Listen to the Mustn’ts

A few years ago, I went to the Rainforest Writers Retreat and started a novel. I’d been thinking about the book for a year or so, and I knew Lake Quinault would be the perfect backdrop for writing it. I got up early, drank a lot of coffee, stared out at the lake or sat roasting my feet in front of my fireplace, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. In the five days at the lake, I produced about 22,000 words, and some of it the finest I’ve ever produced. (And certainly the creepiest!)

Then I went home. Okay, I thought. You’re back to the real world. You don’t get to sit around looking at this all day–

Lake Quinault

–and then use this crazy process you used at the lake. You’ve been doing far too much editing and far too little drafting. All the blog posts I read over the years and all the cheerful “you can win Nanowrimo” pep talks told me that process would never work. So I said, you need to write this properly. You need a real outline. You need to power through and make a first sloppy first draft.

So I made my outline. I pushed onward with that book. And I never, ever finished it.

At some point, I looked at what I’d written and I saw that what I loved about my book stopped the minute I began writing my “sloppy first draft.” At the lake, I’d been writing in a cyclical sort of fashion–I’d write a bit, then go back and re-evaluate large swathes of text. I needed to consult with myself about the character: did the stuff I’d just written fit with what I knew about her character? Was the action in tune with the deeper problem? I wasn’t just messing with commas and adjectives; I was carefully rejiggering the vessel of my story and letting it inform my next steps. It was a slow process, but I enjoyed it, and I felt like I had complete control of my story.

When I plowed through the draft, I somehow lost touch with my story. When I created my outline, I crafted a solid plot, but it didn’t come together inside my characters. They felt like flimsy cutouts clinging to a felt board, held on by the velcro of my will.

I have written three and a half novels since that one. Two were drafted as tie-ins for the Pathfinder role-playing game, and they were rigorously outlined before I started writing them. Perhaps because the main character of these books is tremendously well-defined in my mind–she felt like her own, entire person before I ever started writing the first short story about her–I had no problem writing those stories in a straight through messy first draft style. But a third novel, a YA SF book about pirates, drug dealers, and boxing, never really came together. The action was exciting, the world intriguing, but the characters floated along the surface, never quite connecting to their world. Even a thorough rewrite didn’t help it much.

Having two books fail broke my heart. I didn’t see it happening at the time, but when I looked back at my feelings about writing since the day I gave up on that creepy novel, I saw that I’d been deeply depressed about writing. Even finishing two fun Pathfinder novels didn’t make me feel better. Why? I think because I had found a method of writing that felt deeply and wonderfully satisfying, but I turned my back to it because it wasn’t the “right” way to write a book. If I couldn’t trust my instincts, how could I trust my work?

Now I’m writing a new book, and I am throwing out the advice I’ve gotten from all the big writing advice folks. I am not going to make a messy first draft. I am not going to write as fast as I can without looking back over my work. I will make an outline, but I will keep re-reading and editing my work as I go. If I have to re-write half my scenes and then find I have to cut them after they’ve been polished to the sheen of diamonds, so be it. For me, it’s better to waste some time than to be demoralized by my work.

You know, I have completed seven novels and sold three (one of which was never published because the publisher went under). I’ve sold more than thirty short stories. My first actual novel came out last year. And I still don’t know how to write a book!

Somewhere, Neil Gaiman has a story about finishing American Gods and then telling a writer friend he thought he had finally learned how to write a novel. And the friend told him that no, now he knew how to write that novel. And of course, he’s totally right. Every single thing you write will have its own unique process.

So don’t throw out any advice forever, but don’t take any of it too seriously. Remember, as Shel Silverstein said, to “listen to the MUSTN’TS”–but also remember how he ends the poem: “Anything can happen, child, / ANYTHING can be.”

We’re all learning every day, and with any luck, we’re all getting better at this writing stuff.

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With A Little Help . . . : Guest post from Darusha Wehm

Here’s a big Inkpunk welcome to Darusha Wehm, who is taking time out from promoting her new novel, Children of Arkadia, to shares a little about what it’s like to work with an editor.

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Children of Arkadia by Darusha Wehm

I’m a bit of a loner. When I was in school, I don’t know which phrase terrified me more: “team sports” or “group project.” Even as an adult, I’ve preferred to do things my way. I self-published four novels, perfectly content to do it all. My friends often laugh when I express utter shock at their solutions to household problems — call a plumber? Why would you do that when the hardware store is just down the street and you have Google?

