Writers Who Hate Writing
Sometimes I wonder whether I’m really cut out to be a writer. Not because I think I’m a talentless hack, mind you. I firmly believe that anyone can master an art if they apply themselves. Writing is no different. Any lack of ability on my part could be mitigated with enough practice. No, what’s bothering me is the simple fact that I don’t really like writing.
Actually, that’s going to far. I like writing. It is a very enjoyable experience and my life would be diminished without it. The problem is that I don’t want to write. I don’t want to be creative. I mean I want to, naturally. I want to write books, make movies, learn how to draw, play an instrument, etc. But I don’t want to actually start writing, filming, sketching, or practicing. There are so many things that are both easier and more fulfilling in the short term. I could read an interesting article on the internet, look at funny pictures, watch a movie, read a book, or even do the dishes. I am an incurable lazybones.
So it’s natural that I sometimes wonder whether I’m cut out for this kind of thing at all. There are some people that can write for hours on end. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in only nine days. The very idea frightens me. I feel like I’d rather bake bread or build birdhouses for 9 days straight than write. So why do I want to be a writer at all?
Still I will not be disheartened because I know I’m in good company. One of the most inspirational comments I ever heard came from my English Professor. He was a man who obviously knew his stuff, and a bit of a aspiring writer himself (of the fancy pants “literary short stories” kind which I’m usually not a fan of, but still). He certainly was much more a writer than I am. Yet one day he mentioned to us that he had a lot of trouble actually sitting down and writing. He would find any distraction possible in order to get out of writing. Normally hated chores suddenly became pleasant distractions. He’d rather grade hundreds of papers than write another short story. Still he was a writer and he loved writing. I take his words to heart, and they’ve been a great encouragement to me.
Another writer who encourages me is Roald Dahl. I enjoyed his children books, of course, though I always managed to read the ones that were less popular. I didn’t read James and the Giant Peach or Matilda until I was a teenager, but my bookshelves held such classics as Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, The Twits, and The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me. To most people Roald Dahl is nothing more than a children’s author, but as I entered my teens I discovered (through the useful medium of my older brother) Dahl’s large collection of short stories. Most of these stories were deciding not for children, and often featured grotesque, outlandish, and overall strangely twisted characters. I ate them up. He became one of my favorite authors and I later had the immense pleasure of getting to read his autobiography Boy (which is actually one of two autobiographies, and only covers his childhood). In it I found a quote that still comforts me whenever I feel that I don’t enjoy writing enough to be a writer. He writes:
“The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul and that I am sure is why he does it.”
I know I want to be a writer. So I’ll keep plugging away at it, even if I don’t enjoy it as much as I think I should.
(This has all been a very roundabout way of saying that I’m sorry and that I’ll be trying my hardest to get the blog back to updating three times a week)
Not Much to Read Here, Just a Little About Sci-Fi Publishing
I had an idea for today’s post, but somewhere along the way I forgot it completely.
Now the question is, what to talk about? And for how long? I honestly haven’t got a thought in my head right now. Nothing worth writing down, anyway. I have a couple of new story ideas I’m working on, but I’m going to try to get those published so I don’t really want to talk about them here. If they go through the ranks without getting published I’ll think about putting them up. Just so you know, it can be extremely frustrating to submit something to a publisher. They often don’t get back to you for weeks, yet each one states firmly that they don’t want you sending your story to multiple places at once. So I have to go down the line, one publisher at a time, until finally it’s either been rejected by all or (and the hope lives eternal that I might see this day) it’s accepted. Right now the story I’m sending through the loop has one rejection and has been locked up by the next guy for about two weeks now. Very frustrating.
I have a set list and a set order that I haven’t had to break yet. Since all I’ve tried to publish so far is science fiction they’re all sci-fi publications. I start with Clarksworld because they’re the best I’m likely to get. They’re well known in the field for providing excellent sci-fi short stories, and they also pay the most per word (something to remember: if you want the best work then pay the most for it). Then I send it over to Daily Science Fiction because they pay the next highest. Finally I send it to Lightspeed Magazine because it pays the least. I don’t have any on the list after that. The way I figure if those three haven’t snapped it up then no one else is likely to.
Soon enough I’ll send my next story down the pipeline to Clarksworld. I’ve got it written up already, I just need to read it again with fresh eyes before sending it off. Hopefully by the time Clarksworld rejects it Daily Science Fiction will have dealt with my last story. They don’t want you sending multiple stories at once.
