50,000 words down, 510,000 words to go…
Writing used to be work. When I was younger, when I let myself set low expectations, writing was work. I remember when I first started working on Mistaken Identity, back somewhere around 1999-2000, I set a word count goal of 250 words a day. I figured that was an average print page, and if I did that every day for a year, I’d have a book. Some mornings, getting that 250 words was grueling. It was pure torture. I usually felt a little better after doing it, but I never built up any momentum and was happy when I met the goal and could stop.
Nonfiction was draining back then, too. I remember my first Writing On Your Palm article to crest 3,000 words written in one day, a Monday, when I had to have something to post. My brain felt like scrambled eggs when I was done, and I couldn’t imagine how professional writers took that punishment day after day.
I no longer feel that way.
I understand I have a pretty small sample size to go on, but if this week is any indication, my problem wasn’t writing too much, it was stopping too soon. The first couple hundred words or so still come sluggishly at times, but now that I’ve set my sights considerably higher for the Maximum Geek Ultimate Writing Challenge, something weird has happened.
The more I write, the better I feel.
I totally didn’t see this coming. But this week I’ve been pumping out around 3,000 words a day, every day, and I feel terrific. I’m in better mood, I laugh more, hell even food tastes better. And then I realized something. First, let me set the stage. Tuesday night, I didn’t get a chance to write much at the office. I snuck in a 841 word blog post, but my fiction writing had been limited exclusively to meal breaks, around 800 words at both breakfast and lunch. I was at 2,426 words for the day total, well over my 2,000 word a day minimum, but only 1,585 of that was fiction. And I knew that didn’t count. Blog and Twitter writing is gravy. It doesn’t apply to MGUWC. I needed 415 words of fiction before I could call it a day.
Before, this would have filled me with dread. I was tired when I walked out of the office. Before, going home and vegging on the couch watching NCIS or Stargate would have been overwhelmingly preferable to more writing. But despite being tired, going home was no longer my number one option.
I was shocked to discover that the idea of swinging by one of the three Chipotle’s on my way home, preferably the one with free wifi from the restaurant next door, and writing some more didn’t seem like a draining prospect at all. In fact, it filled me with enthusiasm to write some more, because on some level I realized that writing would make me feel better.
And let me tell you, it worked! I sat down at Chipotle, tuned Pandora on my iPhone to my Writing Music station, a mix of movie scores, strings and electronica, and set about my task. This was the opening of Chapter 3, where we first meet the new Susan Richardson. And I had absolutely no idea what would actually happen in that chapter. I knew Susan was a right wing blogger, and that was it. And yet, not only did I get my fiction word count—and write part of this post—I also realized as I followed Susan around that her meeting Daniel wouldn’t be the chance encounter it was in the original, as it still was in my outline. No, she would be under pressure from her editor (the blog she writes for is, in my mind, kind of a mirror of Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos, and Susan herself is starting to look and sound a lot like a Bizarro world Ana Marie Cox) and working on an article based on an overheard conversation from Chapter 3, she’d be looking for Daniel, trying to get an interview with the terrorist fugitive North Korean operative everyone is talking about. The book as a whole got stronger, character motivations got stronger, and I got a much better look at a pivotal character I didn’t know yet. And at a time I once would have avoided writing at all.
I should have done this years, decades ago. And the really scary part?
I’m just getting started.
I shared an article earlier today on Twitter and Google Reader about the old adage that you have to write a million words of junk to get it out of your system before you can start writing good stuff. I’ve heard this before, and while I agree that it’s true in broad strokes, I think it’s missing a crucial observation. In today’s multimedia world, those words don’t all have to be prose.
Sure, some things about the craft of writing you’ll only learn by writing in your chosen or at least primary medium. But a lot of things about writing fiction–character, dialogue, plot–the fundamentals, in other words, are the same no matter what medium you choose. A story, fundamentally, is a story.
I was thinking about this while driving home in a snowstorm last week, because somehow thinking to myself about writing was deemed less distracting than listening to a podcast about writing. And it occurred to me that when I originally wrote Between Heaven and Hell, thirteen years ago, I hadn’t actually written very much prose fiction up to that point. In fact, I’d written absurdly little for someone intending to write a novel for publication.
In high school, I’d written a Batman fanfic short story and co-wrote a Thor fanfic novella. I also plotted out the early, early ancestors to the story that has become Ghost Ronin and that yes, I’m still working on a quarter century later. Call that maybe 25,000 words total.
