It’s funny–the further along I go, the more the Universe steps in to help out. I could also view it as my thinking changing so I can take better advantage of opportunities. Potayto, potahto. Like I told the Princess when she asked me if the gods are real: whether they’re psychological constructs or actual beings, the net effect is the same–and you need to be just as careful about what you believe.
Anyway. The Selkie sent me this great link about Louisa May Alcott this morning; the American Masters episode is on tonight. (I will probably not watch it; our telly is DVD-only.) Of all Alcott’s work, I liked A Long Fatal Love Chase best; Little Women irritated me beyond bearing but I persevered because it was a Classic. I did like Jo the best out of all the March sisters, true. It was impossible not to, really. I wanted to slap Meg and send Beth to a hospital. And Amy? I’d slap her twice.
The thing that strikes me in this article about Alcott is that she decided what she was going to do, and she wrote what would sell because she wanted the money. This is treated as a revelation, because in our society artists (and women artists in particular) are not supposed to be in it for the filthy lucre. Money is at bottom, implicitly supposed to be the preserve of men. (As Ann Crittenden points out, when Motherhood started becoming sacred was when mothers started getting really economically screwed.) It’s news that Alcott was a hack, yet the fact that Poe, Dumas, and Dickens were hacks lacks a certain power of titillation.
Reading the Alcott piece, and listening to the interview, I was struck with a single vivid scene: Louisa May, like Scarlett O’Hara, swearing she or her folk would never be hungry again. Louisa May wrote to sell because her family was hungry, and instead of bemoaning it and dying gracefully she decided to do something about it.
Nobility is hard to come by when you’re starving. We have these myths of the Noble Poor, and that’s what they are–myths. I’ve been poor, and there’s nothing noble about it. It’s terrifying and dirty and ugly. When people are frightened and hungry, nobility is the exception. You can’t count on it.
Louisa May Alcott “resolved to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.” (Amen to that.) There was none of this “I’ve been rejected so I’m going to give up and bemoan that Editors don’t want my Precious Prose.” Instead it was, “I’m going to find out what they want, and I’m going to give it to them the best way I know how, and they are going to pay me for it. And if it takes me getting rejected fifty times, why then, I’ll get rejected fifty times. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. But they’re not going to lick me.”
Oh, Louisa. Over a hundred years ago you decided this, and you’re still an inspiration. You go, girl.
As for me, dear Reader, I’m gonna go take Fate by the throat and shake some more. Care to join me?
Not everything in my life centres around writing. It just looks that way.
I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight lately. Part of that is stress, another part of it is exercising six days a week. Also, a couple weeks ago, I picked up a book about using cognitive therapy to help normalize your relationship with food and weight. Yes, it has the word “diet” in the title. I believe it’s a fact that DIET’s first three letters are a warning. But it’s equally true that I have a messed-up relationship with food. I know cognitive therapy works for me, so I’m willing to give it a go.
Several of the exercises in this book centre around “answering sabotaging thoughts”, especially when it comes to the “it’s not fair” portion of life’s program. Yes, it’s not fair that our bodies are built to store extra against famine, and it’s not fair that during times and societies of plenty we get obese and shorten our lifespans. It’s not fair that I can’t eat the way I want, be sedentary, and be as physically fit as I want to. It’s not fair that I have to drag myself to the treadmill and that I have to write down the calorie counts of what I’m eating. It really, truly, is not fair.
But that is the way it is.
One of the strategies for answering these sabotaging thoughts–because that’s what they are, they’re little saboteurs–is an index card with the words NO CHOICE printed on it. Every day, when I read my reasons for putting myself through calorie restriction and exercise, the NO CHOICE card is also there, and I read it too. If I want to become as physically fit as the goal I’ve set for myself, I don’t have a choice.
Which brings me to writing. My Friday posts are about making a living writing for publication. To me, this involves the discipline of writing every day (something I’ve caught quite a bit of flak for saying) and acting professionally and reasonably even in the face of rejection and bad reviews. It involves putting up with shifting deadlines and making the effort each day, every day. Sure, I’d rather sit up in an ivory tower and be a Speshul Snowflake, but that won’t feed the kids OR get me invited back to be published again.
