Posts Tagged ‘the writing life’

It ain’t solitary confinement

I’ll be at World Fantasy in San Diego this week (see my schedule at bottom), and will be looking to do some business. But mostly, I’m going to see friends.

I hope, having said that, that I will not lose my membership in Introverts Anonymous.

Thing is, in this business you need a little help from your friends. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but it’s not solitary confinement. It’s hard to have a big success in this field, but working harder won’t necessarily make that happen. Actually, it’s far likelier to happen if you build a support group to help you stay balanced and achieve perspective.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be a writer you mostly have to hunker down and write. You do, of course, have to write. But you also have to survive the slings and arrows of a very tough business. For this, there is nothing like a friend.

If possible, a very close friend. A best pal can anchor you in the writing life, providing:

  • Advice and problem-solving.
  • A friendly ear when one hits bottom.
  • Someone who’ll applaud you without (too much) envy when a success comes.
  • A  companion for conferences and signings.
  • A mirror to your own writing life, to give perspective.
  • Source of laughs, gossip, and wisdom.
  • Dependable guerrilla marketing and cross-promotions with you. Read More…

Dying by the side of the road

Some days do you think, why the hell am I writing, anyway? The industry is hard, have you noticed? A dozen reasons not to write spring up immediately: bad back; family neglected while you’re thinking of plot; lousy pay.

We claim that we soldier on because we love to tell stories. We love to write. But is this the truth? I guess it is for some who are addicted to their own words on a page. I don’t intend to be particularly snarky when I say that, but if I’m being provocative, I have a reason. I’m calling on us to remember the real reason we write so that when the tough times come we won’t plague ourselves with thoughts of giving up.

It ain’t easy

We should be writing stories that matter. They don’t need to be pretentious and preachy, but they should say something. If our stories aren’t more than popcorn entertainment, would we really want to endure all the demands of the writing life?

What demands? To name a few:

  • to write every day
  • to meet our publishing deadlines
  • to promote our work on the web and through social media
  • to maintain visibility with appearances
  • to understand business basics and the publishing industry in particular
  • to stay abreast of the books coming out from friends, role models, and different publishers
  • to refresh our sources of inspiration through paying close attention to the world, popular culture, current events
  • to pay it forward in the industry, helping others gain a foothold
  • to manage one’s writing desk, taxes, contracts and electronic tools

Let’s stop. I’m getting cranky just thinking about all I haven’t done today.

The purpose of writing

Writing is not fun. In this self-promotion-obsessed world we may create on-line fantasy images of the writing life, but every writer who reads my Facebook page knows that what I put up there is not the full story. Writing is an art and a craft, and we sacrifice a lot to stay in the business. That being the case, it sure seems to me that it’s not enough to entertain thoughtlessly. There should be more to it than turning our brains into kudzu-producing fiction machines.

You knew that, but sometimes a challenging reminder helps to clean up the cobwebs. You know, those days when we’re lost for a premise, or tempted to immediately roll over when a publisher says, “Write me another like that last one.”

I’m thinking back to May when Bob Mayer spoke at Write on the River. He gave a fabulous example of writing stories that matter. For days I couldn’t get the lesson out of my mind. Here was his example:

In the 2005 movie Walk the Line, Johnny Cash (played by Joaquim Phoenix), auditions a gospel song in front of a guy from a music label. The rep isn’t impressed. He tells Cash that his heart wasn’t in it. Cash says, “You saying I don’t believe in God?” The rep says he’s heard gospel songs a million times. He tells Cash to sing a song like it’s his last chance. As though his truck rolled over and he’s dying on the side of the road and he needs to let God know what he felt about his time here on earth. “One song that would sum you up. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”

In that moment in class I remembered why I write. To find meaning, to say what I’ve done with my years, what I know and what I wish I knew. Maybe, like me, just remembering this truth can bring you to the heart of your story or show you a story that no one else can write.

Gosh, this all sounds a bit serious. Like everyone, I do love a good beach book and one that will fend off numbing boredom on a long plane ride. I might even write an occasional book or short story like that. But I’m here to say, such books are only interludes between the real work we have before us: the songs that God wants to hear when your truck dumps you on the side of the road.


