Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

Some Try, Some Do

Racist, sexist, bigots are everywhere and unfortunately more than a few have learned to write. Like most chronic diseases, these individuals flare up from time to time. Sure they’re irritating but they’re also dangerous as well. They do real damage those they pursue to say nothing of the perception of their craft. They also recruit others to their cause, which is perhaps the worst part of all.

Ugly stuff, folks.

The world of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is dealing with one of these flare ups. There’s a lot of ink (both real and virtual) flying around.

Then there was this post by Tobias Buckell:

Later, he tweeted an apology for cranking out his post in a hasty manner. I thought… Well, at least he did something, and I told him so. His response?

“One tries.”

Now think about this for a second. This guy didn’t just write a blog post, or even a single book about this issue. He created an entire universe and a trilogy where he could grapple with issues of race and gender while still providing readers with a rockin’ good ride.

This is a little more than trying in my opinion. It sounds like a helluva lot of doing. Writers like Toby make me want to be a better writer and a better human being. They make me want to DO something.

So, I did… I bought Tobias Buckell’s books.

All of them. Including different formats of the books I already owned.

Then a tweet by Mur Lafftery pointed me in another direction:

I’d heard about N. K. Jemisin’s work awhile back. I just hadn’t made the time to dig in.

So, I did something. I bought N. K. Jemisin’s books.

All of them.

Am I saying that opening your wallet and doing something good for people who are trying to do good is the way to combat chronic assholery? Yes, I that’s exactly what I’m saying.

And sometimes, the people who need a boost are those who haven’t always been good. Sometimes you have to extend a hand to someone who is trying to do better, trying to lift themselves out of the shit and be a better person:

So yeah, I bought all of Matt’s books too.

Finally, if you’re in a asshole smashing mood, but maybe not in a reading mood, you should drop by John Scalzi’s blog. Scalzi’s thrown up a donation challenge for the Carl Brandon Society and the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund. You should get in on it…

I did.

So after I did all this stuff, what else did I do? I wrote this post. I wrote it because one person out there might go and do something too. I hope it’s you.

A Writer Must Feel

I know it is July because the sun rises in the alley.

It is possible to write anywhere but it is easier in the places you’ve worn smooth, where you know most intimately the colors of buildings, the procession of faces, the shapes of conversations. It is easier to write where you know the smells.

Last night it finally rained, so the air smells a little fresh, but here are the cafe nothing ever smells completely fresh. I smell the aftershave of the men walking into the cafe and the cigarettes they’ve recently smoked. I catch the scent of the barber’s cigar two doors down. The exhaust of a passing fire truck. I can smell the trees hanging in the humid air. Yesterday’s heat still lingers deep within the concrete sidewalk. I smell the dust in the street.

I definitely smell the cumin that inexplicably made its way so deep into my pumpernickel bagel.

Yesterday, I was having coffee here with my wife. We were both very tired, so we took a few minutes to ourselves to enjoy a coffee and a little breakfast at the cafe. We weren’t saying much and then suddenly we started talking about being tired (which is tiring in and of itself).

“What would you like to do today?” she asked.
I considered her tone, and I realized that if vacation only reminds you of how tired you are, it’s because your vacation isn’t long enough.

I took a deep breath and said, “I want to finish my coffee and then walk down to my studio and work all day on something important.”

She smiled. “At least you’re honest,” she said.

Of course, I no longer have the studio. I gave it up four years ago, nearly to the day.

A Writer Must Feel

I share this jagged bit of memory and prose not because I want to feel nostalgic or to mourn a lost opportunity. Whether in misery or magnificence, the past is always perfect in memory. No, I share this because I want to understand a feeling I’ve had a dozen of times and a writer does not understand a feeling fully until they spend time with their finger in the gears, exploring the sights and the smells and the memories in both the harsh light of realism and the soft focus of idealism and sandwiching it within run on sentences and fragmentary clauses (and parenthetical asides).

To be serious though, it is your duty as a writer to embrace those nostalgic moments and to find out how they work. You need to break down the magic so that you can reproduce the trick. The side effect is that you may develop a habit of destroying memories others may cherish. You may even rid yourself of the capacity for joy. This is something to guard against because you must feel joy just as you must feel anger and fear and love and hate and longing and excitement. You must feel and you must remember, but you must also understand how these things work for in the balance between memory and understanding is your art.

As for myself, yes, I am a very different writer today, but I am always in the process of being a different writer. I am always feeling. I am always writing.

A Polite Conversation Between Writers

Today, I’m at the cafe. Storms have passed through the area the last few days and so the air is clear and everything smells fresh. I see familiar faces, hear familiar conversations.

