The writer has no brain

The title says it all. The writer has no brain this morning. I’m a week away from the release of Light Magic, the next book in the Eerie Side of the Tracks series. That means I’m living on lots of coffee, not enough food (because I forget to eat) and a brain turned to mush by editing. Add in the fact I’m also writing on the next project for a couple of hours at night because, as usual, Myrtle the Evil Muse is evil. It is so bad that I haven’t taken time to read a book I’d been looking forward to that was released yesterday. Sniffle.

So figuring out what to blog about has had me staring at my computer screen without inspiration coming. Well, that’s not exactly true. Myrtle, laughing maniacally, reminds me that I didn’t finish a certain scene I’d been writing last night. She oh-so-subtly reminds me I could post it here, let you see a scene in progress. Not only no, but hell no. For one, the scene isn’t finished — do you have any idea how difficult it is to write a sex scene with your mother sitting across the room from you?

Yes, that’s right. Myrtle the Evil Muse is that evil. She had me trying to write sex — SEX — with my 86-year-old mother sitting in the same room with me. I don’t know about the rest of you but, dayum, that’s a sure way to shut down the writing. As I told a friend last night, there are a lot of [put action here] comments in the scene that I have to go back and insert today.

Stop laughing! It’s not funny. You try writing a sex scene with your mother in the room — and wanting to talk to you about what she’s watching on TV.

So the writer’s brain is not braining this morning.

Even so, there’s something I want those of you who write or who are creators of any sort to think about. Think about those who have helped you over the years, who encouraged you in your love of your craft. I’m not necessarily talking about your parents or siblings, your best friend or significant other. No, I’m talking about those teachers and others who gave of their time and support, who weren’t afraid to give the hard advice or tell you what you just did wasn’t the best you were capable of. Those who pushed you to strive to improve your craft and who understood you did this because it was part of you, something not to be denied.

What started me thinking about this was seeing an obituary in one of our local papers several days ago. Dorothy Estes was a legend on the University of Texas at Arlington campus for her work with the school newspaper and as an instructor. I didn’t have Dorothy as an instructor during my time at UTA, either as an under grad or while doing some post-grad work. I knew her through her husband, Dr. Emory Estes, chair of the English Department. The first time I saw them together, I was struck by how they “fit” together. They really were two halves of a single whole. As I got to know them better, I began to understand what excellent instructors they were.

I had the pleasure of being one of Dr. E’s students. He pushed each of us to be our best, just as Dorothy did with her students. As a writer, they both taught me the importance of listening to my readers. It’s important to write what I want to write — after all, if I don’t enjoy the genre or the characters, my writing will show it — but I have to keep in mind what the readers want. Even when breaking genre rules, as a writer it is important to remember certain expectations have to be met. Not every romance has to have a happily ever after, but it does have to have romance and there has to be a reason the readers can accept — even if they don’t like it — for not having that HEA. But to be able to break the rules, you have to know what they are first. Most of all, they stressed having the courage to take that first step and show someone what you’re writing, someone who will give you an honest opinion of both what you did well but what you need to improve upon.

Something else Dr. E taught me in a post-grad course was something I’ve held close to me since then. A good writer can and will have at least one message in her work. But that message isn’t presented as an in-your-face part of the book. It is subtly woven into the various parts, not hidden but not shouting “Hey! Look at me!”. Fiction is, for the vast majority of readers, a means of entertainment. It is a way of escaping the trials and tribulations of every day life. It is a way for them to take a vacation from the stress and worry of the moment for a few minutes or hours and we have to remember that.

Note, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a message. I’m saying it should be part of the story, subtle but there. Something that a developed just as carefully and creatively as we develop the plot and our characters.It isn’t a missive nailed to the church doors. If the message is such that it removes the enjoyment from the story, or interferes with it, readers will put the book down and rarely come back.

But, Amanda, what about those who say writers have a duty to educate their readers?

First of all, I say bullshit. That’s not our job. It isn’t what the readers are paying us for. They pay to be entertained, at least if they are buying fiction. Second, most readers who want to be “educated” will buy a non-fiction title. But that doesn’t mean we can’t write books that entertain and make them think. We just have to be smart about how we do it. Don’t preach. Don’t make it obvious there is a checklist of types of characters or themes we are trying to cover. Be crafty and creative.

Okay, maybe the brain isn’t as dead as I thought. As I lift my cup of coffee to the memory of Dr. E and Dorothy, I remember and thank all the others who helped push me to follow my dream. My cousin Clarice who told me stories about her grandfather, my great-grandfather, who ran a newspaper in Colorado before moving the family to Kansas. My grandmother who told me about her brother, my Great-Uncle Jack, who was the youngest linotype operator in the country at one point. Again, my cousin Clarice who urged me not to make the mistake her father, Herb, did. He wanted to be a playwright but who gave in to family pressure to be “respectable”. He was that and more, but he always regretted not giving his dreams a chance to fly.

