Keeping the Demons at Bay

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the Month: How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

Do you know, I almost forgot it was time to post for IWSG? My head has been “out of the game” for a couple of weeks now, and a certain passive shrug of acceptance has set in. Acceptance of fatigue, acceptance of frustration, and — worst of all — acceptance of my struggle to find the energy and time to write.

Oh, the words are still there, but lately it’s been harder and harder to crack through all the bullshit to get at them…

I was sitting around today, not doing much of anything. I was tired, I was bored, and I had no intention of doing anything. Finally, I forced myself out for a short hike. Now, keep in mind that where I live is not…err…civilized. Hell, the closest thing to civilization is an hour’s drive away. When I want to get lost, when I want to recover, all I really have to do is walk five minutes out the back door.

Rocks and trees, wind and sun…all the greys and greens of the Colorado mountains, broken only by knots of gold as the aspens huddle together, holding on to the last of their leaves.

I needed that hike.

I wrote before, when I was still living up in Yellowstone, about how getting out into the wilds is (usually) enough to renew my failing balance and energy. That hasn’t changed. A hike — even a short one, like today — is enough to get me in touch again with those words that can sometimes seem so far away.

It also helps me to hold the demons at bay. When frustration and bitterness begin to turn to depression — as they always, always do for me — one of the only sure answers is to hike my way out.

Which brings me to the IWSG question I listed above. There really is only one other way out, for me. Only one other way to keep at bay the demon of depression, and that is to write my way out.

“Has writing ever helped you through something?” the question asks.

Every single day.

I’ve lived with my personal ghosts and demons for so long, I don’t even notice them anymore. Until I start writing, that is. It is only through writing that I can truly recognize them, and only through writing that I can (temporarily) exorcise them.

Expressing my thoughts and emotions through my fingers — whether on a keyboard or with a pen — has helped me through more shit than I care to really talk about. I don’t care to talk about it, but I will write about it.

Writing has helped me through the suicides of close friends, through the destruction of my soul and the hardening of my heart, through the worst times of my life…it has helped me, even, through my own dancing flirtations with suicide.

Take away writing, and I lose all those fights.

Take away writing, and I wouldn’t be here.

When I was young, I would lose myself in the stories I read. In the machinations of the court of Amber, in the adventures of Pug and Tomas, in the interplay of Garion and Belgarath and Polgara, in millions of words by thousands of authors. But never — even in the worst of times, even when I needed escape the most — never did I lose myself like I can in the fluttering ghosts of my own characters, and in the words of my own stories…

Addendum:  As ever, there’s a song for that (in my world):

Wait, What? My Paper is Due Today?!

IMG_0163So there is an IWSG Question o’ the Day for today, but…well…I’m gonna go my own way on this one. Not because the question is bad, but because…

Well, honestly, just because.

Something I’ve mentioned in passing in previous posts is bringing yourself into your stories. Not yourself as a person, but your passions and interests and knowledge. How can you not, in all candor, bring yourself into what you create? You are who you are; you are the sum — and more — of your experiences and your knowledge and your psyche. That sum can, and arguably must, come through in everything you create…every story, painting, photo, quilt, cake, what-have-you.

Now, for me, that puts a number of things in play — it brings history and astronomy, it brings photography and music, it brings both the untracked wilds and foreign cities, it brings different languages and cultures and the love of not knowing where you will be or what you will do from one day to the next…

It’s easy to talk about all of that in general, philosophic terms, by the way. It’s harder to get into the concrete, real terms of how all that actually comes into play in writing, but I’ll give it a try.

I’ve mentioned before that I am currently writing sci-fi. One thing to keep in mind is that my current series — and the original “trunk novels” that gave rise to it — were based heavily on my work in naval history. The DockRat series is about as far from that origin as you can get, however.  Rather than being based on the hopes, courage and self-sacrifice of a few, it draws instead on the depravity, crime and exploitation of an entire society…

When you get right down to it, DockRat is a series that comes from where I grew up (Los Angeles) as much as it does from my experience and knowledge of history and modern society. I am still in there, however. In the music, in the visualization and contrasts, and in the (intentional) cognitive dissonance that is a key part of my protagonist, and his society.

Now, I mentioned those first stories not to lead into DockRat, but to make a point about bringing yourself in.  I love astronomy.  I get all geeked up about astronomy, so of course I spent huge amounts of time working out the physics of the speeds and distances and travel times of the various ships involved. I spent even longer working up a 3-D simulation of every single star within 50 lightyears of Earth*, then figuring out all the shipping lanes and traffic patterns and the like.

*That’s a LOT of stars, by the way…

Erm…I seriously nerded out on all that, actually.

When I wrote a story, way back when, about a gunslinger? Yeah, I spent months training on the mechanics and realities of quickly drawing and firing a pistol. It is — ahem — a hell of a lot harder than it looks.

Now, the point of those examples wasn’t that we all should do the writerly-equivalent of method acting. No, the point was that your own interests and hobbies and knowledge, as the creator, very much should run through what you write.

