How To Kill Your Writing Thing

The price for the gift is to exert the gift.

Have you ever realized that most of the depictions of magic in fiction are a decent description of the writer gift?

I mean, it should be no surprise to anyone, right? What else are we writers going to talk of? What else will we equate with magic?

Perhaps that’s not true — I don’t know — of writers who aren’t what we call “gateway” writers. I hear — but it’s hard to know for sure, you know, because fiction writers lie. It’s kind of what they do — that there are writers out there who function solely on the rational side of the brain. I have heard them in panels, on blogs, even in my own writers group, assure me that they come up with the plot, rationally, and rationally cast characters for it, and rationally pen every single word.

Maybe they do. I’m almost sure that is true for some of them, because I’ve read their books, and they are utterly and completely lifeless. Interesting intellectual exercises.

Sometimes, if the premise is interesting enough, they will carry you through. But you won’t say “Oh, I would love to meet so and so in that book.” You don’t remember someone’s passion or sacrifice. You don’t… The book is not about real people.

Don’t get me wrong, it can be diverting, but you come away detached.

… For some of us it’s not like that. And the choice is never between writing or doing something more productive with our time.

We can pretend. Oh, boy, we can pretend like anything. Catch me in a crowd of “we’re all professionals here” and I will tell you I can write or not write. And that if writing stops paying I’ll walk away and go do something else.

But you know? I lie for a living.

Writing is… Something I do, because I need to do it.

It is also something at which I was always good, as far back as I can remember, or at least since I started writing at six.

Am I saying I was publishable at six? Oh, dear Lord, no. Most of my writing then was, to be honest, bad fanfic (of Enid Blyton.)

The thing is, it was better than I had any right to be. I hadn’t done the work. I had no idea what I was doing. And yet… there was life there.

I no longer have those writings. Whichever remain have probably long since been eaten by rats in the family’s outbuildings. Heck, I no longer have my first novels written in the US. They were written in media I can no longer read. And that’s probably a mercy, because the current me, the person who actually knows how to tell a story, cringes and wants to hide at the things I do have. The clumsy, hasty introductions, the dramatic scenes that aren’t, and most of all, the stories that are utterly incomprehensible unless you are also in my head.

The weird thing in those, and from what my husband tells me — I don’t know — in my earliest novel written in English is the grace notes, and the things I was given for free: the characters that live on the briefest of descriptions, the emotions that shine through, the urgency, the… life.

I can see it, even through the cringy bits.

This was not something I learned. It might be something I can’t learn.

Sarah, how do you write characters? Well, they are in my head, and they talk to me. Not that I hear them, physically (Oh, dear Lord, trust me, this might make me a rarity among … for lack of a better term “gateway writers.”) but I feel them there. I know who they are. I know what they do in their scenes that aren’t in the novel. I know what matters to them, what’s in their heads when they wake up. I know them, either as close friends, or as the guys down the street. They’re themselves.

And that comes across.

The learning? The craft?

Yeah, you should learn that, but that is not the inexplicable gift. The craft is what tells you what scenes to show — even when they upset your characters (rolls eyes to the inside of head. Shut you. I don’t want to hear it.) — craft and practice are essential. Even the most gifted of artists is a mess without the craft side. And if you study and practice enough, the craft becomes part of the gift.

Look, think of the gift as fire you are given. It is just fire — and if you let it run wild, it will consume you, and leave nothing to show for it, but ash — and there’s nothing amazing in it. Except that you have it, without knowing how to make it. You were touched by the divine fire, and life pours out to your stories, but if the stories suck, it’s a waste.

So you study and work, and if you’re lucky and apply yourself, and sometimes rewrite and re-shape the fire, you have an immortal phoenix, shining through the centuries for all others. (Which btw, passes through being entertaining. Because nothing that people fail to love lives forever.)

The problem is that the price of the gift is to use the gift.

And the magic in most fantasy books warns of the downfall. There are many ways of killing the fire, the life in your fiction, the passion, the strength of your writing thing.