So, you might be surprised to learn that I’m here to talk about how great it can be to work with an editor. And I don’t mean talking myself while wearing a funny hat, either.

The problem with pants

I’m a discovery writer. My characters have this habit of doing things I hadn’t expected. For me, drafting at its best is an experience in seeing where the story goes. I’ve set up the scene, put these people in their places, and as I type I watch what they do. They surprise me. Often.

Sometimes, those surprises don’t make sense in the long run, but usually they are what ends up driving the plot. When it comes to editing, I’m often taking out the stuff I planned and leaving in the things that came up on their own. It’s a more interesting way of writing, but it means I sometimes literally don’t know what I’m doing in my stories.

What does the colour blue symbolize, anyway?

Once you’ve written a thing or two, it’s easy to sympathize with your internal high schooler, sitting in Literature class, rolling your eyes, thinking “Really? You really think that blue curtains symbolize the past? Puh-leeze.” We’ve all had readers completely miss the mark with something we’ve written, seeing all kind of things in the text we most certainly did not put in there.

The thing is, though, sometimes they are right and we are wrong. Maybe it’s my subconscious at work when I’m drafting, but subtext, symbolism and subtlety creeps into my work without me noticing. The hardest part about editing is that I’m so close to the material that I see what I expect to see rather than what’s there. Yes, that most often means seeing “from” when I actually typed “form” but there can be even more significant things going on that I just can’t see.

So, that’s what I meant!

My upcoming novel Children of Arkadia is published by Bundoran Press, and my editor Hayden Trenholm worked closely with me on revisions. Our conversations were fascinating, since he saw entire themes in the book that I hadn’t realized were there. I remember reading one of his emails and exclaiming aloud, “So, that’s what I meant!” I know it makes me sound a little odd, but even though I’d never noticed these themes, as soon as they were pointed out, it was obvious that they were what the book was really about.

I completely rewrote the ending of the book, changing the story entirely. The emotional resonance of the ending remained the same, but the events that led there made much more sense in the revised version. Because in the original version, I’d just been seeing what I expected to see, rather than what was really there.

Zaphod Beeblebrox was right: two heads are better than one

As much as I like doing things on my own, sometimes you need a friend. Whether it’s carrying a couch up a flight of stairs or making an unsatisfactory scene come alive, another person can make all the difference. It doesn’t have to be a professional editor — a good critique partner or wise reader can help you see the hidden truths of your work.

Writing is a solitary activity, but editing ideally isn’t. Finding a trustworthy second set of eyes can make all the difference, and you might even see things in your work you’d never noticed.

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M. Darusha Wehm is the three-time Parsec Award shortlisted author of the novels Beautiful Red, Self Made, Act of Will andThe Beauty of Our Weapons. Her next novel, Children of Arkadia (Bundoran Press), will be released April 28, 2015. She is the editor of the crime and mystery magazine Plan B.
She is from Canada, but currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand after spending the past several years traveling at sea on her sailboat. For more information, visit http://darusha.ca.

 

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Guest Post from David Walton: What Makes Quantum Physics Fun

Today’s guest post is from our friend David Walton. I was lucky enough to meet David through the Codex Writers’ Group, and I have to say, I’m very excited about his new SF novel, Superposition, which digs into some of the exciting physics that he discusses here.


 

They say that truth can be stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in the world of quantum physics. It’s like you popped into some other universe where all the rules are different, and nothing works like you expect it to. Once you get down to the level of things smaller than an atom, some very, very odd things start happening.

The source of all the weirdness is found right there in the name “quantum.” A quantum is just a piece, a unit, a chunk. It’s like Legos: you can make a Lego house with thousands of pieces, but when you break it down, you can’t break it into any smaller pieces than the single Legos. At a large scale, you can’t even see the individual pieces. Things behave just as if matter were continuous. But at the small scale, the little pieces start making a big difference.

Unlike Legos, however, the smallest building blocks of matter aren’t just defined by size. The “quantum” effect applies to how much energy a particle can have, or even to the rate at which it can spin. For instance, photons can only have a spin rate of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. They *can’t* have a spin of 1.5 or 3.2. If it’s spinning along at a rate of 3, and it slows down, it will have a spin of 2, and then 1, but not any rate in between. Electrons spin at 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, etc. Which means they can’t have a spin of zero! The slowest they can spin is 0.5, and no less.

