Continuing with questions from my afternoon at the mercy of the Flint Horror Collective, I’ve rolled two into one, since they ask almost the same thing.
The hardest thing about being a writer is finding the balance. I’ve got a day job with a fluctuating schedule, so it’s next to impossible to establish a permanent writing schedule. I have a partner whom I share my life. I have cats and a dog. I have divorced parents that are getting on in years. I have a brother who’s married with children. I play soccer, commute by bike, play the bass, have a house to work on, books to read, TV shows and movies to watch, friends to see.
All of those things are excuses not to write. It’s time to start making excuses to write.
Take yourself seriously. Make it a priority. Do you eat a Thanksgiving dinner every day? No. So why do writers feel that they need to write for three hour stretches? You might stuff your face in the car going from one job to the next. You can write the same way.
I carry a notebook 90% of the time. I have Polaris Office on my phone. I also have a Voice Recorder for those times I can’t write, but still feel creative.
When I’m not writing, it’s because I’m doing all those things I mentioned before. But I’m still thinking about stories and characters. But that’s not really enough, is it?
Writing is like exercising. You need to do it regularly to get any benefit from it. That being said, you may come out of the corner swinging in the first round, but it’s important to push yourself through second day drag (or third, or thirtieth day drag).
Couple pieces of advice:
1) Make a goal. If it’s a page, or a paragraph, or a sentence, whatever it is, make it a goal. Make it a priority.
2) Don’t stack goals. You’re on your way to bed, feeling guilty because you didn’t write your page for the day. That’s okay. Stuff happens. Saying you’re going to write two pages tomorrow is the worst thing you can possibly do. First off, it’s like saying you didn’t bench your 100lbs. today, so you’re going to do 200lbs. tomorrow. It’s not likely to work and you may hurt yourself. Second, what happens when you psych yourself out of writing two pages the next day because… whatever. Now you need to do three pages to catch up and you’re more nervous because you’ve never written that much all at once before and is this story actually good and doubts, doubts, doubts. Just do your one page. That’s enough.
I give the advice but I don’t always follow it. I’m not perfect. No one is. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
As for process…?
Writing gurus (usually with advice books to sell you) are always talking about developing your voice. I’ve talked about developing my voice as a writer. But I recently read an article that gave a compelling argument saying that writers must have many voices. These are the voices of your characters, which are in turn the voices of your stories.
So I don’t have any one process. I’ve drafted long-hand. I’ve written on my computer. I’ve written with and without outlines and notes. I’ve recorded myself doing character voices. I’ve acted out scenes. I’ve written poetry for character thoughts. I’ve written in crayon. I’ve written with my left hand. I’ve scripted out dialogue, then written the narration around it. It all depends on the story and the character and how it speaks to me.
Continuing with questions from my afternoon at the mercy of the Flint Horror Collective, I’ve rolled two into one, since they ask almost the same thing.
Instead of answering one of the questions from Flint Horror Collective’s Beyond the Book panel, I wanted to post my schedule for Penguicon, happening this weekend, April 24-26, at the Westin in Southfield, MI. If you live in the Metro Detroit Area, I highly recommend attending. It’s a lot of fun and it has something for pretty much everyone.
