My Hack Manifesto

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
At around this time last year I wrote this, my Hack Manifesto. (The original is here.) Since I occasionally like to look back with my Friday writing posts, I offer it again for your perusal. The only thing I would add is my continuing uncertainty whether Kerouac was in the game for the stimulants or for Neal Cassady‘s approval, but it makes no difference. He still took pride in his work, dammit. And I still get cranky about this very issue. So, enjoy!

Good morning. I hope you’re comfortable? Good, good. Have a cuppa, settle in.

This last week I was informed that my writing advice was utter crap and nobody wanted to hear it because I am a hack.

As my friend Neutronjockey pointed out:

I believe the word “hack” is derived from the horseworld. A hack being a reliable, trustworthy, hardworking — I believe it was specifically referring to a horse used for work rather than pleasure.

While I won’t deny you pleasure-use … there is certainly nothing wrong with being a hack.

Damn skippy. There is nothing wrong with being a hack. And to that end, dear Reader, here is my Hack Manifesto.

My advice on writing is geared pretty specifically toward people who want to make a living at it. It’s also geared to people who love language and want to tell a ripping good story. It is not for Artistes or for fragile speshul flowers who want only squeeful strokes for their delicate, heart-shattering, mindstopping genius. Go read Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg if you want to hear how haaaaard writing is on the Delicate Flower. Here in my writing world, we work, and we work hard. We get our hands dirty. We take our goddamn rejection like adults, we buckle our belts tighter, and we get on with producing the best manuscript possible on several fronts.

That’s what being a hack is–taking pride in your craft, taking pride in producing something people can use and love. This is the heart of hackdom–creating things people can enjoy.

You can write utter crap and get away with it. But that’s not what the true hack does. Writing fiction that is supposed to show how smart you are or how you’re treading the path of High Litrachur is a fool’s game–literature disappearing up its own asshole, so to speak. The hack’s purpose is twofold:

1. To produce the best writing possible; clear, vigorous, and working prose that is easy for the reader to understand. And capable of carrying hundreds of pounds of theme, symbolism, plot, characterization, and all the workings of a good story effortlessly–WITHOUT BORING THE READER BY HOW F!CKING SMART YOU THINK YOU ARE.

This is very important. The best writing is not hard to understand. It is deceptively simple. We are in this business of writing to communicate. That’s what writing is, communication. Your communication is dead on the vine if you’re not looking to be clear and reasonably concise.

There is a fair degree of art in being reasonably concise and as clear as possible. Clarity is not just using the appropriate word–it is using the appropriate sentence length, giving enough detail to build the scene but not enough detail to choke the unwary reader in a morass, pacing appropriately, and pruning away all that lovely writing you’ve perpetrated without a clear idea of what it’s for.

There’s another aspect to this: consistently producing what a reader will enjoy reading. Now, I’m not saying you have to stick to hackneyed trends because that’s what Everyone Else Who Has Succeeded In The Genre has done. I’m saying you need to understand why a genre is the way it is, why myths and fairytales work, the rules of the form you’re working in. You have to know HOW the engine works before you can go tinkering with it to make it work better. You can’t just slap crap on the page and expect people to worship you. If your business is to tell stories, you need to know how stories work so you can pick the appropriate parts to jam in their engines to make them run without sticking and backfiring.

2. The second purpose of the hack is to have fun.

Yes. Fun.

Look, if you’re not enjoying writing, or not enjoying WHAT you write, what the hell are you going to do it for? This is not a line of work where it’s possible to dink around and make a living. Precious few writers, even hacks, do this for the money. IF you want to make a living doing this, you MUST enjoy some part of it or you’re going to end up with a serious ulcer and bitter, bitter nastiness in your soul.

Plus, there is that indefinable quality of joy in some work. If I’m not having fun on the page, how the hell can I expect the Reader to? And I don’t just mean the shallow fun of explosions and titties, nice as those are. I mean the soul-deep joy of creating something that’s as good as I can make it. I mean a ripping good yarn, a story that the Reader gets emotionally involved in. I don’t care if the Reader laughs OR cries OR gets angry OR suffers with the characters OR gets angry at the characters. I’ll take ANY of those, or ANY other strong emotional reaction. If the Reader has that emotional reaction, that kick from the story, I have done my job and created something useful.