This quantum nature arises from the fact that particles have wave-like properties (the famous particle-wave duality), and can cause some very weird effects. Like being in multiple places at once. Or passing from A to B without hitting some of the places in between.

Brain hurting? Maybe an analogy would help.

Let’s think of a particle as a tennis ball, bouncing back and forth between two walls. The ball never slows down or falls; it just keeps bouncing back and forth endlessly. Now we turn off the lights, pull out our camera, and take a flash picture. In the picture, we would see a single green dot in the air, somewhere between the walls, right? It would be just as likely to be in any one place along its path as any other. If we took a thousand pictures, or a million, and merged them together, we’d see a solid green line from wall to wall, representing all of the tennis ball’s possible states.

Not so with a particle. If this were an electron instead of a tennis ball, we’d look at our picture and see a pattern where some areas had lots of dots and some areas had no dots at all. No matter how many pictures we took, we’d never catch the ball in those spots, because it would never be in those places at all. In fact, we could hold up a tennis racket in the path of the ball, right in one of those blank spots, and the ball would never hit it. It would just keep bouncing back and forth from wall to wall.

This is the concept of superposition… and it’s a central concept in my quantum physics murder mystery, SUPERPOSITION, just released from Pyr Books! In the novel, as you might have guessed, the fun of quantum physics is not limited to the sub-atomic world. Objects larger than an atom have the chance to behave like waves as well, like tennis balls, bullets, and even people. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high-stakes danger and a race to the finish. I hope you’ll give it a try!


David Walton is the author of the newly released novel Superposition, a quantum physics murder mystery with the same mind-bending, breathless action as films like Inception and Minority Report. His other works include the Philip K. Dick Award-winning Terminal Mind, the historical fantasy Quintessence (Tor, 2013) and its sequel, Quintessence Sky. You can read about his books and life at http://www.davidwaltonfiction.com/.

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Guest Post by Josh Vogt: Walk it Off! – Getting Blood Flow to Your Writing Brain

We’ve all been there, staring at a page, thoughts tying themselves in knots as we try to figure out what comes next in the story—or how to even start it in the first place. When it comes to making progress in our writing, we often hear the adage, “Apply butt to chair and just write.” Oftentimes this is a good approach, especially for those of us who have perfected the fine art of distracting ourselves.

But sometimes, when we’re struggling to get over a particular hump in our story, it can actually help to get that butt out of the chair and put it in motion!

(No, I’m not talking about twerking. Hush.) PZO8526

I’m talking about getting a little exercise. Physical activity.

I know, to some folks, that sounds about as exciting as line-editing a 200,000 word novel, but hear me out.

How many of you already go on walks in order to noodle over a particularly troublesome plot point? How many of you have enjoyed the creative rush of finally figuring out how your character is going to save the day while you’re strolling through your neighborhood? And if any of you do visit the gym or have workout classes on a regular basis, have you noticed that you’re coming up with new ideas and having to jot them down in the middle of a routine?

I bet you have. See, you don’t have to turn your brain off while working out. In fact, when you exercise, you get a lot of mental benefits alongside the physical ones. Stress levels lower. Focus heightens. And while you may not be consciously thinking about your story while on an elliptical or bike, you can bet your subconscious is nibbling away at it, preparing to surprise you with a creative solution.

The great thing is, it can be as simple as going on a walk. It can be a yoga class. It could be a treadmill desk (like mine). There are lots of easy ways to slip a little physical activity into your daily routine without it being daunting or an actual distraction from the writing itself. Experiment a little and find the activity you enjoy that gets your blood pumping, and then aim to make it part of your daily or weekly routine for a month and see if your writing productivity responds in any positive way. Enter the Janitor - Cover

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about how writing and exercise can dovetail, you can check out my Write Strong blog series. It covers quite a wide variety of health and fitness topics, relating them to the writing lifestyle. (Some of you may have even been guest bloggers during it, already recognizing how a little exercise can go a long way in boosting your writing.

So…butt-in-chair isn’t working for you right now? Let’s take a walk and see what words we can find along the way.


