Writing Through

wellThis morning I’m filled with doubt. I doubt my skill at writing dialogue. I don’t feel included or capable of anything approaching the awesomeness of my compadres in the business of wordsmithing. I doubt my ability to write this story. This god damned story that has been riding me all weekend. Asking me, nagging at me, what comes next? There is the simmering possibility that I’ve reinvented myself in precisely the way I can never succeed. Creation is fool’s gold.

Ugh!I sit down at the table, unpack my laptop, and take a sip of coffee. The manuscript is staring me in the face. No, it’s looking through me, into my head, and seeing all my inadequacies and self

Still I’m panning for it. I sit down at the table, unpack my laptop, and take a sip of coffee. The manuscript is staring me in the face. No, it’s looking through me, into my head, and seeing all my inadequacies and insecurity. This machine, invented and perfected by very smart people, stands as a monument relative to all the things I’ll never do. All the words I’ll never be bright enough to string together.

But this is a discipline. Right? I’m asking myself. You don’t know what to say next in the manuscript so blog. Write anything. Just write. I am reminded of the “Neoteny” passage in Tom Robbins’ STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER. I now am certain I understand where this passage came. It came from the bottom of THIS well. Tom Robbins sat here panning for fool’s gold at the bottom of this well, sometime before me.

I shake the pan in the dark of the well. Slosh water through the sand, peering into the gloom, dump it, and refill. It’s the black nuggets I want, not those that sparkle in the diminished light.

“We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.”
Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

Yeah, but what do I write about?

I’m writing about writing through this writer’s block. This morning, after a long-weekend spent herding a five-year-old and battling blackberries I am a juggernaut of industrial strength accomplishments. I’ve written books; I’ve published stories. Roughly two hundred words into this post I can feel myself climbing out of the well. The edges of the hole are clearly defined, contrasted black and white in the brightness of the sunshine that illuminates the world beyond the lip of the pit.

Each word is a hand hold, a chink in rough stones where I can find purchase. Momentum builds, I’m making progress. Look Mom! Look at me!

The When Question

Hugo2

The when question I briefly nagged about last week has been answered. So, we all have a date. And, if like me, you’re one of those people that spent last year’s award season shaking your head and mumbling “what the hell,” you now have a deadline for doing something about it. That’s right, you have between now and next Sunday at midnight to finance a minimum of a supporting membership to be part of both the 2016 Hugo nominations and voting.

Despise slate voting? Enjoy slipping thorns into the paws of Sad Puppies? Want to do something concrete and measurable to save Science Fiction? Now is your chance.

Keep me believing: A writer’s plea

The Son of Man, René Magritte

I had a long day out, in the city and away from my island, today. The result was that I had plenty of time to contemplate some words. It’s the end of another year, and I’ve been mulling over what I did, and did not accomplish this past annum. Added to this I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to work on next year.

When I got home, I knew I needed to return a couple of emails. My story contribution to Doomsday Chronicles has been passed along to the editor and consequently there’s some work to compete. I’ve also spent a lot of time stewing over DISTANCE and workshopping FIRE WEATHER. So, as soon as I was able, I opened up ye olde laptop and dug in. Emails off, plot points recorded, I noticed a post from Django Wexler, Myke Cole, and Mark Laurance.

Turns out an aspiring author named EC Williamson sent Mark a short collection of questions that can be summarized “Share with me the secret of your success.” His questions — addressed on Mark’s blog by the aforementioned authors — segue nicely for me.

Hello Mark,
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I’m just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.

I’m just getting discouraged, because I’ve been writing for 25 years, and I’m starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an “uber successful” (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.

Without the usual cliche of “just keep writing” – do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It’s the one thing I love to do, and at 43…I’ve been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.

It’s easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don’t think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.

Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.

If not, no problem there either. Just figured I’d try.