There are others as well. Mrs. Winslow, my seventh grade English teacher, the first person to catch me writing fiction and demand to read it. Okay, I should have been working on my assignment at the time. the next day, she gave me back my notebook, along with a critique of what she’d read. Yes, there were a lot of red marks on the pages but at the end was a note of encouragement. The story was there. I just needed to learn the conventions of the genre and the technical aspects of writing.

As writers — heck, as creators of any sort — we need people like this. So consider this your chance to thank those who helped you develop your craft and follow your muse. For those who don’t consider yourselves creators, do me a favor. Tell us what you think about message in fiction and the way you most enjoy seeing it in a story.

And now, back to work for me. Until later!




  1. Mr. Don Rausch, my sophomore high school English teacher, who taught me (us) to first craft a sentence, then a paragraph, then an essay. and THEN, how to expand a primitive 500 word theme to any length needed.

    1. I should have added Mrs. Coe, my English teacher my sophomore year in high school. She was the disciplinarian when it came to learning the rules of writing. Only once we had were we allowed to begin even thinking about which ones we could break in fiction.

    2. We had an excellent English teacher at my high school. One of the classes he taught was called “Term Paper” and such a class should be required at every high school in the nation. (He also taught a creative writing course where he stressed a lot of the fundamentals, such as being absolutely certain of the meanings of the words you use. He demonstrated this by having a student define the word “red” and then making her look it up.)

  2. > But, Amanda, what about those who say writers have a duty to educate their readers?

    :”Only writing that serves the Narrative is permissible.”

    But hey, you can mix up “boy meets tractor” and “girl exceeds production quota” any way you want. Why keep trying to color outside the lines? The College of Authors will duly review your work – after you petition and become a member – and forward your manuscript to the appropriate agency if it is appropriate…

    “People can’t just go around writing anything they want. Who knows what they could be saying…”

    1. Oh, comrade. I apologize. I will report immediately to the re-education center. Forgive me for my lapse. I blame it on libertarian parents (well, Dad was a died in the wool Democrat but he loved books) who let me read anything I wanted in my formative years. I shall forever forward write only about Ivan, Olga and their tractor. I shall remember that ivan wants to be Ivana and Olga is fighting against the patriarchy and the tractor will protect them from the evil AIs that plot to take over the world. (/sarc)

      1. Aaaaaand my muse is wondering if the tractor has a fire spirit in it and how that conflicts with working the land, or if it is an evil spirit [environmental rant possible here] or some kind of djinn, and if Ivan is supposed to be a mechanic-mage, and….

        1. Nyet, nyet, nyet, comrade. The tractor represents the spirit of the oppressed peoples, always doing the work commanded by their capitalist masters. The only way to defeat their masters and free the downtrodden is to rebel. But how does a lowly tractor rebel? That is the question.

        2. Ooo. I actually have a tractor, Kioti CK30/Bobcat CT230,and it DOES have a personality. Possession by a helpful spirit rather than a malevolent Christine-type? Now that sounds like an opportunity for a cute series of vignettes.

    2. Plot hoov vs plot outline. Lifted from my Design of Board Wargames book, lest you think I am faking it

      A designer likely to have great challenges in struggling through to a successful conclusion will say that a game is being designed about vampires, zombies, pirates, or, Goddess preserve us, all three at the same time. A designer with some understanding of the question will say that they are designing a hex and counter game (the topic of this book), a tile laying game, or perhaps an auction game (for the latter and many other sorts of games, see my book Designing Modern Strategy Games.) The distinction here in answering my question is the distinction in literary fields between having the plot hook for a book and having the plot for a book. If I say that I have a plot hook, I say that the pirate captain and her gang of merry women find an uninhabited island full of zombies and vampires. With some work, each of you should be able to turn that into two or three paragraphs that you spread across the rear face of the paperback. In fact, writing that plot hook is a homework problem. However, I also may say that I have a plot outline. The plot outline is an instruction set telling me what I am supposed to write as I go through the novel. If you have a plot for the pirate captain, her crew of merry women, and the island full of endangered exotic species in need of protection, you can say what will happen in the novel. That’s very different than the plot hook, which says that the island is full of zombies and vampires. To make the point more clearly, the following homework problem at the end of the chapter is generating the plot outline matching the plot hook that you wrote.

