Sometimes writing is so difficult that all you can do is laugh. The laugh is not one of humour, but more like that of Holmes as he goes over the Reichenbach falls, or perhaps one of Lovecraft’s characters as he fully realizes the depth of the unspeakable cosmic horror which is about to devour his soul. Every real writer is, I think, deeply mistrustful of anyone who claims to love the process–I mean the entire process, especially the in-the-trenches bayonet-work, when you’re locked in a life-and-death struggle with yourself, and every fiber of your being screams give up, surrender, you can’t win, because each sentence you craft, each line of dialogue, is worthless, stilted nonsense. At these times there’s nothing to love about the process, and to hell with inspirational quotes and touchy-feely nonsense. All you have is will and determination, and it had be better be up to the task.
Monthly Archives: December 2013
Writing in the Trenches
Filed under Writing
The Power of, uh, Stuff
I’ve always had a tendency to accumulate stuff. Not a hoarder, I’m not that bad….but paper and books are especially difficult for me to let go of, closely followed by old photos. Some of it is sheer sentimentalism (old school exercise books, etc.) some is the fear of letting go of things that might one day be useful. You know how that is.
A couple of weeks ago I decided that I really needed to start thinning the pile in earnest, and figured that if I began with the most challenging—books—it would make letting go of other belongings easier. I’ve skimmed the top off the book pile a few times before, but now I was planning to cut into flesh. Not easy for me. (My wife, who is the opposite of me when it comes to belongings, is wonderfully patient with me.)
The problem with excess possessions, of course, is that they eventually possess you. They make it hard to clean, hard to move homes; they cost money because you need space for them; they limit your freedom in every way.
So why do we get attached to the material? Why, even when we know the reasons for attachment, and see them for the garbage they are, can some of us still not bear to let go of surplus possessions? How much do any of us actually need to be happy? Hell, one day we’re going to have to let go of the most important thing we have, life itself. So it’s probably a good idea to become a little more comfortable with the notion..
The only time I’ve ever viscerally grasped the insignificance of all the possessions we invest with such terrible sentiment and memory and symbolism has been in the presence of death. In London, for example, fifteen years ago, while going through my mother’s mountains of belongings with an old friend, I was struck so forcibly by the irrelevance of all the stuff she’d kept that I began to laugh out loud at the foolishness of it. You can’t take any of it with you. It’s nothing.
Of course I could see that my own tendency to accumulate was at least partly inherited. But my mother had been through wartime and her family had literally lost everything they owned: I was born into a time of plenty and didn’t have that excuse.
I decided that my acid test with the bookshelves would be the question, “am I really likely to read that book again?” And of course, quickly realized that there are many books that I occasionally pick up and read a few paragraphs of, or refer to something, or keep to loan out, etc. Oh, how quick the excuses. I resolved to be firm.
And then there’s the problem of inherited books. Like for instance a big quarto volume bound in what looked like white pigskin that I’d found—along with piles of age-yellowed Penguin Classics and Plays—among my mother’s belongings. The book was a novel, in Italian, and inside was a fascinating dedication, also in Italian: my mother (who, with her family, had endured WWII in Nazi-occupied Rome) had given it to her mother in late 1944, adding in the dedication that this was the first book to be printed in Italy after the liberation. Sentimental value high, practical value, zero: I have no children or family that reads Italian; though I do, I would never read this book; and I don’t have the time to start advertising every book I think might have value to someone somewhere.
Somewhere in the cluttered attic of my mind a little voice reminded me that if I could make these hardest choices, getting rid of the low sentiment possessions would be a breeze.
A few days ago I took several large boxes of books to my local used bookstore, one which donates all the books they can’t sell. In the three boxes were some tough calls: a number of Science Fiction hardbacks and also some of the very first SF books I ever owned as a teenager, people like Asimov and Poul Anderson, VanVogt and Clifford D. Simak. It was hard to let them go. But I know, know I’ll never read them again: the few that I will (like Asimov’s The End of Eternity), I kept. But the others, though I loved them as old friends, were just too dated.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Some tough calls were made and, yes, the pigskin-bound book is gone, too. There will be more, much more, and not just books. It won’t be easy, and the part of me that is so resistant to any change will fight and scream. It’s a bit like dieting or quitting smoking—you find every possible reason to put it off and not start now.
I will do it. No, really. I will.
Filed under Material World
Oh, Shut Up About Wordcount!
I often wonder what non-writers think about their writer friends’ preoccupations over wordcount.
As in, “Today’s wordcount was 1,150, and every one was like pulling teeth.” If you have friends who are writers (and if you’re looking at my page, you likely do), you’ll see this all the time on their social media pages. What does it mean? And why do so many writers obsess over it?
Wordcount is just a measure of progress. Most of us, particularly when working on a long work such as a novel, try to set and meet daily wordage goals. My own is 1,500. Most writers I know like to try for between 500 and 2,000 words a day. Any less, and you beat yourself up; any more, and you’re a happy camper. Hitting your wordcount is also–as two friends pointed out to me–an excellent motivator to the writer. Writing, friends, is Work.
