It’s Alive!

There is something that sometimes comes out of nowhere and touches a piece of writing, which I can’t explain, which is funny, because I make my living explaining things in writing.

Older son calls it “fire.” Which makes a certain sense, honestly. Like fire, it is alive, unpredictable, has to be carefully handled so it neither consumes the rest of the story, nor disappears.

But I call it “It’s Alive” because it seems to have a mind of its own, beyond and above what you put down in the page.It had been years, since I felt something of mine come alive. Not, in fact, since A Few Good Men. And before that since Darkship Thieves.

This week, it suddenly engaged in the middle of writing a short story based on what a botched epic I wrote when I was green in judgement has become in the back chambers of my mind in the 20 years it’s been submerged.

I’m writing this short story, very late and as I sink into an increasingly worse case of the flu, and I realize …. It’s alive.

And here I must pause to explain: I’ve written things that were in no way alive and done it well. The summer of seventeen proposals — each of them with three chapters as well as an outline — and two work for hire novels told me that I could write while almost dead, and possibly submerged in jelly.

In fact what finally stopped me was not just PTSD from dealing with the industry and complete burnout but also a culmination of three diseases each of which could (and would) have killed me if not handled in time. All at the same time.

There is no substitute for knowing your craft. and knowing what you’re doing. Even when everything is going right and something — your subconscious, your higher self, the better angel of your nature, or that thing from the end of the galaxy (call it what you want to sleep at night) — is unrolling the story into your head, sometimes with precise wording, there will be gaps, and times the receiver isn’t receiving, and times when all you get is static. For those times, there’s knowledge, craft, and good solid bullheaded sticktoit.

If I ever hear any of you say you abandoned something mid-writing because it died, I will reach through the computer and…. you don’t want to know.

When something is alive, it’s alive. Yes, sure, if you bank it and leave it for a long time, you might come back and think it’s dead, but if you brush away the ash and blow a bit it will come back.

Or to put it another way, if you keep on writing through what seems like dead spots, it will be alive again, and full of force.

Which brings me to: It’s entirely possible Deep Pink was alive. Sometimes it came through, in flashes and shining bits of color.  There was a feeling that there was something there, beyond the formula and the words, but it would vanish again.

I think, honestly, until maybe this last week, I was still too tired, too broken to feel the life as I shaped it.

Which brings us to: So if you can write good books without their ever coming “alive” why should we care about this concept of “it’s alive” this concept of “fire?” Who cares?

If it were just something writers feel while writing, I wouldn’t make a lot of it. I might tell you it was better for you — it is — to write what is alive, because somehow — and don’t ask me how — it seems to feed the writing thing, rather than depleting it.

But if that were wall, I’d say pull your big boy/girl panties on and soldier on.  If the fire comes, it comes, pay it no never mind.

However for some reason — and I can’t explain it, so I can’t tell you what it is — the fire can be felt at second hand, it can echo through the story and reach the reader.  Books I know I wrote with fire will affect the readers more intensely.  The stories that affect me all out of proportion with the actual craft and subject? I eventually find out were “alive” for the writer.

So, for you children of the time of indie, I’m going to tell you some things that were pointless to tell you when we were all chained to trad. (For I was a slave in Egypt and made brick without straw.)

Listen: write too many things without the fire, without their being alive, in a row, and it kills the writing thing.

If you want to think of it as a gift, as the gift of the bards, the gift of those who told stories, and there’s some support for that, you’re taking your golden sword and using it to shift mortar. It will get blunt and dull and eventually break. And you might never come back from it.

There was no hope — at all — of writing only where the fire was when you had to go trad. What you wrote and when you wrote it was not your choice. And sometimes — most of the time — the way to survive was to shift the mortar.

Also the normal length of a writing career was ten years. And most people who left whistled as they went, because they were free and the writing was dead.  Whether they were forever maimed, I can’t say. I know I’d be. Because the writing is part of what I’m FOR and though I wrestle with it like Jacob with the angel, if it were torn away I’d be forever lame.  Alive, and externally okay, but not quite what I could be.

