The Room And The Will

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames

A friend of mine is considering moving. “I just want to live on my own,” she said to me this afternoon, while the wind made my chimes ring like rattlesnakes. “I want to be able to sit in my underwear with pizza and a beer and a book. I just need it, you know.”

“Oh, honey,” I said, squinting in the sunlight, “I know.”

Virginia Woolf said that money and a room of one’s own is a prerequisite for woman writers. I tend to agree. Certainly getting one’s career to a place where one can comfortably support oneself, or not having to worry overmuch about food and rent, is a marvelous thing.

But I didn’t start out with it.

I have learned to write in any situation imaginable. I started in school writing furiously at every moment I could steal from classes. One of my teachers let me keep a box of spiral notebooks in her classroom over the summer, since I didn’t have hiding places at home. I exercised my youthful ingenuity to hide my diaries and stories at home when I lost that opportunity, used friends’ houses and employee lockers to keep my words safe from prying and punishment. When I left, I hid my notebooks in closets and other places, just to be safe.

I stole moments to write plot outlines on notepads at several jobs. I spent my lunch hours and breaks writing furiously in spiral notebooks between bites of whatever I could afford–or just writing because I couldn’t afford a snack. I learned to write with toddlers around, one half of my brain scanning constantly to anticipate their needs or any danger to them. I learned to write in a house full of shrieking “LOOK AT ME! I DON’T EXIST UNLESS YOU LOOK AT ME! LOOKLOOKLOOK!” (Note: only two of the people screeching that were under 10. The rest…well. Whole ‘nother blog post there.)

I’ve written on trains and planes, I’ve written on buses and in parks, I’ve written in libraries, I’ve written in casino bars, other bars, in bathrooms late at night while the people I’m staying with are asleep. I’ve written in classrooms, coffee shops, head shops, cafes, community centres, all-night restaurants, even in the closed-down delis of major supermarket chains. Finding a space to sit down and whip out my notebook–or lug my laptop to–has become somewhat of an art form.

Do it where you gotta has been by mantra for a long time. Now that I have a house and a chair and a lapdesk, where I can sit cross-legged and pound out text while the whole place is silent because the kids are at school…

…well, it’s been a shock. I’m used to concentrating fiercely in the face of distraction. The silence of the house is a type of distraction I’m not insulated against. I used to keep music on to provide a thread under the other sounds I could jack into and ride while I typed. Now I play it because sometimes the empty house makes me start up in almost-terror sometimes, thinking the kids are Altogether Too Quiet and Up To Mischief.

My productive hours are in somewhat of a flux now. I used to be a champion insomniac, first because I’m built to be a night owl and second because the wee hours were the only damn time nobody needed anything from me. Now I’m finding different chunks of my “day” to be productive, because I finally have space and solitude.

Which brings me to something I consider a Rule. All applicable disclaimers, etc., etc., but here it is:

If you WANT to write, you will more than likely FIND TIME to write.

Yes, I know. “I’m too poor/busy/tired/something! I don’t have time! I can’t find a space!”

Often I hear this from people who are overscheduled or who don’t set boundaries instead of truly being unable. I am willing to concede that whoever, whatever their situation, may be too tired/busy/whatever to write. Billions of people don’t write, and they get along just fine.

I am not one of those people who gets along fine without writing.

I wrote while effectively homeless. I wrote while being a single mother working full-time and going to school. I wrote while raising two small children and cleaning up after a Very Large Child. I think one of the main reasons I’ve achieved a sort of quiet success is because writing has always been a priority to me. I felt I would go mad if I didn’t write. I put writing in with my basic needs of food and shelter, and that is a component of the psychotic persistence several writers (don’t really) joke about being necessary to get published.

It was necessary for me to continue writing. Being paid for it is where I’ve ended up, and that’s just fine by me. I like it that way. I would still be doing this if I didn’t have a room of my own and a lock on my door. In fact, for the rest of my life, putting words together is something I’m going to be doing. I can’t help it.

