When I took my first workshop with Kris (Rusch) and Dean (Wesley Smith) Dean went on at some length about whirlpools.
At the time I had clue zero what he was talking about, and the examples he gave were sort of obvious. Like “I liked writing for hire, so I did that a lot, and I didn’t see how it had become a whirlpool in which I was caught and which kept my career from progressing.” (Dean, not I. The work for hire I’ve done was either ghost and can’t be talked about or Plain Jane. And I didn’t like the work for hire.)
So I thought “Okay, that’s fine. I’ll just not do work for hire or that sort of stuff.”
But he was talking about more than that, as the dimly recalled bits of his speech that went flying over my head come back to me. There was stuff about comfort zones, and having to be prodded out of them by circumstances and necessity to grow.
First let me define what I mean by growing – as a writer. Since I’m not the mother of you, nor the G-d of you, nor even the literary critic of you, I can’t tell you what’s good or bad, or in what direction your writing should be growing. I can’t even tell you to measure by how much it sells, because that can be influenced by tons of other factors, like how sucky the economy is, and how well or badly you got word out. (And if you’re going KDP it can be influenced by how much time you’ve given it, and how many pieces you have out.)
So… How are you supposed to know if you’re growing?
Easy – for me, growing as a writer means two things: you can achieve results at the same level with less work, and you have greater range. If the novel calls for a sex scene (or as the critique coven, being infantile, [including self, so don’t beat me] teh secs scene) you’re not going to turn into a pile of jelly and moaning that you can’t write that, you’ve never written that and SOB, MOAN, you want your mommy. Same with a war scene, or a yatching scene or whatever. Yeah, there will always be things you can’t write – or will never want to – but your range should expand as you grow.
Also, you should be more in control of what you’re doing (by which measure in many ways I’m going backwards, sideways, and on a soaped slide.)
But the thing is in writing as in other things – and I think this is what Dean was talking about most of all, the part I didn’t get – if you’re not growing, you’re dying.
I didn’t get it, because back then I thought you reached this level at which you were “professional” and then you were comfy and could sit down and do the same thing the rest of your life. (Why I thought I’d be capable of that without wanting to blow the whole show, I don’t know and can’t tell you.)
But it’s not like that, because writing isn’t some technical skill, consisting of putting tab a in slot b, in x amount of time and very carefully. No. the trade of writing is emotion, and unless you’re experiencing at least some of that emotion, it’s not going to come through on the page. To experience that emotion, you must keep it fresh for you – learn new ways of doing things, and improve – or at least think you’re improving – on things you know you’re weak on.
To do that, you must study continuously, of course…
But here’s the thing. There’s a gulf between study and application.
Humans are really astonishingly efficient at establishing routine. You – or at least I – get really attached to breakfast at the same time, sitting on the same stool, eating the same thing. (Granted this is because until the third cup of coffee, I must do everything by touch, so routine helps, but still.)
It is possible to get to that plateau where you’re writing well enough to make a living, and stay there, and do nothing more, ever. This is known as the formula book and we ALL know people who got in that trap.
It’s a trap, even for bestsellers because once you’re there, you’ll lose readership. People don’t want to know at the beginning that the murderer is going to be the owner of the factory. They don’t want to know that you’re going to go through the exact same steps, as though your character were a hamster with Alzheimers running on an endless wheel.
I’m not saying this to drive you insane. Of course, you’ll always have tics you put into books whether you mean to or not. I don’t think Heinlein’s obsession with redheads and/or cats hurt him at all. Nor did his basic at the bottom “small town boy/girl makes good” plot.
It’s been called to my attention I’m obsessed with light-eyed, dark haired people. It’s a tic. (Actually the husband’s eyes are at best moss green and not particularly light. Also the obsession is with “unusual eye colors.” I rather like dark eyed blonds, too.)
Some of us prefer urban settings, some prefer rural, and well… if you dropped one of my characters in 1984 there would be SUCH explosions.
That’s what’s known as your trade marks, and readers actually feel reassured by them (even the small ones like preferring a certain description of love interest.) It’s like having a friend and KNOWING he’s going to order the vodka martini. If he ordered single malt instead, you’d go “uh?”
