A Clockwork Writer
Oh, hi. I’ve been busy trying to make my life more rational and ordered (also battling a massive cold, but that’s something else) which means, of course, I forgot it was Wednesday.
All things considered it could be worse. I might not have remembered till the evening.
Let’s talk about … ah… ordered creativity.
Like most of you when I was young and stupid — two conditions that often go together — I believed creativity was special, a touch of the muses, a kiss of the divine, and I only worked when I felt it.This is true, more of less, if you wish to create for a hobby.
I once had a writer who had published one (count, one) novel ten years ago tell me what was wrong with current publishing is that they expected you to publish a book once a year, and no writer worth her salt could produce that fast.
Eh. She told me this the year I wrote three novels (to attempt to break in) while minding two toddlers.
Look, how fast or slow you write seems to be part of your internal rhythms, your internal clock. You write as fast as you write, and it tends to correlate to how fast you do other things. If people routinely go “you can’t have cleaned the entire house in two hours” they will probably also tell you that you can’t write a novel in a month or two weeks.
But anything that’s creative can benefit from practice. Just practice. For instance, I’m still clumsy and slow every time I drag the sewing machine out to make something. That’s because you can count on the fingers of one hand the times I made time for it in the last year. OTOH I’m much faster and more expert than I was as a teen. That’s because we went through years where if I wanted a pretty dress it was cheaper to make it (and I’d inherited a bunch of fabric and notions from my grandmother-in-law.
I’m still relatively slow at making covers, but not as slow as I was when I started trying this out.
And when I started out writing, it took me six months to write a short story. I’ll be honest with you too, most of what I did was beat that poor innocent story to a pulp. You see, I still didn’t have much of a sense of what made a good story much less what readers might want. So mostly what I did was super-copyedit, ie. beat that poor short story to a pulp and remove all the flavor from it, leaving it with the general taste and consistency of boiled oatmeal.
It was only when I stopped doing that, that I started selling consistently.
I’d like to tell you that what happened there was that I realized I was making my stories flavorless and anodyne, but it wasn’t. What happened — as so often happens — is that friends set a challenge: write a short story a week. I’m competitive as hell and prideful as the devil. They couldn’t beat me. So I started writing a short story a week. Since I was also writing novels at the time (Darkship Thieves was written the first year of this, and by the second year, I’d sold a novel on proposal and had to write it, and its sequel) I set aside Saturday morning for this. See, my writers’ meeting was in the afternoon, at my house. So I’d get up at the hour I normally got up to take older son to kindergarten, write a story in the three hours while the house slept, then when they wakened, start cleaning. Which meant I was all done by 2 pm when people arrived for our meeting.
The first few Saturdays, I will confess to you that I sat at the computer and started into the abyss. There were no ideas. There was nothing. Sometimes I resorted to the old trick of looking up three words in the dictionary or a phrase in the Bible and writing a story from that. (Bibliomancy is not just for divination anymore. And honestly, any large and diverse book will do. The collected works of Shakespeare, Tennyson or Kipling work pretty well, too. In fact I keep a massive pile of poetry books, in English and Portuguese, in my office for the purpose.)
I’ll also admit to you the first short stories sucked so badly they were in danger of becoming black holes.
But I was recently reading through my short stories to decide which go in which collections (three now) and realized that about three months into the forced-on-Saturday short stories, my quality took a massive jump. Checking my records, that was about when I started selling a short story a week, and sometimes more. And climbed up from 1/4 cent a word to 10 cents a word (at one time.)
The weird thing is that the “forced” ones were more quirky and better than the ones I’d slaved over for months. They were more uniquely mine. They were more compelling.
Another curious thing happened: even if I took a Saturday off, the “inspiration” arrived on the clock. In the days when my husband tried to take vacations by telling me to leave the laptop at home, I’d get up at the crack of dawn in some hotel, and while husband and sons slept, write short stories (sometimes novels, too, but not usually Saturday morning) on notepads, the extra leaves of cheap mystery books and on one signal occasion, on a roll of toilet paper.
I’d trained my muse to show up at six am on Saturday, and dang it, it did.
Shortly after that, I trained my muse to show up on weekdays when the boys were at school, and write like a dervish till I had to pick them up. These were the years of the six books and tenths of short stories a year.
And then I fell off the horse. Part of this is that I’d set my schedule externally. I.e. I’d made it a function of the kids’ schedules. Which means when they finished high school, and had the more fluid schedule of college, I felt lost. To make things worse, about that time hypothyroidism showed up, and then about three years ago, sleep apnea (worsened by my worsening asthma.)
None of this was helped by the fact that over the last five years the career has delivered more kicks in the teeth than even I was used to. (We old time writers have stainless steel teeth, the better to endure with.)
I fell off the horse. I trained myself not to sit still, but to run here and there, doing things around the house, letting things distract me.
We all know what you do when you fall off the horse: you get right back on, right?
Yeah. Now the hypothyroidism is probably ALMOST fixed, and the sleep apnea is being controlled (not helped by the cold making my nostrils mostly ornamental this week) that’s what I’m doing.
It doesn’t feel like it will work. It never feels like it will work. But I know it will and it does. So I’m setting a time (9 am to 5 pm simply because it’s conveniently matched to my husband’s work time. Not dependent on it, but matched, which means we can have time together.) I’m putting ass in chair. I’m making a list of things to accomplish every week. And I’m sticking to it.
I might never be a great writer, but careers aren’t made of masterpieces. Also, what you consider your masterpiece might be so personal that readers don’t “get” it or even hate it.
Careers are made of a lot of “eminently readable” books.
And all I ever wanted was to make a living, what with being a hack and all.
If anything, it seems like indie publishing encourages and rewards greater production. Yesterday I joined a “promotion for writers” group (because you’re always a beginner in something) and the first tip someone gave was “write a lot.”
So, okay, I will do that. I will pixel train my muse to show up at a certain time (paper training it means someone will need to type it in, and is expensive.) We will do this again.
Once more unto the breach my friends.
The writer is on the clock.