NaNoWriMo Week 3: How to hate writers right

If you're doing your job, and are on target, by Sunday you'll be at a magic place: halfway. Oh my, how good it feels to cross that 25,000 word line. Some of you have already flown past it, so know the feeling.

Some of you probably feel like you'll never reach it and the whole thing is hopeless. It's not. If you've written 10,000 words this whole month, you're 10,000 words into a novel that didn't exist on Halloween. Then, it was a ghost — or worse! The thought of a ghost. Now it has a body.

Don't discount progress, just narrow your focus to what is right in front of you. Look to improve your score every day. That is, if you were to chart the amount of words you write every day, make it a nice upward curve. If yesterday you did 300 words, today do 400. Tomorrow do 500. Make the game smaller than the monthly goal, keep your nose down, and set your sights on lines you can cross with a little effort. Keep moving forward.

Last week I talked about how we feel about our own work while we're writing, but today I'm going to cover something writers don't generally talk about: how we feel about other people's writing.

Yes, of course writers love to talk about writers they're inspired by. We all do. Writers who I love inspire me to work harder. Generally, their influence on me is all dasies and sunshine.

Occasionally you'll see some bromide tossed at Dan Brown on Stephenie Meyer by an established writer; some writers excel at throwing shade, and some love slowly sharpening their knife on the whetstone of other's work, because they know we love conflict.

But of jealousy and green-eyed negativity you will find fewer expressions. Those feelings closer to our base animal self are kept in, and if shared, are done so in close trusted company. Let's change that.

Ten years ago or so, after reading good reviews, I picked up Stephen Elliott's My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, his fictionalized autobiographical story collection of his sadomasochistic relationships with dominant women. I liked the book, but all throughout I kept telling myself: "I could write this shit better than he is."

Let's weigh that idea. Let's put it on the scale slice by slice: I'm not part of the BDSM scene. I've never had a mistress, or seen a dominatrix. I've never written about sadomasochistic relationships. Surely you can see my scale tipping dangerously towards idiocy?

But there I was, convinced that I could do better. And more than that, I was questioning the fairness of his even being published — and probably selling untold thousands upon thousands upon thousands of novels — when I, such a deserving and talented writer, was undiscovered. Obviously, a situation that sat far outside the fair balance which the world is due to provide me.

I had a story in my head, a story that dealt with some aspects of dominance, submission, and even sadomasochism, and after reading Elliott I decided that I would show the world — I'd show him, dammit — that I had it in me to do better. I would win this by writing, and publishing. Then, all I had to do was lay back as accolades come raining from the sky of my unburdened future, proving me superior.

So I got to work. I wrote that story as hard as I could, a sizable story, 10,000 words. I finished it, showed some people in a writers group. They were underwhelmed. I took the parts of their feedback I felt pointed to things that I could improve, and set to doing just that.

I worked it, and worked it. For years. I wrote and rewrote. I never gave up. I saw in it something each time I found myself dejected. I found a new way to turn it and try it. It went from first person to third, the universe of it expanded, then contracted. No matter what I put in or took out, it came out right about 10,000, like it was destined. I'd pick it up, find a dull spot and polish until it shone. I appraised it from every angle.

I submitted it, and collected rejections. I rewrote it, occasionally from scratch. I workshopped it. I talked about it with kind writer friends who gave unvarnished feedback, some positive, some discouraging. I spent lifetimes inside of its dream. I was sure — absolutely convinced — that it was a puzzle, and as soon as I fit it together in the right way, its beauty and treasure would be apparent to all who encountered it.

But I never did get there. It is still imperfect, in whatever state it has inhabited since my last edit with it a few years ago. I still believe in it to this day. I still think about how to solve it. But I had to make a choice to move on. At some point I put it aside, and worked on my novel.

And in doing so, I looked back at that first passionate encounter with Stephen Elliott's work that sparked the whole thing years before, and I had two thoughts. The first: Stephen Elliott is a much better writer than I was giving him credit for. He was, and is, a better writer than I will ever be. Certainly much more accomplished, and certainly more prolific. Second: I am so grateful to him for writing that book, and for unknowingly allowing all of my negative feelings to ricochet off it.

Because while writing my story, propelled by jealousy and other suspicious and unpleasant feelings, I learned how to write. It was the most intense workshop of my apprenticeship. And that work was funded on the currency of jealousy.

So my advice is very straightforward. Do not indulge in complaining to people how much you hate certain writers. That is like sticking the nozzle in another person's car at the gas pump. Take those negative, horrible feelings, and bring them to your work. Let them motivate you, and propel you. Let them be a punching bag in your workout. Let their color and nuance shape what it is you're trying to say — set your controls for the heart of the hate. Manifest these despicable emotions as trouble for your protagonist. Make them the motivation of your antagonist. Let the gods of your story world wield jealousies that Hera would find a step too far.

This is what artists do. John Donne had it backwards when he talked about "The spider love which transubstantiates all, And can convert manna to gall." We're turning gall to manna here. We're burning dirty coal from our hearts, and watching as it comes out filtered and pure as real human expression.

For of course you should not speak badly of any person ever. It is much better to earn your revenge through the jealousy they will feel when you can present them, smiling, with the manuscript your seething resentment of them helped produce.