writers

The Reasons We Write – Yet Another Take

Writer at a Typewriter

I’ve mused in many articles about the reasons anyone would do something as completely barking mad as writing… and I’m not the only one.  Analysis of the writerly life can be delightfully variable, as witnessed by the fat that everyone has a different take.  Isaac Asimov used to consider writers as a species of supermen, an activity not everyone was cut out for.  He even had fun with it, saying (and I paraphrase from memory) that if, as was extremely likely, you couldn’t make it as a writer, you could be president of the United States (this was written back in the era when that was probably the world’s most respected job).

A more modern take on writing would be more like “O woe, writing sucks” (and then the person who wrote that profound thought goes on to whine about how they never get anything published).

My own take is somewhere along the middle path.  While I accept that writing can be a grind, it also brings about great rewards.  There are few feelings comparable to holding a book that contains something you wrote in it, if it’s there on merit (I have no clue how vanity publishing or self-publishing feels, as I’ve not really had experience there – for all I know, it’s awesome).  The daily grind of rejection, on the other hand, is a very effective counterweight.

In my own case, the balance falls on the side of “keep writing”, so that’s what I do… but I often wonder if there isn’t another component: hope of immortality.

Before I look into the immortality game when it comes to writing, I wanted to say that I, personally, believe that all art is motivated, at least a little bit, by that dream of being remembered after you’re gone.  Whether it be a commercially successful film director making a film to cement his critical reputation as opposed to raking in the dollars at the box office or a small child giving you a drawing (and crying if you happen to lay it on a table for a second), artists want one thing: to be remembered.  Yes, approval at the time of creation and presentation is important, but it’s the legacy that matters more.

It’s deeply ingrained.  A small child probably doesn’t have too much of a fixation on death or a true understanding of the stark fact that, someday, he will no longer be around, but even so, the instinct to live on through a piece of art is there.

And, from the Lascaux Paintings to Moby Dick, that hope is sometimes fulfilled…  more often, it isn’t, but the lightning in a bottle can happen.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

I mention Moby Dick because, in literature, period popularity doesn’t necessarily track to immortality.  Melville died believing Moby Dick was another failure in a career filled with them.  Also believing he was a failure on the day he died was F.Scott Fitzgerald.  And Poe, of course.  Emily Dickinson’s poetry was, for the most part, discovered after her death (only about a dozen of her 1800 poems saw the light while she lived).  Lovecraft and Howard are two men that the SFF genre anointed well after they were gone.

Of course, critical reevaluation and fame aren’t necessarily the rule.  For every rediscovered author or poet who joins the canon once safely buried, there are ten that are universally accepted to be creating literary history as they write, a million who will never be recognized at all and a thousand whose bestsellers are no longer read by anyone (an amazingly interesting read is this page of bestsellers from a hundred years ago).

But writers who were establishing themselves forever were sometimes easy to spot.  Dickens was writing history and everyone knew it.  Harper Lee cemented her position in the pantheon and retired (well, mainly… let’s pretend Watchman never happened).  Then there was Joyce, who established not only his reputation, but will, now and forever, define modernist literature.

But those are classic writers.  Much more important to those writing today is the question: “So what about MY writing?”

Short answer?  No one knows.  Stephen King might be the next Dickens, a man whose work was wildly popular in its day and had staying power as the best reflection of an era, or he might be completely forgotten.  The same could happen with the writers on the other end of the commercial spectrum (although it’s more likely that they will be forgotten, as there are less people around that would remember them).

Me?  I always have this image of a scholar in 500 years or so coming across a brittle anthology containing one of my stories, a precious relic of the final days of print, and writing a misguided book-length dissertation on the way my characters reflect my subconscious manifestations of my desire to retire to a monastic existence on Ceres.

If that, or anything equivalent, ever happens, my work shall be done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Timeless.  The theme of why authors write is also explored in that one… although the motivations are very different than what he cites above, proving, once again, that you can’t trust writers to keep the same idea in their heads for more than a few weeks.  Timeless can be purchased here.

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Writing Ennui and the Finished Novel

 

Siege

Fiction writing, as has been mentioned nearly everywhere, is not a particularly happy profession.  It almost seems like the writers who aren’t busy actually killing themselves are writing about it constantly.

Yes, there are undoubted perks.  Having a story accepted for publication by a traditional publisher–one with a slushpile and gatekeeper editors–is an incredible feeling, one that I’ve not found anywhere else.  When a random reader you’ve never met enjoys the story and comments or writes a review–or drops you a note–is another beautiful sensation.  Most important, perhaps is the ability to reach strangers with your ideas.

