You Haven’t Lost It

Recently I had to reassure one of my fledgelings — one of the early ones, now very much a master herself — that she hadn’t “lost it.”

What is “it” you ask?  It is the ability to write.

This is a perennial and bizarre fear of all writers. I suspect half of you suffer from this. We take a month off — say, to refinish furniture (it’s research, okay? It has now given rise to Busted Marble, Stenciled Murder and Chalked off soon to be visited upon Dyce Dare as soon as A Well Inlaid Death is Finished.  Yes, sure, some stuff needed done around here, but we probably could have waited a year and paid. OTOH I was too far from furniture refinishing to fully get in the mind of someone who does it for a living.  So…) — and then we come back, write and become convinced it’s all wrong, miles, and miles of wrongitude, and we’ll never write anything worth reading again.

I’m here to tell you that you’re insane — so you’ve lost “it” just not the it you think.  I think you’ll find you lost your mind and it’s probably in a drawer with all the beginnings of manuscripts, pens, an art eraser of dubious provenance and a bunch of screws and nuts you don’t know where they came from — but also that you’re wrong.  And by wrong I mean “you’re thinking about this all wrong, because you know a bunch of things that just ain’t so.”

It begins with this belief in writing as a quasi-magical sort of amazing thing that comes out of nowhere, and you’re not wholly responsible for.

I will grant you that I have clue zero where the wish or need to write come from.  My guess is early childhood trauma and a couple of dysfunctional genes.  If the genes weren’t there, we’d be something more sane, like say mass murderers.  But I do know what makes the actual writing happen, and that tingle, and amazing feeling you get when it’s working is not unique to writing.

Sure, you say, art and music too.

Ah!  My mother designed and made clothes for a living.  My two grandfathers were one a cabinet maker, and one a restoration carpenter (he restored century old — or more — churches and palaces.  The stone endures, but the wood parts have to be replaced, as accurately as possible, every few centuries.)  I played around them while they’re working, and I’m here to tel you there is no difference. The distant look through family meals and parties. The sudden look in the eyes, the going off to do something at an hour — and in maternal grandfather’s case usually in his best suit.  looking at all the clothes I ruin while refinishing, I think I have his genes — and in weather no sane person would do it, because now you know how to do the thing your subconscious was working on all along.

All three, btw, referred to their professions as their “art.”  In fact they’re not alone.  We get “state of the art” from engineers, who also consider their profession an art.

It is, as is mine. It is an art.  Art not in the sense of I’m so sensitive and I drink absinthe to inspire myself and get otherworldly abilities, but in the sense art is also used “an accumulated mass of learning and techniques in turning raw materials into a finished and — to the untrained — amazing product.

In that sense writing is an art.  Or at least mine is.  Maybe you get fairies — green or otherwise — whispering perfect plots and words to you, but I personally use techniques, work and a lot of time and effort to turn words into stories that convey a whole experience to the reader.

My fledgelings do too.

I heard what I’m going to tell you when I started out.  And I have yet to find a metaphor for this that matches Kris and Dean’s (Rusch and Smith) bathtub metaphor.  They had this thing they called the bathtub of publishing which they used to explain the need to practice.

When you start out you — or I or anyone — have no clue what you’re doing.  Imagine filling a bathtub, but the faucet will only trickle drops.  There is a line scratched in the bathtub at some height (which is different given your natural gifts, or in my case, the lack thereof for everyone) and you’re trying to fill the tub to that point.

At first, no matter how hard you work, all your efforts will be at the bottom of the tub.  But if you manage to open the faucet more and get a trickle coming in, your goal will get nearer faster.  And the more you produce, the faster you reach that line.

At some point you’ll be really close to the line.  The ripples caused by the drops of water in the tub will sometimes hit above the line, even though you’re mostly below it.  (This is where I am with cover art, right now.)  In fact, because of the ripples, your output will never be even, but generally, it will get higher.

At some point everything you produce will be above the line, and it takes something catastrophic, like brain damage to pull the plug and take your quality back to unpublishable.  And I mean real brain damage, not “I think I lost brain cells reading that.”

Now their metaphor applied to traditional publishing, where your career was a combination of how much the editors saw and how good it was.  (Indie is not much different.  It’s a combination of ability and volume, too.)

BUT if you think of it as practice and competence at your “art” (understood as craft) you won’t be far off.  At some point you’re above the line in the tub, and you can’t go back below it.  You can’t. You’d have to be actually and for real dying to do so.  And hell, even 20 years of hypothyroidism and five years of hypo-oxygenation didn’t do it for me.  They slowed me to a crawl, but they didn’t make me unpublishable.  Now I’m not going to say some of the stuff I produced those years is my best and brightest, but it’s not beginner dross.

So rid yourself of the idea that writing is a magical thing that you can “lose.”  It’s a craft.  You learn it.  Failing dementia, you still have it.  (And stop insisting you have dementia, or I’ll give you something to be demented about.  I can do it.  I often drive people crazy.)

Sure some of your stuff will suck relative to other stuff.  All of my stuff sucks relative to where  want to be.  BUT it’s not — unless you’re an actual beginner, in which case go practice and learn, you’re not the unique genius who writes professionally off the bat — beginner stuff.  You haven’t “lost it”.  And the more you work the higher your median output goes in terms of quality.

What is quality? The ability to tell a story that engages.

