How Many Cliches Spoil The Brew?

death's_vacation_layoutHappy Friday, everyone! I started out today feeling ultra-lame because I didn’t even have a ghost of an idea about the regular Friday post. But I’ve got news, so we’ll get to that first. To the left you’ll see the cover for Death’s Excellent Vacation, an anthology coming out in August 2010. There’s a ton of awesome authors in it–LA Banks, Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, and Jeaniene Frost, to name a few. My story, The Heart Is Always Right, focuses on a gargoyle who wants to visit Fiji.

I’m also doing #askawriter tonight on Twitter, from 7-7:30PM. When I do schedule #askawriter and other chats, they will be on my Event Calender.

So I mentioned I was having trouble getting a subject for the Friday post, and Devon Monk piped up that a Deadline Dames reader had asked about cliches in fiction–when it’s OK, when it’s too much, so on, so forth.

My, what a meaty subject.

From Wikipedia:

A cliché (US: /klɪˈʃeɪ/ UK: /ˈkliːʃeɪ/, from French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea which is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. It is likely to be used pejoratively. A cliché may sometimes be used in a work of fiction for comedic effect.

I have mixed feelings on the subject of cliches. Expressions that were once popular and have achieved the status of cliche usually have some kernel of truth to them. They can be useful in small doses, especially when you’re fleshing out a character through dialogue. The type of cliche a character picks in certain situations is, ahem, a window to the soul.

Cliches are like exclamation points or Dave’s Insanity Sauce. You don’t want to use more than a little bit to add some spice and heat. It’s very easy to add too much and descend into inedible bathos.

For me, the problem of cliche is similar to the problem of metaphor and simile. On the one hand, the poetic comparison of metaphor and simile gives writing a lot of its savor. On the other, it’s possible to choke the other important parts–description, movement, le mot juste, et cetera.

So. How much cliche is OK?

We get into dangerous waters here (ha) because writing is so incredibly subjective. If I gave any metric–say, seven cliches per book–immediately someone can find a classic (satire or otherwise) or an incredibly popular book that breaks that rule. Some books are nothing but stock characters and cliche (hello, most Westerns and and the technical manuals of Clancy, the Mack Bolan series–need I go on?) and still manage to do quite well because they are fulfilling reader expectations. I don’t think it’s possible to have a cliche-free book, because human beings use cliches on a daily basis.

When I worked retail and customer service, cliches were stock-in-trade. You take refuge in verbal cliches day after day to smooth social interaction and provide the “service” people expect. It’s social lubricant. If you interact with people on a daily basis, cliche will come along every day, because it’s safe and easy communication.

In writing, cliches can be safe and easy sometimes. They can even be useful. You can have cliche dialogue, cliche description, or cliche plot. Let’s take them one at a time.

* Cliche dialogue: This is by far the most effective use of cliche. To have a character choose a particular cliche in a situation is a golden opportunity to show more about that person. Let’s pick a cliche. “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Simple, huh?

“But who’ll take care of me?” he whined.

Mrs. Edison shrugged, gathering up her pocketbook. “I don’t know, Herb. All I know’s I ain’t gonna no more.”

“But–”

“For years you were that rollin stone, gatherin no moss. If you’d’a gathered some moss here maybe I coulda lived on that and stayed. You can wash you own damn underwear now.” And with that, she headed for the door. She stepped outside into the fragrance of blossoming jasmine, and sighed. Sliding her purse onto her shoulder, Mrs. Edison took the first three steps into the rest of her life.

Now, let’s have another character use this cliche.

“Saving your ass, kid.” He ducked down, and dug in the bag at his feet. His eyes sparkled, cheeks flushed, and he looked like he was having a hell of a time. “Whooo-ee. They really want you dead.”

Holly’s jaw dropped as he came up with three grenades. He tugged the pin out of the first, lobbed it, and had the second in the air a second later. The third went too, and before she even thought of moving he had grabbed her, shoving her toward the floor. The explosions made the ground quiver, and Holly’s scream was lost in the concrete, his weight pressing all the air out of her.

Then he was up again, his hand bruising-tight around her arm. “Time to go. Rolling stone gathers no moss.”

“You’re insane.” Her ears rang. Her legs were noodles. But he picked up his bag and dragged her anyway.

Different characters use the cliche for different reasons, and each time it says something different about the character.

* Cliche description: Strong as a horse. Mean as a rattlesnake. Papa was a rolling stone. A cliche description can be used to add piquancy, but you must be absolutely certain you are using it for spice instead of laziness. It’s like the word “that”–nine times out of ten it’s not necessary, and you should make very sure of the tenth time too. Cliche description is most often a function of cliche storytelling–i.e., stock characters and stock situations.