I know some of you are looking at the page and thinking I’m insane, but humor me, okay? I said this stuff was hard to talk about and explain.

So, should you suddenly feel that something you are writing has come to life, that it has dimensions, ideas, symbols beyond that which you can put down on the page, here’s what to do:

1- Don’t let go, and don’t be afraid you’re not doing it justice. A story that’s alive can be all thumbs and not polished, and it doesn’t mater, as it’s turning and shining and reflecting light. All the reader will feel is the life.

2- Stories that are alive tend to have sequels that are alive, in the same world.

3- if it seems to die, it hasn’t.  Sometimes you have to keep pounding on it, but it will come back to life again.  And sometimes you will have to go back and polish the part you wrote by ear.  And sometimes you find the life is there too.

4- but even as an indie, there are things you’ll write — some needed sequels not totally alive or some other series your fans love but which never come to life — should you drop those?  No. But practice muse-hygiene. Don’t do more than two of those in a row without going for one where the life IS.  Your sword needs sharpening sometime, even if the mortar needs shifting.

5- remember it’s okay if the writing things is not totally under your control, but try to polish it with your craft. Just don’t polish too much. Don’t polish all the life away.

And now go write and stop listening to this madwoman.


  1. I’m having to discipline myself, because I have a book that needs to get written, and a series that is bouncing up and down for me to write it. The “needs to” has a very different flavor than the others, and while I can sense the heat in the coals, getting the self-discipline together to pump the bellows and write requires energy I don’t seem to have to spare. But that is called “January and February” and hits almost every year. It’s good to know that the fire might smoulder but won’t die.

      1. Done and done. To work. “Con la boca adorando y el mano dando,” as the proverb says. [Pray with the mouth and hammer with the hand, or “Praying devoutly while hammering stoutly.”]

  2. “And now go write and stop listening to this madwoman.”

    Okay. ~:D

    I’m with you, by the way. I realize that due to my inherent weirdness, these books of mine are not going to be the next Harry Potter. But, they’re ALIVE. I don’t script them, they arrive and kick the door down.

    Now I have to go attend to one of my characters who’s getting a bit insistent.

  3. “…and possibly submerged in jelly.”

    Writer in Aspic?

    And my characters live rent-free in my head, tho as I type that, they’re complaining about the roaches, the lack of maintenance, and the neighbors, who recently tried to eat them.

    1. I have characters from past books who drop by to see if I’m okay. I appreciate it, particularly when they’re murderous bastages I don’t think of as “nurturing.”
      Turns eyes inward. “Yes, I’m talking about you. Who else would it be?”

  4. Much Madness is divinest Sense –
    To a discerning Eye –
    Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
    ’Tis the Majority
    In this, as all, prevail –
    Assent – and you are sane –
    Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
    And handled with a Chain.
    –Emily Dickenson

  5. But practice muse-hygiene. Don’t do more than two of those in a row without going for one where the life IS.

    Thanks for that bit of guidance.

    I’m realizing that I’m not all that keen on writing series. But series seem rather necessary for building a successful career. I think I’ll let myself play with a non-series book in between each couple of series sequels.

      1. But the characters won’t shut up! There I am happily publishing the latest and watching the pennies roll in and some minor character who got invented because the MC needed someone for a bit of help whispers “You won’t believe what I do next!” I mean, I’m working on book FIFTY! And they won’t STOP!

        I mean, I’d love to not write series, but . . . that’s where the fire is, for me.

        1. Familiars. I now have 10 books/novellas written, and eleventh 1/4 done, and material for two more in a clippings file. Oh lordy, talking animals are taking over my writing life! *glances at the life-sized lemur now perched on top of the bookshelf*

          1. But but… They’re Fun To Read.

            Even if I can understand the urge to return-to-sender Tay. 😉

        2. See, I’m the other way. I want to jump all over. Even in reading, I tend to get tired of series after a while.
          BUT I also know indie favors series, because once you find a world and author you like, you read ALL OF IT. So.

