Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

-End-

Memory Is a Slippery Mistress

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

By Lisa Alber

Jet lag, my friends! I’m living it right now. I returned to Portland from an Ireland novel research trip last night, so I’m really eight hours ahead of myself. It had been thirteen (13!) years since I’d last visited. That shows how long it took me to get my debut novel, Kilmoon, published.

A lot can happen in thirteen years, especially when it comes to our memories. I arrived in County Clare with pictures in my head, with the reality of the place crystal clear, I thought. I ended up driving around for the first few days feeling shell-shocked, disillusioned, disappointed, aghast, and outraged.

Some of the changes to my so-called reality of County Clare were due to what most would refer to as “progress,” which I didn’t like. Not at all. My ideal County Clare ruined by improved infrastructure! I liked it wild, wooly, and rugged. I liked the narrow roads with no painted whites lines on them telling us when we’re allowed to pass. I liked feeling like a race car driver at a whopping 80 km/hour (50 mph). I liked the Neolithic and Medieval ruins sitting in cow fields without any indication of what they were.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn't recovered from the recession.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn’t recovered from the recession.

And the tourism. Well! Never mind that I’m a tourist—I was appalled that the Cliffs of Moher charged a fee, sported a gigantic parking lot and paved walkways and guard rails along the cliffs. I preferred the slippery dirt paths and rusty little signs that depicted a man falling over the edge and a message that went something like: Warning: Unstable Edge.

I was just, I don’t know, weirded out by the whole thing …

But then I got to thinking about why I’d returned to County Clare. It wasn’t to relive some grand memory, which I’d mistaken for reality. I’d returned to research the novel I’m writing now, the third in the County Clare series. This meant seeing Clare as it really is. It meant yanking the rosy-tinted memory glasses off and taking a look around me with an open heart.

I saw the gravel quarries (those weren’t there before, I knew they weren’t … but was that true or just my memory talking?) and the clear-cutting of the forestry lands and all the new houses along the main roads that diminished distances and the tourist signage that trivialized the wondrous and the new big hotels and the summer homes …

Reality: Need I say more?

Reality: Need I say more?

I was thirteen years out of date in my notions of life in County Clare. My books need to reflect some semblance of this reality.

It took a few – three, four, five – days, but I acclimated. I started to see the beauty again. Rolling hills with their drystone walls. Fabulous vistas on the coast. Spring lambs jumping around green velvet fields. Quaint storefronts in a town called Ennistymon. Vibrant yellow furze growing along the roads.

Before I knew it, I was no longer seeing the quarries and the clear cuts. After awhile, they didn’t exist for me anymore, and, I suppose, this is how memory works, doesn’t it? Whatever imprints the most, moves us the most, is what sticks for the long term.

After another little while, I realized that my dissonance wasn’t all due to progress. My brain played its part all on its own.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Memory is a slippery mistress for sure, and the dissonance between reality and memory might be worse when you’re a fiction writer. You go from reality to memory, and then from memory to the imaginative. And let’s face it, we novelists may base our novels in a contemporary world, but we amp it up in different ways to suit our stories.

No wonder I was so disoriented at first. The Clare of my memories had become the Clare of my fiction, another gigantic step removed from real reality.

As the outrage and disorientation dissipated, I fell in love with Clare all over again. I’m already in danger of losing touch with real reality, and I’ve only been home for about twelve hours. Ah well, I expect the next time I travel to Clare, I’ll revisit the same weirdness. On the up side, I’ll rediscover Clare all over again, in a new way.

Have you ever faced the dissonance between reality and memory? I remember

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

feeling the same disorientation when I visited my first childhood home. Everything about the neighborhood felt so small somehow.

 

So, How’s the Novel Coming Along? Muddles and Middles

By Lisa Alber

Commercial interruption: I’m honored that KILMOON was nominated for the Silver Falchion Reader’s Choice Award (Best First Novel–Cozy, Traditional, Historical)! If you so desire, please vote here. I appreciate it, thanks! (If using a mobile device, first click “Switch to desktop site” on the bottom of the page.)

–//–

plottentaclesWow, a lot can happen in six weeks. I read my previous post, in which I was very much the tortured writer as I began writing the first draft of my third novel. I was having a hard time feeling my way into the story. I probably had around 5,000 words written (approx. 20 pages) at the time.

I wrote:

I’m getting words down on virtual paper every day and trying to maintain faith that at some point (please, let it be within 50 pages!), I’ll feel a surge as I realize what the heart and soul of the story really is. In other words, I’m faking it a little bit right now–at least that’s what it feels like.

Now I have exactly 33,101 words. Pretty good! That’s about 132 pages. So, did the story’s heart and soul open itself up to me?

Yes!

