Why are writers such horrible bullies?

Note: If you missed the sneak peek of my new novel, Dark the Night Descending, that I published on Friday, you can find it here.

I’m about to say some things that you might not agree with, but I’m going to say them anyway.  I think writers are, in general, kind of mean to each other.  I think we’re one of the only groups of people that bully and bruise each other into the ridiculous notion that if you’re not doing one thing and one thing only around the clock, you’ll never be a ‘real’ member of a clan that has such a huge and varied number of standards that we’re hardly even a cohesive unit anyway.

I am taking issue, specifically, with the number one piece of writing ‘advice’ available to the novices among us, which is to sit down, shut up, turn off your world, and bang out words on the page until your fingers bleed, then keep writing.  If you’re not writing, you’re doing something wrong.  If you’re not writing right now, you’ll never be a real writer at any point in the future.  Feeling horrible?  The solution is to write.  Feeling uninspired?  Too bad.  Write anyway.  Feeling like a complete and total failure because there are other parts of your life that sometimes overwhelm your drive and focus?  You miserable little twit.  We always knew you couldn’t hack it.  Prepare to consign yourself to your pathetic twilight existence of obscurity and shame.

Maybe I’m exaggerating…but by how much?  I was curious to see if this is a real thing or just an impression I’m getting from people who are, in fact, more dedicated than I am.  So I turned to the All-Father of the Internet, Google, for some not-very-objective evidence, and this is what I found.  When I searched for “writing inspiration”, the first images were peppered with things like this:

writing

But then I wondered if other creative disciplines do the same thing to each other, and I don’t think they do to quite the same extent.  For example, when I searched for “artist inspiration”, I got a whole lot of beautiful art, like this: 

artist

And when I searched for “musician inspiration”, I got a slew of articles about musicians who had overcome physical, mental, or economic handicaps, or essays about letting music flow through you and carry you away to a land of creative bliss.  An article from the Guardian that asked for advice from creative professionals (none of which were fiction or non-fiction authors), produced interesting gems like these…

art inspiration…and they didn’t say a single damn thing about chaining myself to a chair, setting a timer on my favorite block of plastic explosives, and begging myself to finish 500 words so I could cut the blue wire just in time and save my life.

I don’t argue with the fact that many writers struggle with the idea of putting words on the page.  I don’t argue with the fact that if you don’t put words on the page, you’re not going to get very far as a writer.  But I take exception to this really harsh, disappointingly smug, and condescending way we treat aspiring writers who have a momentary lapse in concentration, or just don’t have the experience necessary to find that perfect little mental trick that gets the words flowing without fail.

Where did this bullying come from, and why is it necessary?  It’s discouraging, it’s mean, and it belittles us all as a profession, a hobby, a source of joy, and a means of emotional communication.  Writing takes dedication, practice, commitment, and self-assurance.  It takes an intimate knowledge of one’s inner self, including what is motivating and what is not – and that’s almost never exactly the same thing as your neighbor. After all, if we all wrote in coffee shops 24 hours a day, there would be never be any chairs left, right?

Some people thrive on the boot-camp method, and I would never tell them that that’s a bad thing.  It can be necessary sometimes if you need an electric jolt to get you out of a funk.  But not everyone does.  And too much electrocution will fry your brain instead of jump-starting it.  There’s no need to create this baseline of fear, exclusion, demanding expectation, and dread around having a different routine, or feeling most energized after coming back from a break, or simply having conflicting obligations that can wear you out to the point where sitting your butt in the chair seems like a torture instead of a vacation.

It doesn’t make you weak or un-creative or lazy if you can’t always squeeze blood from a stone.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never finish your novel.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never make it big.  It makes you human.  Humans don’t all do the same things, think the same ways, or draw strength from the same sources.  We should be celebrating this spectrum of inspiration instead of trying to cram it all into a single, depressing, draconian mold.

So next time someone sends you a cute little graphic demanding your undivided attention, or posts on Twitter about how you should stop reading Twitter and get to work on your manuscript, you can feel free to ignore it.  Or don’t ignore it.  After all, I’m not here to tell you what to do.

Is this a trend you’ve noticed, too?  Do you think it helps you, or is it damaging to your flow?

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Ten Author Archetypes You Couldn’t Avoid if You Tried

mask

Authors are nothing if not introspective.  We poke and prod at our inner consciousnesses, digging out nuggets of truth and wisdom and adolescent angst from the craggy seams of our histories.  We spin our disappointments and secret pains and broken promises into stories that we pretend are purely fictional.  And with all the soul-searching produced by our strong inward gaze comes one terrible, unforgivable, unavoidable flaw: the desperate need to solidify our personas as tortured artists by characterizing ourselves as one type of writer or another through stupid Internet quizzes.