EC Williamson and I seem to share a couple of traits, so this is as much advice for him as it is for myself. And while I haven’t nearly the notoriety nor the publishing history of the three authors that have already responded, I do have a plan for making more success from my words.

  • Understand my place in the changing market: This is not a market prognostication. I’m just not smart enough or sufficiently well connected to know where literary markets, genre or otherwise, will go in 2016. Extend that timeline to 2021 or 2026 and my “roadmap” looks more like a crayon drawing done while having a seizure. And frankly, as much as I read about what reader markets are doing, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change either vector or velocity.Put another way, given the storm that constantly rages around me it would be foolish for me to take either hand from the boat or the wheel. Shaking fists at the maelstrom or giving up because the waves won’t stop pounding my pilot house is pure folly.

    Next year I plan on plotting a better course, I want to take advantage of those close reaches near the edges of the hurricane, so I get to my desired destination as easily as possible.

    This year I published some shorter works. With the publication of Ser Pan Comido in Galaxy Chronicles, I finally got my first taste of something that felt suspiciously like success. Based on these data points I can triangulate a better course toward a more fulfilling goal.

    My advice to EC? Better understand where your position. Do you have representation? Do you have a stack of saleable manuscripts ready to send out? Do you know people at publishing houses? Do those people know that you write, have they read anything you’ve written? Do you have a stack of rejection letters? If the answer to any or all of these is “no” then perhaps you need to take a couple of moments to understand better your orientation within the market. You might be trying to sail into irons or against a strong current.

    There are many, many ways to publish, but if you’re only trying to publish one way you’re passing up opportunities.

  • Develop your voice, perfect your platform: If you’ve spent any time at all at conventions or workshops you’ll hear this one often. Usually, it pops up after you’ve made your way through the standard string of banalities. “Just keep writing.” “Work harder” or “work smarter.”It took me a little while to realize what this means.

    Consider if you will, one John Scalzi. Arguably, one of the most prolific authors in our sector of the universe. He understands that regular feeding and proper grooming of his fans is the critical component to his success. And he gives the people that love his work a routine amount of kibble.

    First, he writes stories that people want to read. This is important, and it’s one of those things we can all use as a model. If I find the magic munchables that will bring many new readers into my herd then I will write that story a million times and then sideways to keep them begging for more.But Scalzi was never content to stop there. He’s made it a routine to take the witty dialogue that anyone might find in his books and send it out into the internets as often as possible. His blog, his twitter feed, his public appearances — all of those things are chock full of the words you might expect to read in any of his stories.

    Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an act. I believe that this is his voice, both within his storytelling and in his routine life. The fact that so many people find his banter compelling while entertaining is exactly what we all want. He’s built an impressive career in words just by being himself.

    In 2015, Ser Pan Comido did okay. I felt it was an okay story too, but in the days running up to its release I started to wonder if this was my voice. Would my words dazzle in just the right way to win me a bigger audience?

    Right now, it feels like most people read it because they’re doing me a favor. That’s not what I want. That’s not how I want to build this beast. If I were sitting next to a blazing fire telling that story tonight, I know it would come out differently. Perhaps I needed more time with it?

    GOAT, on the other hand, I know is a better story. I was moved to write it; I anticipate it will move some readers too. This is how I think and talk. It’s based in my experience, events and adventures that moved me, so the hope is that it will do the same for some of you.

    In 2016, I’m going to examine what I can write that works and why. Then incorporate those lessons into the new collection of words I will produce. It is about building trust with the readers you have so they know what to expect from the words you’ll soon write.

    My advice to EC? Pay attention to the way people react to you when you’re talking. Figure out what works and what doesn’t because the way you relate to other people in person is almost certainly embedded in what you write. Your voice as a person and your voice as an author are conjoined and if the former doesn’t do the job, the latter will fall flat. Look for ways to build trust with your readers. They want to trust you, so don’t let them down.

