The Synchronous Mailbag

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check us out!

The Dames have been answering a lot of questions lately, and I’m going to join the fun. I often get emailed the same questions by a number of different people at once; they seem to come in waves. Here are the three questions about writing I’ve been asked by more than five people in the last two weeks, and my answers. Enjoy!

* How do you get your ideas/How do you know if an idea is good enough for a book/What do you do when you don’t have an idea of what to write? (And various permutations thereof.)

I get asked this in spates, usually about every three months. It kind of puzzles me.

Ideas are not the problem. The discipline to sit down and finish something is the problem. Being worried about “not having ideas” is kind of like living in the Pacific Northwest and being worried there isn’t enough mold. If there’s one thing I’ve never had to worry about, it’s a paucity of shiny things to mentally play with. If you’re reading this, you’re a thinking monkey with an actively-producing-ideas few pounds of meat inside your skull; if you want to be a writer, you always have ideas swarming around inside said skull screaming to get out. There are ideas lurking in your kitchen junk drawer, in the face of every passerby, in every daydream or what-if question. Believe me, the there are enough ideas around to keep everyone busy until the sun explodes, and we won’t even have scratched the surface.

How do you know if an idea is “good enough”? Short answer: You don’t. Longer answer: You don’t until you attempt it. After a few years of constantly attempting stories, you can develop a feel for those ideas that have some meat and legs to them, weight and heft and complexity enough for a short story or a novella, or a novel entire, or a series. You also learn, in the course of those attempts, how to scratch below the surface of a story and discover the complexity in even the simplest of ideas. This can only be learned by doing, like so much else in this line of work.

As for “not having an idea of what to write”…I have never understood that. Is that an attempt to resuscitate the old canard of writer’s block? (There’s a cure for that.) Is it saying “I have so many ideas I can’t pick one?” That’s time-wasting, and a way for your Inner Censor to keep you chasing your own tail. Pick one and go. Is it saying “I don’t want to sit down day after day and do the boring typing?” Well, okay, but that defeats the purpose of being a writer, doesn’t it? Writers write. It doesn’t matter what you write, it matters THAT you write, and if you “can’t find” an idea, the problem isn’t with writing or the ideas. The problem is not opening your eyes and seeing the crowd of ideas that’s screaming “PICK ME! OOOH, PICK ME!” You can go to a mall or a casino and people-watch, you can open up your kitchen drawers, you can watch a few random scenes from a movie or listen to some random songs on shuffle. The genesis of story idea is usually a “What if/Why…” question, and getting into the habit of asking yourself “what if” and “why” about things is sort of the magic set of goggles that will allow you to see that invisible crowd.

* I am a new/young writer, do you have any advice?

This is an every-six-months sort of question. I’ll get twenty of them in a row every half-year, usually for summer and winter breaks. I kind of want to do a form letter to send back saying “Yes. And yes. And yes. I can only add: pay attention, and do the work.”

* “How much research do you do?”

Every month I get one of these. Short answer: a LOT. Longer answer: well, everything I read is research, every movie I watch is research, every new song I find is research, every time I cook it’s research. All things feed the work. If you’re asking me how many or how few hours of research go into each book, I can’t tell you.

For example, some of the things I researched for the Valentine series included: leaf springs (for hovers), ballistics, brushing up on human and canine anatomy and physiology, the geography of Prague, the battle of Blackbird Fields, legends of the Nephilim, the Goetia, demonology, friction, strata, relative weight of a dotanuki, ethical systems–and other things, too varied to count. The research ranged from simple questions that were answered in a few minutes by looking something up to month-long binges of reading in a particular subject, strip-mining everything I could lay my hands on. I probably research less than most authors of historical fiction, who go deeply into their chosen era, but I range pretty widely. I’m more a magpie researcher; everything I pick up goes into the storeroom and moulders into a fertile sludge there. Your mileage may vary, but I am (as is pretty evident here) a big believer in creative ferment, and in everything that goes into my head serving some sort of purpose, even if only as ballast.

So there you have it, three questions I’ve received numerous times over the last few weeks. I expect a new crop by the turn of the year…

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

On Vacations

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there are contests, prizes, Readers on Deadline, and demons. But don’t worry. We have the demons under control. Mostly…

“Do you ever take a day off?” a health professional asked me today. “Do you ever take a vacation?”

“Not often,” I replied. “I can’t go for very long without writing. It itches under my skin, the words have to get out. It’s physically uncomfortable.”

“But everyone needs some time off.”

“I guess. Sometimes I just look through and tighten what I did the day before. That means I only write about 200 fresh words, sometimes, but it’s tweaking and tightening everything else that scratches the itch.”

“Weekends too?”

“Weekends too. Except then I get up and wander away to spend time with the kids, then come back when they’re done.” I paused. She was looking at me in a most peculiar manner. “I’m not crazy, I just like my job.”

I’m the picture of health, actually, other than some anemia. My pulse is a nice even 60 per minute, my blood pressure is extraordinarily low because of the running, and I’m reasonably fit. The bloodwork says my liver is healthy, for which I give a great deal of credit to that glass of red wine with dinner. (You’ve got to stretch those cells out, keep ‘em flexible.) But all of a sudden she’s looking narrowly at me.

