The Ritual

I’m a man of rituals. The less kind might say I’m a man of rigid, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, but I prefer to think of myself as an old-school guy who enjoys the ritual of things.

Take drinking. Sure, ultimately people drink for the effects: the derangement of the senses, the relaxation, the shedding of inhibitions. On a secondary level, I drink because I enjoy it—the taste, the texture, the smell. And on another level entirely, it’s the ritual: The opening of a bottle, the setting of a glass, the pouring of a finger or two of something really nice. Ordering in a bar—the entire bar ecosystem, in fact, with its code words and sub-rituals like the buy-back or the heavy pour.

Imploring the Gods

It’s the same with writing, for me. I’m one of them there “digital nomads” who can work anywhere; have Chromebook, will travel. Except of course I hate to travel and prefer to stay in my house like some sort of crab monster, scuttling about. My house is where I keep my liquor, after all.

But when it comes to writing, I have my rituals, and I love them. When I worked on a manual typewriter, I used to thrill at the act of sliding a page onto the drum and then hitting the space bar four times to indent a new paragraph—it was something I did several times every day, and it always brought a sense of excitement. These days the typewriter is stored away, sadly, but an echo of the ritual remains when I open a document and search for “xxxx,” my placeholder for where I left off, or when I set up a new document with a header: Somers | Title (word count): Page.

On the flip side, sometimes breaking the ritual is just as exciting. Sometimes rituals are traps, and you get caught up in doing things the same way all the time, so suddenly doing everything differently can be freeing and exciting. It feels wrong in a wonderful way for a while, stirring up the sediment of your thoughts, making things float up that would have remained lost otherwise.

I just enjoy the ritual of it. Sitting at that certain spot, using those particular tools (a blue ink pen of specific brand, a college-ruled notebook, the aforementioned Chromebook). It’s part of the pleasure of creation.

Now, when you mix the writing ritual with the drinking ritual, that’s when things get really interesting. Usually in an unfortunate way that requires emailed apologies and dry-cleaning.

Advertisements

The Shifting Goal Line

One thing they never tell you when you decide to be a writer is how the definition of success shifts and changes over the course of your career, often without your permission (and sometimes without your even noticing).

Everyone has a different experience and evolution of thought, of course. For me, it went something like this: When I was but a young’n, success was just finishing something that resembled a novel. It didn’t matter how good it was, or if I might ever sell it. Just writing 50,000 words or so that made sense was enough.

When I’d done that, the goal posts shifted: I wanted to write something good. Something original. When I felt like I’d done that, the goal shifted again. Now I wanted to be published. Then I wanted to be paid for my writing. Then I wanted a contract with a major publisher. Et cetera and so on.

The Ladder

Every time I achieved my current definition of success, the definition shifted on me, so I never quite made it all the way, and still haven’t. But you have to remind yourself sometimes that writing a book is in and of itself an achievement—most writers who intend to write a novel, or even begin one, fail to finish it. And most that finish that novel never revise it. Or never try to publish it. Or never write another one.

Noted weirdo Woody Allen once said that success was 99% showing up, and he’s right—whatever your current definition of writing success, it all comes back to putting in the time and the work, producing material, and getting it out there somehow. The goal posts might shift, but the ways of getting to them don’t—you write, you revise, you submit.

And you should keep in mind the shifting nature of success in this business, and remind yourself that there was a time when the thing you did yesterday in an almost routine fashion was once your definition of success. The world is a machine designed to prevent you from writing, so just getting words on the screen is success, sometimes.

The world is also a machine designed to murder us, but that seems like a topic for a whole different sort of blog.

Plot Skipping

You may have heard the old line from Elmore Leonard about skipping the boring parts when you write, and that’s powerful advice. Most people apply it in a micro sense, or as we now know it, the Game of Thrones Season 7 sense, which is usually expressed as no one wants to see Jon Snow in a boat traveling south for six episodes. In other words, detailing your character as they drive seven hours someplace is maybe not worth you or your reader’s time.

Another aspect of “skipping” can be just as powerful. Simply put, if you’re having trouble writing a scene or sequence in your novel, consider just skipping it (for now) and writing something in your plot’s “future” that’s more fun.

Getting to the Good Stuff

Now, some writers already work in a non-linear fashion, writing scenes in any order and then piecing them together. Even then, though, some scenes are easier than others. Some scenes are more fun than others. And some scenes are like black holes that suck you in, and six months later you’re still struggling to find the right approach.