So, that’s my little non-post for today. Hope it was mildly interesting, I’ll see you Friday for some more Storytime.
To Genre, or Not to Genre: Which is Worth More?
Recently (just this morning, in fact, while taking a shower) I came up with an interesting idea for a short story. Lately I’ve been trying to get one of my little sci-fi short stories published somewhere, and the story I’m currently sending around doesn’t look very promising. One of the big things that reduce its chances is that it’s a longer piece (around 3,700 words). The sci-fi mags I’ve been sending to prefer shorter stories. They have two very good reasons for to: firstly, a shorter piece costs them less money (since they pay by the word) and secondly shorter stories are easier to read, especially on the web. So I’ve been on the lookout for some short story ideas that I can work out in only a few hundred words or so.
The idea I found this morning fit under that description pretty well (at least, I think so; I know myself, and I could probably stretch it out to a couple thousand if I’m not careful). I really like the story, I like how it will flow, I like the message it will send, I like the characters I’ve thought up. I have only one problem: the story isn’t sci-fi. There is nothing about the story that requires any sci-fi elements whatsoever. Now naturally I could put it in a sci-fi setting with no problems; but the story works just as well in the 1800s as it would in the year 3000. So why am I limiting myself to a sci-fi setting?
That got me thinking. I know a good amount about submitting to sci-fi publications, but I hadn’t researched any other genre of fiction. I remembered my creative writing class where my teacher told us that, while he personally really enjoyed “genre fiction” (which means sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, etc) it was “literary fiction” that would really make your career as a writer. I was interested at first, especially when I heard that he’d had a few short stories published himself. I quickly lost interest after I asked him how much literary magazines typically paid, and he told me that he was never actually paid for his work. Instead by being published he had gained greater exposure. It helped his reputation, so that eventually he could be published by the big and prestigious magazines and could generally make a name for himself in the literary world. That was a big turn off for me. I’m open to being wrong, but I have studied (metaphorically) under the school of artists like Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, and my big brother Steve Hamilton (whose wonderful works you can find here, among other places), all of whom taught me three things: your art is worth something, people who claim that their “exposure” is better than getting paid are trying to take advantage of you, and you should never sell away all the rights to your work. Now lesson three doesn’t really apply here, but lessons one and two kept me from investigating literary fiction any further. Still, now I had a cool story idea that didn’t by necessity have to be “genre.” Why not give non-genre publications a chance?
So I did some investigating. I’d like to share my findings with you, as small and cursory as they are, in the case that you might find them useful or interesting.
Lets look first at the biggest and the best literary magazines. These are the ones that I know I have no chance of getting into. Still, why not start at the top? I did the same thing when I was researching what was a reasonable price to be paid for sci-fi short stories. In that case I found that the best and most prestigious publications paid more, but not significantly more, than the more middle of the road publications. Figuring out what the big boys pay gives me a good sense of what the ceiling is for literary short stories, regardless of my (non-existent) chance of getting published in them. I looked at five magazines I got from a “Most Prestigious Literary Magazines” list. Number one was The New Yorker, which was surprising to me. I didn’t know that The New Yorker published short stories. As it turns out they only publish one an issue, so it’s not surprising that I was unaware. They take unsolicited submissions online, though they didn’t say how much they would pay on their website. I Googled around and found that nobody (except the people at the New Yorker and the writers who are published) knows precisely how much they pay for a story. However we do know that they pay a LOT. Thousands of dollars per story seems typical. Of course this is The New Yorker we’re talking about, so I didn’t expect anything near that from any publication I could get published in.
Ploughshares gave me a more believable (from my point of view) price point. They pay $25 a page with a minimum payment of $50 and a maximum of $250. That’s compares very reasonable to sci-fi pricing which pays about 5 to 10 cents a word typically, which translates to about $15-$30 dollars a page. The other three magazines on my list (The Atlantic, Harpers, and Tin House) didn’t list any price whatsoever. Still, I had my data point. Now I investigated a few middle of the road publications at random to see what I might be able to get for my story.