Josh-8194-2 - smallestJosh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the RPG Pathfinder Tales tie-in line. WordFire Press is also launching his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

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Back to Basics, Part 6 – The Lopside of Your Brain

This is Part 5 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

I began to put down brief descriptions of loves and hates. …I circled around summer noons and October midnights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark season must be something that was really me. …

I wrote the title “The Lake” on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later…I realized I had at last written a really fine story. The first, in ten years of writing.
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Back in Part 1 I mentioned having picked up some new tools for this journey, namely a cheap spiral notebook, ballpoint pens, and dinosaur stickers. I’ve done this—set aside my fancy bound notebooks and fountain pens for the time being—because they were making writing feel so serious. It is very hard to take myself too seriously when I’m writing with a pink ballpoint on a page festooned with colorful dinosaurs. For me this becomes particularly important as we move into the next stage of our journey, which has so often resulted in creative paralysis in the past.

So far we’ve examined some of the things that hinder us: focusing on some nebulous future outcome of our writing, instead of on the process of writing in the moment; worrying about the market and trying to second-guess what editors and readers want; and comparing ourselves to others. We’ve realized the importance of making “the smallest effort” regularly, and engaging our own personal passions. But how do we find them? How do we get them on the page?

Zen in the Art of Writing, as I mentioned at the beginning of this series, is not a how-to book. There are no explicit exercises for the student to turn to. There are only the thoughts of a true master of creative fiction on the subject of creativity. But within these essays, there are hints. There are clues, some more direct than others.

We started by making lists. We trust that somewhere in those lists we will find our authentic self, our unique voice. When I look at my lists I see memories, and can recall to mind some of the emotion behind them, but I don’t yet see a story. What comes next?

Well, if you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

So that’s our direction: not a story, not an outline, just a “prose-poem-essay” about one of our passions or fears, found in our lists of memories. There’s no pressure in this—there’s no future audience for this piece of writing we’re about to execute. No editor will reject it, no critic will evaluate it, no one will ever see this except us.

“But you need to produce a story!” my Inner Editor cries. “You need to finish something and submit it! You’re wasting time!” Well, Self, how well has that been working lately? How’s all of that boot-strapping going? Has it got us anywhere other than the doldrums? No? That’s because something is missing. Now please go sit in the corner and be quiet while the rest of us do the work of finding it.

So what is a prose poem? If we want to get technical about it, we can look at this definition at poets.org. But here be dragons–that seems perilously close to something that our Inner Editors are going to judge and chastise us for until it meets their standard. So let’s not get bogged down in forms and definitions.

Later in Bradbury’s life he referred to these (and to his stories) as “love letters.” That’s something I can embrace—it’s a form meant to be private and personal, for the eyes of myself and my beloved only. When I look at my list and see THE CHALICE WELL and THE TOR, I am confident that I can write a love letter to Glastonbury, England with ease.

And I can make the leap from love to fear—when I look at my lists and I see THE JESTER HEAD I definitely don’t have kind and loving things to say to it. But fear and anger can be written in much the same way—I can write about the sensations, the emotions, the quality of light, the chill in the air.

One last thing, before we get to work. One of my very favorite tools in the world is a timer. I have a specific one I use, because it bypasses all of my excuses and laziness (and yes, I can find an excuse even to avoid the effort of setting a timer). Using a timer for writing helps me focus. When my energy starts to flag after a few minutes, I know I only have a little longer, so I push ahead and often discover new things to say that I would have missed had I given up just a minute or two sooner. And if I’ve found a flow, I can always ignore the buzzer and keep going.

For the next few days, let’s pick a noun from our lists each day, set a timer for a short, achievable sprint—say, fifteen minutes–and write a prose-poem-essay/love letter to our passion. We might be surprised at what we uncover in the process.

Next time: The Thing at the Top of the Stairs


Would you like a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing? Let us know in the comments below if this series has been helpful to you! I’ll give away a copy of Zen to two commenters chosen at random. Thank you for reading!

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Back to Basics, Part 5 – Hidden in the Nouns, Lost in the Lists

This is Part 5 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

“I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

We’re done peeking at other people’s papers. We won’t compare ourselves to them any longer–not our friends, not our enemies, not our heroes. Does that mean we shouldn’t appreciate them as we do? Of course not. Only that we shouldn’t want to be them. That author you love–if they wrote about things that didn’t matter to you, then reading their most beautiful prose would be nothing more than an aesthetic exercise. You love them because their work speaks to you about things that are important to you. What are they?