You probably have to write those scenes eventually, but if you’ve been struggling for a while on a specific scene, take a break. That doesn’t mean you take a break from the book in general. Instead, you could just take a break from that scene and skip over to some other scene that’s more fun. An action sequence, or a fun moment—or maybe the climax of it all, the Big Moment you can’t wait to write. Sure, you’ll likely have to do a fair bit of clean up work, but in the short term it’ll get your writing jump-started. And you might learn something about your story that will help you when you get back to the tough scenes.

Or maybe you’ll realize you don’t need the tough scenes at all.

This does require a bit of Plotting, so for Pantsers this might be a tougher trick. Even Pantser usually have some notion of where their story is going, or at least of cool moments they want to include. Skip to those cool moments, then skip back, refreshed and re-energized.

Or go the Somers Way and have a cocktail. It’s almost as effective.

The Art of Ripping Off

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that all authors steal from each other. That’s art, really; you build on what’s gone before, chronicling the changes in society and human understanding by taking a work and playing with it from your own unique perspective. It’s only stealing if you don’t transform it somehow, if you don’t add to it.

That’s writing 101: Good writer’s steal. The thing is, the first stage of transforming something into your own unique work is very similar to simply ripping someone off.

The Green-Eyed Monster

The creative process is 99% driven by jealousy. The other 1% is a combination of things, including greed, the pure joy of creativity, and fear of monsters, but mostly it’s jealousy. Writers are the most jealous creatures in the world. Publish a book to acclaim? We hate you, because our books are smarter. Publish a book to great sales? We hate you, because people clearly lack the taste and wisdom to choose our books over yours. Writers may smile when they shake your hand, but we are black holes of hatred and jealousy.

When we read a book that’s really, really good—or really, really popular, or, god help us, both—we instantly start mining it for bits we can steal. And if the book really grabs us as something great, our first attempts at replicating it will be very, very close to simply ripping the book off.

And that’s okay.

Writing a pastiche of something else is a great way to figure out its secrets. Writing a story that is essentially someone else’s story with a few flourishes is like taking an engine apart and then putting it back together to learn how it works. At the end, you’ll have a small pile of parts left over—mysterious and ominous. But the engine, maybe, still runs despite that. It’s mysterious, but when that happens, you’ve taken your first step to owning the ideas and making them your own.

You keep taking it apart and putting it back together again. Parts get left over. If the story still runs, you put in new parts of your own to replace them. Repeat. Eventually, you’ve got a story that hums and purrs and there’s so many of your parts in there it’s no longer something you ripped off, it’s something you transformed.

That’s how it’s done. Although, please don’t take the word “parts” too literally.

The Slow Down

Creativity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, anyone who has composed a story knows the thrill of having made something, of having pulled together a fictional universe from thin air, using nothing more than words. It’s a form of magic.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of work involved. And it’s usually low-paying, soul-killing work.

If you’re a writer, you know the feeling. You start off with an explosion of an idea in your head. You’re excited about it, and the universe that has taken form in your brain expands quickly, all hot gases and explosions of inspiration. Before you know it you’ve written a few thousand words, drawn some maps, and conducted a thorough casting call of the best actors in the world to play your characters.

That’s the easy part. The Hot Gas Expansion part of writing a novel. At some point, your Big Bang will cool off, expansion will slow, and you’ll run into a bit of trouble getting through the middle part. In fact, if you don’t put in enough work to keep all your galaxies and planets spinning, your fictional universe might experience Heat Death and start to collapse into a Big Crunch.

I wonder how many space metaphors we can cram in here?

The Slow Down

Almost every writer hits a wall after that initial burst of inspiration—or, if not a wall, a Slow Down. This is inevitable when you stop dealing with a rush of ideas and start trying to organize them into a plot, characters, and a stable universe in which to place them. It can be a frustrating moment for a writer, because you go rather suddenly from rushing along, having fun to crawling along, in the dark, with sweat stinging your eyes.

Pushing through the Slow Down is the only way you’ll get that book written, usually, but there are plenty of different ways to get through it. You can just push and push, of course, pouring words onto the page laboriously until the damn thing is done. Or you can step away and take a break, and come back when you’ve got the itch back. You can skip ahead and write a scene in the future of your plot because it’s more fun. Or you can decide that if you’re working this hard to write the scenes, your readers will have to work that hard to read them and you’ll scrap everything you’ve done since you hit the Slow Down and start again.

The key is to try to push through, because Slow Downs happen and they don’t necessarily mean your story is no good. A Slow Down might mean that, but to find out you have to put the work in first. And the key to working through Slow Downs is to know they’re coming, no matter how intense your excitement is at first.

If you’re very unlucky, like me, you might actually wind up with several WIPs in Slow Down Mode simultaneously. Which is when you just go on a bender.