Here’s my schedule:
Saturday, April 25:
How to Do Dystopia, 10-11a, Hamlin: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Mad Max — dystopian settings are populating books shelves and movie theaters, especially when it comes to the Young Adult market. The panel will discuss the popularity of the dystopian future and what makes one believable. Speakers include: Sarah Hans, Janea Schimmel, Sean M. Davis, Steven Saus – Track: Literature, Film
Editing for the Uninitiated, 2-3p, Hamlin: You’ve finished your masterpiece, now what? Our panelists discuss the importance of the editing process and how to turn your unfinished gem into a gleaming diamond. Speakers include: Sean M. Davis, Sarah Hans
You Can’t Kill the Undead, 9-10p, Board of Governors: Year after year we wonder if this will be the year that people get sick of zombies and vampires. Year after year we get a resounding no from the audience. Join us as we explore the most recent explorations of the undead and brainstorm with us, wondering what may be on the horizon: angels, ghosts, demons? Speakers include: Nicole Castle, Mary Lynne Gibbs, Michael Cieslak, Sarah Hans, Ken MacGregor, Steven Saus, Sean M. Davis
Sunday, April 26:
E-Books: An Examination of the Current State of Digital Publishing, 9-10a, Algonquin C: Years ago there was a panel at Penguicon about the rise of the e-reader and what it meant for the world of publishing. It’s safe to say that digital reading is not going to be a passing fad, but it does not appear to be the death of paper publishing that it was once seen to be. The panel will examine how things have changed for authors, readers, and publishers and how things have stayed the same. While we may examine the Hatchette vs Amazon debate, it will be in terms of how it has affected things, not taking sides. Speakers include: Mary Lynne Gibbs, Sean M. Davis, Karl Schroeder
Author Reading: Steven Saus and Sean M. Davis, 1-2p, Hamlin: Come and listen to two authors voted most likely to become mad scientists read and discuss their latest works. Speakers include:Steven Saus, Sean M. Davis
The good people of the Flint Horror Collective had me up to the Flint Public Library this past weekend to join a few other writers and answer some questions. I’ll do this one at a time.
What first inspired you to write?
It wasn’t any one thing. I just remember always writing. I have a story, “The Killer Morning,” that was written on construction paper in thick-penciled, childish handwriting. I wrote poetry through my childhood and into high school. When I finished my first Stephen King novel, “Thinner,” I was so blown away, I thought, “This is the kind of writer I want to be.”
But the moment that really did it for me happened in my senior year in high school, I had a writing class that did a paper a week. For our narrative assignment, I turned in a story about four girls who kill themselves publicly to get back at their boyfriends for dumping them. When handing back the stories, my teacher got to mine about halfway through the stack, started to hand it back, but then stopped and said, “Actually, I want to wait on this.” I went to a Catholic high school, so I thought, “Shit, I’m in trouble.” When he got to my story again, he said, “Sean, I just wanted to say before I handed this back to you. This is writing.” Immediately, three people asked me if they could read my story. That was the first time I seriously thought about making a career out of writing.
Today’s post is brought to you by an overwhelming and year-long feeling of failure.
As I logged into WP to write this, I saw my previous post about all of the successes I’ve had over the last couple of years since I last applied for a Kresge Fellowship. Despite those successes, I’ve been grappling with my feelings of failure and diminishing drive to write for at least a year now, but probably longer.
Now, I think I’ve figured out why.
I was brought up to value work. I’ve been working professionally since I was 14, but I’ve had summer jobs since I was eleven. As I worked these jobs for okay – sometimes bordering on decent – money, I dreamed of the day I could make my living at writing. It was what I loved to do and I wanted to make enough money at it so that I could build what I considered to be a successful life.
In college, I eschewed a career that, to me, would just be another Joe-job. I went back to Wayne State’s English Department, graduated, and set about the work of becoming a successful writer so I could build my successful life.
Along the way, I developed a strong, supportive, and loving relationship.
I got a job making decent money regularly and good money sometimes. Then, I became full time at my job, so my money become good regularly and great when I could score some Oscar Tango.
I moved out of my mom’s house into a rented house, then bought a house last fall.
I was building a successful life for myself. Although writing was still a big part of my life, it was no longer my ticket.
I continued to educate myself as a writer and fulfill my goals. My first book was published, but it wasn’t what I expected at all. I went to conventions and street fairs and sold books and had a good time. I didn’t start on a new book right away, but that was fine because I was working to sell and promote Clean Freak. But I wasn’t worried. I’d start work on a new project when it felt right. I was invited to submit work to a couple places that I was excited about. Things seemed to be going okay.
Then, things started going wrong.
I decided to part ways with my publisher after the expiration of our year contract because of my perception of his handling of the business side of things. (We parted amicably and are still in contact. This isn’t going to turn into a tell all like the recent flare up with Damnation Books.) I submitted work to the couple people that asked, expecting answers and feedback that weren’t coming.
