All Posts Filed in ‘on writing

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100×19: Why I write

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A couple of weeks ago, I had a message from Mike. Mike is an all-around wonderful human who I’m always excited to see, as well as the owner of a carefully thought out blog about things worth thinking carefully about. Gentleman Caller and I have had more than one spontaneous conversation about what a generally great human we think he is, and how his perspective on anything always makes it better.

But then he asked me for a favour, so now he’s dead to me.

Just kidding — he said I had élan, so he gets as many favours as he likes. The favour is this blog — kind of a chain letter of bloggers talking about why they write. Mike’s blog is here. Here’s mine:

Why do I write?

Gentleman Caller asked me this, maybe the second time we ever hung out as more than friends. And I realised when he did that I’d been waiting for someone to ask me that for years.

But there’s not really a straightforward answer: I write because I always have. I write because I can’t not. I write because I don’t know what I think until I can put it in words and move them around. I write because I love language. I write because characters turn up in my head and demand to be let out. I write because I’m better at it than I am at anything else.

I write because I write, I guess.

How does my writing differ from others in its genre?

In fiction, that’s a work in progress. Confidence in my own voice and what I have to say has been a life-long battle that I’m still mostly losing.

In blogging, I don’t know that it does. I’m sporadic at best, leaking styles and feelings and subject matter all over the internet.

Professionally, I think I have a knack for simplicity that most others don’t. I can figure out what things mean, and I can get that into fewer words than most.

How does my writing process work?

Left to my own devices, I like a cafe of a morning. An enormous milky coffee and some white noise; maybe something tasty for brunch. I take my laptop out most Saturdays and Sundays, and lurk in my regular haunts for a few hours, typing and people watching.

The best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received were “you have to do the work” and “first drafts always suck”. I saw this today and had one of those sudden, hard stings of identification. The moment when I got good at writing — when I stopped dabbling and started creating, when my career took off and my fiction started to come together — was the moment I stopped worrying about whether what I wrote sucked. First drafts always suck.

There’s no magical muse fairy who’ll turn up some day and deliver you the perfect words in the perfect phrases. Just write something — write anything — and then make it better.

What am I working on?

I have this 8,500-word working document for this blog. Parts of it are published already; parts of it never will be. It’s a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas and semi-formed paragraphs and the odd total mystery (one entry says only “Mirrors everywhere???”).

I have all sorts of things I want to write about here, but no time or courage to do so. There are blogs in my head about apathy, about history, about politics and gender roles. There’s more than one about sex as it relates to all those others. I still want to try some kind of ethical lifestyle situation too. One day.

One day.

Why do I write what I do?

I have a couple of recurring themes. Family is the first one — what it means to be family, what it means to be blood, how those things can be different and how they affect people. I’m adopted, so that one’s maybe not a huge reach.

Other than that, the nature of people. Of kindness. The way we all have the capacity to be better, to try harder, but on the whole we don’t really want to. Or can’t bring ourselves to. Or are scared to. I want to say so much more about humanity, about kindness, about strength and compassion… but mostly I don’t, because I worry I’m not quite informed enough, or people will think I’m full of myself.

I like the atmospheres of things, too. Everything fictional I’ve ever written has started with or been grounded in a place — a feeling in space and time. The weather there. The flora. The way the air smells. I get myself into a story through its surroundings, and writing about places and times other than my own is one of the key delights in making words up.

Nomination time!

Rachel Brown, come on down! I met Rach through blogging, although she’s a friend of friends. We have long-standing writerly crushes on each other, and she’s another hero of mine for the things mentioned above — she’s kind, compassionate and generous… and bold about being so. I pretty much just think she’s the actual best. Go and read her blog at once.

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Prompt from last year: Unfulfilled childhood dreams

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Tiny Katie’s greatest wishes:

  1. Ride a unicorn.
  2. Do a backwards walkover.
  3. Be a published author.
  4. Get turned into a vampire.
  5. Become Elizabeth Wakefield, only way better. And a vampire.
  6. Marry Taylor Hanson.
  7. Get older.

I’M TOTALLY WAY OLDER. HA! I WIN.

I guess I’m lucky in a way — I’ve always only really wanted to write. I harboured vague dreams of being a… actually, I’ve been staring at that sentence for five minutes, and can’t come up with anything else I ever seriously wanted to be. A Latin scholar? Someone who was allowed to get her ears pierced? A superhero?

As a kid, I fully expected to be published by the time I was 21. But although I wrote CONSTANTLY through my teens, I never finished anything. At about 17, I applied for a couple of writing workshops at Vic, where I wrote some short stories I didn’t like very much. Then I wrote an Angel spec script which my dad and his endless networking managed to get to one of the highish-ups on LOTR. We had a meeting that I don’t remember because I was TERRIFIED the whole time, in which she told me that I had talent, and if I was willing to workshop the script with her a bit, she’d consider passing it on to some people for me. My failure-obsessed brain heard “not good enough”, and I never called her back.

