And that’s all there is to it. Ellison, I am convinced, was being more than a little tongue in cheek with that last comment. Because although there is no midnight magic in writing (which is not the same as there being no magic, but let’s leave that for another day shall we?), writing is damned hard work.
I know my family, in particular The Man of The House (TMoTH), think I have the world’s best job. After all, what do I do all day apart from sit in front of my computer, drinking countless cups of tea and coffee, tweeting and putting words here and there on pages. Obviously, this is the cushiest number in the world folks.
HA! I wish.
First of all – my job doesn’t have a regular pay check…yet. I work but I don’t get paid until I do enough job of it that someone feels the urge to pay for it. Whereas in my old working life, even on a bad day I took home pay.
Nor is writing physical work. Rarely does my pulse start pounding a tango (unless I’m writing a particularly exciting scene – and since exciting has so many definitions let’s just move on). TMoTH is quite right on that count – I’m never going to burn a thousand calories a day in my job. Consume them maybe, but burn ‘em – nu-uh.
That doesn’t mean I don’t work hard. On a good day two thousand words can pour on to a page in a few hours. Then another couple of hours to make them readable – moving them around, cutting them, pasting them, moving them back to where they started. On a not so good day, lunchtime is there and that cursor is poking its tongue at me going “nyah nyah nyah – told ya it was impossible Ms Smarty Pants.” On a really awful day Internal Editor wakes up and starts ordering me and the story around, isn’t interested in what either of us has to say on the matter and the day ends with me scouring the Situations Vacant for jobs at K-Mart.
Rather than working out the muscles on my body, I work out my imagination and just like a physical workout it can be exhausting. By the end of the day, I really just want to forget about writing and have a nice meal with my family then vegetate while reading a book and listening to Springsteen. Or watch a movie.
I’ve read enough How To Write books and sites to know this is part of being a writer and is unlikely to change. Stephen King might be a best selling, multi-millionaire author – it’s still hard work every day. The only difference (well apart from the obvious ones) between him and me (and you if, like me you are starting out as as writer) is that his surroundings are comfier and he probably has better coffee. It’s still hard work.
Now just for the record, I can see you rolling your eyes while you hunt out that dusty old copy of Money for Nothing (song by a band called Dire Straits for those of you under 20 - give ‘em a whirl – you won’t be disappointed). I can also hear you muttering about me not knowing a real job if it bit me on my rapidly shrinking butt, so I’d just like to clarify that I’m not complaining.
You see the point I’m trying to make – as much to myself as to anyone else – is that, even though writing can be challenging (especially when you are trying to make money from it) I can’t think of a single thing I would rather be doing. It’s the one job I’ve had (and I’ve had a few despite what you may think) that I’ve felt I was doing well. I’m not trying to create great literature, I just want to write a story (or three or four) that someone will enjoy.
And like any job that requires effort, if at the end of the working day you can put down your shovel, scalpel, or pen and feel satisfied with your work – then you’ve done a good job.
I have been suffering from a condition that I recently described to a writer friend as “creative constipation: there’s all this crap in my head and it just won’t come out.” The analogy is gross, possibly even vulgar, but it is accurate. My head is full of ideas and characters and dialogue – and the minute I try to …let’s say….express them, nothing happens.
And just like constipation of the more regular (I know, I know – just ignore it) variety, the longer it lasts, the more painful it becomes. Until you get to a point where you know this is how life is going to be from now on: you’ll be grouchy and bloated forever.
The challenge with both conditions of course is finding a solution. Laxatives are after all, according to those in the know, best used sparingly so your body does not become dependent on them. It’s no different when you are trying to create. And when I say create, please don’t read into that something flowery or pretentious – humans are creative creatures. If you are figuring out how to make a piece of drain pipe work better, you are creating. And if you are looking at the hunk of piping in your hand and thinking “dammit, why won’t you do what I can see in my head?” then you know what I’m bleating about.
Don’t get me wrong. I write every day. I’m just not especially happy with the results – mostly because they do not match the images in my head and somewhere along the line I have managed to convince myself they should. So I’ve spent the past few days (weeks, months, years) agonising over what to write and what genre in which to write and for whom to write all of this for. I’ve worried about templates and writer’s toolboxes and getting the voice correct and do I know the characters and will the plot work and… and … and …
AND on my page I have a great big fat zero. Zip. Nada. Rien. Translate it how you will, it comes back to the same thing: worrying about nothing.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Nalini Singh and she said writers should “just keep writing”. Uh-huh, I thought later sipping my coffee, write what? The stories in my head, don’t want to be on the page – and when they do appear on the page they are utter crap. Such utter crap that nobody but me will ever lay eyes on it(and yes I am aware that I may possibly not be the best judge of what constitutes crap, in particular where my own writing is concerned but right now with nothing on the page, it’s kind of beside the point).
