I’ve been writing for longer than I’d like to admit. I joke about being thrown off of my father’s computer when I was six years old for typing rude words. While that did happen, I’m not certain that particular novel was ever going to come to anything. In reality I’ve been pursuing writing professionally for about ten years now with only one real gap.
That gap lasted almost a year, and it came from one major misunderstanding on my part; I was trying to be a good writer. I‘d heard that a good writer sits down every day to work. I‘d heard that a good writer edits and edits until all of the evil is driven from their manuscript, leaving only shining golden prose.
The first one led me to quit writing for a year, the second stopped me from getting my work published for almost a decade.
Write Every Day
In a perfect world I’d be free to sit down at the computer each morning and write to my heart’s content. I’m getting closer to the goal of becoming a full-time author with every book I get published, but it will still be a few years of hard work yet. Before I get to write for myself, I still have to spend about eight hours each day writing for other people to pay the bills. Back when I quit, I was working twelve hours a day in an unrelated job. Sometimes more. I had no time for hobbies. I had no time for much of anything except sleeping, then heading back to work. Writing was one straw too many. I wasn’t getting anything written even when I did sit down to do it. I was exhausted.
Unfortunately, I had to eat. I had to put a roof over my head. Like most writers in the modern era, I didn’t have rich parents or patrons to lean on. I had to work.
Writing requires energy, something that all of us only have a limited supply of. I was all out. Even now that I’m in a much more comfortable position I sometimes look at that expanse of blank white on the screen and it is too much.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned about writing is that most of the work happens long before I put my fingers to the keys. That’s why I can cheerfully churn out a novella in a weekend but writing sprints like NaNoWriMo are a nightmare to me. (The first year that I attempted it nearly prompted me to quit writing all over again, and the month long depression brought me as close as I have ever been to divorce.)
So I am a bad writer. Some days when I’m struggling I just don’t bother. I understand myself well enough to know that I’ll make up for lost time on those good days when inspiration strikes and I have the energy. When I’m working out how long a project is going to take, I average the up and downs.
Refine to Perfection
While banging my head against the wall of having no energy and no idea what I’m working on may have derailed me once or twice over the years, the idea that I could make my writing perfect by coming back to it over and over is what nearly ruins me on a daily basis.
There is an old adage that no work of art is ever completed; only abandoned. My problem is that I just can’t quite pry my fingers off of them. I’ve held onto short stories for years before submitting them. I have a folder of abandoned stories that didn’t even get that far. Too imperfect to even come to fruition. One particular story has gone through the grind of edits and revisions so many times I’ve lost count; comparing the latest draft to the very first, one is clearly inferior to the other. The writing is more grammatically correct perhaps, but the edited version has lost all the passion the first one held.
I know that I’m meant to edit in passes, the first one to put the story structure in order, the second to fix the prose, the third to fix the dialogue and the fourth to fix descriptions. That’s the way I was taught to work by older and more experienced authors when I was first starting out. As it turns out, the correct number of editorial passes for every novel that I have actually sold is one; to pick up any typos.
So I am a bad writer. I don’t edit my work before sending it off, and it is much better for it. Of course, I get pages and pages of notes and changes back from my editors but from what I understand, the situation would be the same regardless of how long I review and revise.
Be a Bad Writer
Writing is an art rather than a science; there is no “right” way to be a writer, only a cacophony of conflicting advice coming at you from all directions. Writing every day does not make you a writer any more than swimming every day makes you a fish.
It has taken me years of practice to get to the stage where I believe my work is good enough to be published. Years in which I took classes, studied the craft of writing, and read extensively.
Being a “good” writer made me miserable. Being a “bad” writer made me successful. If you can call someone who still has to eat Ramen for every other meal successful.
G D Penman writes Speculative Fiction. He lives in Scotland with his partner and children, some of whom are human. He is a firm believer in the axiom that any story is made better by dragons. His beard has won an award. If you have ever read a story with Kaiju and queer people, it was probably one of his. In those few precious moments that he isn’t parenting or writing he likes to watch cartoons, play video and tabletop games, read more books than are entirely feasible and continues his quest to eat the flesh of every living species. He is the author of over a dozen books including; The Year of the Knife, Motherland, Call Your Steel and Heart of Winter.
