.
On this blog I have, between telling Hollywood stories and bashing America’s Game, occasionally doled out a thought or two that I have on the writing process. No, not process. I don’t like to talk or read about process. I’m not sure replicating anyone’s process will get you anywhere; it’s something you need to find on your own. But I have talked about some of my theories when it comes to writing like my 10% rule and the principal of Aiming to Fall Short. But those are just theories, talking points that I’ve cooked up when I should be actually writing instead of thinking about it.
With this post, though, I’m going to share the one piece of writing advice that I believe to be an absolute truth. A nugget that I wish someone had told me when I was 23 or 17 or 12. Something that you must learn and embrace in order to have any chance of writing for a living. Advice that anyone who reads this should take to heart, even if it’s coming from a nobody like me.
But I am still me, which means I’ll take a little bit of a roundabout way to get there.
It starts with booze.
I used to write at night. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a pack of Camel Lights. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a pack of Camel Lights and a young man’s myopic passion. I used to write at night with a bottle of Captain Morgan and a pack of Camel Lights and a young man’s myopic passion and not stop until I collapsed.
Over time alcohol became something I no longer enjoyed. In fact, it began to really make me feel sick. Over time I realized how dumb it was to smoke cigarettes and even if it made me look “cool”, no one could see me being cool at 3:00 in the morning in my apartment. Over time I realized that my mind was sharper when I wasn’t exhausted, that writing is both mentally and physically draining and requires more energy than someone looking at it from the outside may think.
Over time I became a sober day-writer.
I have been lucky enough for a great number of years to be able to focus on writing as my primary profession and activity, even during the times when I wasn’t making any money (which is most of the time). I know not everyone has that leisure. When you’re working a day job, when you have a family, a social life, other obligations, I understand that sometimes the only chance you get to write is after everyone else has gone to bed.
But to me that’s a hobby, not a job. Now, I appreciate the fact that most people, including friends of mine, who do this are hoping to turn that hobby into a job. I again restate that I know how fortunate I have been to be able to concentrate on writing full-time for a long time.
One of the most famous quotes about writing comes from the great (and I know I mention him a lot) Ernest Hemmingway:
“Write drunk; edit sober.”
And I used to agree with that. Part of me still does. It makes perfect sense.
A writer is always their own worst critic. If they’re not, they will never get any better. A writer wants every sentence to shine, ever paragraph to flow like water, every line of dialogue to feel genuine and sharp and clever but not too clever. Ideally, every word you put down on the page or screen should be the best it can be.
That quest, that search for the perfect turn of phrase, that expertly constructed paragraph, that never-before-seen action sequence, is the #1 enemy of a writer’s productivity. It is so easy to get caught in its trap. How often have you (if you have ever tried to write something) stared at the sentence you just wrote for five, ten, sixty minutes trying to figure out how to make it better? Can I find a better synonym for that word? Can I make that sharper, leaner?
The problem is, this isn’t perfectionism. It’s procrastination.
My inner critic is so strong, the part of me that wants what I’m writing to be great is so powerful, that I could literally write once sentence and ponder it for hours. I used to do that. I wasted a lot of time doing that. My brain, my critical brain, the brain that picks apart poorly scripted films and will put down a novel (even an acclaimed one) after 30 pages if I think the prose is boring or sloppy, will easily get caught up on what I just wrote and not understand that the most important thing to do in that moment is to write the next thing and leave the suspect sentence in the dust.
That’s where booze comes in.
Alcohol melts away your inhibitions. That’s what we like about it, right? How many people would do karaoke, dance in clubs, make moves on a potential mate, jump off a roof into a swimming pool (do NOT do that one), without being drunk? It loosens you up, makes you less aware of your surroundings, and lets you give into parts of yourself, both good and bad, that your conscious, critical, responsible self rightly inhibits when not under the influence.
Alcohol does two things for artists. The first is the quelling of inner demons, but that’s a conversation for another day. The second is that it shuts up your inner critic. When you write with a buzz (if you get all the way drunk, I think it’s a disaster. I always tried to keep myself on a consistent level of tipsy) you immediately forget about the sentence you just wrote and move onto the next. You just write and write and write and write. You don’t care about grammar; you don’t care about structure. You just let the ideas pour out of your head. They may not all be good ideas; in the cold light of morning you may be embarrassed by some of the things that you thought were brilliant the night before. But you’ve got stuff down on paper. Things you can work with.
And, as any writer knows, a large majority of the fight (and it is a fight) is just getting stuff down, taking a square piece of granite and chipping away enough so that it starts to look like something, slaying the demon that is the empty page.
Booze is a valuable weapon in that epic battle. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but what happens when the pen itself is your enemy?
You drown it.
Once you have chipped away at that stone and made it look somewhat like something, then, with all of our faculties intact, you bring out your chisel and do the fine tuning. Start molding what your unchecked mind spilled onto the page into something worth reading. Bring those critical skills, the ones Mr. Daniels or Mr. Smirnoff helped you suppress, to bear to create a polished, readable work you can be proud of.
