Why

It’s a common response to the big “why” question. I hear it all the time. I’ve used it myself once or twice.

“I write because I have to.”

But unless someone is pressing your fingers to the keyboard, it’s simply untrue. Even for those of you who are facing a looming deadline. You don’t have to meet that deadline. Really, you don’t. Yeah, you’ll ruin your editor’s day, and you could theoretically lose your publishing deal, but no one is forcing you to give up binge-watching “Jennifer Jones” in order to finish chapter sixteen – the one where that thing happens you haven’t yet thought of that makes the whole novel work.

No one is forcing you to write. Not your muse. Not your mother. Not your editor. Not your existential angst. Not some insuppressible gut-level compulsion. (You should see a therapist about that. Or a gastroenterologist.)

Writing is always a choice.*

Then why write? Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question. For you, I mean. It’s not rhetorical for me, because I’m going to give you the correct answer. Two, actually.

Here’s the first. The writer-focused answer:

To find out what happens.

Some of you will get this right away. (You can stop reading now.) Others will mumble, “Oh, I already know what happens.” Hmm…really? Maybe you’re one of those oh-so-organized plotters and you have bullet points describing every little thing that happens from page one to The End. Cool. I’m happy for you. But that doesn’t change my answer.

You didn’t know all that plotstuff when the idea for your book fell into your head, did you? No, you didn’t. Plotting is at its core an exercise in “finding out what happens.”

See? Told you.

But that isn’t the only reason “to find out what happens” is the right answer. You also write to find out what happens to you, to your life as a writer, hell, to your life in general. Will this novel make sense? Will it be “the one”? Will it find an audience? Will you grow as a writer? Will you become besties with Stephen King? Will you change the world? Will you give up writing altogether?

There are a million discoveries waiting for you as you write…and some of them are actually about the story.

I said there were two correct answers to the “why write?” question. Here’s the other one. The “reader-focused” answer:

To help me go places. By “me” I mean specifically me (I’m selfish that way), but also metaphorically all of the “me’s” – the readers.

A well-told story can take readers to places they might not otherwise be able to go. I don’t just mean physical locations – though I can’t imagine any other way I’ll get to Mars. I’m mostly talking about emotional places. Heartbreak. Hope. Love. Despair. Wonder. Loneliness. Belonging. Joy. Those places.

Some of us [raises hand] struggle to feel things in the real world. Maybe that’s because we’ve suffered more than our fair share of feelings and numbness is the only safe place left [hand still raised]. We still want to feel – after all, that’s what makes us human – but the cost in the real world is too high. That’s where you come in. Your story gives people like me a safe place to feel. The emotions we experience when reading fiction are just like those we experience in real life, but much more affordable.

You could look at it this way: when you write, you are providing a much-needed service for the feeling-impaired.

The bottom line is ultimately quite simple: You don’t have to write. But you probably should. 

 

*I put an asterisk at the end of that sentence so you would look down here for an exception to the rule. Because you are the exception, right? Well, I don’t have an exception for you. Sorry. You’ll have to work that out on your own.

The First Book

Congratulations. You’ve written a novel. Your first. It’s no longer a thing “you’d like to do someday,” it’s a thing you did.

The End.

You just wrote that, and it made you smile. Family members barely recognize you. Where’s the sullen, contentious, lost, confused, un-showered, frustrated writer-wannabe they’d come to expect every time you crawled out of your writing cave into the real world to briefly consider eating food that doesn’t come out of a plastic bag?

She’s gone. That was the exhausted, mud-caked, sweaty Basic Training writer; the “I’m going to finish this thing if it kills me” writer. You’re not her anymore. You’re a Bonafide Author now. And guess what? Your book, this very first novel of yours, could be the Next Big Thing. I’m talking Harry Potter big.

Have a sip of that celebratory wine. You deserve it.

You might want to have another sip. Because I have some news for you: your book is not going to sell a million copies. Or a hundred thousand. Or ten thousand. Chances are very good it won’t even sell a hundred.