But it is possible – in fact, it is likely – that in writing you’ll fall into certain habits. And it’s almost a given that at least half of those will be VERY BAD habits. (Most habits are, since they’re imported across several stories, and might or might not fit.)
To grow, to expand your range, you need to get out of the comfort trap. And that’s damn hard to do. I’m going to list below some things that worked for me, with the caveat that almost all of them were FORCED on me because, yeah, traps can be cushy, that’s why they’re traps. You don’t even realize you’re there until you starve.
So, in no particular order:
1- Write faster than you’ve ever done
But Sarah, you’ll say – how will that help? Well, if you set the deadline so close that you don’t have time to think and dawdle and plan the way you normally do, it will give your subconscious time to break through. And what it comes up with might surprise you.
Mind you, there’s more than a middling chance it will surprise you in the sense of “good G-d, NO.” But that’s neither here nor there. It will make you look at things in a way you’ve never looked, and consciously analyze the parts of your work that function and why (even if you’re doing it, because they’re missing from the fast-written piece.)
I learned this in the “lean year” of 2003 in which I HAD to write 17 proposals, one piece of ghost writing, a work for hire, and enough short stories to make me about 5k, most of them dropped on my lap at two hours notice. And I didn’t think it had done any good until I read my work before and after. After, it was much more… reader focused. Also, readable.
2- Change The Time/Place at Which You Write
A lot of the habit is subconscious, and a time and place trigger it. Go elsewhere. Move your desk. Get up two hours early and write, and go off to the day job with a glow of accomplishment. Alternately, stay up till all hours and write. Write in the family room with the kids around or isolate yourself to write. Whatever you normally do, reverse it.
I learned this when I had a book due while moving houses. Somehow this brought forth stuff I couldn’t have imagined.
3- Write when you don’t feel like writing.
This is something all professionals (at anything) learn sooner or later. You don’t work for the muse. Dancers are notorious for this: they dance on injuries. They dance when someone just died. They dance when they just got a terminal diagnosis. And their performance HAS to be good.
Pretend you’re a dancer or a musician. (Painters, like us, are more namby pamby.) Allergies? Cold? Fever? Mind just not there? Don’t care. The show must go on. Get out there and do your quota of words.
Look – I violate this too, though I TRY not to. There are times I just CAN’T. But I TRY to write through everything. You might think you’re too brainless to function, but again, what comes out might surprise you. Nine times out of ten, you won’t be able to tell later which parts of the book were forced. But four out of those times, what comes out will be brilliant.
4- Write something in a genre or setting you never wrote
This is very important. It’s also very important that you understand it will feel like going insane. You don’t realize your mind has all sorts of markers – if you’re a mystery writer, you’ll feel instinctively when it’s time for the second murder, for instance – and when those get wrenched it will feel like going nuts. But you’ll come out of it with a better sense of what you’re doing in your own field, even if you what you produce in the other genres is unreadable. (DO NOT ask me about my romance efforts. I bite.)
I learned this through being forced to write contemporary (and fluffy) craft mystery. You LEARN to do things in a different way and realize how much you were doing by rote before.
5- Write Very Slow
What? (you say) Sarah, have you finally slipped? Have you gone nuts? You told us to write fast.
No, children, I told you to write faster than you normally do. Now I’m telling you to write WAY slower than you normally do.
Now, because I despise sloth, I don’t advise this be your only work. Rather, do something episodic, like “on “Sunday I’ll write 1k words on this continuing work” while doing your other stuff during the week.
The process, by breaking your habits, will also teach you where the habits are, and what you normally do as reflex, so in future you can choose to do it or not.
(Yes, I learned this through writing Witchfinder episodically for my blog.)
I will not talk about career traps on this post, because that’s a whole separate blog – they exist, and you need to learn to circumvent them, and in the current climate that means getting very good at the crystal ball gazing.
I’ll do that next week, if you wish me to – but for now, we’ve covered craft traps. If you’re in one, get out. The price of not progressing is to die.