* Cliche storytelling: The wacky gay best friend. The sidekick. The hero in the white hat. The villain playing dead and rising up for one last grab at the hero. The love scene right after the fight scene, one-third of the way through the movie. These are all examples of stock characters and stock situations. We’ve grown to expect them, and they have been with us since people started telling stories.

These things are useful shorthand, telling a reader what to expect. They are forms and strictures, and any form or stricture is useful to help a piece of art hold its shape. Otherwise it’s just a huge blob, like a body without a skeleton or skin. Without the framework and boundaries, all you’ve got is quivering Jell-O.

But the real fun comes in subverting the forms and strictures. Cliches and stock storytelling are useful training wheels for writers. They teach us expectations, story pacing, and what the reader expects. You absolutely must know and use them for a while before you know enough to break them effectively, to subvert and play with them, stand them on their head and change them up. Within the forms and strictures is a type of absolute freedom that is the paradox of art.

When are cliches too much? When you’re using them unconsciously, or out of laziness. You must be as vigilant about cliche as you are about the passive voice. If you spot a cliche in your work, you really have to stop and think. Ask yourself these questions:

* Does it move the story along?
* Does it show something about this character that I can’t show in another way, or that I don’t want to show in another way? Why?
* Is this how someone would behave in real life, or is this how they would behave in a movie? And which do I want here for the purposes of this book/short story?
* Does this set up an expectation I am going to fulfill or deny? Why?
* Is there another way to do this?
* What would happen if the character did/said Something Else, something diametrically opposed to or just slightly different than what I’ve got here now?

These are all valuable questions that will start the process of deciding whether the cliche is necessary and an artistic decision instead of a lazy piece o’prop. And of course, your beta and editor, not to mention your readers, will have their own ideas of what’s cliche, how much is too much, and whether the character is behaving the way Someone Like That would behave. It’s a balancing act, like so much about this art. The older I get, the more I think everything is a balancing act, stacking things against each other and holding the tightwire middle course.

What, you thought I’d have a hard and fast rule?

Perish the thought.

Note: No cliches were harmed in the making of this post. A number of electrons were horribly inconvenienced and a few grammatical rules were assaulted, but everyone agreed it was for the best.

Different Worlds

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
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.

For example, the Dante Valentine series had a very specific look. It was very Ridley Scott Bladerunner. The Jill Kismet books are very Alex Proyas, the first Crow movie. The lighting for the Watcher series is very Conspiracy Theory. My fantasy books are highly color-saturated, very Tarsem Singh, like the Cell or the Fall. (Or like House of Flying Daggers, which is what Kaia Steelflower’s world looks like inside my head.) Dru Anderson’s world, in Strange Angels, looks a lot like the lighting in Wong Kar-Wei’s Fallen Angels.

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.

I’m listening.

From Copyright To “Writer’s Block”

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
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.

So, today you get linkspam in lieu of a regular Friday post. If you can, spare a vote for my cookies-and-dismemberment T-shirt! Check out yesterday’s post on writer’s magic, too.

* 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.”

* Ilona Andrews on publishing and marketing. Several good things in here. In particular, she demolishes one huge myth:

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)

* Mary Pearson, on what YA Lit is and isn’t. Can I just say AMEN and HALLELUJAH?

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)

* Josh Olson, screenwriter for (among other things) A History of Violence, saying why I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.

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.

* And finally, because I’ve been asked three times about it in the last two days (no, AngryBrit, you were not the first or the last, I promise), here is a piece I wrote two years ago about writer’s block. Specifically, how I don’t believe it exists.

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.

But then, you knew that.

Over and out.

When I’m Down, I Give A Pep Talk

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Good morning, everyone.

There have been some great posts recently at the Deadline Dames. Tracey O’Hara talked about feeling like an imposter in writer’s clothing, Dame Devon with five easy steps to start a writing career, Dame Jackie on surviving conventions, and Dame Rachel on research.

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.

Then we’ll go kick some ass.

Over and out.

Home Again, Home Again

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I’ve just arrived home from the mini-tour with Richelle Mead. Dude, Richelle’s fans are hardcore. I also got to meet a few fans of my own, which was awesome. Each event was wonderful.

I know today is Friday, but the entire trip was exhausting. We literally saw nothing but airports, our media escorts’ cars, the events, and hotel rooms. Unfortunately, on trips like this you can’t really do much sightseeing. Richelle’s a trooper–she’s got something like twenty more days of touring. I don’t know how she does it.

So here are three book-tour-traveling tips. I’ll have a recap on Monday, when my brain resembles oatmeal less.