I discovered two things: first, there is a huge amount of literary magazines to choose from. There are hundreds. Some are well respected publications with a large readership. Some are sponsored by a university. Some are just glorified WordPress blogs. The second thing is that almost none of them are willing to pay for your work. After slogging through a dozen I only found one that provided compensation, and they paid a flat fee of $25 regardless of length. The rest weren’t willing to put up a dime. One of them in particular really got me riled up. I won’t name names (I don’t want to give them the traffic) but the “magazine” was just a WordPress blog with it’s own domain. In the first paragraph on their submissions page they let people know that “Our only criteria is quality.” Really? So you want quality work, but you’re not willing to pay for it? Cuz hey, for what you’re paying (that is, zilch) I’d gladly let you publish the stories that the paying publications rejected. If you want my quality work then you’ll have to pay for it. What would you think if someone put out an ad saying “WANTED: skilled carpenters to remodel kitchen. Only applicants that do quality work will be accepted. We won’t pay you, but you’ll get some exposure when we show our kitchen off.”
That wouldn’t have been enough to warrant complaining about here on the blog, but what I found next put me over the edge. Apparently they’re in the midst of selling a book collection of the stories they’ve published this year. This was bad enough (the stories were good enough to sell at a profit, but not good enough to pay for?) but what I found next took the cake. They were having a “submission contest” for stories to put into their next book. They charged $11 for the privilege to submit a story to be considered for publication. They are charging writers so that they can, in turn, sell their work to other people at a profit. One story would be chosen as the grand winner. I thought “Alright, maybe they’re not total scumbags. Maybe the cash prize is worth the risk. Then I found out that the grand prize was 100 copies of the final book, to sell on your own or give to your friends.
Let me just spell this out, one more time. They are charging writers for the privilege of having their work sold at a profit without compensation for the hope of winning a prize that consists of advertising their publication for them.
The mind boggles.
Listen, maybe I’m a crazy coot. I haven’t sold a single story, haven’t made a single penny at writing yet. So take my advice with a generous helping of salt. But please, if you’re an aspiring writer out there, listen to me. If your work is good enough to be published (ie, good enough for them to make money off of it) then it is good enough pay for. Do not devalue your own work. Writing is a skill, a skill that takes time and effort to sharpen. Insist on being compensated.
As for me, I’m going to take my short story idea and place it in a sci-fi setting. Because at least they respect that a writer deserves to be paid.
The Thing Itself: When Death Swallowed Life
I want to attempt to describe a beautiful image to you. It’s an image that I’ve held on to for two years now. It came to me, almost fully formed, two years ago. I’ve been holding on to it ever since. I try to keep it in my mind as best I can.
C.S. Lewis said that his fiction writing almost always started with an image. Story would follow after that. When I read that my heart sunk a little. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I’ve never approached it like that. I’ve always first thought up histories, settings, cultures, etc., and then tried to somehow coax a decent story out of all that. This method is all well and good, but it lacks something. Something really special. Why are the Chronicles of Narnia still considered classics among the sea of fantasy writing? What is that special something that makes good fiction into great fiction, into fiction that can touch people’s lives forever? The stories I come up with are interesting and make for good reading (at least I’d like to think so) but they have a dullness and flatness about them. They remind me of old clockwork wind up toys: they may be excellently crafted, and their inner mechanisms may be very complex and intricate, but they aren’t very beautiful to look at. I’ve read many books that I’ve felt similarly about. They have an abundance of skill but are lacking in soul. And how can you produce soul? You can practice your skills until they’re sharp as a razor, but I know of no practice that can help you in constructing soul. I want to write fantasy. More than anything I’d like to write something like the Chronicles of Narnia, something with even an tiny fraction of it’s power and beauty. The method I was most used to wouldn’t work to get there. Worldbuilding, fun as it is, just won’t cut it alone. I found that confirmed by Lewis himself. As a boy he played at worldbuilding too. He created a whole imaginary country called Animal-Land, complete with a long and detailed history, dozens of characters, culture, trade, wars, adventures, etc. However, this is what he wrote about it later in life:
“…in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist. Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. For readers of my children’s books, the best way of putting this would be to say that Animal-Land had nothing whatever in common with Narnia except the anthropomorphic beasts. Animal-Land, by its whole quality, excluded the least hint of wonder (Surprised by Joy, pg 15).”
My next questions, of course, was how Lewis went from Animal-Land to Narnia: how did he capture that sense of wonder? Then I read that Lewis first came up with Narnia, not as a civilization or an interesting idea, when the image came to him one day of a lamppost in a snowy woods, and a faun walking by. The image came first. Everything else followed. This, I thought to myself, is what I’m missing. This, perhaps, is where soul comes from. The problem is that I could find no way to force images to come to me. I still can’t. The element I believed was missing was something I couldn’t create with hard work.