Unfortunately, the highs are offset by a number of lows.  The first and perhaps most clichéd, is rejection.  All writers get rejections except for those whose name sells by itself.  If a publication rejects something sent to them by Stephen King, all of the accountants will immediately resign.  Some established writers get few rejections… but most writers get lots and lots of them, all the time.

Timeless

But that’s not all.  So your story or novel ran the gauntlet, convinced an editor and a publisher and saw the light… the reviews might not be as good as you hoped for: the words ‘imbecilic’, ‘moronic’ and ‘stupid’ are bandied around quite lightly in the Amazon review areas.  So is the term ‘semi-literate’.  Worse, sometimes the reviewer really doesn’t like it.

And then there’s the feeling that your novel has launched to widespread indifference…  They don’t like it. They don’t hate it.  Hell, did anyone even buy this thing?

Worst of all is the fact that these things don’t come in neat packets.  They arrive in bunches.  I can virtually guarantee that just when you’re sitting in a bar drowning the unhappiness of a particularly vitriolic review in Publisher’s Weekly under a few gallons of alcohol, you will glance at your phone to find a rejection of your very best story, the one you’d pinned all your hopes on, sitting in your inbox.

And did we mention writer’s block and stories with endings that don’t come together and deadlines and watching others get publishing contracts that you’d cheerfully kill for?  It can become a bit of a grind.

Malakiad-Gustavo-Bondoni-Cover

Nevertheless, most writers will tell you they love writing.  Hell, I’ll do it for them: I love writing.  I do.  Maybe not the rejections or the nutso reviewers with an ax to grind, but telling stories is one of the greatest activities you can be a part of.

In my own case, I’m fine with most of the above.  Rejections are a part of the game… everyone and his kid brother wants to be a writer.  A lot of them are sending stories out.  Slushpiles everywhere are overrun.

So what?  I’m selling regularly, so I know that a rejection only means that story is one step closer to finding a home.  Good to get it out of the way.  Rejections hurt, but then I get to send the story back out, and depression is replaced by renewed hope.

 

And bad reviews?  In my mind, they mean that my stuff is getting read a little more widely than just my close circle (they never give bad reviews because they know that a bad review will mean that I will visit them in the middle of the night and throw tarantulas on them while they sleep).  It’s a good thing – and you can often learn from a good shellacking.

There’s one thing, though, that really gets to me: finishing a novel.

Writing ‘The End’ is a moment that should be cause for celebration.  And yes, there’s a sense of accomplishment but… it’s not the same kind of happy dance that accompanies a sale, more of a ‘whew, glad that’s done’ kind of moment.  Writing a novel is not a light-hearted lark.  It’s hard work and you feel a lot of relief when it’s done.

And if you’re like me, you are burdened with the awful knowledge that editing a novel is as fun as being hit by a train.

Outside

For whatever reason, after a novel gets done, I fall into a few weeks of utter ennui, in which hitting wordcounts is a struggle and every rejection hurts more than it should.  It’s the only time when I find myself seriously asking myself… is it worth it?  Why do I even try?  There are a bazillion writers out there, and only a handful will ever become critical and commercial successes.  It would be a better use of my time to play the lottery.

It’s this time when one seriously considers things like going back to work for a corporation–it’s both less stressful and less publicly humiliating–, robbing a bank–how hard or dangerous can that be, really?–or moving to some underdeveloped island nation and putting a marijuana kiosk on the beach.

It’s a sense of ennui that I don’t have when I finish short stories.  There’s always another short project to attack, another deadline coming up.  But novels?  Every.  Single. Time.

Perhaps, to steal the oldest, most hackneyed metaphor ever, writing a novel is exactly like running a marathon.  It takes so much out of you that you need a certain amount of time to recover, and while you do, you feel about as frisky as a squirrel who just got flattened by an eighteen-wheeler.

Anyway, I finished my latest book about a month ago.  This is the first week since then that I’ve felt like life has meaning.

I should probably stick to the short stuff.

Or maybe rob a bank.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book, Timeless, is a modern day thriller that takes place along the beautiful Greek coast.

Books About Writing – There is At Least One You Should Read

When non-writers learn that you are a writer, the reactions are generally classified into two major groups: the ones that think you’re some kind of celebrity who bathes in champagne and is airlifted everywhere on specially modified helicopters and the ones who assume (based on the fact that they haven’t seen your books at their local bookstore window) you are an unpublished novice who needs all the help you can get.

That second group wants to assist, so they tend to give you writing books as gifts.