I say this so you will understand the advice I am about to give. This advice is free, so take it or leave it.

Finding time in a day to sneak writing in, learning to pick up a story and dive in when you only have five or fifteen minutes, getting your wordcount out rather than watching the telly or playing that video game, is essentially saying “This is important to me.” I don’t promise that you will get published if you train yourself to make writing a priority and set boundaries around your writing time. I can promise that your chances of getting good enough to have a reasonable shot at being published will go up with every minute you spend making writing your priority.

If that’s where you’re aiming, okay. Do it where you gotta. Write down the activities you participate in on a daily basis and figure out which ones are essential (like paying rent or eating), which are very desirable (like maintaining your relationship with your real friends, or what-have-you), and which are just desirable (playing a video game, watching television. Note these are just MY examples, yours will be different.). Move writing from the “just desirable” category into the “essential” category, the things you make time for because you’ve just plain got to–or even into the “very desirable” category. Find the time by cutting it elsewhere, if you’re serious. If you’re not serious, it’s OK. There are plenty of other things to do in this wide varied world of ours. Go do them and be merry.

This is why I say I “tend” to agree with Virginia. Of course, I have the benefit of being in a culture and of a socioeconomic section where I have certain advantages, and I realize that. However, I was not always in this socioeconomic or cultural slice, and many other successful writers I know weren’t (or aren’t) either. The room of your own is nice, and the money is damn nice.

But it is the will to find a way that is essential. Without it, the room is just a room.

It’s up to you to fill it.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

I Never Know

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

Reader Melissa P. asked earlier this week:

So MY question is, how do you know it’s good enough? Especially if you’ve never been published?

How do you know if your writing is Good Enough? How do you know if you have any chance at all?

The short answer is also the most brutal:

You don’t.

The longer answer…well. I get hate mail calling me the worst writer in the world, even though I’m making a living at it. “Good enough” is highly subjective. Plus, there’s the Inner Censor and various other considerations inside one’s own head. There has never come a point where I’ve considered anything “good enough”. Each time I’ve turned in a contracted book, it’s with the same nail-biting fear of rejection I felt when I was submitting to slushpiles. I have never felt “good enough”.

A published writer takes the critical step of submitting despite that fear. Even more importantly, this is a writer who has kept writing, despite that fear. The chances of getting published are sometimes Not Very Good, but they become Astronomically Better when you Actually Produce and Learn, not to mention Submit Your Shit Professionally.

If there was a magic pill, I would tell you. The point of this whole thing is not to get “good enough”. The point is to keep trying and learning. This ups your chances of getting published, and once published, ups your chances of having a sustainable career.

Look, every single goddamn time I send a manuscript in I’m afraid that my editor will be very quiet for a little while, then send me a request to have the advance mailed back because what I’ve sent them sucks so hugely. (This is a normal feeling, I guess, since I’ve had it every damn time.) Rationally and reasonably, I absolutely know this will not happen. (If for no other reason than my agent would strap on her bandoliers and make them Very Sorry. *snort*)

But it doesn’t stop the huge, nagging, overwhelming fear that my writing–and by extension, I–will never be Good Enough. Each time I hit the “send” button to turn in a first draft, I hear the roulette wheel spinning. It scares me to absolute death.

I’ve just learned to do it anyway. Part of it is because I have to, because, well, I like eating.

You can depend on certain markers to tell you that, if you’re not Good Enough, you’re certainly moving in the right direction. Some of those markers can include personalized rejection notes or the approval of your critique group or beta reader (though I have some mixed feelings about groups). In the end, though, I don’t know if any writer ever knows if it’s good enough; I don’t know if any writer, even the most “successful”, ever gets rid of that nagging fear. If they do, good for them–but I’m talking about my own experience here, and I’ve never gotten rid of it.

The trick is to do it anyway. You can feel the fear all you want. It’s okay (not to mention reasonable and natural) to feel fear. Writing is a tricky business, and writers get rejected. A lot. Rejection is a fact of life, and it’s dialed up to 11 when you’re a writer, especially if you submit your work to the cruel, cold world. Fear is okay.

