Traps and Whirlpools

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.

11 thoughts on “Traps and Whirlpools

  1. “Experiencing the emotion…”

    Now that I’m partway thru book 3, I’m starting to get past the panic of “can I do this”, “what if I can’t fix that”, and so forth, at least at my current level. An awful lot of that is just doing enough yourself or reading about the struggles of others to get some sort of grasp on “what’s normal”, or at least “what’s normal for you.” It gives you the (possibly unwarranted) confidence that you can solve the problem later, just keep going.

    I lately came across a term that really resonates for me. We all know about immersive readers, but what’s driving me is immersive writing. I care enough about structure that it’s all in a (as proper as I can make it) appropriate peaks and valleys framework, but I’m writing for the emotional highs and lows, as well as for the buzz when I’ve outlined a scene efficiently and the first draft words can just pour out. I dream the crisis moments, like an emotional junkie, the way you reread favorite bits of some books.

    It wears off eventually (somewhat), once the book is done, My reader feedback (my first several dozen know me from other circles and talk to me) is all centered around “couldn’t put it down” sorts of comments, and I think that’s a direct reflection of what it feels like when the writing’s going really, really well.

    Alas, I need a lot of work on the craft to deal with things more cold-bloodedly in the non-white-hot parts. For example, I don’t know how anyone writes to length, as D W Smith was recently describing, yet again. Thank god I don’t really have to. I don’t think it matters if the books in a series are the same length, as long as the story feels large enough and complete each time. I mean, I could logically draw up a plot, no doubt (I’m an old software person, I can structure to order), but could I synch the emotional story I’d want to tell to it effectively? Not at this time. And right now, I can’t write a story that doesn’t over-involve me emotionally. Nor do I want to.

    Yes, the rational part of my brain says: shorter works, more per year. Maybe with the next series…

    Ah, well. Early days…

      1. Then there’s the other approach. After Laurell Hamilton jumped the shark on erotica mixed in with vampires/shifters/etc., she started doing books in her series which occupy (I kid you not) maybe eight elapsed hours. Full-sized books. More than one. It’s not that they didn’t work, but when you finished you felt as if it were all empty calories from the point of view of series plot advancement.

        I gave up about that point.

        Me, my current book covers 4 months, 2 continents, 4 domains/countries, and a sort of fae version of the American Revolution. It’s a coherent plot (I think) but I can’t make it a shorter length, Book 4 following will have to be more intimate instead, like Book 2. Still hoping for two this year and maybe a collection of short stories.

        Did my first short story last weekend, for Valentine’s Day. It’s in the series. (That was a stretch, and now I’m going to try for one per month, whenever a book doesn’t come out, so ten this year.) They’re perfect to use as discoverability ads for Book 1 of the series, at least on Amazon: January 1 – book 2 release, terrific (for me) sales all month. February – just about no sales for a week, fell off a cliff. Published little story. Sales of the story are tiny, but the main series bounced back again very, very visibly, at 10 times the volume of the story, in just 4 days. I’m going to have to arrange for some sort of new release every month to keep any kind of momentum, hence the short stories. Must be largely the “Last 30 days” sort of lists that drive this, ’cause it’s not my mailing list — they’re already pretty much maxed out on the main series.

        1. Will just mention that I read your first book today, and very much liked it. Of course being a houndman I generally despise writers attempts at depicting the Wild Hunt, because their understanding of dogs is so sorely lacking. While you may like a different style of hound, the obvious knowledge and understanding was very refreshing.

  2. I’m trying the “write fast” advice for my WIP. One thing I notice that is different is how plot bits and cautions bubble up after my “writing hours,” something that usually does not happen. I’ve also thrown outline to the wind and am going pure pantser. It’s a little scary, but the story is charging along and the characters still seem “true,” if that makes sense.

  3. Yes – write slow – because that’s your fastest speed! Hehe.

    Definitely, poke yourself, and get out of your comfort zone – I started a blog last September, put a few short stories out there, and just yesterday forced myself to start serializing a novel.

    Stare the fear down. Do it anyway – I don’t think there is going to be a huge public outcry because I decided to put MY opinions out there in the form of fiction (because what is fiction but how I think this particular situation should devolve?). In actuality, being obscure is the far bigger problem. No one who hasn’t discovered you somehow can hate you.

    Now I will go take a nap – the adrenaline rush has given way to sudden and total exhaustion – it wasn’t EASY to put the starter chapter up, but I think I figured it out – and if not, I’ll fix it.

    Thanks for the pushes and the great ideas.

  4. *laughs* Got most of the way through, and my brain said: “Oh! Take the cool tinker toy set apart, a few piece that you built it all around, and try to build something else. Then do it again, with a different favorite bit.”

  5. 3- Write when you don’t feel like writing.

    Read that last night and decided that, even though I really, really didn’t feel like writing – I felt more like putting an hour and some change on the bike than writing – I should at least take a stab at it.

    3k+ words (I forget how many… 3,200-ish + another 100 or so that are in my “to be dropped in when I get to that scene later” notes area that aren’t part of the story document’s counted words).

    Awful freaking lot of words when I really didn’t want to write, didn’t think I had it in me, and furthermore didn’t really know where I was going except for a vague thought that I liked the concept of this passing idea I had a few months ago and didn’t even write down because there “wasn’t enough there to bother”. All sorts of characters springing out of almost nowhere. Still don’t really know where I’m going, but I’m a damn good way on my way there.

    I’m mildly annoyed at myself for not doing it sooner.

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