Amazingly, the process works. I’ve once again re-learned this lesson and found my faith in the process. It’s not that what I wrote is stellar. I can go back to any scene and fix dozens of typos, jot notes about missing descriptions, and growl because the story has already changed since I wrote that scene. But that’s OK because this is only a first draft. I continue on, knowing that I’ll return to the fixes later.

So now I’m approaching the dreaded muddle in the middle. Well, I’m officially in it I suppose. I’ve got plot tentacles waving around in every direction, a subplot that feels stupid and useless beyond words, and mishaving characters.

Like, eh hem, sex!!!! I don’t write novels with sex in them, I really don’t. Now, I might have been thinking about an interlude between two of the characters but not until later, AFTER the midpoint. Not yet, for god’s sake.

I was just a little surprised is all. However, after letting the scene sit a few days, I’ve decided that these two upstart characters knew what they were about better than I did. The fact that they sleep together so quickly is a surprise to them too and not without some fallout, which is crucial to the overall plot.

So there we go: crisis averted!

This pretty much sums it up.

This pretty much sums it up.

I wrote my first two novels without thinking about story arc and three act structure and all that jazz. At least not consciously. For this novel I did something different: I thought about structure before I started writing. Nothing elaborate, you understand, because I’m not organized enough to write actual outlines. But I had an overall arc, including the all-important midpoint game changer.

To get all mathematical about it, the midpoint would be about, say, 45,000 words in. I know what’s going to happen in a general sense. I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I can feel my brain working on it in the background. My scenes are rising to that occasion because I’m setting the intention for them to do so.

I’m thinking the surprise sex scene is part of that. (To clarify: No sex on the page. It’s a Captain-Kirk-pulling-on-his-boots scene with waaay more drama.)

The best part is that unlike my previous two novels, I’m not drowning in the middle muddle. I’m splashing around a bit, but I’m afloat. Having that midpoint to work toward is saving my hiney!

I can’t tell you how jazzed I am overall … even though … Never mind, this is only the first draft!

What a difference six weeks make, that’s for sure.

So tell me about you. Whatchou been up to these past six weeks? How did summer treat you?

And Now, The Truth: I Don’t Like Starting New Novels

By Lisa Alber

This picture doesn't represent my writing life.

This picture doesn’t represent my writing life.

I hereby declare that I don’t like starting new novels. What? you might be thinking. How can that be? Are you not a novelist creature? A person who loves the process, whose nature it is to gush via the written word?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here’s a corollary truth: Within any process there’s always that one task you can’t stand but have to do anyhow. For some novelists it might be copyediting, for others, research. For me, it’s getting into the danged first draft. I dislike it even more than the dreaded muddle in the middle.

You’d think I’d be in the infatuation period with my story right now. Everything about it ought to be bright and shiny and new and on its way to happily ever after, like, for sure.

I wish.

It’s more like I’m dangling over a precipice without a net. The other day, I realized that knowing my characters, their arcs, and the overall plot isn’t enough. There’s some indefinable something missing. I barely know what I mean by that either. It’s just a feeling that’s not in my body. A feeling of rightness even though I’ve had inklings and a-ha moments during the pre-writing development stage.

Right now my writing feels flat, uninspired. And I wonder, is that because for the first time in my life I’m writing under a strict publishing deadline?

It's more like this.

It’s more like this.

Publishing deadlines being what they are, this novel isn’t due until a year from now. Believe me, I’ll need the whole year. I can’t procrastinate. And, more importantly, I can’t wait for the “rightness” to sail me out off the precipice on its gossamer wings.

I’m getting words down on virtual paper every day and trying to maintain faith that at some point (please, let it be within 50 pages!), I’ll feel a surge as I realize what the heart and soul of the story really is. In other words, I’m faking it a little bit right now–at least that’s what it feels like.

So what do I mean by “heart and soul of the story” anyhow? I mean the hook. Not the hook for the reader. MY hook as the writer. No one ever talks about that, but for me it’s uber-important to feel an “in” with the story, as if it’s an organic being and I need to find my way into a relationship with it. This might come about when I finally see the shape of the story in my head. Or when I understand the story’s essential truth in five words or less. Or maybe it’s about the theme. Or maybe it’s about discovering the voice for the first-person protagonist. It’s different for different writers, different stories.

There is no answer here. I’m where I am in a process, and I’ve been here before (though not exactly like this). I’ve set a rule for myself, which is 1,000 words per day. Some days it’s like climbing up prickly branches (see picture). Other days, it’s just a job; get ‘er done. Other days, it’s sheer joy.

I can bitch with the best of them, but in the end, I’ll finish my novel by the deadline.

What part of the writing process (or any process in your life) do you not like? How do you work through it?

On Finishing …

by Matthew Lowes

the end

For twelve years I have been working on a trilogy of fantasy books. In that time I have lived in two different countries, three states, and six different homes. I’ve had eight jobs, gotten a Master’s degree, and gone through one marriage, one divorce, and two deaths in my family. Through it all I have been writing, among other things, this single epic tale. During the process, moments of boundless enthusiasm and despair mixed with long periods of just moving forward, doing the work, writing the next scene, the next chapter, the next book.

