Back to Basics

Here at Spellbound Scribes, most of us are old pros when it comes to writing. Whether we’ve published several books and stories or have just been at the grind for years, the mechanics and spirit of writing have been ingrained upon our lives, etched in black ink for all to see. Which can make it easy to forget that not all writers have gotten so far in the process. Some writers are still at the very beginning, grappling with questions of how to write, and perhaps even more importantly, why.

torch, flame, creative commons
Be inspired

Sometimes I dabble in answering questions at the community-sourced Q&A site Quora. I recently stumbled upon a question from a young writer who reveled in the simple pleasures of putting language to paper, but wondered whether that was enough. Should one have a literary voice that came through on paper? And did it count as writing if there was no deep meaning or profound content? The questions shook me, and I realized it’s been so long since I thought about the simple but deep-seated questions at the very heart of being a writer.

Here are my thoughts:

Writing for writing’s sake, whether poetry or prose, is enough. I strongly advise any young/new/inexperienced writers to unburden themselves of any expectations or assumptions about what writing is, what it looks and feels like, or what it’s supposed to accomplish. Words have power—feel them thunder through your veins, hungry for freedom. Then let them tumble forth, unbridled. Enjoying yourself while putting words to paper is wonderful, and not something everyone is lucky enough to experience.

In fact, after years and more manuscripts—finished and unfinished—than I care to mention, this purity of feeling arising from the act of creation has changed in many complex, indefinable ways. My relationship to setting words to paper has altered irrevocably, and I linger with occasional envy on the memory of what it was like to write before I was a writer. Never for long—after all, that impulse is what brought me to this point. Still, no one should ever apologize for writing for the joy of writing.

Personality comes from practice. In writing, having personality bleed through into your writing is called voice. Some writers have very strong internal voices that inform their writing (think Chuck Palahniuk, Ernest Hemingway, or Maya Angelou) and leap off the page, as recognizable as faces or names. Developing your voice as a writer is a process that can take years, and the Spellbound Scribes have discussed it at length in various blog posts throughout the years. Here’s the TL;DR on the basics:

Read widely. Non-fiction, fiction, magazines, novels, blogs—read everything you can get your hands on. Exposing yourself to a broad variety of voices will allow you to begin to grasp what appeals to you, or clenches your jaw, or echoes in your bones with a feeling you can’t name.

Be sure you grasp the basics of grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation. Some of the most well-known authors bend these rules in pursuit of voice, but intention is key. You have to understand a rule before you can effectively break it.

Let your real voice shine through into your literary voice. Do you swear a lot in real life? Swear in your writing. Do you use slang? Figures of speech? Are you brusque and to the point, or do you prefer poetic turns of phrase and flowery descriptions? Identifying your real-world voice can help you define your literary voice.

Be true to yourself, but also don’t be afraid to experiment. As Steven King says in On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer, new or experienced):

“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.”

There is no Platonic ideal of “meaning” in writing, nor should there be. Meaning arises from two areas in the practice of writing: what an author means or intends in their writing, and how any given reader interprets that meaning upon reading what the author has written. A writer are responsible for only one of those areas—the first.

Nietzsche wrote: “Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.”

Watch, listen, read, write, repeat. Live a life rich with adventure, and emotion, and intention. Fill the well of creativity with beautiful, strange, incomprehensible things. Be present in your life, fly on magic carpets to faraway lands, cavort through dreams and night-time fancies. Everything else will grow naturally on its own. In the meantime, enjoy the wild ride!

“I have to be rent and pulled apart and live according to the demons and the imagination in me. I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Anais Nin

You Can Take a Break; You’re Still a Writer

The last two posts have been about being stuck while working on a writing project. I’ve seen a lot of this lately; so many creatives are struggling to work in the climate we’re all facing.

When I was young, a teenager, I reveled in my dark, black moods to create my best work. I even did better writing term papers when I was unhappy. And some people stay that way their whole lives — they need that dark place to tap into their creative muse to get words or other art done.

But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve turned this into a job, I’ve found it much harder to work when I’m in a dark place or when life is being difficult. I don’t want to create magic and monsters and adventure. I want to curl up and be alone with my dogs and husband and shut out the world. Even if I’m working on something dark or difficult and it brings me down while I’m working, so much so, that when I leave my office I have to physically shake it off, I don’t need to first be in that place to write those words.

I participated in Camp NaNo in April. I set myself a goal of 40k words. In the beginning, it went like any NaNo usually does. I had my outline and was ready to get started and felt good about my daily word counts. But, as the month went on, and things in my life weren’t perfect and outside things started to drain away my energy, I found each word that much harder to type. When I finally hit my 40k word goal, I was relieved. I had one day to spare, but I did it. Obviously, that’s not the whole book. But with everything else going on outside of writing, my hubs and I agreed we needed a week to decompress. So I promised myself if I hit my NaNo goal, I was going to take a week off from writing to get my head right again.