You just have to kick the fear in the nuts and run for it. I do not know of another way around this. Set yourself the task of always learning how to be more professional, keep reading and studying your language and its rules, and try to view mistakes and setbacks as invitations to learn. Bloody, painful, messy, nasty, scar-making invitations, to be sure. But if you’re easily whipped or easily frightened, professional writing is so not the career for you.

If, on the other hand, you are stubbornly (almost pathologically) determined to do, then let the fear be itself. It can actually even turn into a friend, an engine driving you to learn more and be better. You can use it as a spur, as a wheel, as torque to pull yourself up.

Just don’t turn tail and quit writing.

How do you know if you’re Good Enough? You never do, my friend. But you can choose not to let the fear matter, and be as good as you can be. After all, that’s the way any great discovery or genius is made.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Why I Do This

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames!

This Friday’s writing post is a bit late because, well, life happens. As it is, I was taking a cake to a sixth-grade classroom this morning (long story, don’t ask) and I ended up giving an impromptu Q&A about the life of a working writer for about an hour and a half.

Oh, my God, you guys. Sixth-graders are brutal. I think the second question was, “What do you make a year?” The kid asking it was genuinely curious. The teacher looked horrified, someone else said, “You don’t ask that!” and I grinned and took it as an opportunity to explain just how much of the cover price an author actually gets from each book, how an advance works, and how many books have to sell before a profit is made.

The kids were fascinated. Their faces squinched up as they did the math, and I could see comprehension spreading through them. They were overjoyed to have a Real Live Writer in front of them, and asked about everything

I got a lot of questions about writers I knew–”Do you know X? What about Y?” And there was one young man who bonded with me over The Breakfast Club, of all things.

I love talking to kids, especially about writing and the writing life. They have great questions, they’re not afraid to ask a single one, they’re smart, and once they relax they’re hilarious. I loved watching them put the math together about how many books would have to sell to earn out a $60K advance. Oh, and we talked about genre, what it is and what it isn’t. I was able to tell about the bad and the good parts of being a writer. And no, I didn’t cuss once.

I also got to tell them why it was OK to not finish every story, and why I never have a problem finding stories. That the world was full of stories, and that a book I write about werewolves is not going to be the book they write about werewolves, because we’re different people. That people are unique, and the odds of us all being alive together in the same room are so astronomical that everyone in there has to have a story. To never doubt that they have a story to tell, something unique and marvelous inside them that deserves to be told. That telling a story is an act of faith, a line thrown into darkness–and reading a story is catching that line, from inside your own dark hole.

It was a great morning.

Then there was a trip to Ikea to get bedroom furniture for a certain Princess. Afterward, at lunch with the Selkie, there was sharing of plot points and much trash-talking and nuts-and-bolts talk.

It’s absurdly awesome to spend almost the whole day talking and thinking about writing. The sixth-graders were so awesome, and there’s nothing quite like getting a platter of Indian food and hashing over plot, continuity, human foibles, grist for the story mill, and war stories with your writing partner. I haven’t spent a more enjoyable day in a long while.

Writing is a very solitary, self-driven art. At a certain point, there’s just you and the words. You can’t get away from long hours spent with just the words and the people in your head to keep you company. The social part of a writing career–not making a fool of yourself with editors, agents, marketing people, and just generally acting professionally at conventions and otherwise–takes up a lot of time too, and sometimes it’s work instead of pleasantry.

And then a day like today comes along, where I get the chance to talk about something I love, something I am so passionate about. That class full of kids, so full of wonder and courage, reminded me of the other part of why I do this job. And trash-talking with my writing partner is another way for me to talk about the down and dirty of something I love with someone who understands, someone who gets it and speaks my language.