This process absolutely works. It is a tried and true method that has been handed down through the generations. Mr. Hemmingway didn’t come up with it. He just, as he was apt to do, found the best and simplest way to express it.
Does that mean people who don’t drink can’t be good writers? Some probably think so. What about other substances? I’m sure if you’re going for sheer volume, cocaine could be a big help, although anyone I know who has written anything on cocaine has written unreadable unredeemable garbage… but they did write a lot of it. Marijuana will just make you frustrated when all the writing gets in the way of your Taco Bell runs.
Oh? What’s that? Superbad is on? Maybe I’ll watch it for a—I could go for some toast right now. Do I have any bread– I’ll take a quick nap, I think. A nap, and then I’ll get back to writing I swear.
I don’t think you have to get messed up to write. Or make music. Or paint. I mean, yes, it worked for Hemmingway and Hendrix, but it didn’t turn out so well in the rest of their lives, did it?
If you enjoy drinking and writing, or just drinking in general, more power to you. I have no opinion either way, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. But, for those of us who don’t partake for whatever reason, be it a religious belief or a lifestyle choice or a problem with abuse and addiction, there is a very simple work around for Mr. Hemmingway’s “Write drunk; edit sober” credo. Simple, but hard to swallow.
Here it is, my best piece of writing advice:
Understand that you suck.
This is antithetical to the mindset of most artists. Think about the ego we must have. The ego I have. I believe, actually believe, that the bullshit rolling around in my head is not only worth your time, it’s also worth your money. That my thoughts, my stories, my philosophies, even this damn blog post, hold value. More value than those of others. It’s egomaniacal and absolutely necessary to be a professional artist.
It can kindly be called confidence. I am not feeling kind.
So that’s why this bit of advice can be hard to take. I simply stunned a teenaged boy at the Phoenix Film Festival when I told him this. But I truly wish someone had told me the same when I was his age.
Here’s the skinny. No matter who you are, your first draft is going to be a piece of shit.
I’m going to repeat that a few times.
Your first draft is going to be a piece of shit.
Your first draft is going to be a piece of shit.
“But Chad, I worked really—“
YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS GOING TO BE A PIECE OF SHIT.
It just is. Novel, screenplay, copy for the Sears catalog (do they still have a Sears catalog?), it’s going to suck.
Hear this. Accept this. Embrace this.
And let it free you.
“No, I get it. Of course in later drafts I’ll make it better. That’s the point of—“
No, no. Stop right there.
A. Piece. Of. Shit.
If you can embrace that, internalize it, then you will actually get things done. It will silence your inner critic better than the finest Scotch. It will allow you to lay down word after word, scene after scene, chapter after chapter without a care in the world. Why? Because you know it sucks. There’s no sense fretting if you know it’s not any good. Just write a sentence and then write the next one. Write whatever comes to mind, even if you think it’s dumb. Why? Because it’s all dumb. Overwrite. Repeat yourself. Beat that clay into whatever lopsided shape you want like an angry third grader would.
And don’t look back.
One thing I’ve done since I started writing novels is make sure to contain each chapter in its own document file. When the first draft of that chapter is done, I put it in a folder marked ‘completed chapters’ and I don’t look at it again until I’m done with the whole draft.
If I come up with something in a later chapter that I want to implement into an already-written one, I don’t go back and dive into the original Word file. I make a note of it, something to do when I do my pass between my rough and “first” drafts. But I don’t look back. If I did, if I’m in Chapter 12 and just casually look at Chapter 8, I’ll see a million things I want to change. I’ll want to tinker. I’ll think “This is bad. I need to fix it.” But tinkering doesn’t move you forward. Tinkering doesn’t get that all-important first draft done.
Tinkering is stalling. It gets you no closer to your goal.
Just accept that what you’re writing is bad and trust that you will make it better when you edit and revise.
I know this sounds simple and rudimentary and maybe pessimistic but I’m telling you the sooner you embrace it the better. I didn’t understand this for a long time. I spent days on two-page scenes. I took ten minutes to write a sentence. I wanted every single thing to be perfect and it took forever to get anything done.
And the things I got done were still lousy. Because they were still the first draft. And first drafts are lousy. And I wasted so much time writing them.
I truly do believe this. The first step in being at all productive as a writer is embracing the fact that you’re not going to get it right the first time so there’s no reason to try.
This is what “Write drunk; edit sober” means. Some people are fundamentalist about this and think the only way to greatness is through the bottle. But there is a less literal way to interpret this that requires ingesting absolutely no ethanol:
Your first draft is going to suck.
There is nothing you can do about this, so don’t let it bother you.
Just. Get. It. Down.
And fix it later.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go. This shitty chapter I’m working on isn’t going to write itself.