That was last week. This week, these are the first words I’ve written. We planned our “take a break” week from everything but the bare minimum at just the right moment. We run a business together and we had an emergency happen last week that, had I been writing, would have taken any energy away from my daily goals. We’ve weathered the emergency and I think the ship is righted and we’re going to be okay, but I am so glad I gave myself permission to take a break from my book.

This book is from my favorite series and if I had continued to write while dealing with so much, I think it would have suffered and when the editing came around, it would have been a snarl of a headache to fix.

I used to say you had to write every day when you’re working on a project. Yeah, take the weekend off, or a day here or there if you like working on the weekend, but don’t abandon the project because you’ll lose momentum and the narration and it’ll be so much harder to pick back up. But I needed that break. It’s okay to take a break. The book will be there when you get back and if you’re serious about writing, you’ll go back to it.

I’m 40k words in, the beginning is always a huge hurdle and I’m almost half-way done, so there’s no reason for me to be scared that I can’t pick it back up.

We have to give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. Burn outs and break downs are real and horrible and if you can see one coming before it hits, you should do whatever you have to to avoid it. We all need self-care and sometimes that means dealing with life while your imaginary friends take a seat and wait for you to come back.

Well. This isn’t quite where I thought this post was going to go, but there you have it. I’m nearly 20 books into the business, so I think I can safely say that each book is different, each book will ask different things of you and you just have to trust your gut with each one. Some will come hard and fast and you’ll never take a break because you’re just trying to keep up with the words yourself, and others will take their time and give you the space you need, you just have to let yourself take it.

It’s okay. You’re still a writer. Every book has its own process.

On Also Being Stuck

For this post, I wanted to pick up on the same themes of Liv’s previous post.

I’m finding myself a bit stuck as well.

zoidberg sigh

I’ve been working on the second draft of my latest manuscript THE BREWMANCER, and honesty’s it’s been brutal. I’m basically rewriting the entire first half from scratch and reworking most of the flashback interludes scattered through the book. I made some major changes to the plot when I was about two-thirds of the way through and now I’m paying the price.

While it’s tough going now, I still think the changes were for the best. The original ending – which is now sort of in the middle – was really depressing and involved the death of a major character and the bad guys winning. I’ve said before that I love a good Bad Ending, but this one was a little too Bad. And it wasn’t the right ending for what this story had become. The new ending features a victory for a our protagonists, but still with a cliffhanger to hook for the next installment.

It’s definitely a better ending, a quite frankly, I was having trouble coming up with enough plot to fill the space between the beginning and the originally ending. Moving that to the middle really helped, because it provided a catalyst for the action in the new second half. That said, all of the rewriting has me bogged down. I’ve had to rework a lot of the relationships plotted out originally and some of the major character arcs as the books morphed over the course of its completion.

ralph puzzle

I want to make this manuscript work, but this is probably the hardest second draft I’ve done.  A lot of that has to do with the fact I’ve learned over the course of three manuscripts you can’t just wing it on your redrafts. And believe me, I’ve just winged on a couple of them. When I’ve done that before, I ended up with disjointed and poorly edited stories afterwards. I know now the what work needs to be done and it needs to be done right.

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard this time – I know how much work it’s already been and how much more there is to go. There’s a small voice in my head as I slog through these revisions that whispers every so often:

Is this worth it?

Sometimes I wonder for a moment if it really is.

smithers thinking

Then I remember years of work I’ve put into this craft. If I quit now, that would have all been for nothing. Then I remember all the people I’ve seen celebrating on social media on their Book Birthdays. If I quit now, I’ll never get to see my own Book Birthday.

Social media can be a big help on this front. Seeing friend’s progress and succeed is a driver. I’d be lying if a bit of professional jealousy at seeing other writers make book deals, hit the bestseller list, etc wasn’t a motivating factor too. But my biggest driver from social media is successful authors who have celebrated a half dozen or so Book Birthdays talk about their struggles. No matter how many times you hit the NYT Bestsellers List, there’s still a ton of work that goes into writing and rewriting that next book.  That fact could be just as daunting for an established, successful author is inspirational. For me it, shows that I’m not just struggling alone, that other writers, prolific and praised ones, aren’t just whizzing from book to book without a care.

It means I’m doing something right.

zoidberg dance

So I’m going to keep pluggin along, wading through these edits as I try to make this a coherent story. It’s going to take longer than I thought it would, and that’s okay. The work will be worth it in the end.