* Plastic bags. Bread bags and Ziplocs have a million uses, from making sure your shampoo bottle doesn’t explode all over your clothes to holding hairclips and rubber bands.

* Rest when you can. I know it sounds bad, but when you need all your strength for events, sightseeing becomes almost nonexistent. Events are pretty taxing, even if nobody shows up, and especially if a bunch of people show up.

* Thank your hosts. Being polite never hurts. It may even get you invited back. Thank-you letters to your media escorts (especially when they are ultra-super-efficient) are a Good Thing, too.

And a bonus tip: once you’re in your hotel room, drink all the water you can. Air travel is dehydrating, and when you’re already stressed dehydration can bugger up your immune system even further.

I know this is short. I’m so, so glad to be home, and so exhausted it’s unbelievable. I caught a travel cold, too. As I invariably do. You wouldn’t think I’d catch a fricking cold in California, but I did. Grr.

See you Monday! And if you happen to be somewhere Richelle’s touring, go out and show some love! She is always worthwhile.

Friday Five

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I’m getting ready for the mini-tour and knocking off wordcount on Heaven’s Spite, so today we have a list of five things about writing as a career.

1. Writing is a physical act. Yes, you do it sitting in front of a word-processor, or sitting at a desk. That does not mean it is effortless. The sheer brute physical labor of typing eighty to a hundred thousand words for a novel (and let’s not even talk about revisions) is hard on the delicate structures of your wrist and arm, not to mention your brachial plexus (thoracic outlet syndrome and carpal tunnel problems are real risks to writers.) Plus there’s the fact that sitting for long periods is hard on the body.

Stretching and moderate exercise will not only make sure you have a less-painful career at the keyboard, but it will also help your writing. It clears out toxins and makes the prose more supple. More importantly, you have got to take care of yourself, or your body might rebel. And that ain’t pretty.

2. A story is an arc. The story equation goes like this: There is a situation in equilibrium. Something happens to disturb that equilibrium. The rest of the story is events finding a new equilibrium, and when it is found, the story naturally ends. The first line of the story is like your first cut in a duel. It holds the pattern for the rest of the arc. The story expands from that first line, and reaches a point where it must contract–where all the threads of expansion need to be picked back up and woven back down to a line. This point is not necessarily the climax. It’s different for each piece of work.

Finding that arc, finding the point where the story has to stop expanding and must start contracting toward climax and denouement, takes practice. This is why writing’s a skilled art–it takes lots and lots of practice.

3. The story belongs to the character who changes the most. I’ve attributed this saying to Karen Fisher, but I think it was actually Laura Kalpakian who said it.

Writers often bemoan the secondary character who thrusts him or herself onto the stage and won’t go away. Often, this is the principle at work–the secondary character is actually the one doing the changing. You can even have a main character who is not the character the story belongs to. That also takes practice and skill to pull off.

When you’re stuck in a story, or the characters seem lifeless, turn this into a question. “Whose story is this? Who is changing? Who is changing the most?” Often this helps jolt everything into perspective and shows you the hole in the structure.

4. No risk, no reward. If your characters aren’t risking anything, if there is not a significant chance that they will lose something that matters to them, there is little emotional payoff for the reader. Characters who are flawless have no real way of letting the reader identify with them, and they are never more than paper cutouts.

I do not want a paper cutout. I want blood and guts and bad breath. I want my characters to risk things. I want to risk things every time I sit down at this goddamn keyboard. Because I also want that reward.

5. Beware those who want something for nothing. Jess Hartley, this past week, had an interaction with such a one. This has happened many a time. Lots of people want something for nothing. And they assume that once you’re published, you hold a magic golden key for giving them what they want. What’s more, they assume that you will share this mythical golden key–that it is your duty, your pleasure and your obligation to hand over the golden key to them just for the asking.

This is another outcropping of Speshul Snowflakeism, and a particularly insidious one. Because this sort of Snowflake gets very passive-aggressive when it comes to getting what they want. It took me a merry go round with a few of them before I learned the signs and started just laughing and pressing the delete button when one cropped up.

Note that I’m not talking about the person who extends a perfectly civil, reasonable request and understands when an author can or can’t fulfill that request. I’m talking about the person who presumes a personal relationship with an author where none exists, and further presumes that the author Owes Him/Her Something on the basis of that presumption. That presumption is toxic. I could go on and on, but what would be the point? Just beware of those who expect something for nothing, on many levels.

That’s about it. I’ll add two links: Darkshiver on a particular social media don’t, and the inimitable Wolfinthewood with another roundup of links about the Google Book Settlement.

And now I’ve got to go get cracking. Books will not write themselves, and the small suitcase I’m taking won’t pack itself, either.

Over and out.

A Merry-Go-Round Full Of TNT

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Everyone here is cranky this morning. Including me.