          1. The latr, very much lamented Diane Dunne Jones didn’t do series except as an afterthought.

            She just did reliably “Jonesian” books. For those blessed with a vivid authorial voice, like hers, that’ll do.

    1. I want to jump all over. Even in reading, I tend to get tired of series after a while.

      Me, too! Ha! Somehow I am relieved to learn that I have company in this.

      Mind you, I like the series I am writing. It’s just that without the financial pressure toward series, I would be writing all stand-alones.

      And when reading series, I take breaks so that I can enjoy each book fully.

  6. While doing a combined beta and copy edit of Deep Pink (I know bad idea, but I’d promised a drop date and got distracted) I figuratively stepped to one side of myself and tried to observe my subjective feelings about what I was reading.
    Best I can describe was a combination of that certain spark and a cozy feeling.
    The spark, or fire if you will, is that essence with good writing that pulls you in. Present in just about all Heinlein stories, some more than others of course. And in a host of other authors’ works in many genres. It’s that feeling that you are compelled to keep reading to see what happens next. The exact opposite of that urge to delete this abhorrent file from my PaperWhite posthaste and rub the poor device down with bleach.
    And cosy not in the technical sense it’s used to describe a certain type of mystery, but rather the same literary sense that you get with a fuzzy blanket on a chilly evening coupled with a mug of hot cocoa. A sense of welcome, and just a bit of sadness when you reach the end and realize that this particular journey is over.
    So please do my fine Portagee get thee off thy duff and make more, many more, some preferably in the Deep Pink universe. The cozy and the spark are there living in your head, you just need to let them out.

  7. Some quotes from “Channel Markers” a speech given by RAH to the cadets at his Alma Mater, Annapolis:

    Take a cabinetmaker specializing in handmade furniture. He must make furniture and he must complete each piece he makes. He never tears up a chair he has finished because he has thought of a better design. No, he offers that chair for sale and uses the new design to build another—this is the “no rewriting” rule.
    Having finished a chair, he puts it on display and keeps it there until sold. At worst, he’ll mark it down and put it in his bargain basement—and a writer does the same thing with a manuscript that fails to sell to high-pay markets; he puts his cheap-rate pen name on it and sends it to the endless low-pay markets . . . with no tears; words are worth whatever the market will pay—no more, no less.
    I don’t mean that a manuscript should not be corrected and cut. Few writers are perfect in typing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most of us have to go back and correct such things, and—above all!—strike out surplusage and fancy talk. The manuscript then needs to be retyped—for neatness; retyping is not rewriting. Rewriting means a new approach, a basic change in form.
    Don’t do it!
    A writer’s sole capital is his time. You cannot afford to start writing until you know what you mean to say and how you mean to say it. If you fail in this, it is not paper you are wasting but your sharply limited and irreplaceable lifetime.
    End quote.

    Now Heinlein lived in a far different world, one with all those low-pay markets for example, but his words still ring true as regards his approach to the craft of writing.

    1. At the risk of being a heretic here, I don’t know that I agree with Heinlein here. To take his metaphor, suppose he made a chair that has a scratchy burlap cushion and one leg that’s unstable and causes the chair to wobble. He could put it in his bargain basement perhaps–or he could just fix the wobbly leg, give it a new cushion, and sell the chair for a whole lot more.

      1. ‘Course RAH himself revised the Future History stories when they transitioned for magazine to book. I don’t think this was a requirement of his fan-based publisher, and it was certainly more than just washing Campbell’s fingerprints off.

  8. It works that way for art, too. There are some pieces of mine that I can look back at, decades later, and think “yeah, that one was good.” Even if there are flaws that I’d like to fix. Even if those aren’t the technically competent ones. I have some doodles that I keep around not because they’re brilliant but because they’re alive, and if I can eventually make a technically good version of them without killing them, great.