To help you in this noble quest for self-validation, I have compiled a list of ten of my favorite archetypes, and provided an opportunity for you to vote on which category you fall into at the end.  Ready?  Go!

The Drill Sergeant

Why aren’t you writing right now?  You should be writing.  No, don’t take a bite of that sandwich.  Don’t even think about getting a cup of coffee, because you’ll be wasting valuable minutes that could be spent putting words on the page.  You are single-minded and laser-focused, intent on banging out characters on that keyboard until you drop.  You don’t really understand why other people can’t work the same way, with a strict schedule and an iron will, and sometimes that makes you irritating to be around for people who have a different style.  Still, you bloody well get the job done, and at the end of the day, others are just a useless distraction anyway.

The Brooding Poet

The complete opposite of the Drill Sergeant, you let the words channel themselves through you as they will.  Sometimes this means a feverish marathon of inspiration that carries you through the midnight hours, and sometimes this means a drought of muse-juice that can last for weeks, months, or even years.  Your job is to be a vessel for the summer light of morn filtering gently through the trees, not to boast about your word count or force yourself into a routine that leaves you feeling listless and uncreative.

The Autumn Squirrel

Writing?  Me?  No.  No, I don’t write anything.  DON’T LOOK IN THAT DRAWER.  No, there’s nothing hidden there.  That journal is empty, okay?  It’s not like it contains the past five years of my most intimate thoughts and desires or anything.  It certainly doesn’t hold a novel (or two) that I’m just too scared to show anyone.  Just get out of my room and don’t touch anything.  There’s nothing to see here.  Move along.

The Addict

Coffee.  Coffee, coffee, cigarettes, red wine.  More coffee.  Maybe something stronger.  Is it sunrise already?  Who cares.  You can’t feel on top of your game unless you’re well-lubricated with the more-or-less legal chemical substance of your choice.  It might not be healthy, but oh man, what rainbow vistas of aching beauty open themselves before you when you get in the zone.  Hunter S. Thompson is your spirit animal, and you consider yourself a no-holds-barred beacon of the raw and unvarnished truth.

The Productive Procrastinator

I know I have to finish this chapter today, but I really think the chimney flue needs scrubbing.  Maybe I should take the car for an oil change, too.  Do I even have a chimney flue?  Doesn’t matter.  I’ll find something to clean while I think of a way to bring John and Jane together in Part Two.  There’s always the grout in the bathroom.  I think I have a clean toothbrush somewhere.

The Unproductive Procrastinator

One word: LOLcats.

The Basement Dweller

The “No Girls Allowed” sign on your bedroom door might not work as well now as it did when you were seven, but you won’t need it in order to keep your mother from visiting you any time soon.  After all, you ditched her 60th birthday party to craft a particularly good paragraph in your 250,000 word epic fantasy saga, and she hasn’t quite forgiven you yet.  Writing is a solitary affair requiring dark, quiet, a reliable internet connection, and a recycle bin where you can toss your Coke cans without having to turn around.  People are simply surplus to requirements, and the lock on your door does a pretty good job of ensuring sweet, sweet silence as you pursue your craft.

The Manic Pixie Kindle Commercial

Writing is an intellectual exercise, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look good doing it.  You might spend a little more time than strictly necessary browsing ModCloth for the perfect coffee house dress or surfing Pintrest for ideas about that cozy literary nook waiting to happen, but you’re definitely a writer.  Do glassless Ray-Bans lie?  You read some slam poetry at open mic night when you were at Sarah Lawrence and everyone said you should major in creative writing.  Maybe you got straight A’s, but you might not be entirely sure how to turn your GPA into something worth selling.

The Flash in the Pan

You’ve started NaNoWriMo every year, and gotten about six thousand words in before the well dried up.  Half-finished short stories litter your DropBox, and while you can’t stop yourself from buying hand-crafted embossed notebooks from impoverished artists in the Philippines, you usually only scribble on the first page before tucking it under the bed with the others.  You really believe you could write a novel if you try, but the trying part always seems so hard.  Maybe next year you’ll have more time to really dedicate yourself to that great big idea that’s been simmering in the back of your head for so long.

The Long-Haul Trucker

Much like the Autumn Squirrel, you have plenty of material tucked away.  One perfected manuscript, maybe two or even three, have been haunting you for years as query after query is rejected by agents and editors.  You’ve read all the articles advising you not to give up, and so you don’t.  Maybe you take a break for a while when your spirits sink low, but you can’t stop yourself from plugging away, just like you’re supposed to.  Someone will say ‘yes’ someday.  You just have to keep at it.  It’s tough to put yourself on the line for so long, but that just makes the reward all the sweeter when a manuscript request turns into an offer of representation. Congratulations!  You did it, and you can be justifiably proud.