If you think about it, I suspect you’ll find that they’re writing about things from your life, your own hopes and fears, fascinations and obsessions, loves and hates. They’re there in your memory. Find them.

“…I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. … I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Think, he advises, of the things that scare you. The things that make you feel something, good or bad. The things you’re fascinated by, the darkest place you’ve ever been, the deepest, the brightest, the best. One will lead to another. Make a list.

THE WELL. THE LAMB OVER THE DOOR. THE TOR. THE VINES. THE ABBEY. THE CHEMIST.

What good is a list? The nouns on our lists are things that only make sense to us personally. They’re the things that have shaped us. Remember our “zest” and “gusto”? They’re going to find their way onto the page in our own authentic voice through these lists.

THE BINDER. THE BULLFROGS. HALLOWEEN AT THE HOSPITAL. THE JESTER HEAD. THE CLIFFS.

“You don’t set out to reform a certain kind of writing. It evolves out of your own life and night scares. Suddenly you look around and see that you’ve done something almost fresh.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Those who were at the Rainforest Writers Retreat with me–or with my friend Minerva in years since–may recognize what we’ve stumbled upon. There’s an exercise we did there that began with a visual prompt. We would view the prompt, and then write for five minutes about a memory sparked by the image. Somehow in that time, if we just kept writing, something would emerge–a line, a concept, sometimes a full scene–strong enough to hang a story on. The best stuff, the stuff that is uniquely our own, comes from our memories and experiences. Bradbury discovered this, and we’re about to discover it ourselves.

“And the stories began to burst, to explode from those memories, hidden in the nouns, lost in the lists.”

- Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

When I reread this chapter, I started a list of my own, some of which I’ve shared above. Over the course of a day I filled three columns with memories, encoded in nouns. I look at these lists and I know exactly what each item means. Each one represents something I will never forget. Somewhere in there is the key to writing stories that matter to me, and can carry enough weight that they’ll matter to a reader eventually, too.

Grab a pen and notebook, and try it with me.

How does your list begin? Feel free to share in the comments.

Next time: The Lopside of Your Brain

 

 

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Back to Basics, Part 4 – Space Travel, Sideshows, and Gorillas

This is Part 4 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle”

Bradbury was talking about actual literary snobbery, directed at him, in actual rooms. This certainly still happens–there are plenty of anecdotes about authors of one subgenre sneering at authors of a different subgenre on convention panels. But what this passage brings to mind for me is something else that we face daily now: a perceived criticism that comes from having 24/7 access to the opinions of nearly everyone we know.

I have a friend who writes pirate stories. She’s very good at it. She loves her characters, and she’s incredibly skilled at bringing them to life and sending them on adventures, getting them into and out of danger, facing foes and defeating evil. Every now and then she’ll mention how her pet project is coming along, and invariably she’ll slip into demeaning modifiers: the dumb book, or the silly book, or the stupid book. Because she’s absorbed the false notion that the kind of stories she enjoys writing don’t count, that the only stories that have value are literary masterworks of crossover fiction that explore Important Issues. Because what she hears when someone says “Notable Author’s story was so great it made me cry! I hope they win an award!” is “Your story did not make me cry; your story is not great. QED.”

What would you say to her? What would Ray say?

I think he would say: If someone is making you feel that way, you pack up your Jolly Roger and leave the room.

The problem is that today the room in question is the internet. The room is Twitter; the room is Facebook. Social media is simultaneously the best and worst cocktail party ever thrown. At its best, we get to have energetic conversations with people with similar interests and shared concerns. At its worst, a person can be utterly dehumanized in 140 characters. Somewhere in the middle is where most of us live–constantly exposed to the opinions of hundreds or thousands of people, many of whom we respect and admire, a few we care for deeply, but most we’re connected to only through a shared interest of one kind or another.

