Writing: Don’t Waste Your Time

typewriter pic
Writers hear much. Some of it follows them throughout life and some makes no difference.
My best friend has said some profound things in the thirty-four years I have known him.  Infuriating truths that bore into your nerves.  During my department store stocker days, I remember whining about my job, even though I had no right.  Back then, my friend divided his time between a MASH unit and the hospital where he worked as an ER trauma nurse.  I had not lived enough yet to understand.  My parents were alive and my house still un-flooded.  I was too untouched by life to realize he and I knew different thresholds of pain.  A “bad day” didn’t mean the same thing to me as it did to him.  When he tired of my whining, he said, “Look, everybody’s job sucks.  That’s why they call it ‘work’ and not ‘play.’”
          Guess what I still hear at 2 o’clock in the morning, when I’m staring at the ceiling?
          Here’s another one, from the summer of 1992.
          My family had recently moved back to Missouri, and my friend was visiting.  He leaned against our washing machine, while I sat on the corner of a desk, beside the typewriter my parents had ordered from Fingerhut.  Because he is a caregiver, he listened to my lamentations again, but what he said at the end became another one of those nerve-jangling truths that this time felt like a betrayal.
          That week’s tragedy came out an old copy of Writer’s Digest wherein an article asked, “Do you want to write, or do you want to have written?”
          I didn’t like the question, because I had no answer.  Well, that’s not actually true.  I was afraid of trying to answer.  Avoiding it all together meant I would never have to consider that maybe I just wanted to have written.  Most of the articles in WD said those who wanted to have written really just wanted fame and fortune.  I took comfort in that neither of those was my goal, but I never considered it could also mean something else.
          Writing takes a lot of work to appear effortless.
Even though I could get lost in writing for hours, some of that time (no, let’s be honest -- a lot of it) was taken up with reading how-to books on characterization or plotting -- painkillers for the blank page.  Those books told me the average professional writer produced about 2000 words every day.  I remember actually circling the number with my index finger and feeling the same giddiness a comic book collector feels every time he steps into an old flea market and dreams of digging up a copy of Action Comics #1.  I wanted to write 2000 words a day. 
And sustained a consistent pace only once.  For a whole month.  All during the January before my 19th birthday, I wrote 10 pages per day longhand.  I was so very proud of the notebooks piling up, but I still refused to call myself a writer after that, because after that I never finished much.  Does that sound like you want to write, or that you want to have written?
          After my friend quietly listened to these fears of being an amateur, he said the thing that felt like a betrayal:
 “You know, until somebody starts paying you to do this, you’re going to have to accept that it’s just a hobby.”
          Something in me shriveled.  My pragmatic friend was wrong.  Why did this have to be a hobby?  Why did money have to be the determining factor?  I didn’t have to be rich.  All I wanted was to be able to write full time.

If your goal is eight pages of finished script a day and you only produce two pages on Monday, you had better produce fourteen on Tuesday . . . . You may never gain [financial security]. If you can produce only one or two category novels a year . . . you will never know a time when the wolves are not a stone’s throw from the door.

-- Dean Koontz
Writing Popular Fiction

          My friend is a clever man.  I think he wanted to piss me off enough to prove him wrong.
          I didn’t listen.  At 21, I still had decades to become a writer.  If I didn’t want to write today, I wouldn’t have to.  It was okay to take a break every time it got difficult and inspiration evaporated.  I wouldn’t have to push myself until I was publishing regularly.  No, I didn’t realize the contradiction.  I refused to let myself just write, even if it was crap.  If I had done that . . . just write and write and write . . .
Only about 30% of what professional writers produce is publishable, meaning that what the public sees is only about 1/3 of what an author actually writes.  It was years before I would understand that the good ideas lie beneath all the crap, and that you have to write through the upper layers to get to them.
          Instead, I kept waiting for when I would be able to write 2000 words a day.  Obviously, this inevitably happened to all writers, magically, around the time they sold their first novel, probably. 
          Then, I turned 30 -- with the knowledge that Stephen King published his first novel at 26.  By the time he was my age, Isaac Asimov published I, Robot and was probably working on the last draft of Foundation.  Bradbury gave us The Martian Chronicles.  A 30-year-old Poe was inventing new genres.  And Conan’s father Robert E. Howard was dead.
          I had been writing “seriously” for 12 years.  The notebooks I rolled through and completed that one January now held pages with yellowing edges.  One drawer of the filing cabinet hid a handful of short stories, most with chunks still waiting to be written.  I had even submitted a couple.  Years ago.  However, if someone had asked me “Can you show me some of your writing?”  I would have had a hard time finding something whole.
          When was the last time you finished a story?
          I don’t remember.
          If I had written just 100 words a day in those years, I would have had 4 novels or roughly 100 short stories. 
          Plenty of time remained though, even if I hadn’t felt like writing in the last month.  (The periods that I didn’t write had grown longer.)  I didn’t have as much time as I used to.  I had been working 40 hours a week for a number of years.  I had a marriage and a mortgage and much better excuses not to write.
          Besides, if I didn’t write anything today, at least I didn’t write anything bad.