Now I’ve got some wordcount to get in. I get to go back to the solitary part of my job renewed and energized. And feeling pretty damn good about this whole gig. It’s great to share my passion–and it’s also great to be able to go home and find that passion still waiting for me. A most enchanting lover built of words and scenes and raw beautiful emotion, always here and always just a few moments of concentration and effort away.

Come in, the stories say. Come in and settle down.

We’ve been waiting for you.

It’s nice to feel wanted.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

If I Could Do That, I Can Do This

Yesterday I did my very first three-mile run. I’m informed that three miles is the breakover point–once you reach three miles, you can pretty much train for any distance effectively, or something like that. Everyone was cheering me on–funny, running is so solitary, and yet my Twitter and Facebook blew up with “Go Lili!” “You can do it!” “Those miles don’t stand a chance!”

I was so grateful for the cheering, you guys. It was like I had a whole crowd urging me for the finish line.

I did finish. I stood there, sweating and victorious, and actually yelled, “HA! I GOT THE KNIFE! NOW TURN ON THE GODDAMN LIGHTS!” (That is one of my favorite movies…)

Since I was doing this at home, the only thing I accomplished was scaring two cats and laughing like a loon while I folded up the treadmill. The cats eventually forgave me once I’d taken a shower and refilled their food bowls. (They’re like that.)

So. Three miles. When I started this a long time ago, I would walk for six minutes and run for one minute, and I dreaded those single minutes with a passion. I did that for two solid months. I took everything else in similar baby steps–walking for five and running for two, walking for four and running for three, all in two or three week (or even month-long) increments. Then came twenty-minute runs. Twenty-two minute runs. Adding a couple minutes every couple weeks. Then two-mile runs, upping speed; two and a half, two and three quarters.

And now, here I am. Running three miles. I did it again this morning.

There’s this list that I keep in my head. It’s a List Of Things I Never Thought I Could Do, But I’ve Done And Actually Kicked Ass At. I think everyone needs this sort of list. Most of the time, it’s filled with things that I never thought I could do and I did only because I bloody well had to, it was That Kind of situation. I do very well thrown into the snakepit, apparently.

Every time I think something’s going to knock me down or out, I mentally get out that list. “If I can _____,” I say grimly, “then I can do this.” It’s amazingly effective, at least for me.

Anyway. Also today I got a bunch of spiderwebs tattooed on my back, bringing together all the pieces I had before. The web are about three-quarters done. Soon I’ll be going in to get them finished. Grayscale work hurts, and the long lines the webs depend on, ouchie! So I spent a significant part of today clutching my hands together, breathing through it, and thinking if I can run three miles at a time, I can get through this.

It worked like a charm.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

It Will Go In The Graveyard Like Every Other Wrong Turn

The morning is nice and gray and soft-edged outside my windows. Not foggy, but not with the glare of spring sunshine and a blue lidless sky either. I’m glad–you live in the Pacific NW for long enough, you start getting nervous when it’s not cloudy or raining. No doubt the rain will start later today, but for now it’s just…cloudy. And I like it. The synchronicity engine is still turning over and echoing under the surface of Real Life.

Yesterday I was fighting tooth and nail with the latest book, and I figured out the point where things had gone wrong was…whoops, 10K words ago. After much thought and cutting and pasting, I only lost about 8K of those words. *headdesk* There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Not to mention cursing, bitching, and wandering around the house muttering and glaring balefully at things. I hadn’t precisely gone wrong, I’d just…well, had a major plot thing happen too soon, and it removed a lot of the necessary tension for the book to go forward. Plus I can always keep that 8K chunk for if I need it later. It will go in the graveyard like every other wrong turn.

If there’s one thing that’s changed about me writing, it’s that I only feel a twinge and not a huge soul-devouring terror when I slice out a huge chunk of text.

So now I have to figure out how to proceed from five steps back.

Those are the days when writing is intensely frustrating and nothing seems to go right. They hit just often enough to remind me that the usual state of affairs is a gift.

