Grist for the Mill

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How many times have you been told, when going through a rough patch in life, “Well, it’s grist for the mill.” That phrase never helps me when someone else says it. Only when I say it.

For those who don’t know, grist is grain that has been separated from the chaff (outer husk), leaving the kernels ready to be ground into flour.

Today I use my Vitamix to grind wheat berries into flour, but in the old days, oxen walked around and around a big stone where people threw their wheat, to be ground into flour by another enormous round stone. Later, windmills powered the grinding stones to make flour. Wind powering a mill. Windmill.

windmill

For an author, the real milling happens internally. Authors are quirky people, very interesting to talk to (if you can get them alone and not in a crowd) because they live lives of grand events, they feel passionately, and grind their experiences into a fine powder and then play it out on the page.

Very few people have a book published prior to acquiring a few gray hairs. This is because we have to live life, we have to experience a vast landscape of people, events, relationships, emotions; we need grist that we can ponder, from which we extract the kernel that will become fiction worth reading.

My friend, romance writer Susan Wiggs says the hardest scene ever to write is that of a woman crying. She’s right. Most authors cheat and say something like “tears ran down her cheeks.” Well, that’s just not right. It’s passive, it’s likely from the wrong point of view, it tells the reader NOTHING. It is only those of us who have experienced gut-blasting, heart-exploding grief, where it feels like a heart attack, it feels like asphyxiation, the kind of grief where we’re certain we’re going to die–who can write a scene that a reader will get on the emotional level that we intend. On a human level. Not every woman crying scene deserves all of that, but it deserves a corner of it.

And yet, we can’t write that while it’s raw. We have to grind it. We have to absorb it into our personalities, make it part of our total human experience. We have to portion it out in this scene and in that scene, knowing that the depth of our personal experience is so vast that we can draw on those experiences for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sometimes, of course, we have to write it raw. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. But that writing is not for publication. That is merely the record of the grist entering the mill. The finished story or novel is the finished, baked bread. As you know, good bread needs leavening. That takes time.

So when you go through something terrifying, horrible, or devastating, and someone else, knowing you’re a writer, tosses it off by saying, “it’s just grist for the mill,” realize that they’re trying to comfort you. They don’t mean to invite a slap across the chops. They know you’re a writer, someone who feels everything intensely, and that someday you will indeed use this unexpected windfall of wild grain in your mill to bake a loaf of something delicious that they will enjoy.

Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”

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Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

Deadlines! Oh, the Horror!

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Nothing in my office happens without a deadline.

Deadlines mean that I get stuff done. On time.

If I don’t have a deadline to meet, I’d rather be digging in the garden, knitting, having lunch with a friend, or outside reading a book. If I don’t have a deadline, then I have time off.

deadline

Whenever anyone asks me to do something, my first question is: What’s my deadline? And if that is reasonable, I put it on my calendar. If it’s an extended project with many steps, I put intermediate deadlines on my calendar to make sure I meet the ultimate deadline.  The last thing I want is to be chained to my desk for three or four days at the end of a long project because I failed to schedule properly and allocate my time wisely.

My calendar is my lifeline to getting things done. Rarely do I miss a deadline. It happens, but it’s rare.

When I sign a contract for a book, I agree to submit the manuscript on a certain date. When the publisher gets that contract, they set all their intermediary deadlines for catalog copy, cover art, interior design, for copy editing, publicity… there are many,  many steps that a book goes through from the time I submit it to the time that it is published. All those intermediary professionals put my book on their calendar and schedule time for it.

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If I miss the deadline (that I agreed to, by the way—if the deadline on the contract is too short or looks like it will pinch, I change it before signing the contract), then all those people miss all their deadlines, all the way down the line. And it isn’t as if the publisher doesn’t have other things to do that they can just accommodate an irresponsible writer. They have long memories for things like this.

So I make my deadlines. Even if it isn’t a book contract, other people depend on me to be on time, see to my commitments, take other peoples’ time and energy seriously.

Imagine, if you will, hiring a contractor to build your new deck. He’s to arrive on Monday morning at 8am, but instead, he waltzes in Friday around 3. You’ve prepared for him, you’ve inconvenienced yourself for him, and he hasn’t taken his business seriously enough to show up on time. Likely to use him again?

Meeting deadlines is a courtesy to everyone involved.

But not only is it a courtesy to other people, it is an act of kindness to myself. I get to have those days of digging in the garden, jumping up and going for a spontaneous bike ride, taking off for a day at the beach with the husband and the dog. My conscience is clear, my calendar allows it, and I am free to have fun.

My calendar is my lifeline to having a peaceful life.

And I have deadlines to thank for it.

One Legendary Evening

By Elizabeth Engstrom

There is a legend that tells of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein sitting down in front of the fireplace one evening with a bottle of brandy, and each of them burning one million unpublished words. To date I’ve been unable to authenticate this legend, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not it is true. I like to think it is, and I choose to think that for many reasons.

brandy

The main reason I like this story is that it tells me that I am not alone with my quirky propensities.