Anyway, this morning, freezing and feeling more than a little groggy from an overload of nurofen (thank you wisdom tooth for adding a new dimension to my pity party for one)I decided the only solution was to take refuge in a hot bath. Few things work as well for banishing self-pity as hot baths I find – good quality chocolate, a new Springsteen song, maybe a glass of Moet & Chandon – but I digress. At 9.30 in the morning with none of those things forthcoming, a hot bath it was. And for good measure I would read that tome of wisdom, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
As it turned out, as ideas went it could only have been better had I thought to make myself a cup of tea to drink while reading (it was after all, too early for Moet). Although I’ve read the book several times before – I’m a compulsive re-reader – today I found my mental laxative. Or at least the fibre required to get things moving….
On page 82 (of my edition of the paperback, if it’s not page 82 in yours it’s in the section on how he wrote Carrie) King writes: “…stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you are doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
At this point you might well scratch your head and wonder “isn’t that what Nalini Singh said?” Nalini herself might well wonder if I had listened to her at all. The answer to both questions is well, yes. Really the only difference is that King answered my unuttered whine of “write what? the stuff I’m writing is crap” with a resounding “so what?”
So what indeed? Who said writing was easy? Who said that you can not move on in a piece of work until that which is on the page is of such pristine perfection that it matches the idea in your head? Or that unless what you just typed is worthy of sending a potential editor and publisher into a semi-orgasmic frenzy you should toss it ? (Leave that one alone too, please and thank you).
I would not take offense if someone at this point suggested I get my head out of my ass – that in itself may cure more than one problem.
Expecting writing to be always easy, always fun and always good is I suspect like expecting exercise to always be enjoyable, work to be fulfilling, the kids to never need reminding about their laundry, and the toast to always fall the right side up on the carpet. It happens, but not all that often.
Let the broken hearted love again
On June 18 one of the shining sounds of this world went silent when saxophonist and E Street Band member Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons died.
With his passing came the end of something that was a massive part of my life – and the lives of many, many fans the world over. Many people reading this won’t get it – but that’s okay. Springsteen fans are used to it. Either you get it or you don’t – and if you don’t get it, there’s no point me trying to explain it. Like I say – it’s okay, you don’t have to get it.
I heard my first Springsteen song when I was 12. Sherry Darlin’ is hardly the most profound song in the songbook, but it’s fun and it was a great introduction for me, even if for the next couple of weeks, until I heard Hungry Heart and Fade Away I thought this Bruce Springsteen fella must play the sax…..I was 12, what can I say? If Sherry Darlin’ caught my attention, Fade Away turned my world upside down- and I became a lifetime member of the E-Street Nation.
Oddly enough the day I first heard Sherry Darlin I was reading my first Stephen King book – yes at 12, yes precocious – and I’ve been hooked on both men ever since. They both painted pictures in my head, made me feel things just with their words (and while I was way too young yet for half of what Springsteen’s music was going to make me feel over time, what I did feel was real). I was too young to really understand most of what I was reading and listening to, but I was old enough to understand that I wanted to do what they did: I wanted to use words to paint pictures for people.
One of the things I loved about Bruce’s music was that it didn’t seem to conform to anybody else’s ideas of what music should or shouldn’t be. One minute it was fun, the next it was sad, then it was inspiring, then it was profound. There were guitars and drums and accordions and organs. And a saxophone.
The music stood alone but the saxophone made it something – not better, just something more. Maybe it was the relationship the two men actually had that was what made it so special, I don’t know.
When I decided I wanted to be a writer, one of the top things I wanted to do was interview Springsteen and his band and write about them. I wanted to be able to thank them in person, in some way, for all the pleasure their music has brought me over the years, the friends I have made because of their music- and also for all the times Bruce and his heart stopping, pants dropping, groundshaking, Viagra taking E.STREET.BAND held my heart and my hand – through good times, bad times, dark times – even though they didn’t know it.
I wish could return the favour, and I pray they know that millions of people the world over feel the same way and that it brings them a little comfort to know they are so loved.
Suddenly I feel as though the show has got to the encore, they’re preparing to bring the curtain down and I’m not ready. I’ve not got my interview, I’ve not written my article. Worst of all, I’ve not said thank you.
Whenever I feel down, I listen to Bruce - it’s a 32 year habit I’m hardly likely to kick. Usually it breaks through my funk and helps me figure out what to do next. It makes me feel better. It’s taking a bit longer this time though.
Clarence Clemons is gone. Sherry Darlin’ will never be the same again. Things I should care about or even worry about – like my missing Kobo e-reader, deadlines, and that pile of overdue bills in the corner – just don’t seem to matter. Other things that are of no importance, suddenly seem to fill my vision. Like where the spinning wheel in my writing room should go. I’m not even sure why I have the spinning wheel in here, other than it reminds me of my mother and when I look at it, I feel …comforted.
And today, comforted is good.
Okay, okay I haven’t exactly been prolific on this blog in the past week – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. On the contrary, I’ve been doing a lot of writing – just none of it here.