But then, as if by chance, an image came. It came in the most unlikely of places: my Introduction to Christian Doctrine class. Our teacher was a very kind, and very wise, old scholar who had written so many influential books on early Christianity that he really should have been teaching somewhere far more prestigious. Instead he was with us, lecturing on the development of doctrine in the early church in his own gentle tones. The subject on the day the image came was on different conceptions of Christ. I can’t remember exactly what he said. I only know that, at some point, he mentioned the idea that death, in taking Jesus’s life, inadvertently swallowed the source of all life itself. The idea that life is stronger than death thrilled me; that in the presence of life death flees as darkness flees in the presence of light. Suddenly my mind was flooded with images. A black, inky landscape. A mansion made of charred bones. A captive comes before a throne, and on the throne stirs a skeletal figure draped in tattered grey shroud. He is Death himself, ruler of the world, the final conqueror. All must come before him and submit to his rule. All will be brought to stillness, and dust. This captive is no different. Death rises to consume him as all other have been consumed before. Death feared this man once, but now he is within his own domain, the source of Death’s power. But bringing the captive here was a mistake. Unknowingly Death has invited Life itself into his home. Too late he realizes his error. He tries to throw his prisoner out of the mansion, but already vines are growing on the dusty bone walls. Already green is spreading. Already Death himself finds flowers sprouting from his skull…
The description does the image a great disservice. It does not capture it, not by a half. That’s the trouble. The image is more than just a collection of objects, colors, and shapes. It’s a living thing in my mind. Concepts and visuals intertwined into more than I can adequately express. When I read the description I just wrote I feel embarrassed. It’s just not right! It’s as close as I can come right now, but it’s so far from what I see.
Still, I wanted to share it with you today. I’m going to hang on to this image. Someday I will find a story I can attempt to place it in. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to share with others what I see. But perhaps not. I’ll leave you with one last Lewis quote. I didn’t understand it when I first read it. But I understand it now, and I know that even he struggled mightily to share what was really in his mind. This excerpt is from a letter he wrote to a girl who wanted his advice on a piece of her writing.
“You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”
That’s the problem with my description. I can try to express the images: but the images are only settings for the thing itself.
Fighting the Frivolous Fight: Why Bother Arguing on the Internet?
Lately I’ve found myself doing something I swore I would never do again: namely, arguing about religion and philosophy over the internet.
I tried it for a while back in high school, and then swore off it forever. A good friend of mine has had a similar experience. “I used to argue with people on the internet a lot when I was younger, but there just isn’t any point to it. Nobody, including myself, has ever changed their opinions because of someone’s brilliant internet argument.” I have to agree. If you want to persuade people the internet is not the place to be. I have never, not once, heard of an atheist or theist changing their minds about their beliefs based on an argument over the internet. If you want to persuade someone, write a book. Even better, talk to them in person. The internet just isn’t going to work out for you.
Still, lately, I’ve started arguing metaphysics in comment threads all over WordPress. I haven’t changed anyone’s minds or opinions. I don’t have hope that I will. Yet, all the same, I keep doing it for two specific reasons. One of them I’m sure is good. The other reason is probably misguided, but it’s a reason nonetheless.
The first (and best) reason is that arguing on the internet makes me a better communicator. It exposes me to ideas and arguments that I would never have considered on my own. It’s one thing to sit at home, reading books of philosophy and thinking “Of course! It’s so obvious!” It’s another thing altogether to try to explain those concepts and suddenly have an objection come out of left field. I find that the more I sit with my books the less I understand people who don’t share my views. Debating on the internet lets me sample different ideas that come from people with entirely different backgrounds from myself. Even if, after further thought, I come to the conclusion that their argument is flawed, at the very least I’ve learned that the argument exists and how to better respond to it next time. Every argument I hear and consider teaches me something new about persuasion, argumentation, logic, and rhetoric. More importantly, every argument I compose a response to helps me practice clarity, simplicity, and empathy. As a writer all those things are useful to me. They are the building blocks of good communication. There have been many times where I’ve butted heads against someone who seems so incredibly stubborn and blockheaded that they seem to ignore my arguments entirely, claiming that I’m saying things that I never intended. When those times come I have to stop and consider: are they not getting my point because they aren’t willing to listen, or because I’m not good at explaining? Naturally, if the problem is on their end then there is nothing I can do to fix that. So I do the only thing I can do, which is examine my own words and try to make them as clear and understandable as possible. All of this is excellent real world practice that helps me become a better writer. Any idiot can sound persuasive in his head, and even hack writers can convince people who agree with them that they are right. The real test is facing a hostile audience and seeing how well you communicate with them. On that note, there are a lot of mean-spirited individuals on the internet who feel no qualms in peppering you with the most incendiary and hurtful insults they can come up with. This, too, is good practice. You will always have critics, and there will always be hurtful people out there. By weathering their attacks you can practice controlling your own emotions. There are a lot of people out there who want to rattle your chain just to see you blow up; better to lose your composure on a comment thread or forum (and subsequently feel embarrassed and learn not to give them the satisfaction) then to lose it in a more public arena.