I hit rock bottom when I tried writing something for a submissions call – which is something I don’t normally do, and did only because by that time I was desperate to write something and I felt that a deadline would be the motivation I needed – and was unable to bring myself to finish the story. I doubted everything. The story’s originality and quality, my abilities as a writer. Everything. In desperation, I submitted the unfinished manuscript with the secret hope that the publisher would like it and tell me they wanted to see the finished story, which would validate me.
I didn’t get a response, which is perfectly fine because that’s not how this game works.
With all of these perceived failures mounting and my continued success in my non-writing life, writing became less of a drive. Maybe an obligation. A chore. Something I thought I should be doing, but couldn’t bring myself to do. Or, when I did, I’d start on a project and have immediate doubts, not coming back to the desk after the first burst of creativity.
That’s where I’ve been languishing for the past six months. Not even wanting to write, but desperately wanting to want to write, unable to muster a compelling reason why I should continue to bang my face against a wall that didn’t seem to be moving.
Today, my loving and supportive partner tagged an article for me on Facebook, a list of inspirational quotes from JK Rowling about failure.
Reading the article, I remembered the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose failure as an opthamologist led to his having time to write detective stories.
And it hit me what had been going on. The full picture. Not just being disheartened by one isolated incident, but how all of my failures of the past year have conspired with my successes in my non-writing life to try to lure my away from writing.
I’ve decided I don’t want that to happen. This is only the first step of what I hope will be a transformative process, but I feel good about my decision. I can feel confident in saying, “To be continued…”
To give you some brief background, Kresge Arts in Detroit awards 18 fellowships every year, 9 in four categories in a biannual rotation. I turned in my application for a Literary Arts Fellowship last week. As I filled out this year’s, I referred to my application from 2013 and I discovered something surprising and quite satisfying.
Part of the application process is to outline a plan for how you would use the Fellowship time and money to explore your art. In my 2013 application, I outlined a plan that included continuing to attend the World Horror Convention, attend more local conventions, participate in conventions as a panelist or reader, and attend workshops to continue to hone my craft.
Well, I didn’t get a Fellowship in 2013. But that didn’t stop me.
I attended World Horror in 2013 anyway.
I went to Portland in 2014.
Also in 2014, I attended Penguicon as a panelist and reader.
I and my fellow GLAHWers peddled our wares at Motor City Comic Con.
And in January 2014, I didn’t just attend a workshop, I went to the Borderlands Press Writers’ Boot Camp.
And I did it all without a Fellowship.
Yes, I had help, from people and circumstances. The organizers of DetCon were at Penguicon, which I’d been invited to participate in by Michael Cieslak, the head of the Literature Programming and fellow member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers. Had those two conventions not been in Detroit, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in either of them. I wouldn’t have been able to attend Borderlands without one man’s generosity and the support of my partner to use that windfall on that trip instead of bills.
Reading over my Kresge application from 2013, I had to shake my head. Even two years ago, I sounded like a spoiled kid bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t been given my big ticket yet. Which is true, but not all bad. Not bad at all, really. I haven’t been given my big ticket, but I’m making the most out of the little tickets I do have.
A while ago, I cracked open my fortune cookie to find this. I immediately put it on the keyboard of my computer. Today, I found myself thinking about loving writing. I realized that there are two fundamental truths about it.
It costs effort. There are days when you won’t want to write. You need to anyway. This means that you will need to sit down at your desk, open up a word document, and write uphill. It will be a slog. You’ll hate doing it. You’ll probably fantasize about the story that seemed to write itself, the poem that seemed to pour itself onto the page, the scene which you served only as a stenographer for your characters as they chattered back and forth. That was then and this is now, and you still need to do it.
It costs time. There will be days that you won’t have time to write. We’re all busy. You can’t live on love. You have a nine to five, just one if you’re lucky. You probably have a place you call home to take care of, a person or people to take care of, pets, friends, not to mention that you also need to take care of yourself. You still need to make time to write. Thanksgiving comes but once a year, but you still eat everyday. So you don’t have time to have a banquet of words. Figure out how to make the equivalent of a fast food run at your desk, because you still need to write, even when you don’t have time.