I’m not crazy. I just don’t take a lot of time off. My job is a vacation, for heaven’s sake. Each day I get to do the thing I was designed and built for. It lowers my stress to sit down and write.

I’m between books right now. Kind of. I have some revisions staring at me, but I am coyly refusing to return their gaze. (We’re in the let-the-edit-letter-rest section of revisions.) After the crunch of three books at once earlier in the year (who else was seriously questioning my sanity? OTHER than my writing partner, editor, and agent? Why, that would be ME. Anyway.) I deliberately built a little bit of time into my schedule to decompress. But am I lying about on some tropical beach? Hell no. Sand would get into my laptop.

I’m writing. A trunk novel about zombies, a cowboy, a schoolmarm, and a gold claim. Not to mention vampires and a pawnshop and chartermages. I am having a ball with it. Nobody will ever read it, of course, I don’t think it would ever sell…but I like it. I giggle with glee every time I open the document. I wriggle with joy at a neat turn of phrase. I outright chortle every time I throw another obstacle in the sheriff’s way.

This is a vacation, dammit. And the little dopamine glows I get from, say, a well-turned phrase or the wordcount reached for the day just reinforce it. I get a reward each time I sit down to write. Yeah, some times it’s like chipping hardened cheese out of wooden scrollwork, but there’s even some joy in that. In a job well done and polished at the end of the day.

Slight digression: I advocate daily writing because it builds discipline, not because I happen to get a glow from it. Some professionals can take a few weeks between books, or need to refill the well with time spent away, or days when they’re not dragging the words out into the ring and making them dance. (Isn’t that a lovely mental image.) That’s perfectly okay–one size does not fit all. And yet I advocate daily writing, and will continue to do so, because it’s very easy to mistake laziness or fear for the much more pleasant-sounding “needing some time off” or “vacation.” The professionals who take time off know that it’s hard to get back up onto the horse, and they have their own tips and tricks for doing so. YMMV.

“I hated writing in school,” she said, finally, taping the cotton ball over the bright tear of blood on my inner arm. “Your job sounds like my idea of torture.”

“Likewise.” I grinned. You’re sticking needles in me. I would be unhappy if I had to do that all day. “If I had to do what you do I’d go mad. Well, madder than I already am…”

“I don’t think they’ll commit you just yet,” she laughed.

But I got out of there quickly anyway. You never can tell.

And now, back to scratching the itch…

This Saturday I’m at the Author Faire at C2C books in Battle Ground! Also, check out the Hedgewitch Queen–my first e-only release, and $2.99 in the US for the entire month of December.

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

The Battle of Pelennor Sunroom

“SHIT!” I screamed, as I skidded around the corner into my kitchen from the garage. “NO NO NO! NOOOOO!”

The squirrel wasn’t listening. The dog, attached to the couch, was barking hysterically.

When we last saw Neo, he had voiced his battlecry and flung himself into my unprotected house. This was a fine way for the goddamn rodent to repay me for not leaving him in the road to die. Gratitude may be a virtue, but I really am beginning to think it’s one this little asshole doesn’t possess.

Several thoughts flash through one’s head when one has inadvertently let a demonic tree-rat into one’s house. Let me see if I can list them in some kind of coherent order.

Read the rest of this entry »

PSA, Plus Win A Copy of Angel Town!

First, the serious: Jim C. Hines on reporting sexual harassment in the SFF community. The comments also mention Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, which I also can’t recommend enough.

Then, the fun! Would you like to win a signed (in the US) or free (outside the US) copy of my just-released Angel Town? Or a copy of fellow Dame Keri Arthur’s Darkness Rising? Or would you, perchance, like a $15 Amazon gift certificate? Would you?

Well, you’re in luck! Just head over to the Deadline Dames’ latest Release Day Giveaway. All you have to do to get a chance to win is comment there. The Dames, we believe in making it easy to win.

We’re cool like that.

While you’re there, you can also find tons of other cool things, like the Readers on Deadline contests and helpful writing/publishing advice. And as soon as we figure out how to give out pie over the Internet, we’ll probably do that too.

Because we’re Dames. And Dames rock.

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

Kicking Distance

Over at the Deadline Dames today I talk about what I do when I’m not writing. Also, I told you guys I was going to get another tattoo, I did.

Unfortunately, the other news around here is that the Little Prince brought home a summer cold, and it’s one of those stupid ones that lingers in the back of the throat, tasting like Pine-Sol. Just enough snot to be icky, but not enough to really justify staying in bed, and feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck.

Yeah. Like that.

So, I’m going to go pour more hot tea and cool water down my throat, load up on vitamin C, and get back in the game tomorrow. Or, if not back in the game, at least within kicking distance of the board.

See you then.

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

Valuable Skills Learned By Telling Lies For A Living

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there’s tons more writing advice, contests, and pie! (Okay, maybe no pie.) Check us out!

Every once in a while, I like to sit down and think of about five things to make a post. Since I’m exhausted and stare-eyed after a long, very busy week that went straight through the weekend without even pausing to nod, I see this as a very good strategy for today. So, without further ado, here’s Five Things Writing Will Teach You, Or, Valuable Skills Learned By Telling Lies For A Living.

Read the rest of this entry »