For more on the topic of “heart,” here are some previous posts:

The Heart of Your Story

The Heart of POV

I might as well quit and other demented notions

Writers often harbor seemingly reasonable beliefs that are actually rather deranged. We see conspiracies, cling to unrealistic expectations, succumb to pointless envy and other maladies. Here are some checks to patently unhelpful thinking. Remember, you do not have to believe everything your brain tells you!

(This post, slightly edited, was first published in December ’09. I’ve had some requests to reprint… oh dear, you’re falling back to those demented notions?)

1. If the right people would help me, I could break in. Actually, publishers and agents are constantly trolling for great stories. Don’t engage in conspiracy thinking; the  industry is not against you. There is no secret handshake. It’s all in the story.

2. Two years wasted; I can’t sell that novel. Patient has bizarre thought patterns. Subject actually believes people sell every novel they write! Maybe you can’t sell that novel, but you might well sell the next one, and having written one beforehand is great practice.

3. I might as well self-publish. If you are a beginning author, publishing through vanity presses or amazon is a prescription, usually, for low sales. With e-books this is changing, but we’re not there yet. (Three quarters of all books sold are paper.) Cultivate patience. See my post, Publishing Jitters.

4. I have no talent, or I would have sold by now (won an award by now, gotten a big advance by now . . .) *Therapist is laughing.* Patient actually thinks it’s about talent! It’s about determination and growing. Why do we torment ourselves with the talent bugaboo? Writing is a craft, not an art. You can learn to write a knock-out story.

5. I can’t believe that writer’s sales. Crap sells, I guess. So did you think the business was about fine writing? Nope, it’s about entertainment, and I’m as sorry about this as you are. I, too, love really fine writing. But consider: What that story lacks in style it makes up for in story appeal, possibly entertaining hundreds of thousands of people. Best to let go of envy and glean some insights from so-and-so’s wildly popular story.

6. He just broke in and he’s outselling me. Subject is succumbing to envy again. (Note to self: do not succumb to envy!) Also, let’s not imagine a trend where none exists. The writing life has ups and downs. There may be trends, but usually they’re too chaotic to see. Furthermore, it’s not helpful to see the world of publishing as fair and logical: if he is selling better than I it must mean he has more talent, or the industry hates me, or I killed my pet in a previous life. My friend, none of these things is likely true. Ups and downs! Put this on wall in big letters. Ups and downs.

7. Two bad reviews in a row. They really hate me. Don’t read tea leaves. Two bad reviews in a row actually only means two stinkers in a row. If all reviewers hated the  book and it sold badly, it still just means they didn’t like the book, which says nothing about you. The next one could do just fine.

8. I might as well quit. Patient is threatening her own brain with a bizarre and punishing notion. You don’t really want to quit. Yes, the marketplace can be spectacularly unfair.  So can politics, your love life, and golf. And since you really won’t quit, stop catastrophizing and get on with the next story.

Big hug. See you at the next session.

Your Death Bed Scene

I was very surprised to hear crime novelist Elizabeth George say one time in a speech that she avoided writing novels for years, and only began when she asked herself what she wanted said of her after she died: That she was afraid to write? Or that she wrote a book. That was exactly how I found the courage to write.

I was afraid of failure, and doubtful of my ability. I procrastinated for years. It was all fear and nothing but fear, although I pretended that when my life got simpler I would write a book. (If you have young children, this may well be a decent excuse.) The only thing that got me started was a matching terror: that in my old age I would be full of regret over not having written a novel. I played ugly death bed scenes out in my mind. When I’d had enough, I sat down and began writing.

Procrastinators Take Heart

I don’t know why some people jump right in and try writing a novel, or take courses in writing and then, pluckily, take a shot at a novel. People with that kind of confidence are quite annoying to the rest of us. Read More…

Diary of the Writing Life

I recently came a cross a note I slipped into a novel file. Every now and then I pen a few lines about how the writing life is going, and this time it was after finishing a first draft of a novel. How strange to read a note from myself, twelve years younger, six books ago!

Now, I don’t keep a diary, exactly. But I do keep a big notebook for each novel. Sometimes, to start the writing day, I pen a few lines about how it’s going, my attitude, or a big event in my mundane life. Like “On plane home from Hawaii,” or “Just back from the funeral.” Read More…