Let me repeat that because you’re still distracted by that word “million.” The book you just finished, this book you slaved over for weeks or months or years, this baby you birthed all by yourself right there on the cobbled-together standing desk in the converted closet you call your “writing studio” – is most likely stillborn.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “I’m not expecting my book to sell like Harry Potter. I’m not that naive. I really don’t care if I sell a single copy. I’m content to have simply finished writing a book.”

Or maybe you’re thinking, “I know it’s not that great yet…but that’s what revisions are for. I’m going to hire an editor to help me make it better. Because once it’s really good, then I can find my audience. I can sell more than a few copies.”

Or you could be thinking, “You don’t know. My book could actually be the next Harry Potter. There are all kinds of stories of debut authors hitting it big. Might as well be me.”

I’ll address the last response first: You’re right. It could be you. And you could win the lottery this weekend, too. You really could. Honestly, if that little dream keeps you going, keep on dreaming. Please note – I’m not disparaging you for holding onto that fantasy – I have a black belt in chasing impossible dreams. But know this: if your dream of hitting the publishing lottery with your first novel keeps you from writing the next one, it’s time to wake up.

Now to those of you who are saying you’re content with your participation trophy, I need to say “good for you” and also “really?” If you’re happy simply that you’ve written a book, go ahead and enjoy that feeling. But then take a moment to think about who you want to be as a writer. Think about the hopes and dreams you had while you were writing the first book. Is that it? Are you done? Maybe your soul is satisfied. But if it’s not – if there is a restlessness in you that says “I have to write again” or “I know there’s an audience for my stories out there somewhere,” then get back to it. Be happy to have written, then let the discontent of unfulfilled dreams drive you to write again. Just be honest with yourself.

Finally, let me speak to those of you who are counting on the revision process to make your novel great. You’re on the right track. That’s a good answer. You apparently understand the hard work that goes into writing a novel – that it’s as much (if not more) about the revision process as it is about finishing the all-important first draft. With the help of smart beta-readers, and an even smarter editor (I know a few), your book will get better. Better is good. Better means a greater chance of finding an audience.

But even then, your first novel could stall right there. Whatever the “final” draft looks like, no matter how much time and money you’ve spent trying to make it essential reading for anyone with a Kindle, it could fall flat. Most books do. Good ones, bad ones, amazing ones. I could list a dozen incredible novels I’ve worked on that have yet to find a home.

But that would only depress you. And, despite what you might think, this isn’t a post about discouragement. I’ve written that one already. This is about encouragement.

You wrote a book!

And every word you labored over, every meal you skipped, every gallon of coffee you downed was worth it. Not because you won the lottery. But because there are no wasted words in a writer’s journey. No, it’s not “all about the journey.” That’s overly-simplistic thinking. But the journey matters. The books you ultimately file away as “not ready to share” or “couldn’t find a publishing home” matter. Maybe just to you, but they matter. Because without them, you’ll never get to the books that will matter to others. The books that will make people smile or think or cry or hope. The books that will capture readers’ hearts. The books that will make readers wonder how you could possibly know them so well.

And yes, the books that will inspire them to become writers. Like you.

And so it goes.

 

Dis-Encouragement

This is not a hopeful post. Usually when I say something like that up front it’s just a clever (or not so clever) ruse; a setup for the inevitable twisty punchline that will leave you feeling strangely encouraged, despite having walked barefoot across the broken glass path of a none-too-pleasant publishing reality.

There is no clever twist this time.

Have you seen the movie, 500 Days of Summer? When it begins, you’re certain it’s going to be a love story, but then the voiceover says, without apology: “This is a story of boy meets girl. But…you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

This post is like that.

I haven’t touched any of my works-in-progress in months. That includes the middle-grade-though-maybe-it’s-really-for-adults novel, Stolen Things, that I believe is eminently publish-worthy, or maybe just a chapter-one-rewrite-away from being the kind of novel  that agents would fight Ronda Rousey for in order to represent me.

That doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been busy. I mean apart from the editorial (ie: paying) work that consumes my days and nights and eats my vacation dreams for breakfast. I have had plenty of Really Good New Ideas for short stories and novellas and novels pop into my head during this time of writerly despair.

