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!

54 Comments

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54 responses to “Driving that Truck

  1. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    The important thing with driving a truck is to plan ahead and then throw the plan away when problems happen and keep going. A load delivered late is still a load delivered.

  2. I hit the speed-bump at around 50K words, or 2/3 of the way through the story, more or less. I have no idea what comes next. The book will be too short. I’ll never get the plot threads together. It’s dooooooomed. And I grit my teeth and start small, like a social function, or a character goes for a walk in the park to cool off and try to sort things out, or the sink clogs up at a bad moment [is there ever a good moment? Just curious]. And something shakes loose after a day or so and the flow picks up, although it is still a slog. And then whoosh! The story grabs the bit in its teeth and it is a race to see if my arms and hands will give out before the story comes to a conclusion.

    • I’ve got a novel stuck at 50k too, has been like that for the last three years, which sucks. Still, in better news I have written three other novels since: one finished and doing the rejection thing, and the other two being revised, edited or polished (call it what you will–probably a mistake on my part, but I’m a newbie) so reading this piece and the comments has been most heartening during a period when I feel down, as in off my game.

  3. I’m glad you said that about the two kinds of being stuck, because they are different and it’s important to understand which is which.

    When I finished up “The Book Of Lost Doors” I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, grieving the end of an intense four year, four novel relationship. I spent almost two years simply not having the energy to start a new major project. I vacillated between being certain that I would never write another word (and that was a good thing because everything I wrote was the most dumbest thing ever) and trying to force the words out by brute cussedness.

    I did manage to crank out a few short stories (some of the best I’ve ever done, actually) but my attempts to start a new novel went nowhere good. (I have the bits saved, of course, and someday might return to one or another.)

    Right now I’m the other kind of stuck–this book isn’t fun and exciting anymore. The bloom is off the rose and it’s work. This kind of stuck is the kind that setting down and applying nose to grindstone will fix–or at least get through.

  4. I want to say something profound, but all I can think is “My feet hurt”.

    Ah, well. I wish I wasn’t quite so reliable, so my boss would quit scheduling me for the 4 am opens. 😉

  5. Sam L.

    Getcherself a MONSTER truck with 6′ high wheels and just PLOW thru the muck and potholes in the road to the novel. Admittedly, they ARE hard to find.

  6. Albert

    I’m pretty sure there are a multiplicity of writing skills. Probably more than a dozen. So ‘talented’? Just a matter (assuming the potential is there in the first place) of which skills have been developed.

    Speaking of which, I need to go prep the setup for a skill that I need _much_ more experience in: Writing combat scenes.

  7. First, thanks for this. I’m at a ‘reset’ stage myself on several things. You have a knack for timely kicks in the pants. 😉

    Second, a thought on ‘Talent’. I’m wondering if what most people are thinking of when they say ‘talent’ is similar to what you mean when you say you get characters for ‘free’. Like an artist having a natural eye for composition or proportion. It’s a leg up that people see, and over generalize, some times missing their own ‘leg up’ or the downsides of that leg up.

    • Well, it’s traditionally the time of year for resets…

      My thanks, too. An additional kick is never welcome to me, but sometimes needed.

    • “Like an artist having a natural eye for composition or proportion.”

      Oh, I can speak to this one. I have an excellent sense of proportion and a spatial sense good enough that I can occasionally pull off amazing Feats of Parallel Parking. (With amazed witnesses, no less.) I’ve had those for long enough that I can’t really speak to learning them.

      But

      The important thing to point out is that these are trainable skills; I didn’t come into the world with this “talent” fully-formed, but had to refine and polish what was already there. I still have a lot of failings in my art, but they’re less notable to people who are not trained. *Anyone* can learn the basics. It will be easier for some, but even if you have to follow a written set of rules, you can get composition done well.

  8. Draven

    The problem is, i have like three trucks….

  9. This hits home so hard. For me, a big part of the problem is setting realistic goals. I don’t know how much I should expect to accomplish, so I end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished enough, no matter how much I did accomplish. And then I end up with a block against starting, so I’ll spend a whole afternoon twiddling away my time and then feel lousy. And lazy, and useless.

    A lot of it is tied up with a Job from Hell years ago, where the boss had Busy confused with Productive, but I didn’t realize it until it was too late. Poor communication didn’t help things, so I was trying to get done *faster* instead of pacing myself to fill the entire block of time with busy.

  10. Posting this without having read any other comments so may be a repeat but:

    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

    “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”

    If even He could have such a moment, how much more the rest of us?

  11. …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.

    Oh, Lord, exactly! In the middle of covering the Christmas story, and, WHAM! Sigh. Well, I have the next two years pretty much set for that, anyway…

    Beginning tomorrow, if I can stick to it, when I am working – the office door is being closed and locked, and the bagpipe music is going on LOUD.