  • Read more: My final personal goal of 2016 and last piece of advice, read more.I came across this bit from a 1935 Esquire article written by Hemmingway and I believe that it’s an excellent writer’s rule.

    “The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.”

    My plan? Read what I’m writing in exactly this manner. In fact, I do this already. But to be able to “correct” as I go along most effectively I’ve got to give other people’s work the same degree of criticality.

    Understand what does and does not work. If I learn to discern adequate writing from truly inspired and memorable prose in other’s manuscripts, my writing will consequently and effortlessly be improved.

    This last year I had the privilege to read a number of books and works in progress. And in that hairy mess of words and imagined moments, there was this one perfect hook that haunts me while I write.

    “Despair could never touch a morning like this.
    “The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea — air like a telescopic glass, so that the snowcapped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away.”

    “Pacific Edge”, Kim Stanley Robinson

    When I read this I knew that I wanted to approximate the truth of that first sentence in something I’d write. I hold it up and compare words I’ve written against its precision. I measure myself against its impact.

    Advice for EC? Read what you write, read it until you like what you’ve written. Read it, rewrite it, until you’re certain it’s as good as, if not better than, your favorite writing.

Look, I’m 43 years old too. I’ve been writing for a long time although presumably I haven’t been trying to make a living at it as long has you have. But listen, I understand your despair. I too, from time to time, toy with the idea of quitting.

We both know that the genesis of quitting is the bastard child of a mutual frustration with our own personal limitations coupled with the mean anxiety of obscurity. It stinks being a featureless member of the crowd. But it is a far worse fortune to languish in a life devoid of story, lacking even clumsy expression.

That is why I write. I want to create something new, special and completely my own.

Words shouldn’t be written for a profit, notoriety, or even recognition. Those are all potential fringe benefits; possible consequences of publication in an increasingly democratic marketplace. If you need something to believe in then consider the notion that you might write some true words, you might be able to relate a moment of emotion with a stranger and have them utterly understand, you could dream up the world’s funniest joke, or describe a sunset that invariably provokes people to shed tears of joy.

All of these things are only possible if you believe in yourself and then write solely from that faith.

Helpers and Heroes

I suspect that my mother picked up this phrase while working as a nurse at the hospital she retired from some time ago. I can recall when she started slipping it into conversations; often her focus was on C. Everett Koop. She put him on a pedestal because of the way he was then treating the AIDS/HIV crisis of the day despite his religious beliefs. He put the health of his patients above his dogma and, in hindsight, I can see why my Mother venerated this man. And that was what she was saying, “See, this guy understands the problem and has risen above it, remained objective in the face of it, and can address it effectively.”

Yesterday, some more people died in our country’s latest moral crisis. I first learned about yet-another-mass-shooting because a friend in my Facebook feed tagged me in a post about it; I moved to an island to hide from this sort thing, and consequently I stay away from the news unless directed.

HerosandHelpers

I need to thank Robert for his kind words; as an author it’s a rare moment that a reader might tell you that they’ve been moved by something you bothered to write down. I’m sitting here savoring this, in fact, because whatever I wrote I made a difference. As a wordsmith, it feels oh so good. But, hanging over that savory morsel is the simple fact that since I wrote about Sandy Hook absolutely nothing has been done about the underlying problem of cultural gun fetishization or mass shootings. Nothing! Nada! Zilch!

Given the situation and some thought Robert is right. So too, is my Mom. We need to start looking for helpers and heroes. People in the middle of the mess, like C. Everett Koop, who can look beyond their articles of faith and recognize that there is a problem that can’t be addressed by continuing the same traditions that got us in this predicament. Adopting institutional inertia as a battle banner is waving a big fat excuse over your campaign.

We need a fanatical supporter of Second Amendment rights to stand up and say in a clear voice with no disassembled words, “Gun ownership in the United States is a problem.” We’ve glorified the use of a simple tool to such a degree that pointing out the obvious is anything but politically expedient. The people that fetishize their armories are never going to listen to all us targets. We’re the ones trying to take away their guns. We’re weak, we’re uninformed, we’re part of the problem as they see it.

