Life Rafts

Recently, over at my blog – yes amid my multiple snits – we were discussing what makes writers write.  Are you a writer who likes to write?  Or one who likes to have written?  Both kinds exist among professionals, and perhaps both look suspiciously at one another as having something fundamentally broken with them, just like those who plot and those who make it up as they go do.

I do know that those who like having written seem to have the hardest time actually writing – motivating themselves to work up to writing.  Writing, the process of putting words on paper is so painful that they have to psyche themselves up.

I used to have problems with this when the writing was done in school and on assignment.  I’d be told it was now time to write on x, and I’d do the equivalent of hesitation cuts before you commit suicide.  Page after page would get crumped, before I found the voice of the thing.

In a way I still have that problem, not because writing itself is intrinsically painful but because writing is now – as it was when I started out.  Maybe we all go back to our beginnings.  And yes, I have a theory as to why after years of plotting I’m a pantser again but not in this post – only possible when I hit the voice and hit it right.  This sometimes means trying out several paragraphs: cutting and polishing and arranging, until suddenly something clicks, and the novel starts singing in my head while I type fast, to keep up.  And sometimes it means trying different voices, even different characters, till one clicks.

It’s like when we drive between Colorado Springs and Denver.  With one thing and another – friends, lectures, museums – this happens rather often these days (okay, Greek diners have something to do with the attraction, as well.)  My sons have their favorite stations in the springs, and as we approach Denver, the stations will shift, and the kid nearest the radio will start fiddling with the scanner, trying to find their favorites in the Denver spectrum.

Inevitably we will pass Spanish speaking stations, some very odd tekno music, and some things we hear announced and then can’t find again (Gay Country?  REALLY?)   And there is this weird zone right around Castle Rock, where we’re out of range to the springs, but not quite in range for Denver, so all the radio stations are weird murmurs and the sort of sounds people used to think you got from playing records backward.  (And, btw, yes, our car – my car, which is the one that makes these trips – is older than dirt.)

The beginning of a novel is sort of like that.  The signals are probably just coming from my subconscious (probably?  Well, writing is a mystery to me as much as to anyone else.  I’d rather not say for sure) but they get muddied and confuse don the way and trying to fiddle with the “buttons” and make them clear often just makes them odder and more distorted.

However, it’s not so much the pain I’m flinching from – not unless like those old assignments they are command performances, under contract, overdue, and I have to write them NOW or die (or upset publishers, which can come to the same.)  Those for some reason bring a certain amount of pain with them possibly because I’m afraid of not living up to the promise that sold them.

But at any rate, most having-written writers fight the beginning, then the middle, then the end.  Their writing process is a constant uphill battle, a fight with something they don’t understand and we can’t help with.  Then, once the book is out, once it’s written, they’re happy.  They’re often even happy with the book.  These people tend to be good promoters, because looking over their old books makes them think how great they are.

Then there are the rest of us.  Why do we write?  Do we enjoy the writing process?  We certainly don’t enjoy having written.  As soon as the book is out, and we’ve rested for a minute or two, we become hungry again, disturbed, looking for something to feed the muse so that it will allow us to write again.

But a lot of us don’t enjoy the writing process either.  In my case, it seems to have to do with my hating – truly hating – to be out of control of my own mind.  I like to know what my brain is up to, up there, behind my eyes, and to know it’s truly my doing.  This is impossible with writing.  It has a ways of coming out of nowhere, faint signals or loud, demanding ones.  I don’t like mystical stuff I can’t understand.  Yes, I know, that’s childish.  Deal.  I like to be able to say “I did this, because of that.”  But G-d has a sense of humor and so I’m saddled with this profession that’s partly a mental illness and imposes itself on me.

I want to write.  I enjoy writing.  When it’s going well, it’s like the last stretch of a marathon: you’re hurting, you’re pushing, but you can see the finish, and you know you’re going to make it, and it’s as though there’s a sudden wind at your back even on a perfectly calm day.  Or perhaps (I don’t know, don’t surf) it is like being atop a wave, the world at your feet, before the inevitable happens.

Even when it’s going badly, it is better than a year of fretting and pacing and wanting to write but not being able to.

But at the same time I hate giving myself over to that … daemon that types my stories.  And so everything I write has a timeline of something like this: first I get the idea, and start writing.  Then I get scared.  Then either the deadline starts biting my butt or the story gets so loud that I HAVE to write it (A Few Good Men) and so stop fiddling and sit down and write it through.

The process is uncomfortably like a haunting or possession.  You have to do it.  You don’t have a choice.  And so you run ahead and do it, while feeling as though the furies were at your heels (And sometimes they are.  Those are publishers… when you’ve blown the deadline – though Baen tends to be understanding.)

We do it because we can’t not do it.  At least that’s the idea, though I’ve said before and will say again that if indie hadn’t existed, if my stuff with Baen hadn’t done well enough, I’d have walked away from it all two years ago.  Would I have stopped writing? Hardly.  But I’d have written fan fiction.  Low-stress and just enough encouragement to make it worth while.  A lot less than I write now, of course.  I’d have needed to make a living.

But that was after years and years of seeing things fail.  I was, to be blunt, broken.  Judith Tarr describes the process here.

It takes a lot of aversion therapy to break the writing habit.  Before that?

I don’t know.  Kate says the real challenge for people like us who like the writing itself is to break away from the worlds in our head long enough to write them down.  I think she’s right.

Would I have continued writing if I’d never published?  I don’t know.  But I’d never have consistently written and sent stuff out, if I hadn’t caught near-lethal pneumonia at 33, a year and a half after younger son was born.