I’m so excited to be able to post my interview with Kelli Richards from All Access Radio! We are entering the era of the creative! Please leave comments and feel free to share.
Sometimes when I’m working a section of story and can’t find my connection to the sensory elements to anchor myself into the moment, I have to go outside my comfort zone.
My little brother gifted me a skydiving adventure when I was writing Murder of Crows. I had no real idea what terminal velocity felt like, and that one plummet from an airplane was enough sensory overload to rip out an entire chapter and re-write it because it taught me so much about the reality vs. the imagination.
I’ve had similar issues with Sinnet of Dragons, namely, the dragons. Sure, my imagination is rich, but I also work full time in a non-creative function, so my ability to dig into a lush mental-scape can sometimes feel clunky and take more effort than it should.
I’d been struggling with the experience of flight for Sinnet of Dragons. Flying on an open dragon seat, or an Oritove carrier is a completely different experience than flying in an Avian sling, well, I imagine.
But I’d been struggling as to how to define those differences. So I went on a short open seater, biplane flight with nostalgicwarbirdrides.com in Pacific City this weekend.
That fifteen-minute ride blew my mind. So much wonder, beauty, and breathtaking freedom.
I landed buzzing with energy, legs shaking, face aching from grinning and my hair a wild massive matted mess. I couldn’t have been happier with the experience and what it did for my research.
Dragons are faster than Avians, the wind speeds require different attire for eyes and mouths. (The wind burned tears from my eyes and left crusty streaks into my hairline. Next time, goggles.) Oritoves are even faster.
They will be less affected by crosswinds than Avians, but have a wider banking requirement.
Sea salt air and summer iodine brine taste different higher up. It’s definitely chillier than I’ve been writing for that altitude, I’ll make adjustments for that. Easier to dehydrate, possibly from grinning with my mouth open for so long. And so on and so forth, the sensory data unleashed a writing storm.
While it doesn’t seem like much, or even necessary to some, these little adventures make enormous differences in the texture of the story and quality of the writing. It’s one thing to imagine it, and another to get as close to an experience as you can (Dragons being nearly impossible, obviously) in order to anchor as much reality into the language and storytelling as possible.
As an artist, this leads to some potentially strange experiences and adventures… if you’re lucky.
Thank you, Mike Carpentiero, for a fabulous lift and a glorious Saturday morning.
Here’s to more exciting flight research in the future!
‘Irises’ Van Gogh, 1889
How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)
Does the word “professional” apply to Van Gogh? He didn’t make any money and he failed to become famous (even locally) in his own lifetime. Sure, his art fetches high prices now, and is well received by nearly everyone. But that’s his work, not him.
Van Gogh was a failure if your definition of “professional” is forever entangled with financial and popular success. Of course, if you think Van Gogh was a failure, you are a fool.
Your goal is to be a serious artist. To do that means that it is time for you to start treating your work as work. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the basic requirements you’ll need to “go pro”.
You Must Retain Amateur Status
The words “play” and “work” are not opposites, they are complements. No matter how seriously I am going to urge you to take your work, it should never stop being an activity you love doing.
Being an amateur has nothing to do with your paycheck, it has to do with your attitude and motivation. The original meaning of the word “amateur” did not mean “less serious”, or broke, it meant that you were a lover of whatever it is you are an amateur of.
You can be an amateur and not be a professional, but you cannot be a professional without also being an amateur. A professional who has lost their love of what they are doing is what I would call a hack.
Know if You Are Only a Hobbyist
Creating art because you like to do it is a perfectly valid reason: it is reason enough. We should give hobbyists far more respect that we currently do. A person with a few hobbies is far less likely to be living a soul-crushingly stressful lifestyle, will have healthier relationships, and will probably live longer than the rest of us.
That said, professionals and hobbyists are not the same. How can you tell which you are?
Some might start with the following question (which I hate): “If you were rich, and didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?” The assumption being that whatever answer you give is what you should be doing with your life NOW, not waiting until you get rich.
Here’s a better question: “If you were dead broke, and you knew (for sure) that committing to your art was going to prevent you from ever getting out of poverty, would you still choose to do it?”
If you answer “yes”, then you are not a hobbyist, you are a professional.
Van Gogh made this choice. The result was the best work he was capable of producing. A professional finds this trade-off worth it.