I’m certain that there are newbies out there who call themselves writers who genuinely need these books.  In my own case, I never told a soul about my writing until I had a number of published stories under my belt (published by other people, not self-published), so I was pretty familiar with messrs Strunk and White (even though I never read their book until much later) when my friends started giving me writing books.

Writing books, I’ve found, are mostly aimed at the writer who’s never sold a word of prose in his life (I assume there are similar tomes aimed at the aspiring poet, but I have no first-hand knowledge of these).

Still, other writers will know that writerly self-image–even those of people who have published a lot–tends to be a fragile thing, so I always read the ones that people give me.  Can’t risk having hubris make you miss the piece of advice that turns you into the next gazillion dollar bestseller.

The latest batch I read included two books.

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

The first was Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (since updated to 55 it seems – god, I hope that the one I need to become a gazillionaire isn’t one of hose extra 5!)  This one is one of those that I consider a standard writing guide.  My impression as that it’s a solid primer that lists the things you need to do to avoid embarassing yourself and cut down on the unnecessary rejections (as well as the unfinished projects and the badly edited work sitting in your hard drive).

Perhaps the main thing I can say about this one is that it’s a great guide to what you need to learn and an even better list of the rules you have to break once you learn them.  A friend of mine says that you need to transcend the rules, not merely break them.  For that, I guess you have to know them first.  This is, as far as I can tell, a reasonable place to start.

Published authors may want to give it a miss, though.

The second book is the one writeng book I’d recommend to absolutely everyone.  The author starts by saying that he doesn’t know s**t about what works and what doesn’t and goes from there.

Stephen King On Writing

Most of you will already have guessed that I’m talking about Stephen King’s On Writing.

I won’t pretend that I’m an expert on King.  I don’t read that much horror, so I’ve read three or four of his books at most, and find his style accessible to point of annoying me at times…  but no one who can’t tell a story extremely well will have sold as many copies of any genre as he has.  Any writer who doesn’t respect King is likely either a snob or a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no clue what publishing looks like.  He has earned the right to make us listen.

And his writing book is marvelous.  He doesn’t try to tell us what we have to do.  He tells us what he did, and what he does.  He tells us his life story, and how he came to be a storyteller.  He tells us what it felt to make a life-altering (at least on the economc front) sale. He tells us how important it is to have a support structure in place.

Then, in the least interesting part of the book, he goes on to tell us what works and what doesn’t, contradicting himself, but giving us value for our money.  “If this is what works for Stephen King…” we say, and try to do it.  Even these bits are well written and a lot less dry than most writing books out there.  So, yeah recommended.

Anyway, if you’re just starting out, then read both of these.  The Clark first.  But if you know what you’re doing, and haven’t done so, pick up the King.  It is so much more than just a book on writing.  It’s the writing memoir you wish you could have written.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  If you followed a link here because you saw Stephen King’s name on the post, and are a horror fan, you might like Gustavo’s story Pacific Wind – available for Kindle at 99 cents!

Why Write?

On more days than I care to admit, I sit around and try to understand why writers write.  There are probably as many answers to this as there are internet sites devoted to writing out there, but I still wonder.  The fact that many sites title themselves with names such as Writing and Other Forms of Insanity (this is just an example I happened to see today, but many writing sites have a variation on this title) should be a pretty strong clue that even writers aren’t quite sure why we do it.

Is it the fame and fortune?

Sorry, I’m back.  Had to stop and laugh.  Even writers with a long career and several excellent books to their name, published by the right houses and available on bookshelves aren’t precisely rich.  Other than the hyper-famous ones, the lucky writers make about the same amount of money as anyone else does from their job… but with less benefits.

As for fame, I personally know a los of brilliant, successful authors whose names, if you mentioned them to a random stranger on the street, would elicit a single word reply: “Who?”

All right.  Yes, Stephen King exists, and so does J.K. Rowling.  It’s possible to become rich and famous through writing in a way that you probably can’t by pursuing a career as an accountant.  The golden dream is always there, but most writers who start along the path chasing these things exclusively abandon their ambitions for some easier way to make a buck.  You may get there through writing, but it will be neither easy nor quick.

So it’s not money and it’s not fame.  Recognition, then?

Again, some starry-eyed folk might, armed with their mother’s kind words and their college professor’s admiration, embark on a publishing career expecting unlimited praise and adulation.  That usually lasts until the first rejection.  If they can get up after that, the next ten usually finish the job.

What the world thinks of your book

Then why? (Btw, I have a print of the above cartoon sitting on my desk)

All I can give you is my case.  I’ve been telling stories since I can remember.  I had a brother who is two years younger than I was who had to listen to a lot of them when we were kids.  He still reads my novels because I give them to him, so he is likely to be canonized once his story gets out.