I always liked Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar description of ripping your magic channels through by doing something you shouldn’t be able to do, and being left with a hurt/half-dead magic. Because that’s what it fell like when I pushed through a book I had to write, but which I didn’t want to. Forcing the gift into it left me sore and tired, and wondering if it would ever come back.

Yes, I do know. The working artist must have schedules and produce regularly. I’m not telling you otherwise. But I think there’s ways around it.

Usually the way I came back from that was to take a few months, read my old stuff, pick up an old thread, write some fun stuff.

Then came the year of homeschooling and writing six books, none of which I wanted to write for various reasons. That was fifteen years ago, and I forced it through.

Here I should explain that teaching, any teaching, pulls from the same place as writing.

That left me… dead. I described my writing after as “arid.” The grace notes, the fun stuff that just falls in wouldn’t. I’d have to reach for it, struggle.

Oh, there were exceptions. A Few Good Men came through, against my rational wish not to write it. (Look, it’s space opera, about a future USAian revolution, with gay male leads, and the world’s weirdest romance, for various reasons.) But it wanted out, and I wrote it in two weeks (if you count the six days I took off for urgent reasons.) Or I wrote it in a week and a day.

My autoimmune was acting up, and I felt like hell, but each day that week and a day I got up and wrote almost 20k words, and I wasn’t tired. I was flying.

And the Dyce books started out as drudgery, but they had a song of their own, and they ripped through me in about 3 days each. (Hush you.)

But in between books the recovery time was longer. And anything that didn’t have a force of its own became harder to write. A short story could take me two weeks, suddenly. And novels were started and floundered, which is why I have about twenty of them half written.

Forcing myself to finish one, just made me silent for months.

Now, some of this, don’t mistake me, was physical. Each of the last …. oh, 20 years in Colorado, my auto-immune has been worse, and my thought more muddled. I wasn’t sleeping, and I wasn’t functioning properly, and any treatment was a brief patch over the abyss.

…. I thought it was getting old. I knew some of it was burnout. The complete disproportion between how much I loved or worked on a book, and the result it achieved. My inability to influence cover or marketing, or …. any of it. And then my doctor told me that I was actually suffering adverse effects of altitude. Which led to trying to get the heck out of dodge fast.

(Despite everything that has happened politically, and everything I don’t like about my poor, beleaguered, beloved Colorado, I don’t think I’d ever have left without that. A part of my heart, a large one, will forever remain in the Rocky Mountains.)

I’d already started trying to do stuff for the burnout. Small wins pull you out of that, and the fact Another Rhodes sold amazingly was part of that, as was how well Barbarella did.

And three weeks ago I wrote a short story for LawDog’s Saints of Malta Antholoy, and yeah, it took forever, but it took forever, because I’d forgotten what it was like to have a voice come through. I’d forgotten and didn’t trust the voice that tried to sing through me, like an expert player through a disused harp. And so the poor story squeezed through backwards and sideways. The first thing I got was the last paragraph, and had to fumble in the dark, until I figured that out, and then had to TRUST the voice screaming to come out.

I don’t scruple to say that might be the best story I’ve written in the last 7 years at least.

And then, suddenly, I could feel it, the old flame struggling back to life.

… I no longer remembered what it tasted like. It was like… trying to speak a tongue in which I was once fluent but no longer really remembered.

I told a friend it felt like French. I used to be fluent in French and speak it without hesitation, think in it, as I think in English.

Now I can’t. I know the words. They’re there, in my head, but I don’t TRUST them, and so I never say them. I understand French. I just am afraid to speak it.

And that’s what was happening both in writing that story in finishing Bowl of Red (ALMOST , truly, almost. It’s been more mundane things that stopped it yesterday and today.)

I’m now, slowly, haltingly, learning the language of creation again. Letting the writing thing come through.

And I’m glad I got there before I read the last thing I tried to write before getting out of Colorado. It is a half finished novel, and I looked at it the other day. And I was scared out of my wits.

It was dead. Not bad, as craft, mind. But dead. LIFELESS. There’s nothing there. It’s a hunk of dead words. I can redo it, but I’ll have to start from page one and recast it.

I’d never ever ever have read anything of mine that was so devoid of life. I didn’t know I could write stuff that dead.