      What might a plot or plot look like? The plot hook is ‘Spy novel: Evil spy breaks up romance, is caught and punished, leaving boy and girl re-united”. As an example that some of you will find less than completely familiar, let us consider a plot to match the plot hook. The following is not any spy novel. It is a spy novel as written correctly in the former Soviet Union in the 1930s. The outline might proceed: Boy. Girl. Girl meets boy. Girl shows her enthusiasm for boy by vigorously praising the five-year plan (insert 10 pages from current plan introduction). Boy meets tractor! Boy shows enthusiasm for tractor! Insert extended quotations from Comrade Stalin’s heroic plan for the mechanization of the agricultural collective. Girl meets handsome but depraved spy of the subhuman ci-devant Wall Street capitalist plutocratic interests. Depraved spy reveals his background by attempting to corrupt girl not with good people’s vodka but with depraved French wine. (Insert here as an aside an extended discussion of the oppressed nature of the heroic and noble French working classes.) Heroic political worker identifies spy and shoots him. (While doing so, heroic political worker lectures extensively on the elements of the next five-year plan that the spy will undoubtedly fail to be able to sabotage.) Now mortally wounded, spy shoots and mortally injures heroic political worker. (Insert select short sections, carefully selected from Pravda, about which the spy boasts, of cases in which he almost sabotaged aspects of the heroic five-year plan but was foiled at the last minute by the KGB.) The mortally wounded political worker laments his imminent death, quoting very extensively from the glorious next five-year plan that he will tragically not see fulfilled to 250% of plan levels. The spy, recognizing at last his errors, offers his body to be used to advance the next five-year plan objectives in medical research, which he describes in detail (13 pages). Depraved spy and heroic political worker now expire. Boy and girl are reunited. They show their love for each other by singing paeans to the glory of Comrade Stalin. Boy and girl ride off together into the sunset on the people’s tractor, quoting extensively from the thoughts of Comrade Stalin on the central importance of the agricultural collective.
      See, I told you that you were unlikely to have read a novel with a plot outline like the one I just gave you. Many of you will even be so lucky that you will never read a novel with this plot outline. Note, very important, that the plot outline gives each of the major events in the plot, and indicates how those events are to be padded by various sorts of scenic and literary discussion. Not only do you know who shoots whom and who falls in love with whom, but you know where you are to quote extensively from which important fundamental work. That’s a plot outline. It tells you what to write, though likely in this case not what you would want to write.

      1. CSS issue. The title is a link but it doesn’t look like one (cursor changes over it, though).

        1. Ooh, ooh!

          A small lawn mower, remote controlled, that looks like a tractor. You could also have cute accessories, like a tiny little disc rotator thing for plowing your small garden patch.

    3. So—how many people here have read the children’s book The Gammage Cup, which is all about rebelling against conformity, as expressed by people who want to write poems in other formats than “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, make trees look other than the picture of the Family Tree and paintings that are other than small icons connected with converging lines (there was a bit of a mixup), and who want to do other than follow the lead of the elite Periods (who all have names like Etc. and Bros.)?

      I’m reminded of it for some reason…

      1. I’ve read it, but so long ago that I had forgotten why the hero finds his bells (that is the story isn’t it?). I do English change ringing so the bells are what stuck.

        1. No, that must be something else. This one has the Odds becoming outcast because the town fears that they’re tarnishing their perfect reputation, so they go out of town and incidentally prevent an attack from some mushroom-like creatures. Carol Kendall, whose book The Firelings is a great illustration of the things groups of people get into when they’re afraid. (Hint: a key line is “It’s one small life for all your lives!”)

  3. Yup, the braining is difficult this morning because the editing.

    Dr. Thomas Hruska, my College English II professor, who regularly beat my writing up and also told me I showed promise. I put an ‘in memoriam’ to him in my first book. Mrs. Scholar (yes, that was her name), my tenth grade English teacher who insisted the children’s story I wrote for class ought to be published. And my husband, who told me ‘you need to write and not do anything else’ before he was my husband, and has since made it possible for me to do so. =o)

    1. Looking back, I love those instructors who used “hard love” to push me to improve my craft. Of course, at the time, I didn’t like it so much. i wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her to pay closer attention and to be sure to tell them “thank you”.

  4. Trying to bury my head in another story to be written. Right now it’s hard to see the computer screen which is okay. Got some stuff done this morning before I took the Squire to his weekly day care. I have no one really to say pushed me or directed me with my writing. Something I have only really started pursuing lately.

    1. Then answer me this, Paladin. Why did you begin writing? What is it about the craft — or the industry — that pulled you in?

      1. Why? Because I hear stories. People discussing their trials and tribulations that only I can hear. I have had these “voices” going on over twenty years now it seems. I have tried putting down the stories I have heard and this past year I have actively pursued it. Some of the earlier stories are quieter, new stories are now loud and insistent. This is the only way I can describe it. This little haven has shown me that I can get them down and I can get them out there for other people to see and read. Just have to get them completed and released in the wild.