If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

-- Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing

          I was either 32 or 33 when I quit.  Back in my early twenties, I met a real estate agent who had once wanted to be a writer.  “Don’t ever give up,” he said. “You’ll regret it.”  I thought: That’s not something I have to worry about. Why would I ever give up?  When I did, I realized he was wrong.  The word “hobby” no longer offended me.  Walking away from writing no longer felt like hollowing out my soul.  It merely faded into something I used to do.
          Another decade passed.  I became a dad.  I got a degree.  I got hurt.  The house flooded.  Mom was gone.  Then, so was Dad.  And through all that I never had anything to write about.
          Remember my best friend who is full of those quips that seem to stick in your skull?  He picked up a new hobby in the last few years.  He writes a blog called The Pen and the Sword about his adventures as a Redneck Diplomat.  He’s working on a book too.  He always did run faster than me.
          Oh how I wish I could go back and talk with that 8-year-old child, who lived in the countryside, bored, and decided one day to write a play about a monster.  The 4 or 5 pages contained several sketches in place of the words he could not spell.  I would have said, “Keep doing that.  Every day.”
          I am 41 now.  I wonder how old is too old to start your life over?

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Writing Inspiration: Where Do You Get All Your Ideas?

Ideas are everywhere.  You just got to look for them.

Let’s assume that’s true.  The whole world is basically an episode of Hoarders, chock-full from basement drain to gable vent of plot threads and character snippets, and we Wannabes have chosen to be too anesthetized to notice.  If the Ideas-Are-Everywhere theory were true, authors never would agree to book signings.  Imagine the conversations in the fan queue:

“We pay you to be creative, right?  So, I am supposed to take money out of my pocket and put it into yours, even though I saw that idea on page ninety-eight lying by the street lamp two blocks from your house?  Anybody could have picked it up.”

Stories would be as mysterious and magical as an egg timer.  (“I can’t believe it.  It went ding again!”)  Everything would be obvious.  Worse yet, people with even the slightest creative potential would lose their minds from idea overload.

No, wait!  This pen!  Do you realize what it is?  Or, no!  The desk lamp!  The desk lamp, yes or--Ohhhh. . . .  DUST MOTES!!!

It would be like reverse pantophobia.

Ideas would reach out and snag your toes at 3:00 a.m., when you are convinced the bathroom migrated to the wrong side of the house.

The strange thing is I also agree with the Ideas-Are-Everywhere theory.  When looking at the bibliography of writers like Robert Silverberg, it’s easy to imagine that he must be able to turn anything into a story, and in Silverberg’s case an excellent story. 

With the average person -- or at least me -- most ideas are crap, though.  Especially in their raw form.

JACK:  I suppose I ought to try to do some writing, first.
WENDY:  Any ideas, yet?
JACK:  Lots of ideas.  No good ones.

-- Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

If you have lots of ideas and no good ones, maybe you stopped too soon.  If everything you write feels stupid, it probably means the good ideas just haven’t arrived yet.  What you have written is still embryonic. 

Good ideas, the ones people are willing to pay for, are an evolution from simpler forms.  This doesn’t mean that once you get an idea, wait six months for those red pumps you saw in the closet to turn into the Ruby Slippers.  Inspiration happens all the time, usually when you are not thinking about the idea.  However, it is a balancing act.  If you don’t think about it at all, your subconscious discards the image as unimportant, but hammering the idea into form will bring on frustration and leave you with something that has been beaten to death.