So… How did I ALMOST kill my writing thing?

I’m starting to get glimmers of that.

You can’t kill a writing thing by ignoring it. Eventually it seizes control and makes you write it.

But you can kill it by forcing it. By forcing it to write what it doesn’t want to, what it blatantly despises. (Note there are three books of mine I’ll never re-issue. Not unless substantially rewritten.) By forcing it again and again over and over to write and put life in what it doesn’t want to write or put life into.

Over and over again. Don’t play. Don’t enjoy it. Don’t give it time to recover. Plunge again and again into the battle, with your ever more battered little fire, till it’s all just ashes and nothing.

Heck, for all I know my physical issues in some part at least are part of this.

Because writing is part of who I am, woven through my being. And the price of the gift is to use it. But … not to abuse it.

So, does this mean I’ll write less?

No. I think I’ve figured what “re animates the embers.” I am going back to what I used to do. I read the old stuff. I find the threads that work. And I write experimental things I’m not sure will work, but feed my soul.

I try new things. I go where the life is, and stay there a bit. Even if sometimes I still have to force the harp to sing, when it wants to run off and catch butterflies.

I am now planning for built in periods of rest. Not rest in silence, but rest in letting the fire have its way a little, feed a little.

So it can grow anew.

It’s all still very fragile and tentative, as I grope my way back to where I was 15 years ago.

But two things I know: The price of the gift is to use it.

And: You must let the gift be its best and do the impossible now and then, or it dies off.

So. This is how I almost killed my writing thing.

And how the fragile, bloodied, almost dead thing is at last stirring anew.

*I forget to mention: do not adjust your instruments. This is Tuesday indeed. Amanda is dealing with handfuls of real life. Way more real life than should happen to any writer. If you’re the praying sort, say a prayer for her and her family. She’ll probably be back next week. – SAH*

45 thoughts on “How To Kill Your Writing Thing

  1. Raymond Chandler, in one of his letters, said something similar: “Some writers don’t wait for inspiration. They sit down at nine o’clock every morning, hangover and broken arm and all, and bang out their five thousand words. I offer them my congratulations and take care to avoid their books.” He then went on to say that he was the type that waited for inspiration – “though I don’t call it by that name.” His trick was to sit at the typewriter for X hours per day. If he couldn’t think of anything he didn’t have to write, but he couldn’t do anything else.

      1. The second and third Ancestors of Jaiya books got written because I shut off pretty much every other form of entertainment I had: the movies I followed, the movie/book review websites I followed, the political commentary sites I followed, the one net-based game I played at that time (Creeper World Evermore), the fiction books I read. I used the internet for research and nothing else. Like you two, my subconscious got to work out of sheer boredom.

        1. I don’t go to quite that extreme, but I do go to the library one or two mornings a week, and I’ve very deliberately never hooked my computer up to the library wifi. Eventually, I more or less have to type.

  2. Thank you for this Sarah – I think it may be something I needed to hear, something helpful.

    I was at one time, a very serious musician – player, full-time performer, later composer, improviser, always an ardent *fan* of all things musical.
    I’ve written or co-written more than 400 songs. Some are such utter dreck that I find them unlistenable now. Some… are not. Some of them still hit me, remembering how they *wanted out* into the world, and would do about anything to get there.

    It’s been since 2011 that I’ve really played, or written.

    I don’t know if I can ever do it again – losing my best friend and co-writer in 2009 took a huge chunk of the sheer joy of creating our particular madness away. I’ve tried several times since but, yeah, no.

    I still don’t know, but reading this… helped.

    Thank you sincerely.

    1. Jordan Peterson says an artist who stops creating dies.
      Maybe you need to create differently.
      I say this as the wife of a man who no longer writes much, and stopped writing music. (For perspective, he composed an instrumental piece for me as a means of wooing me.) Because he lost his brother, and then his best friend.
      He also realized it’s time to let the creation rip forth once more, and he’s not sure how to get there, but he’s groping his way.

      1. I don’t work hard enough to get burned out as a writer, but the art thing (all of it, writing, music, the graphic design I did for a living) absolutely stopped cold when my mother passed. For six weeks I would come home and just…sit… on the couch, no TV, no book, not even turn on the lights.