No, what the United States needs is an ATF Executive or an NRA director brave enough to insist that continuing to do things as they’ve been done will only result in more meaningless death. This person needs to propose a better way. A rational and effective roadmap because just as civil society can not tolerate an epidemic of infectious disease, a social vector left to kill innocent people will be purged one way or another. Our hero must enlist the sanest components of his faction as helpers and as they come along so will even the most fearful and deranged.

More guns, easier access to guns and ammunition, armed teachers and social workers, anything that resembles the current system of management around gun ownership found in the States won’t ever work. It can only lead to more tyranny, not less. That’s how hosts react to infection.

Our society has already begun to ape countries where guns are a ubiquitous part of day-to-day life and that’s not good. For instance, the only difference I see between those murdered yesterday in San Bernardino and the 129 students and teachers killed in Iguala is the body count. Is this what we want? How many more have to die before we recognize that we’ve got a cultural problem that must be addressed?

 

I took a break

December 1st is the first day I’ve been back at it. At just half past November, I found myself grinding away at story ideas while simultaneously losing the struggle to maintain the basics of life. Unnumbered unmentionables were gathering against me.

In order to preserve a mote of sanity and physical health, I threw in the towel. Now, about two weeks later, I’ve returned to the blank page. I just wrote about five-hundred words and I did so knowing that I made it over my mountain of laundry, through my son’s birthday, and past tree cutting. Sometimes, to get to our best work, we’ve got to take back our time.

Did I win NaNo? Nope, not even close this year. In fact, as the month went on I found myself ignoring my word count entirely. Every time I took the measure of my progress I felt increasingly defeated. Other writers were posting redonkulous numbers. “I wrote 415k; now I’ve got to edit,” that sort of thing. Relative to this variety of madness I guess I’m just not much of a writer. But I know better, if you hope to hike the whole trail, you’d best be sure your pack has what you need.

A sprint to the end of NaNo would have killed the sure and steady progress I have otherwise been making on works in progress, and, at least, I knew this much about myself. So, I took the time I needed. I played too many video games, got caught up around our house, went for walks in the woods, built a kayak storage stand, and even made a worthy contribution to summer bicycling tour plans.

Writing is as much a habit as it is a vocation, once you’re invested in the pattern it can be difficult to give it up, even for a short time. When word count becomes a way to keep score, I find that my motivations are modified. Abridged. I write in anger, not mindfully, because I’m unable to discern my creative urge from the competitive one.

And when I pause to think about it I know that I don’t want that badge. During the past couple of weeks I’ve thought about this a lot, I know one of the marks of a mature author may be an ability to understand when the words aren’t working. Perhaps more importantly, why those words could never work. For this reason this may have been my last NaNo.

Ernest Hemmingway once wrote that he moved beyond writer’s block by writing “one true sentence.” He elaborated on this dictum in A Moveable Feast.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

As I take on the burden of ink once more I do not despair. I will write one thing I know to be true and follow it up with the next.

IOTD

Grey Knight by hammk

This is a perfectly random find from DivArt, just popped up in my undiscovered feed this morning. It moves me in several ways. First, I love how he’s used square brush strokes to compose the smoke and fire. From a distance, it fools my eye into imagining it’s almost on fire, even though it’s static.

Next, the hammk has re-imagined an old idea. I dig the power armored paladin marching into the field with his vibrating polearm at the ready. It’s something that seems to draw on Games Workshop at its genesis while being an idea unto itself. This guy is not a space marine. He’s something different, perhaps more complicated and conflicted. He marches for justice or chivalry but eats at a round table.

Finally, his religious regalia runs throughout the gallery. Yes, there’s a whole collection. For the most part, it seems unique. It’s as if hammk is creating his own saints and zealots. It makes me want to write space opera.

Well done!