In the Air Force, I wrote an X-Files fanfic short story about Sasquatch (I’ll leave you to find that on the interwebs), piddled around with Ghost Ronin some more and on a bet wrote a short story set in the Unification Chronicles universe in one weekend. (The bet was with my roommate, who noticed that I never seemed to finish a story and bet me I couldn’t do it while he could. His story ended up being two pages of kitchy banter that didn’t go anywhere.) Figure maybe another 50,000 words tops, though there was already an encouraging sign, if I’d understood what it was at the time. I only submitted the short story, “The Drop,” to one place, F&SF. Looking back on it there was no chance they’d accept it, being one of the largest SF magazines in the mid 90s and given how hopelessly cliched and derivative the story was. And yet, while I did get a form letter rejection–and in my inexperience took that as an insult–they did handwrite on it that I should take note of their new editorial address, which they had helpfully circled. Now I’d realize that was a hint that while they hadn’t had much interest in that particular story, there was something in my writing that they wanted to see more of. It took me a long time to figure that out.
But that’s it. When I started writing my first novel, with every intention of getting it published, I’d had less than a full novel’s worth of practice, and far, far less than a million words. What made me think I could pull it off? In a very real way, I didn’t pull it off. Between Heaven and Hell was not published in print, and got picked up by Peanut Press mostly because I happened to be nosing around when they were looking for original content. A few months later, after they signed deals with some of the major publishers to release ebook editions, and they wouldn’t have needed me. And in a real way, my writing did need a lot more seasoning. It wasn’t until after Between Heaven and Hell (80,000 words), Do Over! (17,000 words), my screenplay “In Shining Armor” (20,000 words in another iteration of what is now Ghost Ronin), Homeworld (60,000 words, my 2006 NaNoWriMo project) and the unpublished first book of the Nemesis War, Mistaken Identity (80,000 words) that my writing really started to achieve what I now consider professional levels. But add all that together and I’m still only at 332,000 words, only a third of the way to a million.
But the catch is that while I have a third of a million words of experience in prose fiction, I’ve been storytelling for a LOT longer than that. I started early, telling stories orally in elementary school, usually ad lib fairy tales complete with morals. In sixth grade, I was introduced to the old school Red Box D&D Basic Set, and it wasn’t long before I became a DM and started running games of my own. I think a lot of my storytelling fundamentals come from designing and running role playing campaigns in D&D, then the TMNT/Robotech/Rifts family of Palladium games, then the Heroes system I still play today. If you think about it, a lot of the skills overlap. I had to create settings, create characters for the players to interact with, design plots for them to follow and yet be flexible enough to create something new on the fly if the characters did something unexpected, which they usually did. I was 11 when I was introduced to role playing games, and still play them (though now I rarely GM, as I have my own stories to tell) 27 years later. Add that to being a voracious reader and oh, yeah, that third of a million words I’ve actually written to learn the specifics of writing prose, plus the countless words of nonfiction I’ve written over the years on this blog and others, and I probably have equivilent experience to someone who has just cranked out a million words of fiction in isolation.
Only I think I had a lot more fun.
I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good news is that I’m going to stop talking about Evernote so gorram much. Not that I don’t still think it’s made of AWESOME, but I have a lot more interesting topics to cover.
The bad news is that I have a lot of more interesting topics to cover. My relative silence recently is nearing an end.
So, in the interest of “What personal life? I have no boundaries, I’m a blogger!” here’s what’s on my plate.
I’ve gotten hooked on the best-damn-writing-podcast-I-should-have-founded-but-didn’t, The Dead Robots Society. This is a group of folks who talk the talk about writing on a regular basis. They’re serious about writing but not serious about themselves, which means they avoid the pretentious puffery so common in writing discussions. It’s a fun, insightful podcast even if you write something other than SF.
(I even dig the name, so similar to the writing critique group I’ve led here in Denver for ten years now, the Dead Asimovs Society.)
And since the Robots and their guests do a lot of podcast fiction, they’ve inspired me to give it a shot. I will be podcasting “Do Over!” first, since it’s only 17,000 words, and then if that works out without starting any major wars with third world nations, I’ll be podcasting my first novel, Between Heaven and Hell. BHH will be produced semi-weekly, with new episodes every Monday and Thursday. This will give me three 10-week seasons, one for each section of the book. I am NOT updating the book into the present day. The events in the novel take place from 1997-2000. This means they were before Google. Before 9/11. Before YouTube. Before smartphones and before Twitter. It would be a very different book if it were set today, less than 15 years later, and I don’t have time to write such a book unless, of course, a paying publisher really wanted me to.