When to Give Up

We’re all gonna die someday. I know, I was pretty shocked when the reality of this hit me around age 28 or so; before then on some level I’d assumed I’d live forever through some fortunate combination of science!, the preservative qualities of alcohol, and my own specialness. Realizing that literally none of those things was going to apply was sobering, in the sense that it was the exact opposite of sobering in that I immediately launched a three-year bender.

But I digress: You’re going to die. And before you die, there’s a chance of a lengthy period of dotage. Which means you only have so many useful creative years in you, and there’s no way to know how many—which in turn means you only have so many books and stories in you. That means the biggest decision you have to make every day is what to work on, because your creative energies are a limited resource. And that leads to the big question: When should you give up on a book?

The answer is, you’re asking the wrong question.

Change the Conversation

We’ve all been there: You’re six months and tens of thousands of words into a new project, and it isn’t working. Or you’ve finished a draft, and no one likes it. The question looms: Should you spend another year trying to make it work? Or cut your losses and move on to something new?

There’s no need to be so final. A rough draft will remain just as rough if you let it sit in a drawer for five years, and it will have the same potential to be great and marketable a few years later. A draft that gives you the fits because it’s 60% awesome and 40% confusion and failure will still have that 60% awesome part if you come back to it. And a book that everyone likes but no one wants to buy might surprise you with a sale before you know it.

So the question should never be “Is it time to give up on this book.” Instead, ask if your time would be better spent on something else right now. Leave yourself open to going back to a book. It might seem silly, but the psychological impact can be huge. Tell yourself a book is dead and on some level your brain stops working over the problems. Tell yourself you’re just switching focus for a while allows the invisible hand that controls you (otherwise known as your muse) to keep sweating over that problematic story while you do other, less-frustrating things.

In other words, go full Winston Churchill and never surrender. Also, drink heavily and smoke cigars, and cultivate a speaking voice that is 50% lava and 50% sneering disdain, also like Churchill.

Don’t Compare

It’s pretty natural to let “grass is greener” syndrome creep into most aspects of our lives; people put a lot of effort into hiding their disappointments and frustrations and trumpeting their success. The age of social media has made this even easier, because you don’t even have to invite people physically into your home to show off your material success—you just Instagram it, with the bonus of being able to carefully curate, light, and edit what you show.

This is just as true for the writing community. Authors will blast out their covers, their buy links, their humlebraggy links to Publisher’s Lunch, and edit out the lengthy edit letters, the discussions with their editors about low sales, and their dissatisfactions with their current WIP. So it’s easy to start thinking that other writers are doing it the right way, and to start comparing your process, style, and creative sensibility to everyone else.

You have to resist the urge to compare yourself, though, because that leads only to Literary Madness (similar to Space Madness, but more book-oriented).

Keeping Your Head Down

The simple fact is, there are no shortcuts. Even a writer who is objectively more successful than you in terms of sales or deals is likely building on years and years of sustained effort while omitting some of their failures or setbacks. It’s impossible to map your own writing journey onto someone else’s because you’ll never know the true level of effort they’ve put in, the true number of failures both real and imagined, or how much luck was involved. And luck is always involved, to some extent.

So, instead, keep your head down. It’s one thing to learn from other writers, it something else to compare yourself and constantly change your approach to the art and business of writing to match up with someone you see as being more successful. Do the work. Write the drafts, revise the drafts, send out the pitches. Submit the short stories, enter the contests, go to the pitch slams. Do the work, and most importantly: Do the work your way.

Of course, Literary Madness comes in many forms. For example, right now I’m wearing pants made out of papier-mâché paperback book pages.

Episodic Writing

Every writer knows the feeling: You have the idea, you can feel its potential. You have a vague structure for the story, you have characters, you have an endgame. Whether you’re a Pantser or a Plotter, you start work on the book and suddenly find yourself in a dark wood, uncertain of how to proceed. You have everything except a clear way forward to the bulk of your plot.

This can happen no matter what your process is, or how well-developed your idea/universe is. Sometimes writers think if they spend a year building the backstory, character bios, and universe they’ll be in a better position to write the story—and sure, that sometimes works. But no matter how well you know the universe of your book, you can still find yourself stuck at any point in the actual writing. Your characters stand around impatiently, waiting for you to figure out what’s next.

The problem sometimes lies in the need to always advance the plot. The advice that all the action in your story should in some way move your plot forward isn’t bad, but it can be misleading. Because sometimes the best way to advance your plot is to not advance the plot and engage in some episodic storytelling.

A Very Special Episode

Episodic storytelling is when you put aside the overarching plot and just have your characters interact with the universe you’ve built. It could be a series of self-contained stories, or even a longer mini-arc, or possibly a series of vignettes that don’t necessarily resolve into a coherent narrative. The point is to step away from your main plot and just explore.