And then, I discovered that, when not sweating blood over a keyboard (yes, this happens), I often enjoy writing.  Yesterday, for example, I wrote 1800 good words without even realizing it (this is in no way, shape or form normal).  I had fun and wrote a scene which made me chuckle.

But it isn’t all fun and games.  Now I have to write the next bit, and I have no clue as to what comes next.  Time to sweat those bullets.

So, habit and occasional enjoyment.  Is that it?

Probably not.  The sheer joy of getting an acceptance email has never disappeared.  I no longer dance down hallways as I did when I learned of my first sale, but I still have a nice warm glow that lasts all day.  Kind of like when you drink Irish Coffee in front of a roaring fire.

That many writers give up before experiencing this is a true tragedy.

Also, no matter where you are on your writing career, there’s always another hill to climb.  You sold a story to a magazine?  Great!  Now sell another to a bigger mag.  Published a novel?  Cool, now publish a better one, or sell one to a bigger publisher, or hit the NYT bestseller list.  Already a millionaire bestseller?  All right, but are you a critical darling?  If not, that could drive the next book.

In my own experience, it might have been possible for me to stop when I was just writing for fun – I might not have stopped completely, but I might have just written occasionally for a laugh – but once that first acceptance happened… there was no question of ever giving it up.  Worse than crack, better than sex.

So there’s something.

And finally, there’s the fear of death.  The fact that our writing, even if it was just printed in a photocopied local rag, has the potential to connect with people long after we are gone.  If just one copy of one story survives to be puzzled over by scholars in a few hundred years, it will have left a much greater mark than several lifetimes of accounting or marketing or managing a restaurant.

To incorrectly quote Queen:  Who doesn’t want to live forever?

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores immortality in a much different and less obvious way than this post.

Shared-World Anthologies – One Writer’s Experience

This week, I’ll be looking at the very different experiences I’ve had in publishing my short work.  Time permitting, I’ll do a post on Friday about a more typical antho (if not Firday, then next week for sure), but today, I’ll be discussing a pretty specific and unusual market type: the shared-world antho.

Like many readers, I was originally introduced to the concept of a shared world by the Thieves’ World anthos in the 1980s (they might have been created earlier, but I was reading in the 80s).   Memory is a bit fuzzy, but I was probably drawn to them because Robert Asprin‘s name was on the cover and I had just discovered his Myth books.

They were delightful books which I devoured (I was about twelve at the time and they were perfect).  Looking for more of the same, I came across the Heroes In Hell Series. And I saw something interesting:  many of the writers in both series were the same.  Strange.

Years later, I was invited by a friend to take part in a volume of the Sha’Daa series, edited by Michael H. Hanson  and Edward F. McKeon.  The basic premise is that, once every ten thousand years, the Sha’Daa – a demonic invasion of Earth – occurs.  And it’s due soon…  I was stunned and delighted, because I’d been watching from the sidelines as these books attained a bigger and bigger readership.  I didn’t take very long to give them a resounding “Yes”.

When I asked why he’d thought of me, my friend said the following: “I asked around and people like working with you because you deliver clean, quality prose on time.”  So yeah, I’m a hack, but it may be the nicest thing anyone has said of me as a writer.  Professionalism is something I value and, it appears, so do others.  It gave me my first Inkling of why so many writers were the same people across those eighties anthos: evidently, they played well with others, got things in on time and didn’t try to blow up the sandbox.

Next, of course, I had to produce a decent story.  Flop-sweat time! Not only did I have to produce a decent story on command, but it needed to fit.  Luckily, I had reviewed one of the first two books for SFReader so I knew what I was getting into.  I also read the other volume and took copious notes on what worked well and what had already been done.

Sha Daa Pawns Cover

Then I sat down to write my own tale for Sha’Daa Pawns.  I wanted to do something different that fit the dark spirit of this amazing series well.  I set my own tale, Blood Stone in an African diamond mine, a milieu which I’d never really seen explored in speculative form.

When they accepted my piece with some minimal edits, I was delighted.  When they showed me the cover I was stunned.  And then they invited me back for the next one: Facets… which made the whole process and insecurity start over.  They wanted this one to be in epistolary/documentary text form, a style I’d always shied away from but, for reasons having to do with the structure of the planned book, fit perfectly.

When someone says “epistolary” I immediately think two things: Dracula and Victorian era.  So I went in that direction style-wise (albeit I made the setting a bit more modern) and, to my surprise, the story came together really well.  I managed to tell the tale I wanted seamlessly without stretching the form past its breaking point (or at least past the point where the reader would break, which would have been worse).