A few notes about the podcast. While I admire the work of podcast novel pioneers like Scott Sigler, JC Hutchins, Phillipa Ballantine and Mur Lafferty, I’m not going to do what they do. A lot of podcast novels border on full-on audio dramatizations, with sound effects, voice actors for each part and well… production values. That’s not my style. I’m a total Audible.com audiobook junkie and was hooked on that style of audio fiction before the term podcast was even coined, much less applied to fiction. So what you’ll get from me will be more of the Nathan Lowell-style straight reading of the text, just me, a microphone and whatever ambient noise makes it into my car (which is the quietest place I have access to in order to record). If I get really fancy, I might splice in intro and outro music. Maybe.
But that’s not all I’m doing. I’m also going to try to finish the first draft of Ghost Ronin by Halloween. This is an less an updated and expanded novel version of the “In Shining Armor” screenplay on my blog as a new novel loosely based on that screenplay. Lots of new stuff, new characters, new motivations, new ending. I hope I can pull it off because I’m doing some interesting stuff with it. I’m about 20k words in, and hope to get to 75-80k by Halloween.
Why finish by Halloween? Because the day after Halloween is the first day of NaNoWriMo! This year for NaNo I have a pretty interesting project. It’s a story set in the Unification Chronicles universe, long after the events in Between Heaven and Hell. The novel will be about a lone human trying to survive stranded on an alien homeworld in the middle of a civil war between the male and female aliens. In addition to being a cool story in its own right, it’s a trial run to see how the setting works. I have lots of ideas for this setting down the line, a galaxy united by war against a common enemy and then torn apart once that enemy was defeated. The story of that war, the Nemesis War, is a trilogy I had abandoned, but am now using as backstory for this much richer canvas. I actually stopped writing the first book in that trilogy 80k words in, just a few scenes from finishing it, and learned much about the aliens—the Sendeni—we’ll see in this Sins of the Mothers.
(yes, I’m bloody well aware of the pattern you see here, and I’m working on it)
And finally, when I’m done with NaNoWriMo, completely finishing the first draft no matter how many words over 50k or days into December it takes, I’m going to finish the first draft of my NaNo ‘06 project: Homeworld, my Mars book. Every SF writer, it would seem, eventually has to tackle Mars, and this is my take on the subject. The elevator pitch for it is “Bill Gates goes to Mars,” but there’s a lot more to it and I’ve had a blast getting as far as I’ve gotten, maybe halfway into the third act.
Lastly, I’m going to try to take this blog back to the old days of Writing On Your Palm, and by that I mean a new article posted every Monday. Topics will be the usual suspects: mobile technology, writing, publishing and other items of interest to the gadget-obsessed writer.
This should leave me with three novels in first draft form, and halfway through a podcast novel around New Years. Big plans for 2010 include lots and lots of rewriting and getting my own apartment. Also, naps. I’ll talk about the process of all of it here, in the hope that I might at the very least serve as a cautionary tale for some of you.
So that’s me. What are YOU writing?
I know one of the biggest mistakes in blogging is to blog about why you’re not blogging (META ALERT) but as you’ll see below, avoiding mistakes doesn’t seem to be one of my talents. So I thought I’d let my readers know what’s going on in my life these days and how that’s affecting my writing, both fiction and nonfiction. If my personal life or how I try to work writing into it along with everything else doesn’t interest you, move along. Maybe today’s Marmaduke is funny.
I got a bit of a shock Wednesday. I had expected a maintenance guy to start re-tiling my shower, in which I’d jammed fallen tiles back into place at angles so they braced against each other. It’s been this way for nearly a year. Such is the quality establishment in which I currently live. I’ve also had my car stolen out of the reserved parking spot literally ten feet away from my balcony. Klassy with a K is what I’m saying.
When I got home, it looked like they hadn’t even started. Curious, I headed over to the leasing office to find out what was up. The apartment manager, a real sweetheart who has always been on my side, told me that the workman complained about the smell and that her boss told her that I had to go. There was nothing she could do. She’d give me a good reference and it wouldn’t be treated as an eviction if I cooperated, but I had until the end of the month.
