Monday, February 25, 2008

This posting by John Scalzi really got me thinking. Just why do I write? Why do I put myself through this, neglect my family (a little) to satisfy my ego? It’s not, as Jeff Vandermeer found many people claim, because I am driven to do it. It’s a choice I have made and I find myself regularly questioning that choice every time a rejection comes back and every time I’m not enjoying the success I thought I would.

I guess if I’m honest I’m not as committed as I might be. Part of that is because I have a fairly busy job and a family so, unlike the lone gunslingers out there, this cannot be all that I do. And that causes me pain, because I’d like to. There is a lot at stake in trying to make this work, in trying to be a writer. Part of who I think am, who I consider myself to be, is a writer. If I cannot be that person, cannot live up to it for one reason or another, then that is going to do me some psychological damage. Because it means I have to re-think who I actually am. No longer am I the lizard-eyed ace of the keyboard who can turn a memorable phrase as easily as they can a corner. Instead I’m someone who couldn’t do it. Couldn’t live up to the idea of being a writer and became something else. Notice that all those comparisons are negative, I’m genuinely worried by what I would be if I cannot do the writing thing.

I’m a fool for books, I’ve said that before, and the life of someone who does that for a living seems an envious one. I remember reading Charles Stross saying that, after years of messing about, he suddenly got serious about writing and its gone as right for him as it can for anyone since he made that decision.

But I’ve read too that the difference between writers and everyone else is that writers write. Others do not. So, even if success is elusive then the fact that you are writing is some compensation. Just not enough to retire on.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Petrol fumes

Inspiration is a curious beast - capricious and generous in equal measure. Sometimes days can go by without hearing a peep, when thoughts about a story rattle around your head like a coin clattering on a cathedral floor.

And then there are days when you can hardly keep up with the ideas and you risk a high-speed writing injury as you struggle to get them all down without losing a precious word. Sometimes I'm convinced that I haven't got all the fragments and rack my brains for what I have missed.

Though when I can't I console myself with the thought that I may be like the man described by William James about the man who under the influence of laughing gas knew, just knew, the secret of the Universe. Sadly, as he came to the knowledge evaporated. With a huge effort he managed to write down the shattering insight which turned out to be: "A smell of petroleum prevails throughout".

I used to regard the words gifted by inspiration as a manna from heaven and such strong stuff that they had to be laid with care in any story. Such gilded words, of course, would elevate any story about the quotidian and render it startling to the reader. Now, of course, I realise it's not like that. At all. From time to time inspiration has produced a corking phrase or idea, and I can remember exactly where I was when the best ones struck, but most of the time it is just another idea that needs to be assessed like its less blessed brethren. Some I discard or they change in the process of working on a story, others go in the ideas file (mine now runs to 66 pages) for later use.

Far better are the ideas that emerge as a story is being written - though at times the part of me that produces them can be reluctant to co-operate. This can delay a story getting going but I've learned to trust that Secret Partner (As Kate Wilhelm calls it) and wait for the right moment. It does mean I'm much clumsier than usual when this is going on because a good part of my attention is focussed internally.

But the reason I trust that SP is because, to be honest, it seems to be much smarter than me. I'm sometimes impressed when I go back and read some of the stuff I've written because there are parts of I could never come up with alone. People who know me well have often asked me after reading some of my stories - "Did you think of that yourself?" Something they have never said to me.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Light at the end of the...

It may seem an odd day to like but December 21, the Winter solstice, is one of my favourites. Because it is the day on which we start the long climb back to the warm days of spring and summer. And on Friday it felt like one of the lower summits of that climb had been reached. At the moment my journey to work coincides with sunrise and on Friday, as the tube train was slowing down near Parson's Green, we passed a narrow gap between two buildings through which the brazen light of the rising sun was being squeezed. As we passed a thin bar of warm light passed over everyone in the carriage like we were being scanned by some alien intelligence. I had my back to it and I felt its warmth pass over my head like a caress. People looked up, squinted into it, squirmed under it as it moved through the car and silence fell as it passed through. For a moment, a long moment, there was a palpable sense of presence. Like spring walked among us, reminding us it existed and giving us a taste of the summer and languid days to come. Fabulous.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I'll come in again

Suddenly I feel like the Inquisitor Michael Palin played in the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch. I've written before about the qualities needed to become a writer (though my comments are necessarily proximate because there is no sense in which I am such a creature) and realise another one needs to be added to the list. Arrogance, or to be a bit kinder about it, conviction that you are right and others are wrong.

I'm writing this after getting five rejections in six days all of which, bar one, were of the "close but no cigar" form. Sigh. I've read about the exercise that Kate Wilhelm conducts at Clarion which involves attendees holding a manuscript aloft, saying "This is me" and "This is my manuscript" and then dropping said script on the floor. This is to show them that they and their stories are distinct and that a rejection of one says nothing about them as a person or writer.

I have some sympathy with that, for psychologically necessary reasons if no other, but it is hard to be upbeat about what you do when every person of standing in the writing community who looks over your work says "no".

So to sustain themselves writers must be convinced about their own work and about its value. I have few illusions about writing and know that really all that matters is self-respect. Being sure that you did your best. Audiences are too fickle to trust. Writing to please them can mean you please no-one and for every person that loves a story many will hate it or be indifferent. And, as William Goldman, has asserted about every creative industry "Nobody knows anything" which is to say - success is always a matter of luck. We are still waiting for the Einstein who can give us the theory to explain the physics of the hit.

It should also be noted that the vast majority of writers, 1 in 7, do not make a living at what they do. Certainly writing short stories is everything but lucrative, so much so that established figures such as Cory Doctorow have likened it to vanity publishing.

So, in a situation in which audiences cannot be courted, editors are like blind men playing poker and financial rewards are as elusive as a Grand Unified Theory writers must be sure about what they are doing. Or they would give up. That explains a lot, why there is so much bad fiction around for a start, and why writers keep going. It's the egotism that drives them, ego demands an audience, because every beginning writer quickly learns that if there is one thing worse than being noticed it is being ignored.