Up to that time, I’d been glad to do a short story every year or so, while dreaming stories almost constantly – but writing them was work, while dreaming them up was fun.  I lived in these worlds, but I didn’t share them.

Then I found myself on an hospital bed, with everyone telling me I’d be dead within days.  And then …  I could hear my worlds dying within me, all those places only I knew.  I couldn’t take it.  I couldn’t bear it.

It was worth it breaking way from them so I could share them, stop living in them so I could describe them.  Only by putting them in other heads would they be safe from my wretched mortality.

Will this work for you?  I don’t know.  Many people find intimations of their own mortality stop their writing rather than stimulate it.

It worked for me though.  It’s almost guaranteed when I go there will be stories and characters that die with me.  The dang things just grow.  But hopefully most of my worlds will have left my head, and be on lifeboats to other heads, which will carry them into the future and perhaps even make them immortal.

And that is worth the pain of fighting the writing, instead of losing myself in dreams.


  1. You know, at the rate the authorities are treating kids’ writing and drawings as indications of their true desires, it’s only a matter of time before we are all arrested for intent to commit absolute horrors. I mean, I dropped an asteroid on a planet and killed millions, and just fed the crown prince to an alligator. How can they allow someone like me to walk around loose?

    I enjoy writing the first draft. The process of writing it down seems to, well, tune in the station. Now the next job, editing, cutting out parts, changing the order things need to happen, is a bit tedious. Then the never ending typo/grammar/missing word/missing suffix hunt. No fun at all. If I wasn’t getting money for this, I’d stop, perfectly satisfied at this point.

    Which is a shame. I enjoyed learning a new skill set. And I got a real rush the other day, holding my first proof. There is also a lot of satisfaction in a completed project.

  2. I’m with you.

    The world won’t care about what it doesn’t know.

    But I’m terrified something will happen to me before I get this story I’ve been working with for years completely down on paper and somehow consigned to whatever eternity Amazon et al can give it. It matters to me.

    I have lost so many things that might have given me that feeling of ‘at least, my life was reasonably well spent’ that I don’t want to lose this one, too.

    I wrote on my first blog post that what I fear as a writer is being irrelevant.

    I still fear it. But I also fear not getting as much of it out as possible.

  3. I went through a severe trauma in direct relation to my writing at 14 and was convinced I would never do it again. And I didn’t … For about a year. Then I started going into almost a trance during lectures and when the bell rang, I would have pages of story instead of notes. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I wrote fiction on purpose again. I went through years of writing like that before I gave in and actually started letting the voices in my head talk to me again.

    When people ask me why I want to be a writer I get confused. I AM a writer. Publishing just lets me pay the bills, occasionally.

    1. For me, that trance could just be a big ol’ daydream without the physical act of writing. Writing is a way of working out a day dream for some of us. For you, the physical act of drafting is part of it. Very interesting.

      1. Yep, to the point where, if I’m having trouble with a scene, I relax and pull out a notebook. 6 or 7 pages later, I have it worked out without having consciously worked on it. Writing, for me, is a very physical act. My sub-conscious may know what’s going to happen but it’s not real to me until it’s on the page.

  4. I like your illustration. We ARE responsible for the worlds we create. We can’t let them down.
    And it absolutely undermines the idea of theistic evolution. Would GOD do to us what we refuse to do to our creations? Just – let them run on automatic?
    I think writers understand this argument, even if they are atheist.

  5. Writing them down makes the day dreams more real. Writing them down makes them work, because you have to have causation and logic. Then you need all that other stuff, like tension and character development. Oh, and plot. But, really, writing it down makes the day dreams come true.

    There’s nothing like getting lost in a day dream and thinking you have all sorts of stuff figured out or that you have created some very interesting atmosphere, and then trying to write it down. You realize it was a wee bit inchoate, perhaps. A few times of that, and you know that the lovely day dream isn’t the real thing yet. You have to write it down for that to happen.

    Once I’m into it, I like to write. I do hate to write endings because they are a lot of pressure. I like to have written the ending.

      1. I was like that for a very long time. Day dreams were where I lived.

        It’s odd, looking back. It never occurred to me that _I_ could make myself into one of those Super Beings, those Demi-Gods, those Writers!

      2. When I started writing I realized the daydream was really just a scene or two with some backstory, maybe. You need more events and plot than that to write. The day dreams can be just the “good bits” for me.

          1. I had a creative writing professor tell me the exact opposite when I came to him because I was having a problem writing transition scenes. I told him he was full of crap and started reading more books on craft.

  6. I’ve fallen into a world of immersive writing, where when it clicks it’s a wonderful high that I just have to have. My 3rd book goes out in a few days — I tried to do something experimental (complex multi-locational plot) with it and had to rein it in instead — my chops weren’t good enough for that yet. But it’s amazing how much confidence just getting thru 3 books enables. I’m not afraid of “where am I in the plot structure” or “can I make this hang together” and all that sort of stuff anymore. Just having “salvaged” book 3 (I think), inefficient as that process was, gives me more confidence to continue.

    Now I can focus on:
    1) Taking those skills I can already do decently some of the time and make them consistently sing
    2) Analyzing those skills I haven’t got yet by studying them in other writers (more useful to me than reading about the craft, which I’ve been doing.)

    I’m starting book 4 in the series (and then I’ll switch to a new series). It will play to my (1) strengths above, so I’m interested to see how good I can make it.

    I used to make stuff up in my head all the time, but never to the point, never in the form of a long extended story. So much time wasted not writing…

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