So, to sum up the first reason, arguing on the internet is good practice for honing communication skills, logical reasoning, and control over your emotions.
The second reason is the one that’s more shaky, though it can be explained more simply. Sometimes I feel that there are some things that you can’t just leave alone. If someone insulted my mother in public, you can bet I’d say something in her defense. I feel the same way sometimes when people insult my religion, or the people I respect. In those cases it’s not a matter of persuading someone but of defending the honor of those you love. I feel that what is good and right is worth standing up for, even if you only receive mockery and pain for your efforts. But I admit, this motivation may not be the best. Perhaps it’s better to accept that there will always be mockers and scoffers, and remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Still, I can’t help myself sometimes.
How do you start a blog?
Heck if I know.
Every good origin story begins with some kind of crisis, some turning point where the protagonist’s ordinary life is changed forever by some incredible event or revelation (Mutant spider bite! Murdered parents! Existing, in the case of Superman). Similarly we know that the laws of physics demand that there is no effect without a cause. I did not wake up one day and decide to write a blog. So why am I writing one now?
The first and most typical answer is “Why not?” This is the age of the internet after all. Everyone has a blog these days. However, that fact has been more a hindrance than an inspiration for me. I don’t like to follow the crowd. The more people are doing something the less likely I am to be interested in it. I also have competitive desire for success in everything I do. What’s the point in starting a blog when it’s bound to be lost in a sea of other blogs? This my constant excuse for avoiding blogging like the plague: “Everybody has a blog and nobody actually has readers.” I wasn’t going to clutter up the internet like every other ninny talking to themselves in cyberspace. Content in the moral superiority of my stance, I didn’t give blogging any further thought.
But you know what? That’s a terrible excuse. Right now, with no blog, I have zero readers. This will remain the case until I start a blog. Sure, lots of people have blogs and yes, most of them fail miserably. The same is true of everything in life. If you don’t try then you’ve already failed.
So then my excuse is that I have nothing interesting to talk about. But that’s a terrible excuse too. Everyone has interesting things to talk about. Everybody’s life is a unique story, and nobody’s existence is nonstop tedium. Can you have a satisfying conversation with your friends? Then you have at least mildly interesting or entertaining things to talk about. No, the real excuse the whole time has been this: “I don’t want to take the trouble to turn interesting things in my head into coherent posts that other people would want to read.” Thinking things is easy, writing those same things down is hard. Well I’d like to be a writer someday so I better start writing now. Journey of a thousand miles and all that.
That’s the thought process, but I still haven’t explained why I’m starting this blog. I could go into the long and boring details and maybe in future posts I will. But I want to be totally honest here: I’m starting this blog because I want to be a writer and sitting on my duff reading books and dreaming about writing them will never get me anywhere. Recently something drove that home for me. To make a long story short, I’ve been trying to become a freelance writer and I can’t think of any reason why someone would hire me over the thousands of other aspiring writers out there.
Growing up I would read any interview with a famous writer that I could get my hands on, looking for their key to success. Each one of them said the exact same thing: “If you want to be a writer than write.” Write often. Write all the time. The only way to become better at writing is practice. There’s some talent involved but it matters less than you’d think. It’s not the talented who succeed, but those who actually start writing something. So I’m starting.
In the coming days I’ll be talking about the blog format, topics, schedules, etc. But I thought this would be a good way to start out. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But that’s the great thing about blogs. They’re like seeds. It doesn’t matter how small or dirty they are at the beginning; it’s about what they can grow to become.
Wow. That sounded really corny. Let’s hope this seed grows into something that takes itself a little less seriously.