I have a propensity to keep everything I write. I’m not the only writer whose filing cabinet is filling up with unpublished, unpublishable writings. Why do we cling to these things? Because we may look at them some day and discover that they had mutated over the years into something useful?

This lore also tells me that even the great writers—the writers of legend—have dead end ideas, bad books, worthless prose. They don’t consider their every word golden, and neither should I. (Tony Hillerman says he has a whole file cabinet full of first chapters.) They practice their craft, and don’t subject their fans to their practicings. I thank them for that.

I wonder what went into that fire of Heinlein and Bradbury. What brilliant poetry, intriguing concepts from the minds of those two gentlemen will be forever lost to our body of American literature? With Heinlein long dead and Bradbury recently so, what would Christie’s get for those manuscript pages on the auction block?

While I long to read fresh material by these two men, I’m glad they had the courage to reduce those pages to ashes, rather than to let me at their files of rejected prose and aborted projects. Why would I want to lessen my opinion of them by reading their worst, when I have been privileged to read their best?

How was this plan conceived, and how did they go about choosing what went the way of the flames? Were these things unpublished because of the authors’ internal editors or the editors of some publishing house? Did they ball up the pages and toss them in with cavalier bravado, or did they gently, reverently, lay stacks of pages upon the logs? And what did they talk about as they fed the fire? Did they tell bawdy jokes, or gossip about other writers and their work or their love lives, or did they complain about the changing aspects of the publishing industry? Was this an unburdening, cathartic evening, or a memorial service filled with melancholy of stories that could have been?

Two men who wrote with typewriters and carbon paper, pre-computer, pre-Xerox, each burning the equivalent of ten 100,000-word novels. It gives me pause.

Some day, I hope a writer hears about the same ritual as performed by me and one of my contemporaries, and considers it with the same amount of speculation. But to have a million unpublished words is a huge undertaking.

I best get busy.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Write

by Elizabeth Engstrom

When I was young, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer.  I always knew that some day I’d see my name on the spine of a book, but it wasn’t until I had a little life under my belt, a few gray hairs, a few credits from the school of hard knocks, a little life experience and something to say about the hope for mankind, that I was ready to sit down at the keyboard and pour out my mystifications.  The “message” that burdens every writer had finally floated to the top of my psyche.  My message had gelled.  It was time to write.

But everything I wrote sounded pompous or opinionated or biased.  I couldn’t make good fiction out of my message for mankind.

Then science fiction great Theodore Sturgeon came to town to give a workshop.  I had grown up reading his work; his influence on me as a young reader had been enormous.  I paid my fee, mailed in the manuscript he agreed to read as a part of the workshop curriculum, and I sat down to bite my nails and wait for his judgment.

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The incomparable Theodore Sturgeon

During this time of waiting, it occurred to me that over the two-week course of this workshop, he and I could run into each other at the coffee machine or something, and actually speak to each other, one-on-one.  The thought left me star-struck.  What on earth could I possibly say to the great Theodore Sturgeon?

I could ask him a question.  I knew the prospect was not likely; surely there would be thousands of people at the workshop.  Nevertheless, I set out to prepare myself so I wouldn’t be caught flat-footed if the opportunity came to speak with my hero privately.  I wracked my brain and spent sleepless nights, torturing myself over this idea.  What would be The Definitive Question to ask Theodore Sturgeon?  In retrospect, I think this was my way of not dwelling on the fact that he was reading my first attempt at novel writing.

My musings came down to one question that seemed to synthesize all that had been troubling me.  The question was: “What do you do when you want to preach?” I had the urge to write, I had a message to disseminate, I had the time, the space, the knowledge, and a teensie bit of talent for the task.  But everything I wrote sounded preachy.  Every time I reread what I had written, it felt as if I ought to be writing Op-Ed pieces, or essays, or how-to books.  At one point, I even talked with my minister about actually preaching.  His response?  “My collar closes the door to 90% of the people in the world.  You, as a writer, have no such boundaries.”  Wow.  A fiction writer has such opportunity.

Such responsibility.

So what do you do when you want to preach?

Satisfied that I would not only find out the answer to that question, but that I would have something intelligent to talk over with Ted Sturgeon, I set about to wait with calmer heart.

The first night of the seminar, I was astonished that there were only about ten students.  This was going to be an intimate setting.  I would probably get to know him over the course of the two weeks.

And I did.  He and I became friends in the limited time he had left on this planet, but I never had the opportunity to ask him that question, because the first words out of his mouth on the first night of class were these: “It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.”

I was stunned.

I’m not sure I heard anything else Ted said that night, because this was so clearly the answer to many of my questions, and it was so simple, and tasted so strongly of the truth that I was awash with the possibilities for my future career.

Did he mean that I could write a vampire book and my message would come through?  I could write a romance novel?  A western, science fiction, horror, a comedy about dogs?  A blog? And still, that which had been shown to me, that which had been given to me, the life-saving philosophy that I had developed (and that surely would save the world) could still be served?

Of course.  I have only one story to tell, and that’s my story.  I can’t tell yours.  But mine is large and encompasses much, and it can be sliced into myriad tales of truth and fantasy.