I wouldn’t be keeping up my end of the Friday post bargain if I didn’t tell you something right now. I’m having trouble with the latest book. Coyote Boy (the UnSullen, for those of you who keep track of such things) informs me that it’s the same trouble I have every book.

I can’t help it if it feels like different trouble every time.

Here’s the thing: the book is not doing what I wanted it to do. What I had neatly planned. I have reached the point, as Philip Pullman so eloquently puts it, where I am being mugged by the book that wants to be written. The one where I realize I have 10-20K of pure wrong starting the book, and I have to throw out everything and start fresh, and maybe plug little bits of other stuff in, and ARGH.

Insert me running around screaming, feathers puffing out, fur flying.

What makes it more difficult this time around is the sheer level of personal change I’ve gone through in the last three months–changes in my status, my living space, you name it–taking up emotional bandwidth. Creating takes energy, and if that energy is being spent to maintain an even keel in the face of dire emotional stress…well, it’s got to come from somewhere, and I burn pretty close to the bone anyway. Reserves have been nonexistent, emotionally speaking, for a while now.

So, we have a problem. Lately writing is like scraping the inside of my skull with one of those things you use to get the seeds out of a pumpkin before you carve it. I have wordcount on this book I’m going to have to scrap, and I have not the faintest idea of what I’m going to do. How I’m going to work this thing or solve this problem.

What do I have going for me?

* Habit. Never have I been so glad of the habit of writing every day. Habit is either the best of slaves or the worst of masters, and right now it’s one of the few things saving me. I don’t feel right unless I put in some serious time writing each day.

* Discipline. I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I can’t. I need the money too badly. Kids gotta eat. Plus, editors and agent depending on me. I call it ‘discipline,’ but you could just as easily say I have told myself I have no choice. At this point I’m getting Yoda: There is no try. There is only do, or do not. And “do not” is not an option.

* Support network. I’m sure my editor could have lived without my email saying, “You, um, are okay with maybe not getting exactly the book we talked about a couple months ago, right? I mean, it’s still going to be the same series, and awesome, but when we last spoke I had this scaffolding and it just all crashed down around my ears. Please tell me you’re OK with this.” Or my agent could have done without my frantic call about the same thing. And that my writing partner and Coyote Boy could both do without me staring into the distance in the middle of conversations, my brain suddenly turning over a new idea and vapor-locking.

But sometimes, that’s what editors and agents and friends do. Sometimes they listen to you when you’re tearing your hair out. Sometimes they even reassure you that yes, you’ve done this before and no, the world didn’t end, and that the world ain’t gonna end this time either.

* Sheer cussedness. I’m sure you’ve figured out that the Friday posts are a way for me to keep myself on track, too. Because I am too stubborn for my own good, and dedicated to the idea of keeping my word. I refuse to admit that a book can beat me. Especially one like this.

Put this way, it seems like I have an awful lot going for me. I’m still agonizing over the book and telling myself that I do this every fricking time, that people who know me have SEEN me do it every fricking time, and that this is part of the process.

Unfortunately, this process does not give one a feeling of ease. The best one can hope for is a faint comfort. Every time I start out on the journey another book represents, I get the idea that it might be like carrying the Ring to Mordor. I’m pretty definite there will be a There, it’s the And Back Again I’m not sure I’ll pull off. I have no Gandalf, no Eagles, no Aragorn, no Legolas. I have no army or shiny palantir.

There’s just me and this keyboard. And the voices in my head. The trick of making something out of nothing is the same nerve-wracking exploit each time.

I have written over 35 novels at this point, a fair number of which are actually in print. The only ease I have acquired with the process is the faint suspicion that I’ve strapped myself to a merry-go-round full of TNT for each one and miraculously, each time come away whole. Maybe a bit singed, but essentially intact. I would be lying, friends and Readers, if I said I expected the process to get any easier. I would also be lying if I said I didn’t think about stopping every goddamn time. It’s the same thought about stopping I have when I’m in the rollercoaster, the bar has been locked, and we’re chugging up that first long slope.

I never have that thought until it’s too late.

And now for the point of this long ramble. This is not an easy job. It gets only marginally easier when you have a few books out and familiarity with the publishing side of it. The publishing and everything else depends very simply on you and the keyboard. Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide.

So be gentle with yourself. As far as you can, as far as whatever drives you to write will let you. If you’re looking at making a living on this merry-go-round full of TNT, first I’ll offer you my condolences. Then I’ll tell you something else: it ain’t easy, but I’m in here with you. You’re not alone.

And at the end of the day, uncertainty be damned. It’s still the job I love, the job I have no intention of quitting.

Over and out.