To give a negative example: I once read a (to-remain-unnamed) novel set in Samarkhand. I’ve never actually been to Samarkhand*, but it was pretty damned apparent that neither had the author. If you’re going to write about an exotic locale, you better have at least been there! Colleen McCullough, for instance, accumulated several years in Rome before writing her outstanding Masters of Rome series.

*It’s on my list of places to go.

I had, I’ve mentioned before, two stints in college — one studying linguistics, and the other history. I love history. I love the cut-and-thrust of the politics, and the intrigue, and the back-stabbing, and all the wheeling-and-dealing. But just as much do I love languages. Just as much do I love the differences in culture and behavior and thinking that lie at the heart of different languages. I, honestly, think differently when I speak Japanese, or French, or Czech, or any of the other languages in which I can make my way*.

*Yes, I’m fairly fluent several…they come easy to me. Unlike math. Math is evil.

Those twin loves — those obsessions, really — enter into every story I write. They give depth to the settings and plots, yes, but even more do they give depth to the characters. They also give me a pool of knowledge and expertise from which I can draw as I write.

Oh, and they let me geek-out on stuff I like while I’m writing!

Addendum — By the way, the other part of me that comes into my writing is procrastination; if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m trying desperately to bang this post out on the morning it’s “due.”  It’s nice to know SOME things haven’t changed since college!

Time Is Everything

IMG_0163IWSG Question o’ the Month: What pitfalls would you warn other writers to avoid on their publication journey?


This might take a while — you got a week or so?

Honestly, I’ve stepped in pretty much every pit there is on that writing journey. Every single one.

To keep this post somewhat reasonable and readable, rather than a long rant on all the shit I did wrong — and still do wrong, for that matter — I’m going to focus on the writing side and forget that such a thing as the “business side” actually exists.

Which is…err…one of those pitfalls. Okay strike that paragraph above, here is some business advice: do NOT neglect the business/financial side of things! There are very good reasons why more experienced (jaded? cynical?) writers tell new and aspiring entrants into the field “don’t quit your day job.” It’s not disparaging, it’s not paranoid or reflexive, it is legitimately earned knowledge. Day jobs come with nice little perks like insurance and regular paychecks. Writing comes with deadlines and slow paying clients and that wonderful feeling of being nickel-and-dimed to death pretty much every day.

Okay, enough of that. If you’re reading this as an aspiring writer, just do yourself a favor and Google the crap out of the freelance writing topic, and read those pieces that point out the reality of the business, as well as the traps ahead. If you’re getting into the longform writing game, spend an equal amount of time and effort learning how novelists actually make money — and trust me, it’s nothing even remotely close to what you see on TV (or even read in stories). There’s a lot of crap in the sausage-making behind the writing business that no one really likes to talk about…

Phew, now I can talk about the writing pitfalls.

Probably the biggest pitfall I can think of, and the best advice I can give in respect to it, is to not shortchange yourself on time. Don’t write to some artificial schedule, don’t put arbitrary limits on how long various tasks should take. Until you’re working on about your fifth novel (a number which does include those early “trunk” stories we all have), you have absolutely zero idea as to just how long things should take. If you write to some early, artificial schedule, you will inevitably cut corners, and your story will suffer for that. Yes, you need goals and some kind of timeline, but those are tools that should serve and help the story, not the other way around.

To start the process, take what time you need to prepare your story-ground first: conception, research, backstory, character depth & detail, plotting, planning, etc… For my current sci-fi series, that early prep time amounts to roughly three months per story. Now, I will admit to going in for a bit of overkill there, but the time and depth of that early prep really does help me to understand and explore the story in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.

By the way, for my pending fantasy stories, I expect the initial series research & prep to take about four months, and only then I will get into the planning and preparation for the first book…

I have similar advice for the second part, the actual writing/creation phase: write to your story, not your schedule. I’ve talked about it before, but I don’t agree with the concept of writing X words per day. I think, when you do that, you end up only with…X words written. Those words may be good, but they also may be bad. No, I think it’s better to set up your story in coherent scenes that are “writable” in one sitting/session. For me, a 125,000-word novel should have between 55 and 60 such scenes, of which I should be able to finish 3-4 per week to a realistic First Draft status (which entails not just the original writing, but also an initial editing/revision pass).*

*To save space, and brain cells, I won’t get into just how that scene-based writing lets you jump around and write whatever scene strikes your fancy at any particular. Over time, I’ve discovered just how strange I truly am in my complete unwillingness to write a story in a coherent, chronological, beginning-to-end fashion. I figure I probably shouldn’t try to inflict that particular vice in an “advice” post…

Now, the third and final “phase” of the writing process is where I (originally) wanted to focus the advice about giving yourself enough time. Hell, giving yourself more than enough time. But — and this is the big but — but, I’ve found that giving advice about editing and revision is dangerous ground. Instead, I’ll simply be honest and point out the pit I stepped in early on. As a new writer, I very much had the attitude that I just needed to get words on the page, and that I could fix any problems and shortcomings in the revision process. At that point, writing a scene was simply “word-vomit” to get the concepts on the page, and the editing process was the time to fix, well, everything.

