Writing writers who write

As a companion to my last post on my love of reading, I’d like to gush a little about my related love of writing. This one is perhaps less straightforward, because as Thomas Mann said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Writing, to put it dramatically, is both my passion and my torment. The more I try to understand what makes writing great, the more I see how my own writing falls short. Put that alongside the piles of form rejection letters I’ve received from literary agents (it’s only a metaphorical pile in my email inbox, of course) and you might wonder why I keep trying.

Well, first of all, much as I’d like to be a published writer, that’s not the sole or even most pressing reason that I write. I will always love writing even if no one reads my work other than a small circle of (unpaying) family and friends. Because first and foremost, I write for myself. The genesis for my ideas often comes in the form of, “Hey, why doesn’t anyone ever write this kind of story? I’d love to read something like that.” And since no one else has written it, I figure I’ll give it a try myself. Other times, I’ll read a story with an idea I liked but whose execution I didn’t agree with. So I take the idea somewhere completely different in my own work and feel much more satisfied. Not that my writing always takes the form of a negative response; not by any means. Often I read something that I love deeply and dearly, and imagine what it would be like to write something myself that resonated so deeply – either just for me, or any other reader. It inspires me, and even as I fall short, I keep trying. My books are, frankly, the kind of books I want to read. Of course it’s not quite the same to read something I’ve written, knowing all the twists and turns and developments, but it’s thrilling in a different way to know that I created it. It didn’t exist, and then I wanted it to, and now here it is.

I write for myself. This is crucial. True, it might make my work less likely to get published, if my tastes veer too sharply from the general populace. But if ever I do get published, then I’ll know it’s genuine. It comes from me, not some cheap attempt to pander or please someone else. (Having said this, it’s still just common decency to write with sensitivity. You can’t be sure of never offending anyone; indeed, inoffensive is usually a synonym for bland and meaningless. But trampling callously through sensitive issues, particularly of marginalized people, is just in bad taste.) Unfortunately, since that writing comes from me, rejection feels all too personal. My work is a part of me. To lend any credibility to the feelings and motivations of my characters, I have to empathize with them, to delve deep into my own self and pour it out into the story. So it’s a massive challenge to pull back from that and remember that if anyone, agent or editor or otherwise, doesn’t care for my book, it has very little to do with my personal self. After all, a story can be deeply heartfelt but still poorly written or sloppily plotted.

Still, I love it. I’ve been doing it almost as long as I’ve known how to write letters. Terrible copycat stories, at the start, but it was all good practice. Lots of playing around, experimenting, figuring out my strengths and weaknesses. Fan fiction. Some of it was dreadful, but some of it I’m quite proud of. Finishing my first full-length novel. Getting positive feedback from anyone, whether close to me or strangers online. I’d write even if no one else ever read my work, but oh how I thrive on reader response. How I dream of having widespread readership, not for the money (though I certainly wouldn’t turn it down) but for the knowledge that all those people across the world were getting something valuable out of my writing.

I love opening a new document in the word processor and filling the first page. Oh, I love writing first drafts. Turning blank space into something I created, something entirely from my own mind. I hate it when I get stuck on a plot point, and yet I love it, because I’ll puzzle it out in non-writing time, or just keep writing filler, and then it comes to me and it’s wonderful. I don’t do a lot of planning and plotting beforehand, because that comes to me easier while I’m in the middle of it, when I’ve immersed myself in the characters and the story and it starts to feel like it’s really happening and I’m just recording it.

Last July I wanted to start a new novel, but I didn’t have any particular idea inspiring me. I’d written Mortal Failings over the course of less than three months, and the ridiculous swiftness, how the words just flowed out of me, was absolutely intoxicating. I wanted that feeling again. So I thought of something very simple: a shapeshifter. Then I started teasing out the idea. I actually ended up brainstorming with my daughter, because she’s read enough fantasy books by now that she could be a great sounding-board. We had some good ideas. Yet I still wasn’t quite feeling the fire burning beneath me. I started writing anyway, well aware that what we call writer’s block can usually be overcome by plain old discipline and persistence. And to my delight, a few weeks into my novel I had a dream about it. The fact that it was pervading my subconscious was a sure sign that I had really gotten into it. Well, we were out of town in August and when we got back our computer crashed and lost twenty pages that I had to rewrite, so it took significantly longer than usual to finish it. On the other hand, once I completed Mimic at the start of March, I was so immersed in the world I’d created I wanted to start right away on the sequel. I made myself wait till after sending Mimic to a few readers and doing some basic edits, but last week I’d had enough waiting. I’m now 6,000 words into Trickster. I’m so excited to be back in Issa’s world.

Screenshot 2015-05-05 11.13.27

My desktop; always with some kind of writing going on. Plenty of files to choose from.

I love and hate and love the challenge of finding the perfect word. I love having a thesaurus at hand, but sometimes I’ve put it away in disgust because its suggestions are absolutely useless. I love the distinction between denotation and connotation. Purple and violet mean essentially the same thing, and yet the shades of meaning make such a difference in the tone of the writing. I love the challenge of balancing long sentences with short ones, the rhythm and rhyme that blurs the line between prose and poetry. I chuckle at the false notion that you should alternate the word said with fancier terms like remarked or expostulated or averred because the real challenge is never, ever bringing awkward attention to dialogue tags: sometimes just writing the quote without unnecessary attribution, sometimes describing instead what the speaker is doing while speaking, and sometimes relying on a well-placed, ordinary said.

Writing dialogue. Oh, boy. You can’t write it exactly how people actually talk, because that’s, uh, always, you know, kind of peppered with, what do you call them, filler words, and sometimes the speaker – sometimes you stop partway and change the direction of the sentence, and sometimes you don’t even finish the, you know. So instead you have to find a balance between realistic sounding speech and polished but stilted stuff that no one would ever say. One of my challenges is that my speech is a little off the norm; more three-syllable words and such than average. I have to pare that down so all my characters don’t sound like pretentious twits. And I have to try to make them at least somewhat distinctive from each other. Oh, and the dialogue needs to accomplish something; move the scene along without bogging it down in exposition, sometimes revealing more in what isn’t said than in what is.

I love these challenges. I want to get better at them. I want to work on them. I also kind of dread it. As in most things, I have a perfectionist streak that cripples me into not trying. If I can’t get it perfect, why bother? Because that’s the only way to get better at it! Maybe never perfect, but it’s approaching perfection, slow though the rate may be, forever distant though the goal is.

Novels are my preferred medium, but that doesn’t mean I only care about my writing when I’m working on a book. I obsess over every word choice no matter what I’m writing. I re-read and revise my emails a dozen times before sending them, even to my husband when he won’t care if it’s full of errors. I’ve re-written two sentence status updates on Facebook over and over and finally decide I’ll never express it in a satisfactory way and just delete it. And blog posts, oh boy. I’ve already rewritten most of these sentences, changing words, adding or deleting phrases; and when I’ve finished the first draft I’ll pick it apart mercilessly before posting it. It’s partly because I want my words to come across clearly and cleanly, and I want to be seen as articulate and intelligent. But it’s also, as I’ve said before, for myself. I take pride in thoughtful writing. Typos make me sad. (Naturally, whenever I mention this somewhere I get plenty of smart-aleck, typo-ridden responses.) I suppose I wouldn’t be too out of place as an editor. Still, I’d much rather work with my own material. Making something out of nothing. Turning blank pages into stories.

Here’s a challenge: how do you finish a long, rambling blog post? Sometimes you find the perfect, pithy statement that sums up everything and caps it off with a touch of humor or poignancy. And sometimes you don’t.

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