    • I use Gregorian Chants.
      To be fair, these holidays have been SPESHUL. Younger son is also going to doctor for “unknown” but severe abdominal/maybe gastric issue. So. we’re all being pulled here and there.

      • Hate those SPESHUL holidays. Sigh. All of you, please take care – I’m sure that older son would really prefer patients that pay him!

      • “severe abdominal/maybe gastric issue”

        Oh, lovely. Given your history of bad carb reactions, I hope he didn’t inherit some major gluten intolerance.

      • Luke

        Hopefully nothing terribly serious or permanent.
        (My wife has chronic pancreatitis. So naturally my thoughts went in that direction. A small prayer sent for happy endings has been sent your way.)

  12. One of the things I told Athena about her art (and she’s also venturing a bit into writing–mostly she wants to do comics so kind of both) some time back is that amateurs wait to be inspired or in the right mood. Professionals buckle down and, like the Nike commercials “Just do it.” 😉

    That apparently stuck because just the other day she came to me griping about one of the “Tumblr artists” she was looking at who was all “I have to be inspired”.

    • That said, there are times when you just can’t do it. In my case if my stress level is above a certain point the words just will not come. Period. Recognizing when that’s the case and when your muse is just being lazy, that’s the real trick.

      • Yes, that was part of the issue: my stress. Even I rarely need prednisone four times a year for my auto-immune, but last year was special. Which is why I’m writing my blog about this now.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I was exposed to that concept many years ago, in some of Dave Drake’s essays. So I set myself a goal of being able to just work, instead of being so dependent on my situation.

      I’ve fallen off the wagon lately, but partly because I’ve been shorting my allergy medication. I’m back on full, and seem to have gotten able to sleep well again.

      • If I told my boss that I just don’t feel inspired to do science today, I’d probably be out looking for work.

        • Yeah that’s a thing. If I couldn’t do my day job there would have to be a real good reason, like sicker than a sick thing. I just go in and do my stuff. Sit in front of the computer to write and my brain flows out through my nose. Must be a natural born slacker or something? 😉

    • Hare fast. Hare took nap.
      Tortoise slow. Tortoise plodded along.
      Tortoise won race.
      Motion, even slow motion, advances.

  13. And now I’m going to have this song in my head for the rest of the day:

  14. Christopher M. Chupik

    It’s like you can read my mind some days, Sarah. Grappling with similar issues right now. Thank you.

  15. One of the reasons for me working on two books at a time. I get stuck or run out of steam on one, I can switch over to the other, and not waste the good writing time.

    • I find switching between fiction and non-fiction does the same thing. Plus lets me answer honestly the question about, “You are staying active in the field, aren’t you?” No is not an acceptable answer.

    • Mary

      Be warned, people, you have to master the art of circling back to get this to work. You can’t keep going on to book three, four, five — six hundred.

      OTOH, it does help blunt the impact of finishing one story and kicking it out into the cruel, hard world.

  16. One of the best things I ever did in terms of life skills training was to join the improv group in college. Mind you, there are two major ways to do improv: one is to focus on the funny (which can lead to some bad group dynamics), and the other is to focus on the skills. The value of doing the latter is that it’s a good way to involve all of the people who are shy or uncertain and teach them to push through things as well.

    You end up dealing with what you have, and sometimes what you have is ridiculous. If you’re stuck with writing block, you could always use something like a random quote generator and write from that. Will it be usable? Probably not. But maybe it will be fun…

  17. Luke

    I think my best Christmas present was my wife actually encouraging me to start writing again, and promising not to begrudge me the time.

  18. Just pondering… back a few years, I was managing a group and having trouble with interruptions. The solution for me was posting a schedule on my door, with clear blocks marked as working, no interruptions — and I would close the door and scream at people who ignored the sign. Knowing that in fifteeen minutes, or this afternoon, I would open the door and they could talk to me and I would welcome it, most people learned to wait. Might work?

  19. TRX

    Buckaroo Banzai: “Here. It flies like a truck.”
    John Parker: “Good. … what is a ‘truck’?”

    [sorry, I couldn’t resist…]

  20. Fossegrimen

    >>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.

    Any concrete tips for fixing this? It pretty much sums up all my fiction efforts….

    It’s not that I can’t write, I can easily produce 10k words of business analysis in a regular workday on demand. It’s just the people doing awesomecool things in my head who stubbornly refuse to make the journey from brain to keyboard.

    The consulting gig means that GET PAID(TM) is not a motivating factor, but it’s really annoying to have all these cool stories in my head and none on paper.

    So far, I jut hang on different authors blog on the net and try to figure out how they do it and this is the closes I’ve gotten to a description of my problem.

    • Mary

      For just starting. . . .

      They need a lot of practice to make the journey, I’m afraid. Trying to force them to make it is the only one I’ve heard of that works, and it can take a lot of work. And time.

    • If you’ve never done it? Training. Read Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. TWICE. Then try it.
      Block out a time away from non-fiction writing, though. In me at least, the two kill each other.