Eureka

Today I had one of those rare but always awesome “eureka” moments.  No, I wasn’t in the bath, but I was taking a shower when I decided to write about it on my blog, so I guess that counts for something.

I don't have a picture of a light bulb.

I was just sitting here in front of the computer, grumpy and dissatisfied about my new project.  Prequels are tough, especially when you’re trying to fill in specific gaps in the plot of the next book in line.  I know what has to happen, but massaging the timeline to fit into something already constructed isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially since I would have done things a little differently in TLDTC if I had known I was really going to write a prequel.  But that’s bathwater under the bridge.

The problem I was facing – and I was having a similar issue with The Paper Flower – is that no one really wants to follow some dude around as he finds stuff out that will eventually, but clumsily, forward the plot.  That falls on the wrong side of the “show, don’t tell” rule, which is one of the most important in fiction writing.  But you also can’t have non-stop crash-pow-bam action, especially when your main character is a clerk in a merchant’s office, because that’s equally unrealistic.

And then I got an idea.  Out of nowhere.  What if [name redacted for spoilers] was really a [redacted] instead of just a [redacted]?  And then so-and-so could do this, and ooh, maybe then this guy could be here, and she would do that other thing, and bring such-and-such to that place, etc. etc.

It all fell into place with a joyful little click, and suddenly I was the master of the universe.  It’s a lovely feeling, like everything is right with the world for that one brief moment of rushing, bubbling excitement.  I felt like a real author who could write things and control the very fates themselves just by tapping on my keyboard.  I was a god.  My story would be awesome.  I would sell a million copies and win all the prizes and retire at age 30 to my beach house in Key West.

And then I looked at what I actually wrote, a sample of which was this:

Okay.  So maybe it needs a little work.  But believe it or not, it was a real breakthrough in my brainstorming, and I ended up sketching out the whole plot, so now I have something to go on.  I’m very pleased, if a little full of myself.  I think this should hold me for a while.

***

On a promotional note, I will be recording an interview for the wonderful and entertaining podcast Friends and Other Strangers tomorrow.  I’m not sure when it’ll air, but I’ll definitely be letting you know.  The host is someone who’s been very supportive of my writing journey so far, so please check it out if you have a chance (it may not be entirely safe for delicate ears).

Measure Twice, Cut Once. Ctrl+Z Afterwards.

Much of the advice given to aspiring authors seems to be centered around one major thought: if you’re not actively writing at any given moment, you should be.  Simple as that.  Write, write, write.  Write even when you feel blocked, because something might shake loose.  Push through, because the glorious land of inspiration lies just beyond, and spewing out all the nonsense in your brain will undoubtedly get you there every single time.

Now, I half agree.  I think there are times that you need to turn off the editor in your head and just go for it.  No harm ever came from getting something down on paper, even if you’re not sure if you like where the scene is going, or you think your character is a prat.  You can always cut it later.

But that’s the important bit.  Remember to go back.  Just because you managed to write it even though you were feeling blah about it doesn’t mean it’s good.  We all get attached to what we write by virtue of the fact that we have written it.  But sometimes it’s just not good, and it has to go.  There’s no shame in it.  Not everything you do will be genius.  Practically nothing of what I do is, either.  Turn off the editor, by all means.  Just don’t forget to turn it back on again.

If I’m not sure about something, I mark it in red, and then return to it later and give it a critical read.  Sometimes I just need to give myself a little distance from it before realizing it’s not quite as tedious and awful as I thought.  Like most people, I get bored writing the necessary exposition, and the intermediate bits when no one is doing anything particularly interesting, but stuff needs to happen so the good part can come along.

I’m in that sort of lull right now, in my new story.  My main girl is somewhere dull, and yeah, character development is supposed to happen that will eventually move the plot forward, but she’s spent the last three paragraphs making lunch, after spending most of her life being weepy and timid, and I want her to stop being so lame.  I want the bad guys to launch a full-scale invasion of her stupid little manor house and kidnap her and make her be interesting, because she’s annoying the hell out of me.  I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like that sometimes.  About characters in general, not this one specifically.  Please don’t hate my characters unless I ask you to.

Will I cut the lunch scene?  Yeah, probably.  It’s not very important.  Will I find something interesting for her to do while she’s in the middle of nowhere?  I certainly hope so.  That’s why I sent Potential Love Interest #2 along with her in the first place.  Will she find her footing and get over all the horrible things I’ve been doing to her?  Of course.  That’s why I’m writing her story.  But right now, I’m so sick of it, that I just can’t even think about her whole world.