Work as Hard as a Professional
The 19th century writer, Anthony Trollope, had a full time (non-writing) job. Still, he would wake up early every morning and write for three hours, getting 1,000 words per hour (250 words every 15 minutes, exactly). He got his 3,000 words in every day, no matter what. He was like a machine in his level of dedication to the hard reality of creation: you have to be consistent.
Prince wrote a song a day. Steven King writes 2,000 words every day. Anthony Burgess not only wrote 2,000 words a day, but also composed classical music during the evenings.
A professional artist treats their work like a proper job — especially when not being paid for it.
Work Ethic is Empowering
The fact that hard work and consistency are the fundamental predictors of your success (not financial!) as an artist is empowering. The mark of a professional is that this fact excites and motivates them.
Van-Gogh-self-portrait creative commons
Contrary to the myth, Van Gogh was wildly successful in his own lifetime. His worked his ass off every day. He doggedly worked to improve his craft and skill levels. He produced.
If you don’t find this fact empowering (or worse, find it sobering) then you’re a hobbyist — which is awesome, but don’t ruin your fun by making your art into work.
For a professional, the whole point is that you want this to be your work! So start acting like it.
The Myth of the Muse: No Excuses
Most artists are waiting around for inspiration. Without this mythical inspiration, they feel helpless.
What a writer would call “writers block” is a sham. There is no muse! There is no magical external force in the universe that will take over your body and force your hands to create.
Most days you will put in the work, and there will be nothing special about it. Some days, you’ll be hit with inspiration. The point is to be ready for this inspiration, lay the groundwork for it, and take advantage of it fully.
A Professional Artist Goes Public
An athlete who doesn’t compete is not an athlete. They may exercise, they may train, but I’m not going to call you an athlete until you enter your first contest. Once you do that, I don’t care if you did badly, I don’t care if you always lose, I don’t care if you will never win or make money or get a scholarship, you are a REAL athlete.
Similarly, you may be a horrible artist, you might produce some of the worst work in the history of your medium, but if you put your work out there for other humans to see, read, or listen to, then you are a professional artist.
You won’t magically build a large audience just because you set up a blog to put your stories or paintings on. But you will have broken through a huge glass ceiling most artists are too afraid to face: rejection.
Putting yourself out there is something only the tiniest one-percent of one-percent of artists are willing to do. The rest don’t have the guts to do it. Do you?
You may only have an audience of one, but that’s an audience. Hell, that one person may hate your work, but that isn’t relevant. What matters is that you had the guts.
‘Wheat Field With Crows’, Van Gogh 1890
Showing Your Work is Now Easier Than Ever
We live in a world where the middlemen of art (record labels, publishing houses, etc.) are quickly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. There was a time when they were the gate-keepers between the artist and the audience. That is no longer the case.
The internet has changed the landscape of art. If you want an audience, you can find one.
I suggest that you have a blog (not just a website) where you showcase both your work and yourself. Yes, use Facebook and other social media networks. But your blog is yours. And it will never matter if Facebook changes their algorithms or rules on you.
Everyone should exercise: it’s good for you and it’s fun. Yet, for a small minority, exercise isn’t enough, they want to be athletes.
Similarly, everyone should engage with the arts. Studies abound that extol the benefits to your brain and psychological well-being. But that’s not what you’re in it for.
To be a professional, at anything, let alone the arts, requires that you act like a professional.
- Work harder at this than you do at anything else.
- Don’t allow any excuses for why you aren’t practicing and producing daily (the muse myth).
- Put your work in front of others.
Repeat. It’s really not complicated. It’s just hard. Thankfully, it’s also the most fun you’ll ever have.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Four years ago I was going through the query grind with ‘Murder of Crows’. After 122 rejections, which I blogged about religiously, “We’d love to publish your book if you re-write it from a male point of view” “we’d like to accept your book for representation, but would like you to take a gender neutral pen name”, “remove the three old women characters, the NaNas. No one wants to see old ladies” etc.
I did get a handful of rejects and requests for re-writes that were related to the actual craft of storytelling, primarily pacing, and over-describing, which were AWESOME pieces of feedback and I used them immediately.
The point is, I never considered making sexist changes in exchange for publication. Why? Because the publication game is simply that, it’s a game. If you want to serve the story – the actual audience, you don’t play the game. After 122 rejections I self-published, and didn’t look back.