There are several times during the day when that little NO CHOICE card flashes through my mind. As Dr. Beck points out, there are rules in everyone’s life. You don’t struggle or agonize over brushing your teeth, do you? (At least, I don’t. And neither do my wee ones.) It’s just the way it is.
Here’s why this is valuable: if sitting down to write every day is a rule, you don’t struggle with it. You make time to do it because it’s a priority. You have no choice. Getting into the mindset that this is important and you don’t have a choice about doing it increases your chances of getting published exponentially. Because you’re treating it seriously. If you can make time to catch that TV episode, you can make time to write every day. If you can make sure you have a latte every morning, you can make sure to write every day. Getting into the habit of considering daily writing a fait accompli is your first step.
Once you have a good solid discipline of writing every day, you can do what a lot of professionals do and take the occasional day off. Your busy little brain, in the habit of working through stories, will still be working all through your “day off”. Plus, once you have a good solid disciplined habit, it’s easier to get back into it after a holiday. But discipline is like a muscle, it must be used or it atrophies, and I have not met a single professional writer who doesn’t need to exercise that muscle and spend effort to start it back up again after a holiday.
Viewing this as a “no choice” thing frees up a lot of energy I would otherwise use bitching and moaning about it. It gives me a lot more energy to just concentrate on what I’m doing. It’s the same reason I find rollercoasters relaxing–from the moment I’m strapped in and the car jolts forward, I’m in the hands of the gods. I can’t do a single thing. It’s a submission to the inevitable, and it works for me.
So here’s my advice if you want to write for publication: get yourself an index card and write NO CHOICE on it in the biggest blackest letters you can. Read it twice a day, and really think about the things you make time for, the priorities you have. If writing is not on that list and you want it to be, do it. Just say “it’s not fair, oh well, I have no choice, I HAVE to write today.” Set your kitchen timer for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and go to.
You’d be amazed at how those two little words–both the “oh well” and the “NO CHOICE”–open up time where you thought you had none. It’s not fair, you’re right.
But that’s the way it is, and it’s the best advice I can offer.
I was on the treadmill this morning (big surprise, I’m up to six days a week on that damn thing and wishing I could do more) and Van Morrison came on in my headphones. Singing The Philosopher’s Stone.
Even my best friends, even my best friends they don’t know
That my job is turning lead into gold
When you hear that engine, when you hear that engine drone
I’m on the road again and I’m searching for the Philosopher’s Stone.
This particular version is from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, which I happen to like a great deal. (The Bob Dylan track that opens the album is Rose’s theme song in smoke, as a matter of fact.) The movie itself, based on a Chabon book, is about a writer who’s kept hammering at a manuscript to follow up his award-winning first novel…but that’s like saying Seven Samurai is about loyalty. There’s a lot more involved.
Anyway. So there I am on the treadmill, and I realize why I like this song so much.
It’s because it’s damn right I’m looking for the philosopher’s stone. My job is to write, yes. But an artist’s job–even a hack like myself–is to transform the world. I write because I must. The world demands it. Pain and joy both demand it. I take the things that could fester and destroy me, the things I scream against, and I write to perform one of the oldest magics known. I name a thing, and that name alters the essence of the thing. I write because it’s the magic I was made to work.
Lead and gold are different things for each traveler, and the method of transmutation is different too. It’s different for each bloody pebble and chunk of lead you find. It is a most personal magic, arrived at through trial and error. One size definitely does not fit all. My lead isn’t yours. The stones I drop in the water to make soup are different from the stones you’ll use. It’s cold out on the road, and fellow travelers may not even see you–because they’re searching for their own method of transformation.
Still, it’s nice to know there are fellow travelers. And it’s good to feel a piercing joy, so sweet it makes the tears start, when you realize a fellow traveler is putting words on your own journey.