Good ideas are not “gotten” they are developed. 

Have you ever taken an art class?  Students start with basic shapes.  Circles, squares, cylinders, cones.  Later, come shading and perspective.  It’s all good at this point to keep exploring the early stage of development.  Keep drawing those shapes and seeing them in all the objects around you until the concepts become natural.  This beginner-level, basic stage is important.  It is where you are going to want to give up.  With patience you see, not the idea, but your own thinking process quantum jump to the next stage and move closer into something that looks professional.  It feels almost like your IQ raises a few points.  This reminds me of my Typing I class in high school, back in the Precambrian era where we learned to type on these humming things that had no monitor and went clackety-clack!  We were proud of ourselves because we finally knew the location of every key on the keyboard.  The instructor reminded us, however, that knowing the keyboard did not make us typists.  “Right now,” he said, “you still have to make a conscious effort to press each key.  In time, the movement will become automatic and you will be typing words instead of individual letters.”

Back to the art class analogy.  You’ve got the basic shapes down.  Circles easily become spheres on paper.  Trees and the human form are full of cylinders and cones.  Then, someone tells you that light coming into a room behaves a little like water.  Really?  That is a more sophisticated concept than “the farthest surface from the light is the darkest.”  You can now use that information.  Before it might have been interesting but was not yet useful as a tool.  Your understanding broadens and it too becomes more sophisticated. 

Studying color, you learn that the darkest objects are the closest to your eye and the farthest are pale because you are looking at them through more air.  It makes sense.  Your understanding is evolving again.  Even the way you touch the paper changes, because now the portrait is so close to finished that the lightest whisper-touch of the pencil makes the difference in the image looking off or looking real.

Ideas develop in the same way, as a series of passes.  Some passes rake away debris.  Others bring out new aspects.  Layer after layer, the image sharpens and becomes unique and interesting, until someone says, “How did you do that?  Where do you get all your ideas?”

The reason this question annoys so many successful writers is because it is so difficult to answer.  It would take too long for them to explain about all the in-between steps.  Most writers probably don’t remember them anyway.  They simply made the strokes over and over again, slowly moving the lines until they looked right, darkening the contrast until it had depth.  At some point they realize, “Wow, that’s good.  It looks real.”

Work in layers.  

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Writing: Don't Waste Your Time  

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Character Development: Scott Morgan Radio Interview

Scott Morgan is the author whose website I reviewed last week in Writer Website Review: WriteHook.  Edin Road interviews Scott and he reads his clever story "The Price of Angie's Ice Cream."

Listen to internet radio with EdinRoad on Blog Talk Radio

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Website Review: WriteHook

Writer Website Review: WriteHook


Scott Morgan’s WriteHook climbed high into my list of most frequent Internet landing pads from the first time the link beguiled me and I did click.  The header dropped that first bit of advice coming from the core of his design in a font so blood red that I have been tempted to touch the screen to see if it is wet:  Write for the jugular.

What does that mean?  It means Scott is a writer, soul to chromosome, and to paraphrase Robert Heinlein, he pays attention to writing in the same way that most people pay attention to their own heartbeats.  His honesty never bores or depresses you with laments of how no one reads anymore or how trying to make a living writing is like making a living trying to win the lottery.  He doesn’t ask you, “Do you want to write, or do you want to have written?” 

He probably doesn’t care. 

But I don’t need to sell the point when his material speaks for itself.  Here are a couple of quotes from his site to give you a feel of his perspective:

I am a former journalist. Former. I love that word so much because journalism will salt you up and eat your soul with a side of home fries and then wipe its greasy fingers all over what's left of your face.”

“Characters are assholes. . . . And if you don't exercise your authority over them at all times (all times!) they will unzip their flies and wizz all over you.”

Scott has done (and succeeded at) this writing thing for more than half of his life.  He likes showing you how to take a wishy-washy character and drop an engine into it.  Treat yourself to an epiphany and watch his video to see what happens to your characters when you learn what D.R.I.V.E. is.  I watched it, felt my jaw drop, and then immediately went to Amazon and bought his book Character Development from the Inside Out. 

Not only this, but WriteHook offers a big buffet of writer services including blog, newsletter, videos, webinars, workshops, and plenty of free stuff.

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Character Development: Scott Morgan Radio Interview