I realized that it was the message showing through in the writing of my favorite authors that attracted me to their work.  Singly, a book may not contain impressive spiritual insights; but over the entire body of work of a certain author, a reader cannot help but get to know the writer’s heart.

When I realized the truth of what Ted Sturgeon said to me that night, not only did my career spread before me like a vast playground, but I was filled with confidence and questions.  Before he died, Ted Sturgeon and I spent a lot of time together, and in fact he wrote the introduction to that first book, When Darkness Loves Us, which went on to be well published.  But more importantly, I could relax.  My job as a novelist needn’t be unnecessarily complicated; it is difficult enough to tell the truth within the fiction; I don’t have to consciously worry about what message the reader is receiving.  That isn’t my job.  I don’t have to save the world.  I only have to ensure that the reader enjoys reading what I’ve written.

It has been my fortune to have a challenging career as a writer, teacher, editor and publisher.  Through my relatively brief association with Theodore Sturgeon, I learned that the surest way to make my own dreams come true is to help others achieve theirs.  The fate of empires does not hinge upon my work or upon any one piece of work.  But those of us to whom this gift has been given have a responsibility to be persistent about writing and publishing our work until a sufficient body of work has been assembled.  Our message is important.  The world needs it.   That’s our job.

Never forget: It doesn’t matter what you write.  What you believe will show through.

(Note: An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul.)

Is Writing Fun?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Is Writing Fun?

Well, yes. And no.

Writing is fun when I’m engaged in a project that I’m excited about, when the words flow, the characters come alive, I have time and solitude in which to immerse, and the muse and I are aligned as one.

Writing is not fun when there are too many distractions, when the plot holes develop, when I’m tired and the words are stuck like molasses in my psyche, when I feel like everything worthwhile has already been written, when I feel like a fraud and/or incompetent, and when I feel all that pressure to compete in the marketplace.

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On a panel last April I was asked: “Will you ever retire from writing?” I’m sorry I gave the answer I did. I cited Chuck Barris of “Gong Show” fame, who said that when he quit the show he was going to move to the south of France and write books nobody would read.  That sounded glorious to me at the time, as I was struggling with editors, publishers, agents, marketing, and trying to write all at the same time. But I didn’t speak very eloquently about why that quote stuck with me.

What I should have said is: Do retired tennis players still play tennis?

Today I have fifteen books in print and am nearing the end of my writing career. I have the luxury of not worrying about much on a professional level. I write what I write. I abandon projects with abandon. I don’t cater to deadlines or others’ expectations. I don’t read my reviews (never have), and I don’t care what other people think of me or my work.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, I struggled in the industry like everybody else.

Today, writing is fun for me. I’m working on a project now that makes me laugh out loud when I write, and at the end of the day I am wrung out and can’t wait to get back to it again tomorrow. There is no bleeding into the keyboard. There is no howling angst. I am not pouring my heart and soul into this work, I am playing, joyfully, with the talent I have been given, and I love it.

Will this project be successful? It already is.

So. What about you? Is writing fun?

The Creative Compost File – or Where do You Get Your Ideas?

By Elizabeth Engstrom

One of the most valuable items at my desk is in my file drawer. It is a folder entitled “Creative Compost.” This is my gold mine and it is thick with odds and ends.

When I’m doing my daily ten-minute keep-the-pen-moving practice exercises, and I happen onto something tasty, at the end of the ten minute exercise, I rewrite the good idea, or the good passage, and slip it into the compost file. When I have an unusual dream, or meet someone with a great name, or hear a story that could evolve into wonderful fiction, or encounter someone with a distinctive speech pattern, I waste no time in writing it down and putting it into my compost file. A song lyric. A weird news item. The intriguing juxtaposition of words. A spiritual concept presented by a friend. Any number of things that captivate, confound or amuse me find a home in that file.

compost

Do I ever refer to it? No. Just like I never refer to the coffee grounds, once they’re thrown into the garden compost pile in my back yard. I just leave them there to work.

And work they do.

I have come to believe that it is the act of cutting the item out, or writing it down and putting it into the compost file that cements it in my mind. Just like the elusive dream that evaporates before noon unless I relate it to someone or write it down, so does the Great Idea unless I actively do something with it. Or like the discarded banana peel—it isn’t much all by itself. But throw it onto the soil, rich with micro-organisms, the roots of a nearby rosebush to encourage the decomposition, and hungry worms to digest it properly, and voila! That old banana peel becomes something worthwhile.

And so it is with the bits and pieces within my file folder. It adds to the fertility of the mind. It combines its nutrients with others in the mental digestive process. Just like the backyard stuff, good stories stem from a combination of nutrients. It is the blending of character, setting, and conflict. What comes out of the compost pile is pure gold for the garden and what comes out of the compost file is pure gold for my writing.

I went through my compost file about two years ago for the first time in maybe ten years, because it had become so thick it was taking over my file drawer, and discovered that I had used probably eighty percent of the things in it. I cleaned it out and began again.

That was a simple act of turning the compost. I’ll do it a little more often now, but not too often. Some of those ideas are kind of woody and fibrous and need time to break down and blend in.

So I just keep on adding to that file and keep my trust in the process.