Sha'daa Facets Cover

The entire experience was different from anything else I’ve ever done in publishing.  Sometimes a detail had to be changed to fit another story.  At other times, the editors would ask you to change a little thing here or there to avoid a demonic apocalypse (always a danger in this series).  I recommend it to everyone.  The dynamic will certainly help you grow.

Once the stories were published (a couple of years apart) and I received my copies, I realized that this series is going from strength to strength.  My thoughts on these volumes pretty much reinforced the initial impression of the one I’d reviewed back when I was an impartial observer: the author lineup is strong, the action is excellent and I feel honored to be among them – and each of them had to play nice with others to earn their place there.  Cool to see, and I can only imagine what the editors went through to create those.

So, for the writers who have asked me how to get into the shared-world antho business, that’s the answer: be easy to work with, deliver your edits on time, and word will get around.  Oh, and write the best stories you can, too.

If you happen to hear of one of these being formed, write an author or editor already on the team who’s worked with you before.  You never know what might result!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Incursion: Shock Marines, was released in September.  He recommends that you read it before something else comes out and he has to change this signature.  If that happens, you might miss it and you do not want that to happen (he says to trust him on this)!

Humanity’s Greatest Achievement – and How it Relates to Science Fiction

I did a double take and had to look at the phrase again. I was sure I’d read it wrong. But no, there it was:

“…that exercise in futility.”

I almost threw the book away.

You see, this particular phrase was referring to the moon landings. It was calling the friggin’ moon landings an exercise in futility (and how sad is it that Apollo XIII is a more popular Google search than Apollo XI?). And this wasn’t a tract in some misguided critique about government spending, created by people with limited intellect for other people with limited intellect. It occurred in a book of collected speculative fiction, in a science fiction story of all things.

Moon landing Astronaut

I had to lay the book aside and think a little. When I was growing up, science fiction fans were absolutely convinced that there was no future for humanity other than one which took place among the stars. There were technical difficulties, of course – FTL travel being the main hurdle, and generation ships being the response – but there were no doubts. Humanity would continue to explore, continue to expand, as it had always done. Just ask Asimov.

And then, at some point, seemingly in the nineties although adults might have been infected earlier, attitudes changed. Suddenly the moon landings were no longer considered mankind’s greatest achievement, and many people failed to see them as the first step in the colonization of the solar system. Of course, most of these people were irrelevant. They were people with their “feet firmly planted on the ground” (as they themselves would admit with pride). To the SF world, that simply meant that they were just another unit in the plodding herd of sheeple, a group completely devoid of both intelligence and imagination.

But sheeple, like other cud-chewers, are good for one thing: breeding. And by processes both biological and philosophical, the mindset which holds that we should focus on earth and forget “useless, expensive adventures, whose cost would be better spent on practical things” is spreading. NASA is an emasculated joke. ESA and the Russians are trying, but they’re strapped for cash as well as short-sighted.  The Euros are clipping spending (after decades of utopian spending in other areas caught up with them), and private space exploration is just getting started.

Fortunately the Chinese seem determined to become the world’s most important nation (and they seem to be smart enough to realize that space exploration is an important part of that primacy, much more than the social reform the west insists on).

It has gotten to the point where even Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s smartest man, feels he has to intervene directly in order to nudge wayward humanity back onto the correct path.

So how does all of this relate to science fiction literature?  And, more to the point, what would I say to other SF writers out there?

In answer to the first question, I’d have to say pretty directly, in fact. Probably the easiest way to get humanity back on the ball is to bypass the parents directly and restore the fascination with spaceflight in the teens and children, who are naturally attracted to it anyway. We can safely ignore the whining that says that SF literature is dying (read any of Dozois’ Summaries, and you’ll see that a hell of a lot of stuff is being printed in the genre), but what we do need to do is move the genre back to its roots.

Let’s explore the future once again, and get those kids away from sparkly vampires and steam-powered airships (if anything is an exercise in futility, it is the sparkly vampire story). I also don’t feel that many media tie-ins are doing their bit, despite their popularity. Alastair Reynolds has already taught us that there is extremely good money in deep space stories, so what are we waiting for? There are agents and publishers waiting for your take on the genre.

We tend to minimize the power our words have to change society’s conception. But great literature has always shaped the world we live in. Cinema is already dominated by the speculative genres – now all we have to do is to turn this into a tool for good. It’s our turn to herd the sheeple, so let’s get to it!

 

This post was originally published – in a different form – in the Apex blog in 2010.