It takes sacrifice. You will need to decide what’s more important to you, sleep or writing. Watching a movie with your partner or writing. Hanging out with your friends or writing. A million other things or writing. There are things more important than writing, some things that are as important, and a hell of a lot that is less important. This too will take effort.
Each love is different, so the rewards are different. However, when it’s love, there should be some pay off that outweighs the cost. Otherwise, it’s just martyrdom, which is damn boring.
Here are my rewards.
I see things, people, places, events. These are separate, disparate. As I write, I feel a thrill, a brain rush. I come to understand the relationships between those people, places, the things they do. I come to understand aspects of myself those characters and events speak to. I come to understand the people around me, the others around them, the society that surrounds us all. Writing, to me, is a higher, clearer way of thinking.
Everything else, money I make, praise I receive. I won’t lie, those things are nice. Money’s nice to get and have and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like a good shot to the shoulder and a heartfelt, “Well done, kid.”
That’s not why I do it.
The love I have for this thing I do fulfills me.
Find your love and then act on it.
I started smoking when I was sixteen for the same reason thousands of teenagers do: to look cool in front of my friends. The first pack I bought were Camels, unfiltered. Let me tell you, that pack lasted me longer than any pack I bought since. I’d only light up around my friends and only when they did. I’d take a couple puffs, mostly just holding it. I smoked the second pack a little faster and–well, you know how it goes.
I quit for a couple weeks when I was nineteen, but I was working at a restaurant at the time. While it was perfectly okay to ask for a smoke break, asking for a break earned you a quizzical expression followed by a resounding denial. I started smoking again out of self-defense.
Here’s how good of a smoker I was. If I was on my way to work, taking route A, I knew at what point of my commute I needed to light up to be able to smoke a whole cigarette. I knew this for every place that I went to on a regular basis for every route that I could possibly take.
I was on my way to work one day and reached that critical point, so I lit up. A series of revelations hit me. I didn’t actually want that cigarette. I was just doing it out of habit and knowledge of those critical points in my commute. I didn’t put the cigarette out right away. I thought about it and concluded that I didn’t want that cigarette or any other ever again. Smoking was just a habit and whatever reasons I had to start and keep going no longer existed. So I pitched the butt and resolved to quit.
Over the next couple of days, I continued to take smoke breaks. I’d go outside, light up, and stand there holding it. I concluded that I was serious about quitting and so gave my unopened packs to a friend.
Over the next couple weeks, all those receptors that had been created in my brain as a result of flooding it with nicotine for nine years went into withdrawal. Here’s my grocery store analogy. There’s a line of customers and only one cashier working. Naturally, other lines are opened up. Things flow again at a good pace. As long as there are customers, there will be cashiers for them. But then, the customers stop coming. Now there’s a store full of bored cashiers that are whining because they have nothing to do. The whining intensifies, turning to anger at their uselessness. Eventually, the manager reassigns them, which makes everyone a lot happier.
I went cold turkey, deciding that using the patch or the gum would just draw out a long, painful process. There were times during those first couple months that I couldn’t remember why I’d decided to quit. But I stuck to it, remembering being in the car, on my way to work, and realizing that I didn’t want to smoke, that it was only habit. I held onto that and it carried me through.
I thought that, eventually, the urge to smoke would fade into non-existence. But it hasn’t. I still want to smoke. Sometimes it’s because I’m stressed. Sometimes it’s because I smoked for so many of the years that form a person’s perception of themselves that it’s still a residual part of my self-image. Sometimes it’s just for no reason, a sudden craving like for Chinese food or a desire to watch a certain movie.
I suppose that’s what addiction is. A desire that always exists and a choice that always needs to be made.
I wrote a story, “Dahlia,” posted on this blog. The link is to your right. It’s a fantasized conversation between me and my muse. It’s mostly self-indulgent, heavy-handed tripe, but it does have one good bit of dialogue, which is why I leave it up.
He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, the tip burning angry. His voice was smoke, hanging blue in the air. “Does it matter?”
She bowed her head, hurt. Instead, she said, “I thought you quit.”
“Only in the real world.”