Now this might not relate to money, though it has a closer relationship to it than it did under traditional publishing.  That’s a post for another day. Rest assured you haven’t lost the ability to write.

Some of the things that can confuse you and make you feel like it are (not an exhaustive list): Tiredness, illness, lack of sleep, another worry, and — paradoxically — that you’ve made a big step up in your writing and so it doesn’t feel familiar and your subconscious is telling you it’s bad.

But it’s not. You’re not.  It’s still all there.

Now go write.


  1. My fear is running out of ideas. After I finished the Colplatschki series and the Cat books, what was there to write? Shikhari, kicked off by reviewing Indian Independence for class. The Familiar tales, inspired by an epic text message exchange with Dorothy Grant and the breakfast buffet at a German spa hotel. Merchant and Empire, because I wanted to try a character without special powers (boy did that get out of hand…) Now I’ve got two lurking in the wings, one based on German folklore and another on the arrival of the Indo-Aryans in South Asia.

    Am I as good of a writer as I want to be? No. Am I better than I was? Oh heck yeah!

      1. I’m always amused by the interviews where writers get asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” The real question is, “How do deal the 99 ideas you aren’t currently using and get them to shut up long enough so you can get through the novel based on the one that you are?”

        1. Well, sometimes it’s “introduce them to the work in progress to fill out a thin spot.” But you can’t count on that.

        1. Took me a good fifteen years before I was halfway competent with a plot. Diagram the plot of books you like. Read Swain. Find a book called the Writer’s Journey, photocopy the list in the middle. Use it as a guide to plotting. You’ll get there.

        2. I don’t do plots. I only do characters…. who refuse to listen to me, run off and do their own damn thing and get in all sorts of trouble, then when I say I told you so, they gripe about how I’m so mean to them all the time, and is it any wonder why they never tell me anything??

    1. More Shikhari please! HOLY COW, I just realized I came across the mention of the Shikhari books YESTERDAY… and I just finished the second book!

      Couldn’t put them down, and the minute I finished the first one I went and got the second saying “It’s too late to start this one tonight, but at least I’ll have it for after work tomorrow.” Then proceeded to read till 2AM, then read through lunch and (don’t tell my boss) maybe an extra break or two (and while code was running). I have to tell you, it’s been a while since a book (or series in this case) sucked me in like this. 🙂 THANKS!

      (Viking starts eyeing other works) I wonder what other fun there is to be read….

    2. There is some magic in your writing in the Merchant and Empire series. It’s got a depth? texture? realism? None of those words are quite right. The difference between a line drawn cartoon and photo-realistic CGI. I’ve already read them twice trying to figure out what exactly you did, but I keep getting swept up in the story.

  2. Side thought: dunno if I’d care for the genre, but “A Well Inlaid Death” is a wonderful title. Also, has Ms.Dyce considered becoming a casket-maker? 😀

    1. I think that would entail more capital investment than Dyce is used to having the ability to produce. She started the series making her living by dumpster diving for discarded furniture of previous quality and refinishing it to its original (or close enough) splendor, then selling it. She seldom had more than enough for basic materials for that purpose, let alone buying many, many board feet of premium lumber.

      All of her adventures with murder and associated crimes are (so far) related to discoveries of evidence in the furtherance of the above process.

    2. I’m not at all a fan of mysteries – but it was a Sarah Hoyt, so I took a chance.

      Now I am going to have to be quite firm with myself to keep from nagging the woman mercilessly about getting them done.

      I do give a warning, though – do not start reading one with any beverages close at hand. It will take you hours just to get through the first chapter with all of that screen cleaning…

  3. On a somewhat related question: how, as an indie, do you figure out when you’ve written something that has sloshed above that line on the tub? Back when the system of editors and publishers was king, it was obvious even if the system had more than a few flaws. But when you’re author, editor, and publisher all in one, how do you decide if that novel you have in hand is good enough to polish and publish, or if it would just be embarrassing yourself and you should put it back in the drawer and keep practising?

  4. I find that I never really “stop” writing, even when I’m far away from my computer. I keep a little idea book (yes, it is small and black, why do you ask?), and I write down everything I’ve done or learned that day. It is not fiction, and some never finds its way into fiction, but words get onto paper.

    1. I kinda figured that was why you’d suddenly stop and write things down in the middle of us wandering around together. It didn’t seem to be blackmail. as you didn’t shoot me an evil grin after scribbling for a moment….

      1. Oops, didn’t finish that thought. All the above can interfere with writing, and sometimes it takes a while to recover. But it doesn’t go away.


      2. The raccoons in the attic were inflicting all five of those upon me. I think I’ve successfully evicted them, and hope not to be awakened at 6 AM by the scurrying of critters across the ceiling above my bed. And then I maybe I can look at a permanent fix to the broken gable vent. (sigh) The piece of sheet metal screwed to a rickety assembly of boards stretching up 24′ from the ground to the peak of the roof works, but it is hardly the most sightly thing.

  5. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    I pretty much go through this exercise in self torture every time I sit down to write anything new. It’s one of the reasons I’ve found using writer’s prompts and then writing like mad for 15 minutes is an excellent way to loosen up. What’s truly amazing is that by forcing all of the self-doubt away and shutting down the internal editor, I’ve come up with some interesting snippets for possible short stories.

Comments are closed.