So what does 1,500 words look like? Well, it’s around four (possibly five) regular paperback pages, or perhaps three pages of single-spaced 12pt type. When you figure the average 300-page novel at somewhere close to 100,000 words, you can see that at 1,500 words/day, I’ll get a novel finished in 67 days. Piece of cake, right?
Not quite. First of all, we’re talking about a first draft. Add in rewrites and revisions and you could easily triple or quadruple the work, depending how you write. And that introduces the second wrinkle: not all words are created equal.
I write slowly—600 words an hour if I’m hot, maybe 700 if I’m on fire. My average is probably closer to 500. Now that sounds incredibly slow, just 10 or 12 words a minute. But in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams, a novel is actually “a hundred thousand words in a cunning order”. That’s right: you have to think about how you arrange those words, what information they convey, whether they match the voice of your character or narrator, how they sound to the reader, and how the sentence you just wrote meshes with those around it.
Of course, since it’s a first draft, you get to revise and revise, and you can fix stuff. But there’s no right way to write, and how we each work is entirely personal. My first drafts are pretty polished, especially at the prose level: they read nicely. I know I’m going to have fix structural and character issues in smoothing rewrites, add in or take out description, and so on, but the prose is good enough that probably 75% of my sentences won’t need to be touched. I know other writers who can get 4,000-5,000 words a day down, but their first drafts are barely legible. I know one who doesn’t even include punctuation other than periods in her first draft.
For those of you who aren’t writers, here’s a fun exercise: type a four-page letter to someone, single-spaced in 12pt type . Then go through it and revise till it’s polished enough that you could print it in a book or newspaper. Repeat sixty or seventy times.
Of course, you might just prefer to read a book. If so, send some good vibes to the author who probably spent upwards of seven hundred hours to bring you that story. And next time your writer friend posts a wordcount on their Facebook page, give them a big, “like”!
This post was around 550 words. 😉 And the title, of course, is jokingly intended.
Filed under Writing
Writing, Panverse, and an Early 2013 Wrap
It’s a sad fact that when things get crazy, one’s blog easily goes to seed for a while. Truthfully, I’ve only made it through this year by triage, and even then some things have fallen by the wayside.
Still, I got a lot done. I released my first novel, Sutherland’s Rules, in February. But when a writer friend of mine, Herma, expressed her interest to go into business with me and help ramp up my micropress, Panverse Publishing, I decided to put my next novel, a supernatural thriller, on hold until later in the year. I knew Panverse was going to take a lot of work and since Herma was still working fulltime at her day job, we agreed I’d be doing the lion’s share of the work–but I know my limits, and knew I’d only get frustrated by trying to write a book with a business to launch and the responsibility of getting several other authors into print as well, not to mention learning the ropes of an industry that’s in a state of rapid and continuous flux.
In March, my business partner Herma and I incorporated Panverse Publishing LLC. In the eight months since then, Panverse has released four novels and one nonfiction book. It’s been extremely hard work, but the enthusiasm and fine reviews from readers, added to the pleasure of helping new authors into print, has been its own reward. I did some things right, made several mistakes, and learned a huge amount about the publishing business. I also continue to participate in a local writing group, Thursday Ink. Writers need to hang out with other writers; it’s important, and helps to keep them from turning into ax-murderers.
And though I know it’s a bit premature to wrap the year and make public promises for the next, it is December, and feels like time. So…
Beyond publishing new titles (some of them sequels to this year’s novels) my main goal for Panverse next year is to widen our audience and get the word out that Panverse is a go-to publisher for entertaining, nonconformist, and memorable books. Not only that, but with the launch of a fully redesigned website in the new year, readers will be able to buy and download books directly from us, as well as from many other online retailers.
As for my personal goals, I have three, beginning now.
The first is to resume work on my new novel, with a view to a completed first draft by late Spring. The second is to start replacing my unreliable and vexatious PT day job with some freelance copyediting work (see new menu title above): everyone needs copyediting, and after having played midwife to eight books in the past four years, this is something of real value I can offer people. Finally, it’s my goal to start sorting and getting rid of many of the belongings–and yes, that includes books–that clutter up my life. This has never been an easy thing for me, but I feel the time really has come. Watch this space!
Is that enough for immediate goals over the coming months? I think so. Oh, and yeah–I plan to blog more, too!
Now, how’s your year been? What are your goals for the next?
ps- Books make terrific gifts, so please consider supporting your friendly indie press this holiday season! We have novels in several genres, as well as anthologies and nonfiction titles. If you haven’t read any Panverse books, you might be interested in downloading the free Panverse Reader’s Sampler. This free ebook contains at least one full chapter–15 or so pages–from each of six Panverse Titles. Available in all digital formats, it’s the perfect, read-anywhere fiction sampler for your phone or eReader. And do please share the link with friends!
Filed under Material World, Writing