Happy Birthday to PHF!!! You're so old, but I love you anyway!!
Yesterday a friend called me to ask me for writing advice. Hopefully she doesn't consider me some kind of expert because of this blog. While I maintain many firm opinions about my craft I think of them only in relation to myself, and I don't profess that they are worth the bandwidth it costs Google to get it to you. I write about them here because the dialogue with myself helps me sort through it. Also, I lead a largely boring life and shit to write about just doesn't happen that much.
That round of self-depreciation aside, I don't think I helped her much. I went at it with a "if you want external permission to do what you want to do, I'm here to provide it" sort of attitude. Not always the best approach, especially with a good friend who actually wants the God's Honest Truth as it channels through you, and not good if they don't know exactly what it is they want to do, which is why she called in the first place. So I fucked about, contradicting myself, telling her to work on this; or no, work on that... In short, I was caught off guard, and since I write better I talk I thought I would try to rectify it here.
The question was: "How do you decide what to write?"
Quick answer if you're rich: "Write what touches your heart."
Quick answer if you're poor: "Write what sells." And if you're lucky, it's what touches your heart, because it's got to do that to sell.
I think there's a tremendous act of balance that goes on during the writing process. Between working on the draft you're on, all the other ideas floating around, how what you are working on right now affects everything that has gone before, waking up each day wondering if there are any words left, and oh yeah, laundry's calling... In a nutshell, my friend has one nearly finished marketable piece, another potentially marketable piece that is percolating, and this other... book. Great idea, but she isn't liking it as she's writing it.
This rang a bell. My second book was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to wade through. I set a goal (and met it) of a minimum ten pages a day, and I wrote that book in about three months. For me, though, it was a no-brainer. I had to insert some serious discipline that would get me through it relatively quickly.
I like these guys, these characters who have taken up residence in my brain. I like 'em a lot. I dream about them. I run to my study mid-meal or mid-conversation to jot things on notecards about them. I look for them in crowds. I know them better than I know anyone, including my kids and PHF. Unfortunately though, the second book in the series is an in-between book. Think "The Empire Strikes Back." It's not happy. The characters aren't happy. They are losing the war and losing themselves, without immediate resolution. Bad shit goes down.
At that point, late last year when I was typing madly trying to finish it, I didn't know where the series was going, no end was in sight, and all I had was this teensy string of faith that it would be ok in the end, somehow. And to find out how it would be ok (by writing books 3 and 4), I had to finish Taming The Tiger first.
And it sucked the big one. It wasn't a fun book to write. I didn't like the characters when I wrote it. They do nasty things and they are irate and make stupid mistakes and they abuse those who love them (especially me!) I didn't even like my writing when I wrote it. I quit reading what I'd written because I'd get so discouraged. I also experienced a lot of outside pressure to submit the first book during that time. I knew what I wrote in the second book would affect the first, and it did - the painful process of writing Taming the Tiger made Sovereign Legacy a better book for sure. I had to be firm on occassion, and claim my process for my own. Great for me as a person and a writer, but not so great for relationships.
I'm proud of that book, though. I think it's my best work to date. Some have told me it's talent that makes it good, I would say it was discipline that makes it good. Discipline is why it exists at all. But there was still something else that I can't deny affects my writing, especially in that book. Urgency is what my friend called it, and as soon as she said it I knew she was right.
There are lots of things that motivate writers, I think: practicality, discipline, talent... but there's that urgency behind all of it that we can't put aside, no matter how much we want to. (Of course the problem comes when we don't feel that urgency about doing the work to get contracts; and that's the difference, I'm learning, between those who are published and those who aren't.) Urgency is as uncomfortable as hives you can't scratch away, but I'm learning to like it too. When I feel it, I know some good work is coming on, something I'll end up liking. That urgency, tempered by a little editing, translated into good writing in Taming the Tiger, and I've seen it happen again and again since. I'm even recognizing it in others' work.
So to my friend I would say, "Work on what feels urgent." I tried to say it before, clumsily, but I'm putting it out here again for ya in black and white.
Write on what's waking you up at night, even if you don't like it. If it's all waking you up, then you have to insert some discipline and seriously think about why something's bothering you. Is it coming from you or elsewhere? Other well-meaning folks put a lot of pressure on us to get published.
I think that if you really listen to that internal urgency, that muse, that itch -- whatever you want to call it-- then you'll find the story you need to tell.
And it will be damn good, too.