I am currently querying ‘Sinnet of Dragons’. Don’t worry, I’ve picked out my 20 agents, and I’ll be done after that, and on with the rest of the plan.
Half of the beta packages have been sent out, and three of the readers are in the target demographic of 14-18 years of age. Two of those readers are defined gender: male.
I am still writing from my birth name, Athena. The character POV is still Fable’s voice, a girl on the verge of puberty and introduction to her Muse power. I’m still including most of the characters from ‘Murder of Crows’, including the NaNas, who were dearly adored by readers (not so much by agents and sales people, but readers love them).
The funniest conversation I had while arranging for a fifteen-year-old male reader was with his mother who said, “He loves fantasy! He read Lord of the Rings and he goes through books like crazy.”
(An aside: girls out-read boys 2 to 1. This has led to the often erroneous assumption that boys don’t read. This is simply not true. They read a lot, but I have heard complaints from male readers at signings that they’re bored with the same fiction on the market… they’re tired of reading the same stories over and over. See “Knowing your audience” and queue conversations about gender and diversity in YA literature.)
I replied to her, “Did you know there aren’t any female characters in The Hobbit? They added females for the movie to help balance it out. Also, the entire “fellowship” was male.”
She nodded. “I did notice that.”
“Please ask your son if he’s okay reading a book about girls, and girl issues. As in, periods.”
I went on to explain that Fable Montgomery gets her period, and is therefore eligible by age to be executed for her perceived crimes. I make a consistent parallel in the story about the constant fear and threat of death that women have for being female. Being blooded means being fair game for all sorts of atrocity. It was the point I was trying to make, that much of the disconnect between gender disparity and misunderstandings occur in the real world, because when boys DO read, they are fed only masculine, hyper control concept fiction and storytelling. Something remotely feminine can be a repulsion because they have not been exposed to it in their story matrix.
As a society, we rely almost exclusively on our story matrices to define our perceptions and place in the overall picture. (Story includes religion, and social cultural normative expectations)
“Oh, he’ll do it,” she said.
“Can you please check with him first?”
“I know he’ll do it, because he wants to buy a basketball with the beta reader money.”
I laughed. “Okay, well, if he’s game and wants to do it, he only gets paid if he fills out the survey and completes the steps. It’s a story about a girl and her period… so I guess we’ll see how bad he wants that basketball.”
I was sure to tell her, that there was no obligation. If he stopped halfway through the book, just mark where he left off and leave an explanation: I can’t read anymore, it’s boring/stupid/gross. Then I’ll know where to tweak and tone it down a notch. No need to torture the kid.
However, the whole conversation let to a bunch of other conversations. I expect to do several more re-writes by the time the beta data comes in. The questionnaires allow for free thought as well as targeted questions about the characters and story.
Working in R&D had made a huge impact on how I started redoing the beta packages, thinking of the readers as consumer testers, and asking questions I thought they might be too uncomfortable to tell me outright. Try not to lead the question, but leave it open for them to acknowledge, yes, there was that thing that was off but didn’t know how to articulate it.
I have a few more packages to send out, and we’ll know by the end of July where it all falls. By end of August, I’ll wrap up my query process and we’ll be on to the next phase.
More to come on our social and story matrix, and how we as storytellers, and artists are in key positions to help inform the needed changes to be a more inclusive society, a more balanced representation of our diversity and humanity.
Humanize the story.
Writing With Hand Tools
In the wood-working community, over the last few generations, there’s been a revival of the use of hand tools. The reasons are obvious once you hear them.
- Hand tools provide a connection with wood that is just not possible with power tools;
- Hand tools are safer (by a long shot);
- Power tools produce dust which is a known carcinogen;
- Hand tools only produce shavings which have a pleasant odor;
- Power tools are extremely loud (requiring you to wear ear protection) and will likely piss off your neighbors;
- Save for hammering, hand tools are so quiet that you can work in the garage in the middle of the night and not wake anyone else in the house.
Power tools certainly have a place, especially in commercial environments. But for many people, hand tools provide a more personal option that increases their sense of creativity and enjoyment.
Of course, there is another reason hand tools have become more popular: we’ve learned that technological advances are a double-edged sword. For every good that comes from a new advancement, we lose something. Often, we can’t predict what that loss will be until we’ve already felt it.