    1. My dad was an artist. His first degree was in art. He then became an engineer to feed us.
      He told me when he was eighty never to walk away because “After a while, the fire goes away and doesn’t come back.”
      And it was the SADDEST thing in the world. His eyes and voice, were like he was talking about losing a limb.
      Now, that was sheer not doing it for sixty years, because he had no time and mom didn’t approve, anyway. BUT I think treating it like a rented mule can break it faster. I was very near it, and if I’d continued it would have been dead in a couple of years, and me probably shortly after.

        1. The gap between the picture on your head, and the freshness of the sketch and the disappointment of the finished piece is closed, I velieve, by what you writer chappies call butt-in-chair.

          But the “I’ve done what I can, quit fiddling and do the next thing” is real, too.

  9. It comes and it goes. For the longest time it was quiet. Pure exhaustion and stress will do that to a body, built up over time. Lately it ranges from a near silent whisper that carries on whether sleeping or awake, or the insistent clamor that cannot be ignored. It’s not gone. But translating muse-speak into story takes time. They don’t speak in words, phrases, or even paragraphs.

    I once drove an old truck with bad steering, nearly no brakes, a seriously mushy gearbox and a loose throttle. Every action had to be planned in advance, because it took between two and four seconds to have an effect in the world. On a foggy February morning with snow on top of froozen dirt roads.

    It was exciting, I suppose. There was definitely some adrenaline involved. Some of the frozen ruts had liquid water trapped below, and the old beast needed enough momentum to roll through, but not so much it slipped traction on a turn. My breath fogged up the windshield, so I kept an oil soaked rag handy to wipe it clean. Did I mention I started this journey on top of a small mountain and had to drive/ride down it, mostly on this unfinished road?

    A couple of times I nearly slipped off an embankment. Okay, more than a couple. The engine coughed and sputtered all the way down, only dying once I got to a level patch. A turn would emerge from the fog bank and I’d have to start turning immediately for the wheels to catch up in time. Not too fast, not too slow. Couldn’t ride the brakes or they would go out completely. Downshifting saved my butt a time or two.

    The writing is like that sometimes. Impulse-translate-write. In the grip of a good story, it can be quite the exciting ride. Not sure how it will go. But completely in the moment while you’re in it.

  10. Is it terrible that the subject line makes me think of Frankenstein’s Monster? [Very Big Grin While Flying Away Very Very Fast]

  11. I dunno. I’m hitting an early-year slump, I guess. Only one thing sparked my interest this week in making a story out of it, The Civil War epic is half-done, Luna City is crawling along, I can barely manage a couple of hundred words a day, it feels like such a chore…
    But some good stuff, regardless. Just not in the mood, I guess.

  12. Thalia and Calliope will eventually stop coming by to whisper loving words in your ear if you keep prostitution yourself to that bitch, Fortune. And can you blame them?

  13. View from another medium: A friend who is a professional woodturner and makes his living handcrafting beautiful bowls and boxes for sale in galleries, has said the most important advice he ever received was to take time occasionally to make something just for himself. The piece might eventually sell, or not, but just the making of it will recharge his joy in the work, and satisfy his soul.

    I don’t turn many things, but once in a while there is a piece that just flows from the tools, that after sanding and oiling and buffing I set almost reverently on the bandsaw table in my shop. And then I jump up and down, laughing and clapping in glee, because the piece turned out EXACTLY RIGHT!

    Sarah, IMHO “Witchfinder” had that spark of fire, enough that I’ve read it twice already. Long may it keep burning for you!

  14. I do not know if you are a madwoman or not. But thank you for this. I needed to hear it today. If you are a madwoman, it may be true that the mad are often also the wise.

    1. This. It is wise advice, and good for me where I am in my life and my projects.

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