Up in the morning, up in the morning out on the road
And my head is aching and my hands are cold
And I’m looking for the silver lining, silver lining in the clouds
And I’m searching for and
I’m searching for the philosophers stone
Today is a day for clothes shopping. No, not for me. I’d rather have my skin peeled off in strips than go clothes shopping for me. But I do like going shopping for the kids. We’re doing the midyear school clothes basics tour today–jeans, T-shirts and solid sweaters, because they keep growing and this will provide a base for them when they Go To School. It’s going to be fun.
Sadly, it must be a banzai run rather than an all-day safari, because I’ve line edits to keep whaling at. Editing makes me cranky. I’m glad someone else has done most of the markup for me and I can just approve it or insert my own changes. This is the last big push before copyedits, so it will set me up for writing Dru 4–which is taking shape quite nicely, to the tune of 2K a day or thereabouts.
So, don’t expect to hear from me a lot for the rest of the week. Unless it’s a moderate amount of bitching on Twitter. That’s about all I have energy for.
Small announcement: I will be doing #askawriter on Twitter, from 6:30-7pm, PST. Come ask me questions about writing and publishing, I will answer all I can within that timeframe. Be sure to use the hashtag! I’ve done #askawriter twice now, and it’s been a lot of fun, not to mention good practice distilling answers into 140 characters. Also, you can check my Events Calendar. I will be putting #askawriter and other chats on there, as well as appearances and signings.
A lot of people have asked me recently if I get confused between the different worlds and series I write. It’s a fair question, since I am seen as being pretty prolific. (I am not nearly as fast as I want to be, believe me.)
The short answer is, no. The lighting is too different.
The long answer requires a digression. But you pretty much guessed that, didn’t you.
I’m going to tell you (oh, all right, I’m telling the world, same difference) something I’ve never told anyone before. When I was a little girl, I would be sent to bed far earlier than my body clock liked. I had a lot of time, lying there in the dark. And what I would do is tell myself stories. But I wouldn’t just repeat them, words on a string. I saw them. I literally built them inside my head, like movies. I trained myself to see every scene, right down to the glasses on a kitchen counter or the titles of the books on a nightstand. I built very detailed scenes inside my head, and fell asleep inside them.
What I didn’t realize was that I was training to see stories. Recently at an event, a scriptwriter told me my books are “cinematic.” The reason is simple: I see them. I stop scenes, pan around, and the soundtrack gives me a voiceover of what the characters are thinking. I can slip inside a character’s head and see things from their angle, jump out and into another body–it was and is intensely liberating, for someone with such an emotionally impoverished and stricture-heavy childhood.
So, you will now understand when I say there is never any doubt or question for me what story I am in at any particular time. I can’t help but tell them apart, if only for the simple reason that the lighting is different.
It’s become second-nature for me to go inside my head and let the scene open up around me. Then it is a straightforward matter of finding the most elegant or efficacious way to describe what exactly I’m seeing. The words and the vision go together for me, two wheels of a bicycle. I have two problems while writing: getting enough detail in the scene to help other people see it, and finding the exact right word to describe what I’m seeing. The first is often solved by one of my editors, who quickly learn to mark where I’m seeing the scene so clearly I fall into the trap of assuming everyone else can see it too. The second is why I am a word magpie, always hunting them down and stuffing them away inside my brainmeat. I need every single one I can find–who knows when I might have to use them to convey a precise meaning?
This is why I am never uncertain of what story I’m in. Often the lighting alone will give me clues about what sort of story it is, and I learn a particular story’s lighting very thoroughly by the time I’m done with a book.
Each book, each world, is a total-immersion hallucination for me. Which makes it sound crazy, yes. But that crazy pays the bills, so I’m not complaining. (“We need the eggs.”) I see, smell, touch these worlds. I know what the bars smell like, how the alleys look at three in the morning, what a sunrise means to people, the creaks of individual houses, the shape of characters’ noses. The training–literally hundreds of hours spent building them from the time I was old enough to understand what a story was–has been invaluable. I still fall asleep spinning stories and worlds inside my head.