I’ll freely admit that legally, I had this coming. One of my cats, Kosh, is a “special” cat. If the catbox isn’t completely clean, he’ll go elsewhere. I try to clean this up when I know about it, but there’s only so much a vacuum cleaner can do, and if he whizzes somewhere when I’m at work, I won’t even notice it on the tan carpet until long after the odor molecules, which form unbreakable bonds with acrylic carpet fiber, have become permanent additions. No matter what I do, the place smells like a catbox. I’ve become completely inured to it, and hardly notice it anymore, but I’ve been told it’s pretty noticeable. So sure, they have a legit beef.
It was a shock, coming with no warning, but I rallied. I still had some of my tax refund in the bank, and had two paychecks coming by March 1st, so all I had to do was find a place with an immediate vacancy and move in. I made an appointment with the complex I wanted to move into last year but couldn’t quite pull together the money. The plan was to sign the new lease Saturday morning and start moving my stuff over there. I’d planned to move in August anyway, and this way meant I could spend the summer in a new place with central air (my current digs faces southwest and has two barely functional wall units, so it bakes in summer afternoons).
On Saturday morning, I woke up and did what I do every morning on waking up. I grabbed my phone and checked my email. I noticed an insufficient funds notice from my bank, and thought, “That shouldn’t be possible. Yesterday was payday, and I have all that tax refund money left.” So I got up and went to the desktop computer to better take a look at my bank website and figure out what was up. And there, plain as day, was the problem. All my money was gone. Just vanished, poof!
I called my bank and they told me there was a court-ordered hold on my account. They didn’t have much more info and won’t until Tuesday, as Monday’s a federal holiday. They did tell me who the hold was for, which sounded familiar. I tracked it down to a law firm here in town that tried to sue me to collect on a credit card on which I’d defaulted in my 20s. I called them, and they explained that they hadn’t accepted my payment arrangement offer, they’d tried to contact me to negotiate and I hadn’t returned their calls. I don’t remember that happening, but as it’s my policy to screen calls and delete voicemails unheard from blocked CallerID numbers, I couldn’t prove them wrong.
So now I’m losing my place to live and have no money with which to secure another. And if I really was as alone as I’m sure we all sometimes feel in this old life, I’d be well and truly screwed. But as it turns out, that’s not the case.
I’m moving in with my parents, and if that doesn’t work out for some reason, I have a standing offer from my sister to take me in. A friend gave me enough cash to tide me over until next paycheck (which, though garnished, I should be able to access). And friends both here in Denver and all across the internets have made sure I know they care and are standing by to help if needed. I may not have my own place, but I have everything I really need.
Over the next few months, I’m going to save up as much money as I can to try to both pay off this debt and save up for my own apartment. It might take longer than I planned. I might not actually move out on my own again until next spring. But I know I’ll be okay. And I’ve learned, the hard way, that I have to take a more active role in my own life, stay on top of things rather than letting them snowball out of hand. Maybe this is the time to find a GTD solution I can really stick with. Toodledo looks promising.
Oh, and yeah, writing. I’ve been distracted this week, and I’m going to be pretty busy for the next two weeks at least. My fiction is on hold until I get settled, but only until then. I’m going to get back to Homeworld in early March, and I’m outlining another project that I might work on after my Homeworld second draft, or maybe concurrent with it as a change of pace. But the blogging will recommence immediately. Microsoft is going to make some exciting announcements at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week and I’ve got a few things to say about them. I have my netbook, I have my smartphone, and there’s no reason I can’t keep blogging (and tweeting) while I move into this next phase in my life. A writer writes. It’s just that simple.
A funny thing happened on the way to the blog this morning. I checked my email, caught up my RSS feeds in Google Reader, and scanned last night’s Twitter activity in TweetDeck (which is so good it’s actually worth installing Adobe Air, thanks Alli). And I realized I didn’t have Google Reader or Live Messenger open. That I haven’t had them open for some time now. And that I don’t really use them anymore. Everyone I talk to on a regular basis is on Twitter.
This may be not restricted to Twitter and more a function of social networks in general, but I’m far more active on Twitter than I am on Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn (though I’m trying to grok Facebook). But I’ve noticed that since I started using Twitter and following everyone I know or am interested in, my instant messaging use has dropped through the floor and even my text message use has dropped off sharply. If I want to get someone’s attention and it’s not worth an email, I’ll tweet. If it’s private, I’ll send a Twitter Direct Message. I’ve got twitter clients on all my computers, including my smartphone (TweekDeck on desktop and netbook, Tiny Twitter on the Touch Pro, though I tend to waffle between TT and ceTwit and PockeTwit), and even use the Twitter web site when I’m at the office behind our proxy. It’s become my preferred method for light not-in-person (out-person?) conversation.