I’ve been updating sites (it counts), writing emails (some of them count but not, I admit, most of them), working on my fiction WIP (rewriting – which counts although it hasn’t upped the word count much).
Just as importantly I’ve been working on the craft of writing - and in particular I have just done a fabulous course with The How To Write Shop on Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I’m not going to go into the details - other than to say it was the best thing I’ve done in ages with regards ‘study’ – because I highly, highly recommend you do this - or any other course – with Lori and her team.
Anyway, the course really helped me get a handle on my WIP and for once it feels as though its going somewhere.
In the evenings I’ve been trying to read as much about writing as I can – and the best still remains King’s On Writing. In it he talks about writing the truth – referring of course to the truth of the story – as opposed to what you think the reader wants to read, or even what you want to read. It’s a good point – and one I suspect we forget easily. Okay, maybe it’s just me that forgets. I get so worried about whether the story will appeal to people reading it that I often forget the story all together. Must be a red head thing….
I guess the main thing is I am still writing. And that this is way harder than giving up chocolate *grin*. Reading back over this it seems very dark and serious *frowns and adopts serious voice* – I think discovering that it’s one thing to be able to write, it’s another to actually work at it, is a bit of a boot in the proverbial seat. One that was sorely needed I might add – so anyway – onwards and upwards.
I’ll be less serious tomorrow.
So the question is – am I writing? Well, yes I am. And it feels great. I’ve been keeping on top of my various sites - which means I’ve been not only writing, but editing, formatting, and uploading – all good things. My fiction piece is standing strong and steady with over 4,000 words. All in all I feel pretty good.
But it hasn’t just been about the writing itself. In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how you have to be prepared to work really hard to be a writer, and if you’re not prepared to do that, then maybe you shouldn’t be considering it in the first place. Now, I am a big King fan anyway but even without my admiration for his work, there is a lot of truth in that concept. Many people, including many would be writers, thinks writing is a ‘cruisy number’. How hard can it be right? You put some words on a page. If you’re into fiction you make up a story and then put the words on a page. Get paid to play pretend. How does the old Dire Straits song go? Money for Nothing. (Oh man, did I just refer to a Dire Straits song as old? Oh man.)
Writing, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is like any other craft or trade. You have to work at it. You have to train. You have to upskill, learn about new tools and new trends. There’s admin involved and taxes (if you’re lucky enough to sell your work anyway). Like any industry, there are people who are more talented than others, quicker and more at ease with the tools. And just like in any other industry if you’re not prepared to work at it, you may as well not start.
There is also a subtle difference between fiction and nonfiction writing when it comes to the work side of things – at least in my experience. I find it much easier to turn out 2,000 words of non fiction than I do of fiction. With nonfiction, I am for the main part writing about or commenting on something that has happened. I know the background (or I should), I’ve done my research (or I should have) – I’m only responsible for what I’m writing about in that moment. With fiction I am responsible for not just all the stuff that is on the page you read – but all the stuff you don’t read. I have to know the characters, the setting, the plot – I have to know their history, what motivates them and do they like vanilla or chocolate icecream. It doesn’t matter if you never read about icecream in my story – I have to know this person. Which means that what you read is only a very small percentage of what I have created about them. Think of the novels you have loved and that characters in those novels. Successful characters are believable and well rounded – and a lot of work has gone into creating them.
Sitting down and physically writing every day is demanding too. Now, I’m not going to try and get you to believe it is like climbing a mountain or doing open heart surgery except in a very metaphorical sense -but it is not as easy as people think.. I used to have a manager who would say “you’re the word person, I need words. Now.” She also thought you could churn out a thousand words in under an hour. If only. Some days you can zip through in a couple of hours, some days it’s a long….painful….process that has you hitting your head on your desk.
In other words – writing is like any other job. Some days it’s fun and easy, others is a pain in the butt and you wonder why you bother. The trick is in getting the former to outnumber the latter. That’s where tools come in.
The best tool I’ve found recently is a nifty little piece of freeware from Black Obelisk Software called Momentum Writer. Momentum let’s you write, but doesn’t let you go back and edit WHILE you are writing. There is a word counter that ticks over at the bottom so you can see how you are doing which is great too. The best part though, is it blocks out the rest of your screen. You can’t see emails coming in or FB updating or Tweets twittering …er…tweetering…er whatever, you can’t see them. All you can see is what you are working on. The only way you can go back to edit something is to enable the backspace key – but it is strict. You have to backspace, and ergo, delete everything between where you are and the thing you want to change. I have mine enabled because I’m a very average typist and typos distract me. But not being able to go back and edit every little thing has been a huge help in actually getting me writing.
Don’t panic – once you have exited the software you can open the story up and edit it. You just can’t while you are writing - so you can’t get distracted with editing when your focus should be on creating. Let editing come later when the time is right.
Image: © Angel_a | Dreamstime.com