        1. I’m rather like you in this. I have stories to tell. I want to tell them. While I’ve had good teachers of various stripes, when it came to writing outside of essays most of them were, at best, meh. I took more inspiration from my reading materials and my mother (who is FINALLY getting back to writing… must remember to ask her enthusiastically about her cozy mysteries…) than all the teachers I have ever had. The biggest help I’ve gotten was from PO Flieger who introduced me to Nano and talked books with me on slow shifts. There was no real teaching, just killing time with a fellow book nerd.

  5. Joe Corbin, my sixth grade teacher. He recognized three of us as prolific readers and our entire _year_ of English was simple. Keep a list of everything we read, turn in one book report a week. Three hundred plus books and how-ever-many reports later, I think I’d internalized book structure.

    1. Well, I didn’t write the book reports, but that was pretty much every class. (My teachers were pretty understanding. Probably because I got much more obnoxious when I wasn’t reading three books a day.)

  6. “The writer has no brain.”

    Have you looked in the jar on your desk? I’ve found mine keeps best in a nice pickling sauce.

  7. Two questions Amanda.

    First, how does your typical day of writing breakdown? You know, when do you get up, when do you do your research, when do you do your writing (in the evening 2 hours before bed?), when do you get the usual, too little, sleep?

    Second, with the understandable exception of sex scenes, do you ever discuss what you’re writing with your mother?

    1. Hey, Mike. I try to act like I have regular office hours but that rarely works. My day generally breaks down to getting up before 7 (usually). The next hour or so is spent sucking in coffee and reading the news, checking blogs, etc. Blogging usually happens here as well. Once the brain is halfway working, I get to work. I’ll write, take breaks when needed and then back to writing. It is rare that I end before 3 or 4 in the afternoon. It is later if I’ve had to break the day for outside appointments, etc. Once I break for the day, it’s family time and probably a little gaming. Research happens before I start a project for the most part. However, I will stop to do it when necessary. As for discussing my work with Mom, not so much for reasons.

      1. Thank you. It’s interesting to see how a full time writer structures their day as opposed to someone who has a different primary job and writing is their part time ‘job’.

  8. My Grandfather used to have a “message” that he’d tell me whenever he got the chance.

    “You’re as good as any man in the House, and probably better than most.”

    That was a guy who’d been through the very worst of War that a man can see and still live. Stared the monster right in the eye, and walked away. “You’re doing all right, son” is a powerful message, delivered by that man.

    I don’t see that one out there these days. Scolding, hectoring, condemnation, that I see. Approval? No.

    So I’m trying to have a book that says, as the over-all take home, “you’re doing all right. Keep going, kid.” There’s probably other stuff in there, “get off my lawn!” is strong with me. But for f- sakes, can’t we have a book that says you’re okay the way you are?

    [I can hear them screaming right now. Is that weird?]

    That’s why I like Larry’s Monster Hunter. That’s what the overall communication is there. It is rare.

    1. Ma’s friend of 90+ years who served in the Pacific theater of WWII has, many a time, told me “You’re a good man” (which is quite jarring, yes)… but if he says so… well, his word is better than most. And no, he wasn’t joking. I might not get it as such… but I know better than to argue.

    2. I’m finding the same underlying theme in the “Wearing the Cape” series. ‘Keep doing what you’re doing Astra, Shelly, Megaton, etc.; you’re doing all right.’

      Sure, all the heroes have flaws, but it’s more like the Navaho rug concept; you have to have a flaw, but you look at, focus on, the total good.

      1. Does that bear any resemblance to how the Puritans would do their floors? There would always be one little thing out of place, just to remind you that nothing man-made was perfect.

        1. Heh. Considering that my wife’s ancestors at Plymouth had dirt floors their first winter, it would be hard to get any of them perfect.

          And how could they call them Puritans when they bathed so infrequently?

  9. My parents– who gave me a passion for stories by reading big wonderful books to me when I was too small to read: the Narnia and Space Trilogy books by C.S.Lewis were bedtime stories, and though I couldn’t remember anything else from Ivanhoe, I saw and still cherish the memory of Castle Torquelsone in flames and the old hag screaming from the turret. And Jim Hawkins fighting pirates, and Buck’s fight with Spitz, and….

    Mrs. Spence, the Sunday-school teacher who pushed boys and girls to memorize verses.

    Miss Burch in first grade who required journal entries and left Friday topics open.

    The Sophomore Lit teacher whose Creative Writing class was required to finish stories on time. (The first good cliff-hanger I wrote happened because it was due in the morning and I hadn’t pantsed a climax yet.)

    And the girl I met at a party after college, who was almost as much a Tolkien fan as I was. She took my last name and my paychecks and for a while even my LotR boxed set, but she still won’t read my work.

  10. Consider Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, as a “message” book….if you can without hurling. Heyer makes a point in the most entertaining way possible but who would ever read it if she said, you should behave this way not that!

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