Do you tweet? And if so, has it replaced IM for you?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, he makes an interesting observation. In any relatively complex discipline, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. This 10,000 hour rule seems to apply equally to music composition, software development, writing, sewing, playing hockey, anything. No matter what you do, you don’t do it at a professional level until you’ve spent 10,000 hours at it. There are no shortcuts. Even Mozart didn’t produce what people consider his best work until he’d spent 10,000 hours composing.
Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I figure I’ve spent about 4,000 hours writing in my lifetime. Maybe as much as 5,000 if I’m seriously underestimating my blogging. I’ve probably spent less than 1,000 hours writing fiction. Assuming I can lump fiction and nonfiction together, that means that even if I buckle down and spend 2 hours a day, every day, writing fiction until I get my 10,000, I’ll be ready to start writing quality work at the beginning of 2016, at the age of 44. I’ve factored in a few skipped days here and there, since I know even at my most diligent there will be days where social commitments on top of my day job won’t allow for 2 hours of writing time.
Seven years. Seven years of writing stuff that I know I won’t be able to show anyone, because I’m not good enough yet. The thought fills me with overwhelming dread, for several reasons.
First off, I know that in that amount of time I’m going to burn through every idea I currently have in my development notebook. Every project I’m even marginally excited about must be sacrificed to the monster called “learning the ropes.” By the time I’m ready to write professionally, I’ll have to come up with all new material. That part doesn’t worry me, since I know writing ideas are like buses: another one will be along eventually. But I also know there’s no way I can spend seven years writing about “filler” topics and characters that I don’t care about. So I have to waste the stuff that I’m currently passionate about just to make it work. That’s a pretty depressing thought, moreso than wasting a block of stone or a canvas for practicing other art forms.
Secondly, I’m acutely aware of how much that seven years of daily writing sounds like work. Gladwell also posits that if the work you’re doing is fulfilling, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, you’ll do it anyway and the 10,000 hours will come easily as a side effect of how you choose to spend your time. As much as I feel like I should be, I’m just not jazzed about the idea of writing that much “practice” that is unlikely to ever get published. I write on average 500 words an hour for fiction (1,000 or more for nonfiction), so we’re looking at 2,500,000 words, 2.5 million, before I’m “good enough.” That’s 15-25 average length novels. So far I’ve written 2 and half novels and a novella. Ten times that output before I’m good enough to go public makes me want to crawl under my couch.
And lastly, “good enough” for what? Even if I get my 10,000 hours in, that puts me at the same skill level as professional novelists like King and Grisham. It in no way guarantees the same degree of success. Gladwell also points out that success in any field has as much to do on who you know, how you were raised, when you were born and where you grew up as it does on individual achievement and hard work. So while I might be as good, technically, as my favorite authors, I might have no better results in getting published and onto bookstore shelves than I do right now. Is that much work worth it when there might be no reward?
Oddly, 10,000 hours of blogging feels totally doable, completely unlike fiction. Two hours a day of blogging, pointing out stuff on the net that interests me as well as writing original articles like this one, is definitely more than I’m doing now, but it would be a pleasant and engaging use of my time. It is also just about guaranteed to make more money for me than fiction thanks to Google Adsense, though probably never enough to support me without a day job. But that doesn’t matter. I’m in it for the LOLs, so they say. So maybe the problem here is my insistance on hanging on to fiction when that’s not were my lasting passion lies (I’ll probably always get a “bug up my ass” to tell a story every now and then, but the excitement never lasts long enough to write a book anymore).
What have you spent 10,000 hours doing, and does it sustain you, or do you sustain it?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Obama winning the election, about my writing, why I washed out of NaNoWriMo this year (more on that later), and the passing of one of my favorite authors last week, Michael Crichton. I’m also rereading Jurassic Park, my favorite Crichton novel. And in so doing, I’ve come to realize something. My whole life, I’ve served two masters. Worse, two seemingly mutually exclusive masters.