        It was the first time my brain was actually, um, normal. And I hated it.

    2. C.L. Moore also stopped — writing SF in her case — when her husband and writing partner died.

  3. Four points: one, alot of my own problems mirror what Sarah describes here. Aside from legitimate laziness (preferring to spend my spare time on mobile games or digital art), my number one cause of not writing is mental fatigue from day job or lack of sleep caused by flu/cold/allergies/covid/emotional distress. Get well, so far as you can, stay well, and the rest gets easier.

    two: I’ll be totally honest, I’ve run across authors who said their characters will not shut up in their heads and felt totally real to them but you couldn’t prove it by their books. Just as lifeless as the most abstract, big picture kind of writers. That’s a failure of technique, or craft perhaps, or maybe the author is just that far out of synch with the human race as a whole, so that what feels real to them feels dry and nonsensical to others.

    three: I kind of fall between two stools when it comes to characterization. I have certain “pet” characters from different media that I call muses, and they become my heroes. I put them in situations their original creators didn’t use, and extrapolate from the hero and the situation what the rest of the cast should be like (which might be very different from what that hero originally had for a supporting cast). Whatever outlining goes on, whatever actual writing goes on, is just more extrapolation, and it’s in that area that the characters come to life in my head and start doing their thing. If your brain works like mine, and comes up with things like “What if Fanny Price was a Bollywood character who was like that character in the prompt you found on the NaNoWriMo boards, the one who could see people’s deaths when she touched them?” don’t feel ashamed just because other writing brains don’t work that way.

    four: I don’t trust myself with “gateway” writing, in the sense of opening myself to whatever comes to me, and putting it down. I haven’t had the woo-woo experiences with gateway writing someone once referenced on Sarah’s blog, but I don’t like the parts of myself that surface when I try it, and I don’t feel like those parts of myself produce anything worth reading. If you try a more spontaneous approach to writing and it turns sinister on you, in either the psychological or the preternatural sense, you need to walk away. Consult a shrink or a priest if you feel it appropriate.

  4. This helped illuminate something for me…

    I write very few short stories. I know how to do them — I understand how to make them have a snap at the end, etc., even in grade school, but they’re just not a favorite form for me, either for writing or reading.

    What I like are novels, the longer the better, and that’s what I write. And, as you say, it’s the characters. I care about them, I want to know what happens to them, and the more of their fellow-players that I can make equally real to me, the happier I am. I dream about them.

    Short stories don’t allow you to have characters like that (unless they are about already-existing characters from the novels). Yes, an adept writer could make the characters in stand-alone stories seem more real, but that doesn’t work for me — I don’t dream about them, for the few I’ve written.

    I’ve never been forced to write-to-order. I suspect I now have enough chops to produce a plot for that purpose, but could I bring life to arbitrary characters, imposed from without? I may never be enough of a pro to succeed at that, and life is too short for me to try, while there are so many stories I can create instead.

  5. I am giving in and starting the Dragon’s Son book about Dracula. Because it won’t leave me alone. It is pestering me when I need to do other things. But that means I need to get it out of the system so the rest of me can focus on other things.

    I’ve always told stories, and am always telling stories. Some happen to have footnotes and sources. Others . . . don’t. If I don’t write, they leak. That’s scary.

      1. Worse, this is from the perspective of a woman who becomes his mistress! *facepaw* Even my damsels in disguise won’t behave properly. I think she’s going to end up sort of seducing him, maybe, perhaps. I fear she’s *that* sort of character.

        So I’ll blame Kate with glee and delight in my little black kitty heart. (Heart’s black, rest of kitty’s reddish or creamish with spots.)

        1. I suppose the question becomes why does she do that? Does she not care, or is there a missing piece that she’s doing stupid/reckless things trying to fill?

          1. Based on the snippet, she appears to be attracted to him because they have a common foe (the Ottoman Turks).

            1. Attraction is a pull, but it is one’s actions upon it that illuminate the character. Why does she choose to act one way over another? And how does it impact the world around her?