Earlier, I ran into a writer I know who is working on a murder mystery. When last I ran into our plucky heroine, she had finished up her first draft and made contact with a local mystery writer’s group. It’s been about a year since I’ve had an update from her but I was not surprised when she said that she was still plugging away on her third draft.

“What’s holding you up?” I asked.
“I’m striving for perfection,” she said with a dramatic shrug.
“Fuck that,” I replied. “Finish that sucker and get it out there. More importantly, get on to the next book.”
Her face lit up and she smiled from ear to ear.
“You know, I have been thinking about another book.”
“Then tie up the lose ends on the first one and get cracking!” I told her. “Take it from me, editing a book is like petting a kitten. It’s fun because the kitten purrs, but eventually wear all the fur off and then no one will want to play with it.”

Having whittled several novels down to stubby nubs, I have a pretty good sense of over-editing, but there is a bigger truth to be found in moving on: a writer is more likely to reach “perfection” by writing their next novel than they are are in fiddling with one they’ve already finished.

I also think that perfection is basically impossible. A writer writes. Craft improves over time. The books get better. They may even become great.

However, because books take a long time to write and life does not move at a novel-making pace, a writer is subject to many forces and experiences which can change the shape of the work. Even if one sits at the same table every day and writes during the same appointed hours, there are variables in flux. The writer changes and so the work also changes.

For example, if you write every day for three months, you will improve as a writer. As a result, you will likely find flaws in what you wrote three months before. You may be embarrassed by it. You may even hate it. This is natural, but if you are to make any forward progress in writing you must accept the fact that the work will always look incomplete because you are never going to be complete as a writer.

Your role is to shape the story for consistency and then let it go. After all, you have more books to write. Speaking of which…

“Are you writing?” she asked.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
“Well, you are so busy I can see why.”

It’s a courteous reply, but we both know this is a lie. We also know that the claim of not writing is in fact a lie as well.

It’s true that I’ve been busy, but this has never stopped me from writing before. In fact, I’ve often been more productive as a writer when I’m busy because I don’t have time for navel-gazing. There is 30 minutes here or 60 minutes there. There is butt-in-chair-fingers-on-keys-now-go!

Yet even without the writing, there is no escaping the stories. There is no end of first lines. The walls of the mind are paper-thin and I can hear the dialogue going on in other rooms. I can’t help wondering how people came to be in the places they are or about the history of the places themselves.

When you are a writer, there is no way you cannot be writing. You are always writing.

And so I must be writing… Perhaps it’s about time I stopped fiddling with this part of the story and get on to writing the next.

You Must Write

I’ve spent many years dissecting the practice of writing. I know the mechanics behind the process at a psychological level. I know the many of the methods we use to achieve various effects. I know about the role of writing in our society and the inner-workings of the complex dialogue that occurs between writers both living and dead.

In short, I know why we write. I can also tell you that the reasons do not matter.

If I were to list all the reasons why we write, lay out my case, explain in detail all that makes a writer, it would not make you a better writer. It would paralyze you. It would make you seem very ordinary.

Of course, this is the challenge of writing itself, isn’t it? To make the ordinary seem extraordinary. To make the mundane worth of thousands of words. And yet, the paradox is that by explaining the deep and complex rules around writing, I would unravel the magic. I would soften the bonds of magic that hold you to the task. I would make writing seem simple, easy, and worse – unnecessary.

But today writing is more important than ever because we are in the process of giving up our humanity and to save it you must write.

Notice above that I said we are “giving up” our humanity. I didn’t say we were losing it or that it was being taken away. I said we were giving it up. It’s happening slowly, over a period of decades (if not centuries), but it is a willful process and it is accelerating.

In recent years, we have developed complex systems for encoding our behavior and preferences into the machinery of the world. We’ve enhanced this process by uploading art and supposedly random scenes from our lives. In response, powerful collections of data harnessed by truly unimaginable processing power are honing the world to individual specifications. Slowly but surely we are being fitted with gloves designed to ease our path in the world and by extension make us into highly efficient collections of data interfacing with other collections of data in predictable (and profitable) ways. Slowly but surely we are becoming less human.

Before you conclude that I’m going on an anti-technology rant, let me say that is definitely not the case. I love technology. I enjoy using it and I enjoy making it. No, I have no beef with technology.

In addition, the problem is not new. As I said before, we’ve been working on this for decades. Database marketing and direct mail have been around for years. Intelligence gathering goes back much, much further. We’ve spent a long time learning to slice and dice ourselves, but things are reaching a tipping point and Story is more important than ever.