On the one hand, I’ve always been a skeptic, a questioner. While I understand the historic significance of the United States electing an African-American president, I’m still baffled at the racism that, yes, still exists in the south where I grew up. To me, racism never made sense. I learned at an early age that the amount of melanin in one’s skin is a simple genetic trait, not more significant to the organism overall than eye color or handedness. Discriminating against people for skin color was just as ludicrous to me as saying that blue-eyed people were naturally superior, or than left-handed people were possessed by demons. It was only years later that I found out the latter two assertions had also had their turn, and resulted in millions of deaths. I still think it’s stupid.
I’ve always wanted to know why. Why anything. “Because we’ve always done it this way” is never a good reason to do anything as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always had a scientist’s natural curiosity and determination to find a rational explanation for things, even things that, like racism, aren’t rational. This was, I think, what drew me to Crichton’s books. Looking back over his collected works, including those I fundamentally disagree with like State of Fear, the constant thread that unites nearly everything Crichton produced is a healthy mistrust of science and technology. Not from a luddite perspective, but an awareness that with the wonders of new discovery and technological advancement we must always keep a careful eye out to make sure it’s not accidentally or even deliberately misused. Most of Crichton’s books are about science gone wrong, about modern day Daedaluses and Prometheuses reaching too far or playing with things they didn’t truly understand. I think this is an important theme, especially as our technological pace continues to increase, and I hope someone (even me) picks up where Crichton left off.
But the other reason I was such a big fan of Crichton’s work is that his books also reached out to the edge of science and technology, pushing the boundaries of what we considered possible. and while part of me is a skeptic, the other side of me deeply wants to believe. While I have a scientist’s thirst for rational explanations, I also have a storyteller’s sense of wonder and magic. And so I’m willing to give some things the benefit of the doubt.
Keeping in mind Crichton’s constant warning that we never know as much as we think we do about the natural world, I note that until one century ago, 1908, the gorilla was considered a mythical creature. So is the existence of a fifth species of great ape, one more closely related to humans and fully bipedal, but which avoids us and sticks to the most remote parts of the world so hard to find possible, if not plausible? Tales of rare encounters with these shy creatures are so widespread and consistent that there must be more to them than myth. And, if they are descended from the so-called “missing link” they could fill in an important gap in primate evolution. So with all this mind, I’m inclined to believe these creatures exist more than not, whether you call them Bigfoot, Sasquatch or Yeti.
For similar lines of reasoning, I’m also open to the existence or continued survival of Mokèlé-mbèmbé (what sounds like an apatosaur deep in the Congo rainforest where no human but pygmies has ever gone), megalodon (a 60-100 foot ancestor of the great white shark that I think might be no more extinct than the coelacanth) and other things that “rational” people dismiss as imaginary. Because we don’t know. We can never know everything.
So as I bid farewell to Michael Crichton, I’m going to keep both the sense of discovery and wonder he brought me over the years, and the warning skepticism behind his books. And I thank him for helping to shape the reader, writer and thinker I am today.
From texts between me and my Maximum Geek cohort Josh Curry today:
me: SF Gate is calling it. 95% reporting, 52-48 for banning gay marriage in CA. Damn.
me: THEY WILL FEEL THE WRATH OF GEORGE TAKEI (oh, my…)
josh: wow that sucks
me: Frickin’ haters. We have a lot of work to do.
josh: Yes, we do.
josh: Luckily we have the ghostly form of Abe Vigoda to guide us.
me: All hail the Fish.
josh: For he is mighty.
me: Not as mighty, though, as Mrs. Fish.
josh: tru dat homeboy
We really do a have a lot of work to do. The younger generation must learn of Barney Miller. And we need to legalize gay marriage, too.
It seemed so simple, at the time. Let’s hop into the wayback machine and go back to just before Halloween, 2007.
I was in a funk, for several reasons. Part of it, I’m chagrined to say, was about a girl. Part of it was out of whack levels of serotonin and dopamine in by brain. And part of it was a deep uncertainty about writing. I knew I could write, but it had lost all fun, all flavor, for me. I was torn between several projects, intimidated by the idea of blogging about them as I wrote, resentful of my writer’s critique group, and just generally out of sorts about writing. I was no longer convinced that a passion for stories and the ability to write was enough to make a writer.
So, in keeping with a sacred tradition of ambivalent writers going back to Plato, I went to a SciFi convention. Mile Hi Con, a little local thing they do every year in Denver. The big session of the day was with David Weber, and I was looking forward to it. I love his Honor Harrington series and wanted to grill him about my writerly concerns. I sat through the opening stuff and waited patiently for him to start taking questions. When he did, I got called on.