Last week I wrote THE END. I finished the last chapter of the last book and sat back, stunned by the moment and the magnitude of what I’d done. I had before me a single complete story spanning 300,000 words, roughly 1200 pages, and the occasion has gotten me thinking about finishing things, and endings in general.

I’ve talked with a lot of new and young writers who say they enjoy writing, but have trouble finishing anything. The reasons vary. Sometimes writers get stuck on a problem they never solve, or lose interest in what seems like an idea that didn’t pan out. Sometimes their story isn’t really a story, but rather a series of events with no central conflict demanding an ending. Sometimes writers just lose faith, or have a moment of doubt that brings their work to a halt and they never go back to it.

If the problem is technical, there is probably a solution if you work to find it, but sometimes the problem is psychological, a reluctance, for whatever reason, to finish. Either way, if you’re passionate about writing, you must persevere to an ending. At the very least so you get practice writing them. We all know a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why writing short stories is such good practice for the craft as a whole. They provide an opportunity to practice endings nearly as much as beginnings and middles.

Elizabeth Engstrom says to “find your ending in your beginning.” I always think about this when I’m coming to the end of a story. It’s important to end the story you started writing, and not some other story you picked up along the way. A strong central conflict really helps make this clear. The end must match the beginning in a way, and I found this to be just as true in a 300,000 word story as in a 1500 word story. The end must deal with the same protagonist, issues, and conflicts introduced in the beginning. So if you’re searching for an ending, that’s a good place to start.

When you get there at last, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a work of fiction. There’s a bit of magic in fiction, a sense of creating something tangible from the nebulous dreamscape of your mind. And when the last sentence is written, especially if it’s a good one, there’s a sense of triumph and relief like no other. If your project happened to take twelve years like mine did, there’s also a bittersweet sense of loss. All the unwritten scenes and plot puzzles and character arcs I carried around with me day after day … they’re all resolved now. The story is finished.

The work is far from over, of course. I already have a number of other projects I’m working on, and in a week or two I’ll dive back in for more editing and rewrites. Eventually, I’ll start thinking about the next big project, and what I want to accomplish in the next twelve years!

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*Simultaneously published on matthewlowes.com.

Writers Just Wanna Have Fun

By Cynthia Ray

Dorothy Parker quote

A writer died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell, and was shown each place. As the writer descended into the fiery pits of hell, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were repeatedly whipped with thorny lashes.

“Oh no,” said the writer. “Let me see heaven now.”

A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.

“Wait a minute,” said the writer. “This is just as bad as hell!”

“Oh no, it’s not,” replied an unseen voice. “Here, your work gets published.”

Aw, c’mon. Is writing really that bad?  YES. It is probably one of the most difficult things you will ever do.  Seriously, is writing that bad?  NO.  It is probably one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

Obviously, we writers have a hard time telling heaven from hell.  An author friend of mine, Michael Maciel, says “One thing I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t wait until you’re in the mood. Writing is less about feeling and timing than it is about sheer force of will.”

Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like much fun either. Force of will? We want to write. It’s what we were born for, so why do we have to FORCE ourselves to sit down in front of the computer and start tapping keys? Or, in the case of the Luddites among us, pick up pen and paper.

Writing a story is a lot like having a baby. The story gestates inside of you until it just has to come out. You look forward to cuddling that baby in your arms, but you sure as hell don’t look forward to enduring hours of painful contractions.

Writing this blog is like that for me. I dont worry about it until about two weeks before it is due; then  I begin to chew on topics, rejecting one after another, until there are one or two left that resonate with me. A few days before the deadline, I wake up on fire,  thinking “I have to write the blog, I have to write the blog. I have to write the blog.”  I pick a totally differnt topic and begin.

When I get halfway through, I dump the draft into the trash in disgust and start over.  Later, I am recovering that first draft from the trash and merging it with another idea. Reject. Re-write. Re-consider. And so it goes, until the 24 hour deadline looms over my head like a Kansas thundercloud.  Here is where my muse with the gun comes in.

Muse with a gun

At last, I press save and the freshly pressed blog is ready to post.   I feel a sense of elation. It’s done! Complete! Fini!  Or is it?

For me, setting a time to write everyday and sticking to it no matter what keeps me going. Like Michael says, you just sit down and write whether you feel like it or not.  It sets a pattern and provides a space in which it is easier to create. It might even turn out to be fun… you never know.  And it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. One of my writing heroes is a woman who wrote a novel during her lunch hours, and got it published.

When people ask us about writing, let’s say it’s easy.   Riiiiiiiiight.

Chainsaw

Cartoons printed with persmission from Jim Hines       http://www.jimchines.com/tag/comic/