I have great hopes for today.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

A (small) Ramble On Synchronicity

The engine of synchronicity runs under the surface of my days. In order to feel the engine and see the connections, I have to be in a certain frame of mind. I can generally tell how OK I am by how well I can sense the engine running. Whether it only runs when I’m happy or I just don’t see it when I’m in the undertow is largely academic as far as I’m concerned.

So. I am reading Murakami. There’s a passage in Dance Dance Dance–Chapter 17, to be precise–where he talks about the phone, about connections, about the imperfection of communication. It resonated so strongly I set the book aside and sat thinking for a while, feeling the engine thrum under the surface of daily life.

I started reading Murakami because of a tragedy, and the first novel I picked–The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles–still resonates. I was climbing out of a well of my own when I read it; the tragedy was in a well of its own. For various reasons, it was gruesomely ironic that I started reading him at about that time. I can’t blame the author, but I think that has something to do with my liking the books.

The tragedy wasn’t mine, but it tore at me. My links under the surface of the world mean very little to anyone but me, but seeing them, the wheels and cogs sliding gently into place, meshing with the terrible convenience of coincidence–well, it’s important. Maybe I only see it when I’m happy because otherwise I couldn’t bear the tangled knots weaving everything and everyone I know together. I couldn’t bear to see the machinery going along with its own chaotic, fractal regularity and logic.

In any case, the world is sparkling with golden dust and thrumming with the knots and threads all bound together and pulling in their different directions. It’s marvelous to think that everyone I see is a node with their own net of knots and threads that sometimes touch mine briefly. Each touch is a fresh knot. If it’s a net, it’s one that keeps us from falling too far.

It’s good not to feel alone. The magic has come back. The tightrope act goes on.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Huh. Is There Any Money In That?

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

First, an announcement. Readers AleBB and Amanda N., please email me and tell me which mug/shirt you want. I have your addresses, but not the exact prizes you want.

Also, if you check out the latest (March ‘10) Romantic Times, I’m in there with Nalini Singh, Anne Rice, and Debbie Macomber (not to mention some fellow Dames, I think). We’re all talking about angels and demons, and having a great time. Plus, there are some Dame books recommended in that article!’

Now. It’s Friday. I’m supposed to do a Friday post. But what I really want to do is get back to the book that’s been bugging me. It’s a bright sunny windy day, and the itching under my skin can only be a work of fiction dying to get out. So, it’s going to be a Friday Four! I’m going to answer four common questions I get asked when I tell people I write for a living.

Seriously. These are the things I get asked/said to me most often when I tell people what I do. Enjoy!

1. Huh. Is there any money in that?

I’m very lucky that I can support myself by writing, and I do it by being pretty careful what I spend money on. (I’m helped by the fact that my priorities do not seem to be the average person’s set of priorities.) When you’re only paid twice a year and expected to live on chunks of your advances for months at a time, you have to budget pretty carefully. Also, you need to build up a safety cushion for those times when the royalty or advance payments dry up. It happens.

So yeah, there’s money…but only because I’m careful.

2. So how long does it take you to write a book?

It depends on the type of book. There’s the brute work of typing 60-100K words (and quite possibly twice that amount if there are multiple drafts, endings, and revisions). There’s the research involved, which can add hours and hours (even if it is Internet-based, which I don’t recommend…but that’s another blog post). There’s the time between revisions/drafts to let it sit and cool down. Then there’s the emotional energy and time one invests into a book.

For example, the Watcher books were relatively painless to write. They were fun and I had the structure down after the second one, so it was a matter of relaxing into the structure. I could probably write one of those every couple months, if I wasn’t doing anything else. Contrast that with the Jill Kismet books, which take a lot out of me. I need a year for each Kismet book, period. This is partly because I have other projects going at the same time, but it’s mostly because Jill’s world is a very dark place and the emotional toll of entering that world and suffering with her, as well as feeling her triumphs, is very large.

Oddly, short stories sometimes take me longer than novels, because the word count is so limited–I have to have everything just right before I draw my sword and make my cut.