“Before you had book contracts and obligations,” I asked, “did you ever think about just giving up on writing and doing something else?” I wanted to know if my wishy-washiness was a normal part of the process.
In retrospect, he gave me exactly the answer I should have expected from a prolific, publishing writer, the same answer I’d have gotten from Isaac Asimov or Stephen King. No, he never thought about it. Weber has been making a living from the written word in one way or another (he wrote a lot of ad copy before Baen signed him) since his was sixteen. He’s never had any doubts.
Well, crap, I thought. That’s no gorram help at all.
I wandered around the con for a few more hours, bouncing back and forth between two groups of friends who had showed up independently. Eventually I found my way to a tiny presentation room about 20 minutes early for the next session, one on query letters. The folks from the previous presentation were still milling about in the empty room, among them a midlist SF writer named Hoyt and her husband (who identified himself as an actual rocket scientist). We started chatting, just killing time, and I figured, why not try them.
“Oh, yeah,” Mrs. Hoyt said. “I’ve tried to quit several times. Never sticks.” She and her husband explained that writing is a hard trade with little to no reward and the only reason to do it all was if you couldn’t stop yourself. They passed on some advice on the same question once given by Orson Scott Card: If you can walk away (from writing), walk away whistling.
It seemed so simple, so freeing. Just don’t be a writer. See if I can do other things. And for a while, it was freeing. So freeing that I quit a bunch of other habits, too. About that time I became increasingly frustrated with the failure of the Democratic party to do anything to stand up to the now minority Republicans, so I stopped following politics and stopped listening to the Rachel Maddow Show on Air America. Then I stopped listening to podcasts at all. I didn’t stop following the mobile tech world, but I did stop actively participating in it. I stopped blogging and stopped posting on forums, only lurking in silence. Now, I thought, I’ll have time to devote to other pursuits.
As it turns out, aside from the aforementioned girl, I have no other pursuits. And as the month of November drug on, I sank deeper and deeper into depression got to the point where my close friends really started to worry about me. My particular neurochemical imbalance manifests itself mostly as Bipolar Disorder (with noticeable splashes of OCD, ADD and anxiety disorder for flavor) and I started doing a textbook BPD behavior known as rapid cycling. I’d be mostly rational one day, then completely bugshit emotional and out of control the next, then back to normal, then bugshit again, on a just about daily rhythm. It was spooky, and not just for me. I’d have to leave the room at work so I could go cry about…
See, that’s the thing, on this side of it, with my rational brain back in control, I’m not really sure what all the fuss was about. I know I was in a lot of pain, and a lot of it was loneliness and the fear that that I’d grow old and die alone, but while I can see now that it doesn’t have to be that way, and there’s things I can do to improve my life, at the time it really seemed hopeless, that there was no way out. It’s a good thing I no longer carry anything with me that can tear open a carotid artery, is what I’m saying.
I hit rock bottom around the end of the month, and it became clear that I couldn’t go on like that. And then it happened, in the back of my mind, shouting to be heard over my batshit internal monologue, I heard a voice. My voice. But not anything like the thoughts I’d been having. It was calm, rational, and most importantly, full of practical suggestions on how I could change things so they wouldn’t hurt so much anymore. Over the course of a day or so, I started to listen.
And one of the first things the voice (me, I get that, I’m not schizophrenic) told me was that I needed to start writing again. That I can’t walk away whistling, I can’t even survive very long without writing. (It also told me to see a real psychiatrist instead of letting my GP prescribe brain drugs and to clean up my damn apartment already, among other things.) But when I start writing, to write for me, no one else. Write for the story, not the audience. I had become so caught up in thoughts of marketability and publication that I’d forgotten about story, about the magic of telling a tale. I’d become so hidebound about avoiding groans from my writer’s critique group that I dreaded sitting down to write.
I won’t make those mistakes this time (I’ll make completely new mistakes, but I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it). This time around I’m approaching writing not as a soon-to-be-bestselling-author practicing his craft, but as a regular person with a hobby. A hobby I don’t seem to be able to walk away from, a hobby I might just need to keep my sanity, but a hobby nonetheless. Once I’m done writing a book, and only then, I might think about shopping it around for publication. Maybe. But the writing, that’s for me.
And to keep that batshit nutbag in my head down to a dull roar.