I have some very successful literary friends who I mostly keep in touch with via Social Media. I love them very much, and I want to know what’s happening in their lives. But sometimes I have to cop to the fact that seeing every single sale announcement, every word of (totally deserved) praise for their work, well, it gets to me. I’m not talking about professional jealousy–a phenomenon I also sometimes experience–or even about competition. I’m talking about comparison, and the sense that in that comparison I fall short. We’re pattern-seeking animals, and when our work doesn’t measure up (whether in quantity or perceived quality) to the patterns we think we detect in the constant stream of information–it can do very bad things to our confidence and our commitment to our craft, and to ourselves.

Suddenly our love of sideshows and gorillas looks stupid beside other people’s love of black holes and post-apocalypses. That’s our cue: It’s time to leave the room. (The Mute button on Twitter is wonderful for this.)

“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every other writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.

I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look not at myself but at what went on behind my face.”
-Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Today “every other writer” is right there in our Twitter timeline. We have to learn to look away (eyes on your own paper!), stop comparing ourselves to them, and look within. Our excellence will be found where our heart is, and it will look like no one else’s.

Next week we’ll start the work of discovering our excellence within our authentic selves, and using it to find our way into stories that are uniquely our own.

Next time: Part 5 – Hidden in the Nouns, Lost in the Lists

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Back to Basics, Part 3 – Looking to Your Zest, Seeing to Your Gusto

This is Part 3 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2

“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “The Joy of Writing”

Guilty as charged.

On that long drive up I-5 one of the things I realized was that I had become far too concerned with what everyone else was doing, what they were reading and reviewing, where they were publishing and how often. The internet is a mixed blessing: our friends and colleagues, while perhaps geographically distant, are present in our lives via social media. It’s wonderful to be able to stay in touch so readily, but it also creates such an abundance of status to measure ourselves against. It can be paralyzing.

When Twitter is abuzz with a new themed anthology, we might conclude that the market is saturated with stories like the one we’ve been secretly working on. Dispirited, we set it aside.

Or the short list for a prestigious award is announced, and none of the stories on it are anything like the adventure story we just outlined and yesterday couldn’t wait to get to work on. We may conclude that the type of stories we write are not what people want to read, and the outline is abandoned while we wrack our brains trying to come up with an idea we think people would notice.

Or maybe someone we think of as notable says something on Facebook about a subgenre they think is played out. We may love that subgenre, and have multiple works in progress, maybe even a serial. Granting Facebook Big Shot oracular powers, we dismally drag our files to the “Trunk” folder.

Driving through Stockton I realized I had done all of those things. Again the answer came, and I gave myself some sound advice:

“Eyes on your own paper, Yant.”

“Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “The Joy of Writing”

Look to your zest. See to your gusto. Not someone else’s. Not “the market’s.” It’s time to stop saying things like “I wish I were more like Big Name Author,” or “I wish I could write stories as important as Award Winner’s.” It’s time to stop wishing we were more like other writers, and start wishing we were more like ourselves.

We’re here to reconnect with the joy and anticipation we used to feel about writing. The first step toward that is reconnecting with our authentic selves, what we’re passionate about—our loves and hates, our hopes and fears, the things that have shaped who we truly are.

Next up: Part 4 – Space Travel, Sideshows, and Gorillas

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Write Like A Stark: guest post by Steve Bein

Our guest post this week is another reminder to keep focused on your writing and keep your chin up. It’s from our friend Steve Bein, whose newest novel, Disciple of the Wind, is due out April 7th.


Winter is coming. These are the words of House Stark, and in my opinion they’re pretty good advice for up-and-coming writers. (Maybe for well-established writers as well; I’ll let you know as soon as I consider myself well established).

The logic of it works like this: assume you’ll never publish anything. Ever. Then, every time you get a nibble of interest, it’s a lovely surprise. It brightens your whole day. But when your next rejection slip comes in, it’s no big deal. Sure, winter is coming, but psychologically speaking, you’re already dressed for the occasion.

Or maybe this seems too bleak to you. Maybe you think I’m being hyperbolic, and if I tell you I’m not—and I’m totally not—then maybe you want to say I’m being overly dramatic.

The truth is, for writers the future is bleak.  It’s hard to overstate how long the odds are against us. Even among the most gifted of us, almost everyone gets rejected almost all the time. In fact, the market is so merciless, so utterly wayward, that the New Yorker actually rejected a story it had already published. This isn’t some new semi-pro zine we’re talking about. This is supposed to be the best in the business.

So yeah, not only is it true that you’ll get rejected almost all of the time, but the rejections you get might not even be based on what you wrote. Only the pessimists and the Starks can take solace in that.