So, that’s actually a very complex question. There are books that took me three years to write, books that took me a month and a half of intense effort, books that sort of dumped themselves out of my head whole. Writing a book is an incredibly complex process, with all sorts of factors affecting it. So I usually say, “From a month to three years, it depends on the book.”

3. I always wanted to write a book. How do you get published?

Persistence. Sheer dumb brute persistence. And luck, but the harder you work, the more likely you are to be lucky.

There are many ways to climb the mountain to publication[1], as well as many ways to climb the mountain of a sustainable writing career. The bedrock all these ways rest on is not quitting and learning.

You do not have a guarantee of getting published. All you can do is maximize your chances. Plenty of people do not bother to maximize their chances and so, just clog up the pipes with slush. But I can tell you this much: if you quit, it’s CERTAIN that you will never get published. If you don’t keep producing work and submitting, of course you’ll never get there. It’s a question of whether or not this matters enough to you.

The other half of the answer is learning. I never open a finished book of mine without wincing at things I could have done better and feeling the urge to correct/revise. Never. Part of that is simply my work ethic; the other part is that I an consistently and constantly trying to learn more about language, grammar, what makes stories work, what makes writing work. I rarely read for pleasure anymore; instead, I’m “looking under the hood” and seeing how the story is put together while another part of me is searching for typos. It’s become a reflex by now.

If you aren’t wincing and thinking you could do better when you open up a story/document you wrote six months ago, it’s time to focus on some more learning. I sincerely believe this is not a finite process.

4. I’ve got this great idea for a book. Why don’t you write it and we’ll split it 50-50?

Writers sometimes joke about this, but it isn’t really a joke. People actually say this to me. The only thing that saves the top of my head from blowing off while steam shoots off my ears and I reach for something sharp is the fact that most people don’t have the faintest idea how much work it is to write a book. They know that they walk into a bookstore and see the finished product and it takes them ten minutes to buy it if the line’s super-long around Christmas.

They do not see the months or years it took to write that book, the different drafts, the revisions and proofing process, the waiting for publication schedules to line up…I could go on. It’s like people thinking a television commercial only takes thirty seconds to film because that’s how long the finished product ends up being.

I used to try to explain this to people, but two sentences into the explanation people’s eyes would glaze over. People largely don’t care to hear about how their conveniences or consumable entertainment actually comes into being. Listening to that is too much like work, and I suspect it drains some of the “magic” from the mental image people have of writers.

So now I just settle for taking a deep breath, reminding myself that dismemberment is frowned upon in most social situations, and say, “Sorry. I’ve got my own books to write.”

The funny thing about this is most people just nod and move on with the conversation. There is, however, a slight but definite proportion of people who are actually offended when I say that. I suspect they are some of the same people you read about here. I actually had one man say to me, “What, my ideas aren’t good enough for you?”[2]

*snorts* So here’s what I wish I could say: “It’s not that your ideas aren’t good enough. It’s that I’d rather spend my time on the line of my ideas that’s stretching out the door and around the block. Other ideas are free to wait in line, and I’ll get the money for the actual effort put into writing them, thank you very much. Next!”

Ideas are a dime a dozen. What makes a book special is the time, care, and effort the writer puts into expressing the idea and its consequences, the effort spent revising until it’s as good as it can be, the effort the publisher puts into it from their end, and the ongoing engagement the writer cultivates with the readers. Five seconds of “hey I have an idea!” isn’t worth much when stacked against those months or years of backbreaking effort.

Anyway. So there you have it, the four most-common questions I’m asked when I tell people I write for a living. Someday, just to shake things up, I’m going to tell someone that I shave gorillas for a living.

They’ll probably say, “Huh. Is there any money in that?”

[1] Note that when I say “publication” I mean traditional publishing with all its quality control. I do not mean self or vanity publishing.
[2]At that point I realized I was dealing with irrationality, and took refuge in absurdity. “Yes. My cake is burning, thank you.” And I walked away.

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