I’ve changed my thinking on that.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean you should shortchange the editing and revision process. Quite the opposite, in fact. You need to give it more time and effort than you think you do, trust me! No, what I mean is that I find it better — both aesthetically, and in terms of results — to get the writing “right” during the First Draft process. A while back, I wrote another IWSG post about that, but damn if I can find the right one to link to…

The editing and revision process should not be there to “fix” the language or narrative itself. It should be used to finalize things like scene placement, plot timing and story structure/pacing. Only after all that should it be used to polish the language and delivery. Honestly, I plan about three months worth of revision and editing for every story…and then another month (at least) to assimilate and incorporate the feedback and suggestions from betas/editors.

All told, the whole process of writing a 125,000–word story takes me roughly 10-12 months. Could I do it quicker? Probably…but then I would be shortchanging myself. Worse, I would be shortchanging my story…and they do not like it when I do that!

So, in the end, this post about pitfalls is really about one big pitfall: time. Give yourself enough time — and flexibility — to write the story you want to write. Or, if you’re nuts like me, to write the story as it wants to be written The worst thing you can do, I think, is write to some artificial expectation of how long things should take. The corollary to that, however, is that everything will take longer than you expect, want, or plan for.

That, of course, is simply how I do it. Your mileage may vary.

The Things We Do to Survive

IMG_0163Note: this post is a day early because of July 4th — Happy Independence Day, everyone!!

I am not particularly thrilled with the world, right now. I took on some non-writing work to make ends meet, and I hate every minute of every day that I do that. I don’t just hate the job, I hate myself for taking it…for needing to take it. I feel…well…more than a bit dirty about it.

Of course, I have long been a fan of the phrase “it’s all grist for the mill.” Everything you see and do, everything you learn and experience, is a part of you. Everything goes into the hopper to contribute to the experience and emotion and reality of the characters and stories you write.

Look at it like this: do I need a scene involving bartending in a college town? I got that. Do I need something describing life in the beige hell of an office cubicle-farm? I got that, too. Heck, do I need something involving high-end food and exotic international destinations? I’m covered there, as well.

And those are just the things I want to talk about. I got a million more that are…err…none of your business. But each and every one of them has had an appearance, and an impact, in my writing.

This current job feels different, somehow. Maybe it’s because it does nothing except take me away from my writing. Well, that and pay some of the bills.

And, honestly, if I look at things objectively, it is no less pointless and obnoxious than some (many) of the freelance writing projects I have done simply for the paycheck. Or even those projects I have done and then been stiffed on…DF168F59-4FEF-4989-AE6E-9F11B1BEF83F

Ahem. Penalty for over-sharing!

Never mind.

All of which brings me to the point of today’s (early) IWSG question & post: What are your ultimate writing goals, and have they changed over time?

Okay, let’s be honest here — like a lot of young writers, I dreamed of the best-seller and the six- or seven-figure advance. I might as well have dreamed of a career in the NBA (as a short, fat, white hockey player) as that kind of writing-money. It took a great deal of cold water and disappointment to learn just how little money there actually is in writing.

And, no, I don’t need to hear stories about “Aunt Berenice” and her million dollar travel-blog business, thank you very much.

The thing is…

The thing is, my goal never really has been money. If money had been my goal, I never would have left the marketing and sales side of things. The six-figure salary was a wonderful thing for a good, long time…

But I hated it.

By the end of that career, I hated it even more than the job to which I currently subject myself.

Look, let’s be honest here: I write.

That’s who I am, not what I do.

So, NO, my goals have not changed. The only thing that has changed is the time and experience and effort it took for me to learn the truth of that statement above about being a writer. I don’t write for fame…and I certainly don’t write for the (crappy) money. Honestly, it goes back to something I’ve said before: I write for me.

Put less succinctly (and less confrontationally), I write for the stories that I have to tell. I have this collection of story-ghosts that flutter around the back of my mind, all wanting and needing to be told. I write for them.

I also have this need to share my thoughts and opinions about life, the universe and everything,* and the only way I have to truly communicate those — this blog aside — is through my stories. It is not always (or even usually) the protagonist, but in every story I write there is at least one character who is, essentially, my “mouthpiece” as the eminence grise of the whole damned thing. Oz’s cynical humor…Kiran’s sarcasm…Runae’s desperate loneliness…those are all parts of me.

*Douglas Adams is my patron saint, by the way!

No, in the end, for me, the only goal that matters in writing is telling the stories. If I die penniless, broken and alone, I will still have the various stories I told…

The more I think about it, the more true it becomes: I write for me. I write for the stories I want to tell, and for the characters that are the ghosts in my mind.

Your mileage, by the way, may (and hopefully will) vary.

If you get into this game for the money, more power to you. If you happen to actually make good on that desire for money…shit-howdy, I’ll build a statue to you! But I won’t actually change what or how I write. Nope, those are mine, those are me.