So now maybe we’ve gone beyond bleak for you. Maybe you want to say, “If this is your outlook, why bother writing anything at all?”

Well, duh: write because you love writing. Write because you can’t not. Write because it sure beats sitting on your ass watching TV. Just don’t write because you think you’re going to publish anything. Be an optimist and you set yourself up for heartbreak every time a new rejection slip comes blowing in.

Instead, know that winter is coming. Expect rejection every time you submit. That way, when you finally do get published, it comes as a big, warm sunbeam breaking through the wintry clouds of despair. Not that you despair, of course. All writers live in sight of these clouds, and most live directly under them. But while all those shivering, teeth-chattering optimists are dressed in Speedos, you’re comfortably clad in your parka of pessimism.

When your book comes out and everyone loves it, and Hollywood offers you a million dollars for the film rights, and you have to reinforce your floorboards to hold up the sheer weight of all the awards you’ve won… well, I still say winter is coming. Assume success isn’t going to last. Recognize that victory is winged, she flies away fast, and you need to savor every last moment in the sun.

Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Ned Stark’s, either. Field-test it. Write just for the love of writing, and see what happens if you submit on the assumption that you’re not going to get published. Try that for the next six months and see if it makes you feel better about the rejection slips. And then let me know how it goes for you. I’m the guy in the igloo next door, wrapped up in a big, comfy parka of pessimism.


Steve Bein is the author of DISCIPLE OF THE WIND, due out April 7th, and STREAMING DAWN, available now for your e-reader. His first two novels, DAUGHTER OF THE WIND and YEAR OF THE DEMON, were met with critical acclaim. Please visit him on the Web (www.philosofiction.com), follow him on Facebook (facebook/philosofiction) and Twitter (@AllBeinMyself). You can email him—and he’s totally sincere about that invitation in the last paragraph, by the way—at [email protected].

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Back to Basics, Part 2 – Your Pinch of Arsenic

This is Part 2 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. You can read Part 1 here.

 “I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, yelling for a clean pair of spats.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Preface”

This is not true for every writer. It may not be true for you. But it is definitely true for me. My husband notices it. I get irritable, impatient, morose.

“You should get some writing done,” he observes. “It’s like your medicine.”

He’s invariably right. It doesn’t really make sense—I don’t write about things currently happening in my life. I don’t view writing as therapy in the sense of revisiting events and resolving them. But I can’t deny that writing, for me, is therapeutic.

The problem arises when I focus on the outcome of writing, rather than the writing itself. When I obsess on things like placing an unfinished story with the right market, or how it might be received by its eventual readers, or (perhaps most toxic) how it might compare to the work of my friends and peers, the bitter alchemy of ego and its dark counterpart, shame, turn the medicine into poison, and the patient steadily declines.

 “Not to write, for many of us, is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Preface”

It was true when I was a brand-new writer, tapping out thinly veiled Mary Sue daydreams with Writer’s Market at my side. Today my goal is to go back to the beginning, to connect with that young woman whose aspirations were aligned with progress, not perfection; who believed that she could learn, if she only practiced and applied sound advice from those who had reached mastery.

Bradbury notes that “the smallest effort” is all that’s required. Graduates of the prestigious Clarion speculative fiction workshop are often advised to take it slow, committing to only 250 words per day—roughly one double-spaced page. 250 words can take as little as ten minutes, but that “gentle bout” is truly a victory for the writer struggling to stay out of her own way.

Committing to a single page means that I don’t get to chastise myself for not finishing the story today. It means that I might spend a little more time and attention on finding the right words, making for less work later. It means that I can fit it into my day, no matter how I’m feeling, no matter where I am, no matter what else life demands of me today.

If you’re following along with me on this journey, then today that’s your challenge: Write a single page, on any project you want–the more fun that project is, the better. Or 125 words on two different projects. Or 50 words each on five. Today is not about beating ourselves up for not having everything finished and polished and out the door. Today is about a pinch of progress, enough to keep soul-sickness at bay. Or in the words of Bradbury, “Taking your pinch of arsenic every morn so you can survive to sunset. Another pinch at sunset so that you can more-than-survive until dawn.”

Next time: Part 3 – Looking to Your Zest, Seeing to Your Gusto

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