Could I go on and write another scene, then fill in the blanks later?  Sure.  I do that sometimes.  I did that yesterday, and got some good stuff out of it.  But I’m tired, and it’s too nice out to concentrate, and I’m so burned out with trying to figure out the nuances of who is going to betray whom and how and when that I’m starting to resent my story.

And that’s where I start to disagree with the “write all the time” theory.  Knowing when to take a break is just as valuable, if not more so, than knowing when to force yourself to keep going.

My advice is more along these lines: write until you can write no more, then stop.  Make yourself stop.  Don’t start writing again until you’re absolutely bursting with the pent-up energy of holding it all in, and then write and write and write until the cycle repeats.

Intentional withholding reawakens that childlike anticipation and impatience in us, and it goes a long way towards refreshing your mind and rekindling whatever passion you had for your plot to begin with.  I’m told that works in other areas of life, as well, but that’s something else all together.

That method might not work for you, just as the constant outpouring doesn’t always work for me.  That’s okay.  It’s just my opinion.  And I guess technically, I’m writing this blog instead, so I’m still doing something, but I don’t really feel like it counts.

See? Flowers. This is what I accomplished today.

But anyway, that’s my thought for the day.  I spent all afternoon at the park, soaking up the sunshine, so I’m feeling relaxed and lazy and unable to understand why everyone in my book likes fighting with each other so much when they can just go look at some pretty flowers instead.

How do you handle being frustrated with your own work?

This Is Your Captain Speaking

Hi everyone.  Welcome to the chronicle of my grand adventure in self-publishing.  And congratulations!  If you’re reading this, that means that you’re one of the first people to discover my page, and possibly to read and buy my book.  This makes you either A) a hipster, B) one of the cool kids, C) really bored, or D) all of the above.

For those of you who don’t know me in real life, let me give you a little bit of background.  My name is, of course, Jen.  I’m a history nerd, with a thing for Napoleonic naval history, medieval Europe, and the bizarre little oddities of pre-modern daily life.  Yes, I am aware that this automatically precludes me from category B.  But, well, I’m a fantasy author, so I think that was pretty much a given in any case.

The Last Death of Tev Chrisini was my first stab at a novel.  It came out of NaNoWriMo 2009 (please click the link if you haven’t heard of this awesome event), which was also my first year of participation.  I have always been into reading fantasy and adventure fiction, but like most people, never thought I would ever get around to writing something of my own.  In 2009 I decided to take the plunge, finishing the month with just over 50,000 words.

By May of the following year, I had written and edited the entire work, which tops out at around 150,000.

I thought that was pretty awesome.  But, as most of you who have met me can attest, I’m pretty shy about my writing.  I love to write, but I’ve never been too good at sharing, and I’ve never thought of myself as a “Writer”.  I’ve never had the drive and the courage to put myself out there, with all the attendant criticism, neglect, and frustration that publication entails.  Combine that with a couple of years of pretty rough personal circumstances, and I was sure that my manuscript would stay in the dusty recesses of my hard drive for all eternity.

So what changed?  Pretty much everything, but that’s a story for another time.  Basically, I came to the realization that I love writing.  Like, really love writing.  I’ve never wanted to be a starving artist, and it took me a while to accept the fact that my passions and my talents are all for things that fall on the “are you crazy?” end of the lucrative pursuits scale.  But just because I can’t live off of it (until I hit it big and get myself a movie deal, that is) doesn’t mean I can’t do it.  Doesn’t mean you can’t, either.

So here I am, giving it a go.  My goal isn’t to get that movie deal.  I’d have to write some paranormal, post-apocalyptic, violent teen love drama saga for that to happen, and that’s not a genre that holds much interest for me.  My goal is simply to write good stories, create worlds where people want to spend some time, and hopefully make them feel like they’ve gotten their 99 cents’ worth.  I only get a third of that, by the way.  I’ve made about five bucks.  I think I’m going to go buy that house in the Hamptons now.

Anyway, that’s the gist of it, for now.  I’m planning to use this site for book-related announcements, general updates on the process of my new works, interesting tidbits, and what I used to call, back in the days of my beloved Xanga, “State of the Jen” reports.  If you really can’t get enough of my overwhelmingly charming wit and wisdom, you can try following my stupid Twitter, or liking me on Facebook, although the only real use I can think of for my Facebook page right now is to link back to my blog posts.

Please take a minute to browse around the site (it won’t take you much longer than that), and check out the excerpts from my novels, if you haven’t already.  I’m thinking about changing them every few weeks, so be sure to come back.  I’d love to hear any comments, suggestions, questions, or critiques you might have.  Thanks for stopping by.

Cheers,

Jen