Writing Without Writing
Woodworking isn’t the only field where a revival of hand tools and a back-to-basics style can be of use. Artists of all kinds, especially many writers and musicians, have become mired in the myth that without their high-tech tools, there is no way they could produce.
For most of human history, writing didn’t exist. There were no books. Hell, no one had yet chiseled a poem into a rock.
That said, creative construction with words did exist. Poetry existed. Storytelling existed.
Writing is NOT synonymous with typing. Writing is far more than that. Writing, as a craft, consists of a series of steps starting with a creative spark and ending with a finished product.
In our prehistory, writing didn’t exist, but writers did.
Writing is a Craft
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
All artists are laborers first, craftsman second, and only then artists. Another way of saying it is that to be an artist, you must embrace ALL of what it means to be one, not just the “heart” bit.
Masters of all crafts (in art, engineering, sports, etc.) will constantly tell you that what matters more than anything is mastering the basics. And this process is made clearer when you strip away all unneeded baggage.
Tools like Word, or Scrivener, or Libre, or Office are useful when it’s time to use them. But an over-reliance on them may be a sign that you’ve become too far removed from the craft of writing as writing.
Let’s look at a few other possible ways to write.
Pen & Paper: The Forgotten Technology
The list of writers who used pen and paper in their process is long, and includes: Vladamir Nabokov, John Irving, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jhumpa Lahiri, even Quentin Tarantino among many others.
To one of our pre-literate ancestors, the combo of pen and paper would seem a miracle of technology (magic) — and so it is! To us, it seems arcane. How times change perception….
Beginning your writing process with more basic tools may provide the novelty and the variety needed to fan the flames of creativity. Worst case scenario: you get a hand cramp.
Vladamir Nabokov said that he only wrote 160 words per day, and that it would take him an entire day to get them right. His prose is so thick and meaty, that I often think he was a poet who tricked us into thinking he was a novelist.
He wrote those 160 words on index cards in pencil. Each would be labeled with a scene header or some other information. Then he would arrange these little scenes physically in front of himself, and have a tactile and graphical display of his work in progress.
Playwrights and screenwriters often use index cards to help them build up their plots. But Nabokov literally wrote the entire novel on them.
An alternative to a standing desk is to write standing at a white board (or chalk board, if you prefer). I do this as my first draft for everything from poetry to song lyrics to articles like this one.
It makes writing similar in feel to painting on an easel. There is something about being able to stand, walk around, and visualize what you’re doing that is liberating.
Markdown vs Word Processors (vs Typewriters)
You could say that a word processor is a very complex typewriter. Alternatively, you could say a typewriter is a crappy word processor. But I think both would be wrong. In fact, a typewriter and a word processor are fundamentally different, and belong in different categories.
A typewriter produces a finished product that is remarkably basic. You don’t get bold text, you don’t get different fonts or font sizes, you don’t get spell check, you can’t copy-and-paste.
A word processor allows all of that and more. Perhaps too much more! It’s a never-ending source of distraction, primarily because you are consistently fiddling with the formatting of what you’re writing rather than about the content of your writing.
To combat this without losing some of the rather nice benefits of technology (like spell check or copy-and-paste), many writers have moved over to using the markdown format in plain text editors. Markdown is now ubiquitous in academic writing, documentation for programmers, and other places where complex formatting is required eventually, but gets in the way of the subject at hand.
Markdown is like using a typewriter in the sense that if feels very plain and basic. On the other hand, you can then convert it to a Word Doc, or a PDF or whatever you need, without losing out on the ability to format the document.
Jodi Picoult said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” It may also be caused by imprisoning yourself into having only one way of writing.
Writing is not typing, it is crafting with words. Typing may be one method that you use to write, but you should be careful not to restrict yourself exclusively to it.
Writing with hand tools is not necessarily safer than writing on a computer, but it may help you to be more productive. And if not, it will at least give you something to talk about.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Prepping the beta packages. They will should be done shipping out next weekend!
This time, I’m including survey material, chocolate, and a Starbucks card, along with the usual tools. Then Sinnet of Dragons will be off my desk for the next month, and I can focus on the website, until we reach the next milestone!
Baby steps. We’re getting there.