              1. Without reading the completed book, there’s no way to tell.

                However, Alma’s Son of the Dragon character is obviously based on the historical Vlad Țepeș, admittedly he has also turned Vampire.

                The historical Vlad Țepeș was not a nice guy but apparently was not as evil as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

                There’s some evidence that the historical Vlad Țepeș was a good ruler (as far as the commoners were concerned) and is considered a national hero of Romania (because of his battles against the Ottoman Turks).

                So it is easy for me to see a young woman who has already taken a fighting role against the Ottoman Turks to join forces with a Vampire Vlad Țepeș against the common foe.

                So it is not a matter of a young woman “falling in love” with an Evil Prince Of Darkness.

              2. Vlad respects her and treats her as one with valuable skills, even though he knows that she’s a she. She respects the choices he’s made, and that he’s trying to be a decent person while doing what is needed to keep his lands and people safe. And they are both lonely in their own ways.

                1. Ah. Yeah, makes sense. When I read “mistress” I heard “sleeping with another woman’s husband”.

                  Girls falling for dangerous men is an old old thing, but lifting someone else’s spouse is an entirely different thing…

    1. Oh Yes, I remember that snippet of it that you posted.

      Write more so I can throw money at you! 😀

    1. No. If you’re a wanna be you’re a wanna be for a reason. You just need to learn and practice. My musician husband reminds me, artists practice every day. THey don’t expect to be wonderful off the bat.

      1. So basically if the “wanna” in “wannabe” is strong enough, that means that you were in fact born to be a writer?

    2. I don’t even pretend to be good at this writing thing, but I will observe that if you actually write the thing down, you are more than halfway there. A wannabe is somebody with an idea who can’t be bothered to write it down.

      Even that poor weirdo who wrote Empress Teresa is a “writer”. Just write it down. If it’s dumb, write it anyway. You can fix it later, or just sell it as-is and write the next one. There’s some Hugo nominees out there that suck worse than Empress Theresa. It’s only bad. Other guys manage to reach “actively destructive.”

      1. You named the book! Arrrrrrgh! Everyone, brace for author-lanche. [Assuming the author is still tracking negative comments about the book and complaining vehemently about said comments.)

        1. He can’t -still- be doing it, its been 8 years. There’s a fandom wiki of it that he doesn’t even show up to flame anymore. He’s famous for being whack on forums.

          But, you know what? You type in the name and the -whole first page- of results is that guy. And as terrible as ET is (and omg it is terrible) that guy made some money. I’ll be surprised if he didn’t out-sell many of the pampered publisher’s pets whose droppings infest science fiction.

  6. :mental image can’t decide if it’s looking at sprouts from a smoking stump, or an ember being nursed into a flame veeeeery carefully drying out the starter material:

  7. My dictation habit is now strong. I sit down in my Jeep, and story comes out. But I don’t know what it will be. Right now it’s Garden Paths, short stories inspired by the sculptures at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. I think about the next sculpture (I can almost walk the park from memory), I ask what imagery it invokes, and I start dictating. In the past two weeks I’ve dictated five stories, maybe 20,000 words,?that I didn’t know about three weeks ago. This week ought to be good for two or three more. I have five hours of driving this weekend.

  8. The broken gift. Yes indeed, the demands of money, pointless regimentation and bureaucracy can in fact make it painful to use your gift. Any gift, really.

    Having been through that knothole once in an unrelated field, I do not try to make money from my interests, hobbies or pastimes. This is not by choice, but by dire necessity. I make money the usual way, by doing stupid pointless work that nobody else wants to do. Drudgery, if you will.

    Writing is something I do for myself. That it seems to produce a salable (if not in huge demand) product is nice, but that’s not why I do it. I figure my wages to be about a nickel an hour when things are really working well.

    I am very clear that entering into a contract to provide X words by Y time on an assigned project would be utter misery, and a failure to boot. I will not be doing that.

    It would also be a mistake for me to push for more/better/different output. It comes the way it comes. The people are as written. If an editor doesn’t like that the nerd gets the girl because nerds are supposed to suffer, then that editor can have a word with my characters about it. They don’t listen to me.

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