I think many writers are afraid of letting their worlds become too real. Who wouldn’t be? “Don’t daydream, pay attention!” is something we’re told thousands of times, growing up. Learning that skill–and it is a learned, learn-able skill, to a better or worse degree–of building something inside your head isn’t just for writing stories or painting, though. Every day an adult human being runs through possible consequences of their actions, lightning-fast decisions based on scenarios. Seeing a story is, for me, no different than playing out “what will happen if I run this red light?” inside your head. I can visualize the resultant car crash or ticket just as vividly as I can block out a fight scene in Jill Kismet’s world.
If visualizing a story sounds like a skill that will help you, try setting aside some time for it during the day. I’m not talking much–five or ten minutes, with your trusty kitchen timer set to help. Close your eyes and start simple–try visualizing a point. When you’ve got the point, try a line. Make it a white line on a black background, and then change it to different colors. From there you can try flat shapes in different colors. When you’re ready to make the jump to 3D, try simple things–an apple, a brick wall.
I know some writers don’t visualize, but I think that’s probably the one thing I can’t imagine. So, my question for this week is, how about you? Do you “see” the stories you write? Do you hear or smell them? How does that work for you? Tell me how or if you see the stories you tell.
Still can’t run. A sharp jolt of pain up my leg from the sprained toe dissuades me. However, the pain isn’t as sharp as it was yesterday. I’ll give myself the weekend, then dammit, I’m running again. I don’t care if it hurts.
Last night I was at the PNBA Nightcapper event. The volunteers were awesome, especially Patti, who stood next to me and handed me books, soothing me all the while. I got to shake Greg Bear‘s hand again. (I did not pass out this time!) I also got to actually see, converse with, and touch the hand of Patricia Briggs. (Where I was near to passing out, I love her stuff so much.) You know, I am still a squeeing fangirl on the inside sometimes.
I signed a few books, saw a few booksellers I recognized, and got to tell an utterly cool punk-rock librarian that her library system (Pierce County) had literally saved my life. Not once, but again and again through years. Libraries have always been safe places.
This week’s been monumentally busy, and I am deep in the wilds of revision. True to form, as soon as I start working on another project, the current novel gets jealous and wants to take center stage again. I have often compared novels to cats–they don’t want to be petted unless one is looking at something else. Little stinkers.
* Mike Briggs (Patricia Briggs’s husband) on Copyright and Free. I didn’t get a chance to tell Ms. Briggs that I nodded so hard I almost got whiplash while reading this.
The basic idea seems to be that authors are somehow unconscionably greedy, working for a few months and then living a life of luxury forever, while honest folks work for wages every day. Naturally, the only way to fix the situation is to take the author’s work for free.
The fact is that most authors never manage to make a living wage despite the excessively long copyright terms. It takes many months, often years to craft a good novel and get it published. Authors don’t get paid an hourly wage, so the sales of the final product need to compensate for hundreds or thousands of hours of labor. At fifty cents or so per book, it can take a long time to make writing a profitable venture. (Mike Briggs)
He approaches other arguments I’ve heard people make ad nauseum, and gently shows why they’re not, well, good arguments. It all boils down to: “You want writers to produce that content you love, great. Don’t steal from them. That makes it harder.”
There are no mythical editors who sit there before a stack of manuscripts and think, “Yep, have to guard the gate.” When an editor sits down before the pile of submissions, he or she most likely think, “I hope I find an awesome book and I hope it will be a bestseller.” They want to find somebody to publish. That’s how they stay in business. (Ilona Andrews)
But all of this is neither here nor there. The bottom line is that YA books are not meant to raise children. They are everything any adult book is. They are entertainment. They are a place to see ourselves. They are a place to get lost for a few hours. They are a place to make us think and wonder and imagine. They are a place to evoke anger, disagreement, discussion, and maybe tears. Books have no other responsibility than not to make the reader hate reading. (Mary Pearson)
You are not owed a read from a professional, even if you think you have an in, and even if you think it’s not a huge imposition. It’s not your choice to make. This needs to be clear–when you ask a professional for their take on your material, you’re not just asking them to take an hour or two out of their life, you’re asking them to give you–gratis–the acquired knowledge, insight, and skill of years of work. It is no different than asking your friend the house painter to paint your living room during his off hours. (Josh Olson)
It may sound harsh and it may offend people, but goddammit, it’s true. You have to do the work yourself, not imagine you can piggyback on someone else’s. It’s amazing how many Speshul Snowflakes, entitled to the max, believe they can climb up on someone else’s back because the world Owes It To Them. And it just ain’t necessarily so, sugar.