In role-playing games and sandbox video games, there’s the concept of the Side Quest. You play the game and non-player characters (NPCs) will approach you with a mission. These side quests aren’t necessary to win the game, and don’t necessarily push you through the storyline of the game, but they allow you to experience aspects of the world, gain experience and capabilities, and extend the playing time.

That’s what episodic writing can do. Spend some time just wandering with your characters like the A-Team, getting into scrapes and learning about your universe. It’ll surprise you how it leads you back to your plot when you’re ready, and when you’ve finished a draft you can easily excise the episodes because they’re unrelated to the plot—or keep them in, possibly linking them up to the main plot. Worst case scenario is you have a lot of sections in your book that need to be removed—but chances are these episodes will contribute something to the overall story while enabling you to get there in the first place.

The Inverse Rule of Writing Fun

I wrote my first novel when I was about twelve years old, and as a kid what I most remember about writing was the rush of constant ideas I was excited about. I wrote constantly, churning out novels and stories at a pretty prolific pace.

Part of this was a function of my ignorance and immaturity—everything seemed like a brilliant new idea to me because I wasn’t aware how much had already been done. And when I encountered things in other people’s writing, it was always a shocking new concept for me, which fueled my ability to just run off and bang out 50,000 words in a few weeks as I played with my new writing toy.

Another aspect of being immature and thus being able to write at a really fast clip was the fact that I wrote for myself. I didn’t bother revising; I finished an idea and moved on to the next. It was fun and exhilarating, but didn’t really result in material I could submit or sell. The more you work to polish, the more you work to produce writing that can actually interest people, the less fun it gets.

That Spark

Even today, my novels and stories always begin with that spark of excitement. It always seems like an idea no one else has ever had, or a technique no one else has ever tried. Usually, I’m wrong about that, because I’m kind of an idiot, but all that matters is that writing still begins in a molten moment of intense excitement for me.

That writing is fun. I can still tear through thousands of words in a few days, driven by excitement. But the closer your story gets to being really good, the slower things get, and the less fun it all becomes. That’s the strangest thing about writing: The inverse rule. The better your story gets the more like work writing becomes. If you’re lucky, you manage to balance this out—writing never quite becomes a chore, because you retain just enough excitement to keep pushing yourself along. But sometimes, usually when I get, say, the fourth round of revision notes back from an editor, you lose that balance and it just becomes work. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

Keeping yourself motivated when you’re way past that initial phase of intense joy is the piece of the puzzle most people struggle with. Writing is art, it’s creativity, and so it seems like it should always be exciting, and if you’re not excited you must be doing something wrong. But that’s not always the case, and navigating the Inverse Rule is the difference, often, between selling a novel and, you know, not selling a novel.

When it comes to dealing with the Inverse Rule, here’s a pro tip: Alcohol helps.

Leave Room for the Swerve

A few weeks ago there was a leaked letter from George R.R. Martin to his publisher detailing his original outline for A Song of Ice and Fire. As Martin still has two enormous novels to go in his series and the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones has become quite alarming in the insane plot department, there’s a lot of speculation regarding Martin’s most famous fictional universe, and aspiring novelists who want to craft their own fantasy worlds are paying close attention—or should be, because this is basically real-life writing craft spooling out right before your eyes.

The main lesson from the leaked letter is that whether you consider yourself a Plotter, Pantser, or Plantser, you should be ready for the swerve, because the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

The Swerve

Put simply, it doesn’t matter how meticulously you plot your books, or how in control you feel or how in tune with your instincts. George R.R. Martin is a pro, and his outline for ASoIaF demonstrates his sharp, professional approach to planning a series of fantasy novels. At the time he imagined the series as a trilogy. This was in 1993 or so, you know, twenty-four years ago. How innocent it all seems now.

The point is, Martin got into his story, and it swerved on him. The Swerve happens, and it happens when you least expect it. Simple stories get complex, stories you initially think will require sixteen dense volumes peter out after 30,000 words. The Swerve is something any novelist has to be ready for, because you’re never as in control of your story as you think you are. There’s a Shadow Writer inside all of us, living in our subconscious, and the Shadow Writer is always busy churning things in unexpected ways.

Putting in a ton of work and then watching your novel swerve out of your grasp is just the cost of doing business. Sometimes the Swerve works for you, sometimes it works against you. All you can do as a writer is accept the fact that it’s coming, and try to be ready.

Me, I’ve always been good with the Swerve because a similar thing happens every time I walk into a bar thinking I’ve to have three beers and no more.