But those are just ideas. Ideas come easy for me. Go ahead, give me a prompt, any prompt, and I’ll have a story idea for it in a matter of minutes.

This isn’t a post about ideas. It’s a post about writing. About being a writer. And about not doing the former and struggling to see myself as the latter.

My writerly despair isn’t just about rejection, though I have had my share. (Here’s how to deal with rejection: Let it sting, feel its bite, then move on.)

And it’s not just the fact that time is an inexorable asshole, layering age lines on top of age lines until I wonder who the old man in my mirror is and why hasn’t he done anything meaningful with his life?

It’s also not just about clinical depression, though I am intimately familiar with that Liar-In-Residence.

This is a post about discouragement. About the kind of failures that don’t make us stronger or count toward some cosmic tally that will ultimately tip the scale in favor of some grand success. (“You’ve hit 53 rejections! Congratulations! The next agent to read your book will love it and so will the whole world and Neil Gaiman will refer to it as ‘unexpectedly brilliant’ the same day Steven Spielberg options the movie rights.”)

It’s about thinking you can’t do it anymore. I mean write, but I also mean “believe you can write.” The former is a familiar place for all writers. We look at our words, no matter where they are in the editorial process, and whisper or shout, “I can’t write.”

That’s normal. That’s expected. And that doesn’t scare me one bit.

What does scare me is thinking that I may have lost the ability to believe in myself. Oh sure, there are others who believe in me. At least two or three. And I don’t mean to disparage them for their generosity and kindness.

But to be a writer you have to have at least an inkling of belief that you can do this thing. And I am currently inkling-less.

That’s it.

No, really. That’s the end of the post.

Feeling a little uncomfortable? Anxious? Nervous? You really want me to end this with a tease of hope, don’t you.

I warned you this wasn’t a hopeful post.

Sometimes you just have to own your despair.

And then see what happens tomorrow.

(What’s that? The last sentence looks a little like hope to you? Well, that’s all you, my friend. All you.)

 

I Quit. Again.

There is a tiny flame that burns deep within a writer. A pilot light. In moments – some lingering, some fleeting – that pilot light sparks to life and becomes a furnace of ideas. Great books have been stitched together from such moments.

These are not sweet and beautiful moments. There are no butterflies whispering perfect words into your ears. There are no fairies singing songs of your literary brilliance. These are pain-filled moments where orcs threaten you with bodily harm and the flame itself threatens to incinerate your soul.

Your fingers fly across the keyboard not in delight, but chasing fire. You fear the unpredictable flame, as well you should, but the end of it more.

So you type and type and type and type and type like a rocking horse winner, praying that it will be a refining fire that melts away everything except the truth and not a conflagration that burns your city of ideas to the ground.

Without warning, it fades. It recedes. It dims. Your fingers slow. So too, your body, your brain, your belief in yourself.

Your hope.

The once-febrile world inside your head grows cold. Doubt thrives in the cold.

“You can’t heat a room with a pilot light,” it says.

“Just test the words in your mouth,” it tempts. “You know the ones.”

I quit.

(The words taste like ashes and rust. And oddly, like candy.)

Some have said that what defines a writer is an unavoidable compulsion to write. “I can’t not write,” they proclaim. But what if that’s a lie? What if you can quit?

What if you could close the laptop, put down the pen, and walk away. Go back to living in the moment instead of filing every observation away for future consideration by firelight.

It should be easy. Just say these two words. Recite this incantation. This promise.

I quit.

It would be so easy, but for the problem of sparks. They’re everywhere.

In a song

In a laugh

In a vacant look from the stranger who is watching you write a blogpost from across a crowded coffee shop

If you are a writer, your pilot light can not be extinguished. It will continue to burn, faint and blue. Waiting.

In a vacant look from the stranger…SPARK!

Damn. I was hoping it would stick this time.

I think I just un-quit.

“There are two kinds of ache in a writer’s life – the ache of writing and the ache of not writing. Pick one and live with it.” – Me