Write this out in letters ten feet high and underline it in neon: It does not matter WHAT you write. It matters THAT you write, dammit. Just sitting down and producing every day is the important thing here. It is the habit, the discipline, that will carry you through the rough patches when the fear threatens to eat your soul and the laziness and loneliness threaten to finish off the rest of you. Just sitting down and doing it, no matter what, is the cure. (October 2007)
I have very little patience with the “oh, I’m blooooocked…” whine. I have never suffered writer’s block. I need to pay rent and feed my kids too badly to indulge in that little luxury. If one piece of work isn’t coming along, I switch to something that is. When I’ve got to buckle down and get the work done, dammit, it’s time to buckle down and get the work done. My deadlines, hence my livelihood, depend on it. My babies and my landlord and my ability to visit the grocery store depend on it as well. I like eating and having a place to live.
There is this persistent idea that writers and other artists are at the mercy of the magical mythical Muse. I do blog about the Muse in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but let me tell you something: I expect that bitch to work or I’ll hold auditions for a new one. Her part of the job is simple: to supply the magic dust. I don’t care where she gets it, that’s her problem.
My part of the job is to be here to catch that dust when it falls. To show up, every day, just as if this was a Real Job. Because it is. Maybe someone who doesn’t depend on this for a living can afford to be blocked, but I’m not that person.
I feel like there’s not much for me to talk about today, especially as I’m still scrambling to catch up from last week’s Mini Tour Madness (part I recap is here) and dealing with a couple of other personal things, including a crisis of confidence. It’s kind of like what Tracey talked about earlier this week–the feeling that one is an imposter as a writer. That there is going to be a grand unmasking and someone will yell “You really suck!” and rotten vegetables will be thrown and then the sun will go out and everyone will starve to death and it’s all my fault.
I go through this every time I write a book, more or less. Especially when I write under deadline. I know it’s irrational. Believe me, I know. But it doesn’t help when I’m struggling with the first third of a book that just won’t cooperate, before the click happens and everything falls into place. The things I thought I was just doing blindly turn out to be fortuitous, little Easter eggs from the Muse. I’m taught once again that I have to trust in the work.
It isn’t easy. You’d think after over thirty novels written and 20 or so published, I would have gotten this down. You’d think it would get easier, and that I would get to the point where feeling like an imposter is either inapplicable or doesn’t bother me.
It hasn’t yet. Sure, it’s grown incrementally easier to deal with. But I still struggle with this feeling over and over again. Part of it is my upbringing and psychological makeup–I was never “good enough” as a child or young adult, and the flip side of the resultant fierce perfectionism is the idea that one is unnaturally imperfectible and thus has to work twice as hard, twice as long. It’s a vicious cycle, because nothing is ever good enough. Sometimes I’m okay at letting that be a spur to work as hard as I can. Other times the sharp edge turns against me.
And that bastard cuts deep.
Often in my Friday writing posts I give my honest advice, which means I also have to admit when I’m struggling, or I end up in the “do as I say, not as I do” contingent. Which I hate. I love this job, I think I’m pretty okay at it most days, but there are also those days with thorns and knives. Today is one of them, and though I know I’ve dealt with this at least 30 times before, the feelings are still raw and intense. It only helps a little to remind myself that this, too, shall pass.
But a little help is better than none. At least, so it seems to me. So if you’re struggling today too, let me hand you some chocolate and a hankie, or a beer and a coaster, or whatever will help. Let me grab your hand and tell you not to give up, that it will get better if we keep slogging through and trusting the work. That as long as we’re doing the best we can, we’re not imposters, even if we feel like it. That someone else goes through this every day, and we’re not alone.
I won’t let go. You keep hanging on too, and we’ll get through somehow.