So what does this have to do with writing? And why must you write?

One of the fundamental principles of humanity is that enlightenment happens at an individual level, and history shows that this transformation is most often achieved through the power of Story. In fact, Story is perhaps the most powerful of all human gifts. Without Story, Religion would have no staying power. Without Story, there would be little to motivate the human race of strive for anything beyond basic existence.

Story is our irrational advantage in the universe, and keeping it alive is a sacred duty.

As writers, we have a duty to tell stories. We have a duty to make our stories compelling, to impart wisdom, and yes to entertain. We are the stewards of humanity and the enlightenment or destruction of our species hangs in the balance.

This is why you must write.

This may be a heady thing to consider if you are writing stories about robots or bodice-ripping romance. It may very well make you cringe, but don’t despair. I’m not saying, “Nobel-level writing or GTFO”. In fact, it’s best if it’s not because most people have no patience for that sort of thing and your goal is to be read.

For example, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s simple. It’s human. It was decried by many critics as being twaddle, but they overlooked the power of Story and what it means to reach a wide audience with a simple message of the human spirit.1

So, it is enough that you write and that you continue to write. It is enough that you work hard to tell your stories to the best of your ability. It is enough that you try to get your word out to as many people as possible.

The beauty and comedy of our present moment is that while we are close to willfully destroying our humanity through our own technology that same technology can also be used to unlock the enlightenment of humanity. Today, you are reading my words because of this technology. I am likely to be many miles from you, perhaps even many years from you (depending on when today actually falls from the publication of this post). Yet here you are reading my words, and hopefully finding inspiration to get back to writing your stories.

Humanity needs your work and this is why you must write. It’s really that simple. Without your very best stories, we will have a future which does not inspire. Without your stories, we will have a future that does not make us laugh. Without your stories, we will have a future that does not include you or the worlds to which you have born witness. Without your stories, we lose another piece of humanity and somewhere an individual loses out on a chance for enlightenment.


1. I also tend to think critics didn’t like Cannery Row because the book makes you feel all warm inside instead of grasping for the nothingness of an existentialist view of the universe. There’s a place for nothingness too, but that is a subject for another time.

The List: Stories You Haven't Written

At some point, every writer makes The List.

The List is comprised of all the stories that you haven’t quite gotten around to writing. Entires may also include stories half written, sketched, completed but not “edited”, and “completed” but not sent. A writer may also choose to include appendices for concepts or fragments, lists of character names and/or places of interest, plot schemes, and bit of clever dialogue. Letters declaring grand plans are allowed but only when accompanied by their companion letters of dejected resignation to the hellfire of eternal procrastination.

We’ve all done it. Many have done it several times. Most have made the mistake of sending The List to other writerly friends who in turn respond with their own lists, which sometimes turns into a competition known as the Demolition Derby of Dead Tales.

After writing a list like this, you may feel elated. You may feel that you’re making progress as a writer because you have The List. Then, after careful consideration, you’ll probably feel like crap and come to the conclusion that you are a talentless hack without the magic dust that other writers have come to possess through fantastic and no doubt scandalous ways.

At this point, you will:

A. Fling yourself face first into a series of daring affairs with ice creams of all flavors.

B. Investigate the potential of attracting a supernatural muse, and failing that conjuring demons and/or contacting a race of extra-dimensional literary scribes whose sole desire is to help writers in this dimension actually finish their work and become stars of their respective genres.

C. Stare at the screen and ask yourself what’s next.

Of the three, A and B probably have the greatest potential as actual pathways to writing stories. B probably more than A, especially if you happen to have a particle accelerator at your disposal. C, on the other hand, is where you probably began the exercise anyway which means you’ve undoubtedly realized that you’ve once more come full circle and failed to write anything at all.

In any case, there’s no doubt you will find the whole process rather frustrating. Yet, rather than bind your soul in contract with an obliging entity, I have a better suggestion…

Take the list firmly in hand and tape it to the wall. Put it somewhere where you’ll be sure to see it. Even better if it’s somewhere near your favorite writing spot.

If you feel ashamed, use those feelings as fuel to write something better. If you feel intimidated, remember that you’re the one who wrote all that stuff in the first place. If you feel a sense of self-loathing (how can you not?), know that there is only one way to quell the rage: writing.

Ultimately, the list is a source of power. To be more specific, the list is your power. You are a writer and the list is the permanent reminder of this fact.

Oh, and if you’re heading to the store, please pick up a pint of Mint Chocolate Chip. It’s my favorite.