That, my dears, is my idea of FUN.

The hack understands that people are not going to consistently fork over their hard-earned cash to read mental wanking that doesn’t work for them. The hack wants to create something people will use. If it’s a romance novel that makes a Reader sigh, if it’s a Western that makes a young girl smell gunsmoke, if it’s a doorstop of fantasy that makes a fanboi happy inside, if it’s a novelization that draws a Reader back into the world of a movie or a telly series they loved so much–all of these are noble, worthy pursuits. These are things worth doing well for the Reader’s sake. Without the Reader, a writer is just shouting into the wind–and while a certain degree of shouting into the wind is good exercise, there comes a point (sooner than you think) when that shouting is just sound and fury signifying nothing but an overblown ego.

Part of being a hack is being professional. A hack comes in on or under deadline, understands that an editor really just wants to make a story better, knows that critical reviews (even the ones that are just sour grapes from a jackass who chooses to review instead of writing his* own crud) are valuable in their own way, and is constantly looking to make their work better. A hack understands the fine balance between obeying the conventions of a genre and slipping a hand under genre’s skirt to tweak ever so gently at those conventions–all to provide an enjoyable experience. (*snickers gently*)

A hack can engage in stunt-writing, as long as s/he has a clear idea of why/how to break the rules. But a hack will not expect others to bow down to their Deathless Genius. A hack takes pride in the work. A hack does not take pride in the size and firm plumpness of his or her ego.

And here’s another statement some people are going to take issue with. I firmly believe that each and every artist who deserves the name is a hack. An artist has a hack’s work ethic and a hack’s understanding of the form they’re working in. Those without the work ethic, those who do not expend the effort, are artistes, dabblers, dilettantes.

There is nothing wrong with artistes, dabblers, and dilettantes. They’re just fine, they’re okay, and there is nothing pejorative in those terms as far as I’m concerned. I simply save my admiration for the hacks because I understand how hard they work. And I am proud to be called a hack–the same way I’m proud to be called a bitch. A bitch works hard and takes no crap from anyone, is assertive, and has self-esteem. So does a hack. (Which, tongue-in-cheek, beggars the question of whether I’m a bitch hack. *snerk*)

Dickens was a hack. So was Dumas. So was Shakespeare–his funky butt got PAID for the work he produced, and he understood WHY the plays worked. (He still gave off some stinkers, but given the political climate he was working in, no wonder.) Zane Grey is just as valid as Jane Smiley, and I think they’re both hacks because they both figured out something that worked and kept/keep refining, reinventing, and and making it work still further. Louis L’Amour? Edgar Rice Burroughs? Alice Hoffman? Edgar Allen Poe? Barbara Kingsolver? Anthony Trollope? Jack Kerouac (even in his more nutty stimulant-laced moments)? Stephen King? Others too numerous to list?

Hacks. Proud hacks. Hacks I’m proud to read. The quirk that considers some of them “fine litrachur” and others “damn hackdom” is merely an accident of media taste. Or the taste of some hoity-toity reviewers.

So. Yes, I’m a hack. A hack is dependable, responsible, faithful, hardworking. A hack is in love with language and determined to produce the best story they can. A hack is enjoying herself to the hilt while churning out good prose. So, goddamn hell yeah, I’m a hack.

And I really would not want it any other way. Now excuse me. I’ve got writing to do. Tune in next week for my rant about how genre is just as good as highfalutin’ litrachur. I expect to wax just as rhapsodically bitchy about THAT, too…

* Or her. Gender bias, thy name is English.

ETA: I, erm, uncloaked the entry from a long while ago where I talk about being informed my writing advice was crap. It was an email sent to me by an enraged Speshul Snowflake, not an actual comment. A small rant on genre is here; next week I will provide a longer one.