Driving that Truck
At the risk of being called truck-o-phobe again, writing is not driving a truck. Except when it is.
I was talking to a friend last night. Both of us are hard workers, perhaps compulsively so, and we were lamenting the fact that we can’t just “put in x hours” and the book will be done. That’s not how it works.
Oh, yeah, I know, I seem to be contradicting what I told you before. You know, when I say when it seems like the book is dead and you can’t go on, go on, afterwards you won’t even be able to tell where you were phoning it in. This is true. I know there was a place in A Few Good Men (written in 2 weeks) where I came to a stand still for two days. I honestly can’t remember where it is, and I have trouble finding it. I reasoned myself back into the book, and then I finished.
I’m not contradicting what I said before. There is a difference between a major stoppage and a minor one. There is a difference between stopping and not being able to go on, there is a difference between writing only with inspiraction, and writing when there’s nothing forever.
Let me start at the beginning: I’m not sure I believe in talent — you know that — simply because I couldn’t define it for you. Nor would I undertake to tell someone starting out “you have no talent, so stop trying.” The same way I wouldn’t tell someone starting out “you’re talented, keep on the way you’re going.”
If there is talent, it’s an exhalation of personality and intellect that no one, least of all me can point at and say “There is talent.”
I tell beginners “You’re doing THIS right. Your weakness is THIS. The way to combat it is THIS.” In the rare case I find one that is almost perfect, I say “How many manuscripts do you have under the bed?”
So let’s leave talent aside. A book or just the act of writing starts with desire. You desire to write (Heaven knows why. Maybe our mothers dropped us on our heads?) and you desire to write well (for most people.) So you work at it, till you can tell a story that people want to read. And then you continue to work at it.
The individual work starts with inspiration. The inspiration might be as simple as “hey, I could write a thing like that thing combined with that thing and I bet people would love it” or it might be (often is for me) a presence in the head, a fully formed character with a story to tell.
However it comes, something about that idea makes it compelling to you, and you HAVE to write it.
I once heard that event he greatest saints go through periods where they can sense G-d, where as far as they’re concerned he’s withdrawn from them and from the world, a winter of the soul, bleak and cold. And they say the way to get through it is to continue working as if they could feel Him, as if they knew He was there.
Writers hit winters of the inspiration as well. And most of the time the answer is exactly the same as for saints. You use the craft you learned, and you do the best you know how to continue the story, and inspiration comes back.
Dean Wesley Smith says this happens to everyone once per novel. Usually in the middle. Being speshul, this happens to me twice per novel. One third in, then one third from the end. (As everyone knows about the novels I was writing in public on these blogs, and more on that later.)
Finding that out was the key to becoming a professional. For 15 years, I bridged that gap. I pushed on. The novel lived again and was finished.
And then about five years ago something went weird. I could come up with stories (ALL day long) I could even see the story, finished, in my head. I just couldn’t write it. It’s like there was no force compelling me to write. Not even the force of “we’re broke and they’ll pay when I give them this.”
This is where writing isn’t like driving a truck. I couldn’t. I’d sit in front of the computer, and nothing happened. I couldn’t force myself to do it.
Because of when it came, I thought I was just burned out. But this burn out, if it was that, had weird characteristics. I could think of the story, but not of elaborations. Say this is the story of a man who finds a dragon. Okay, he found the dragon, he’s either happy or unhappy with the dragon. The end. I found myself at a loss to give him a family, friends, a dog named George. I had the concept, and… nothing. I could write short stories. They conform this format better. I could write non-fiction pieces. I could not write novels.
Through Fire, just started, hit a wall. I managed to edit Witchfinder. But the wall was still there. Ideas came, I jotted them down. The last book written from beginning to end in a long drive was A Few Good Men, and then gradually things got more and more difficult and the wheels came off.
I could clean the house. I could do enormous amounts of work in anything that required just physical work. I could do art. I couldn’t write except for short stories, and sometimes those were difficult. Instead of the day they normally take me (unless I’m in the middle of a novel, because “switching heads” takes time) they were taking weeks or months, and it was like passing each word out through a tiny crack in a brick wall.
That problem had physical reasons, which we’re working on. I was seriously hypothyroidal, which apparently affects ability with words first, at least with many people. I’m recovering from that. I’m happy to report the words are back, and I no longer feel like I’m trying to write word per word.
Now my problems are more mundane.
Writing is not like driving a truck. Except where it is.
Long distance truckers need to learn things, like not to let themselves be distracted behind the wheel, and also that no matter how heroic you are, you need to rest enough that you don’t crash by falling asleep behind the wheel.
I’ve been having long distance trucker problems.
Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. We’ll call her A. A. was so excited when her first book came out (indie) and made her money, and so in need of money, and had so many books under the bed that she set a goal of two books a month. I mean, most of them only needed revising.
Then she looked at the schedule and froze in fear. Which meant she blew the first deadline. And now she had two books in two weeks….
To make a long story short, she never wrote, that whole year, and it was only when she discarded the insane schedule and gave herself permission to write slower that she started writing again.
I’m having similar problems. I am so late, I have so many blown deadlines, I want to write everything yesterday. The results have been less than stellar, particularly over the holidays.
Here’s some things to deal with your trucker problems. To begin with, trucker problems aren’t like a novel dying in the middle. They’re more like an extended cat rotating jag. You’d rather do anything than sit down and write. Your guilt and shame over the whole thing drive you away from the stories.
If you’re having trucker problems, take a deep breath. Then take a day off. No, I know a day off won’t fix it. But it will help.
Then have a serious talk with yourself. You’re not a machine. When you fail, it just means you’re humans. Reset your schedule. Go with the sane “I’ll write x number of words a day” — be it 200 or 6000. I know writers that work at each of those speeds. Once those are done, I can go on if I feel like it, or I can go read a book and clean the house.”
Read. You got into this because you love books. Read. It helps.
Refill the well, whatever that means to you. Read a good book, listen to a good song, go for walks, snuggle your sweetie, go to a lecture, sign up for a course on brick laying. Whatever allows you to feel whole and like you. You have to have something to pull from before you can pull. You need to be rested and well, before you can drive that truck. Or you’re going to crash.
Then work. And block out the time you’re working — this is the other truck driver issue I’m having. I keep getting interrupted, yeah, I know, the holidays — and try (good luck, mine don’t) to make your family understand a two minute interruption is going to cost you an hour or so of getting back into the novel, and too many interruptions make it hell to work.
But most of all, remember, you’re not a machine, and you’re not a slave.
Sure you can accomplish amazing things for a while by being an *sshole to yourself, but in the end it stops working. You break down. And then you won’t be able to work at all, or to accomplish anything.
Cut yourself some slack. Take a half day a week off and don’t even think about writing. Take time to read a book, or watch the kids play. Let yourself be human and fallible
Because it is your humanity and fallibility that make your work unique. It is they who keep you alive and sane.
You need your full humanity to drive that imaginary truck on a road you invent, to the place where stories live.
Drive that truck!