WAIT, LITTLE ME. WHAT?

After that, I spent a year avoiding my classes to write a novel I got within a chapter of finishing. Then I read it, realised it was terrible, and threw it out. This was a good idea, because it really was terrible. Then I dropped out of uni and wasted a bunch of years dabbling in fanfiction (immediate gratification! Fans! Total freedom from the constraints of plausibility!) and rampaging about the internet. And now I’m approaching 29, and coming up to two-and-a-half years of SERIOUS WRITING and the prospect that I’m going to be well into my thirties before anything comes of this. I can live with that, but Tiny Katie would be HORRIFIED.

But then, Tiny Katie’s role models were Elizabeth Wakefield and Peter Pan, so I was never going to end up all that balanced.

By now, I mostly thought I’d know more. I thought I’d understand how the world works and what it’s all meant to be about. I thought I’d have been to Rome, and that I’d probably live in the US, and if I didn’t have a house and kids (since 28 always seemed, to me, to be about AS OLD AS IT WAS POSSIBLE TO GET) I’d at least be working up to it. And either writing books about AWESOME VAMPIRES, or working on a TV show about them.

It’s not that simple, Little Me. And Taylor Hanson is already married.

But, you know, although I WANTED to write something real earlier, I wasn’t READY to. I didn’t know enough about life and people and relationships to say the things I wanted to say. I didn’t really have anything TO say. It’s entirely possible I still don’t! But I think I’m getting there.

Although it really does SHIT ME that I’ll never do a walkover.

—–

Anyway. I was looking for some excerpts of stuff to post with this. I couldn’t find the Angel spec (which, from memory, is AMAZINGLY PORTENTOUS AND DRAMATIC) but I DID find a Buffy spec I was working on after that (to amuse myself. YOU KNOW HOW IT GOES). So here’s some bits from that, because… just because.

I’m working up to posting some scenes from Sparks. Let’s set the bar REALLY LOW. Go, teenage Katie, go!

(Scripty mark-up removed for ease of reading.)

—–

BUFFY
No! Okay? Death doesn’t bother me…
(off Giles look)
Okay, I’m lying. Deal with it. The issue is not me.

GILES
(getting it)
Xander.

BUFFY
Him and Willow. And Oz now, too—

She breaks off again as the doors swing open and Willow wanders in, looking suspiciously casual.
WILLOW
(monumentally awkwardly)
Oh, hey Buff! Say, I was just wondering if you were… going to class…

Buffy turns and checks the time on the clock. It still says lunchtime.

BUFFY
In a half hour.

WILLOW
Right! Because that’s when it is.
(an intensely uncomfortable moment passes)
See you then!

She leaves. Buffy watches her go, then turns back to Giles and picks up her speech again.

BUFFY
God, even Cordy. This is my deal; I have to do it. And I know they want to help…

GILES
They won’t just let all this go, Buffy. They made a choice to help you, and we have to respect that.

We move to the doors…

…And through them. In the hallway outside the library, Xander, Oz and Willow are holding a quiet but furious confab.

XANDER
So?

WILLOW
I think Buffy hates us now.

OZ
I don’t know, guys. Tense silence, short answers—maybe the world’s just ending again.

XANDER
Yes! It’s not us, it’s doom. I like it. I’m running with it.

WILLOW
It didn’t feel like the world was ending. When the world ends she’s usually less… twitchy.
(beat)
Oh, she tapped her foot. Buffy tapped her foot.

XANDER
Crap. She hates us.

OZ
You guys are really reading a lot into much, much less.

—–
SCHOOL – AFTERNOON

It’s after school. Kids are clearing out, the stragglers packing away their books and heading home. Buffy skirts a cautious path around them, eyes wary. She spots Oz, hoisting his backpack and guitar case and heading down the corridor with a band member. She ducks behind a handy soda machine as he passes, then slips past them and slides sideways into the library. Buffy peeks through the doors to be sure she’s alone, and then turns, satisfied she’s evaded the gang.

Xander and Willow are sitting side by side on the table, facing her.

XANDER
(good cop)
So!

He raises his eyebrows: here we are. Willow crosses her arms and puts on her serious face. Here we’re staying.

WILLOW
(bad cop)
So.

XANDER
What are we doing tonight?

BUFFY
We’re not doing anything tonight. You’re injured—you guys should go home.

XANDER
That’s not the gig.

BUFFY
It’s not your gig.

WILLOW
No, it’s ours. All of ours.

BUFFY
We’re talking about the same gig, right? Sacred duty, mystical whatsit? ‘Cause it says ‘one girl in all the world’ right there on the box. Collectively, we come to more. And some boy bits.

WILLOW
We’re not slayers, Buffy—

BUFFY
And I need to remember that.

XANDER
Look, Buff—

BUFFY
Shut up, okay? I’m the slayer. You’re civilians, and you shouldn’t be patrolling with me.

WILLOW
Civilians?

XANDER
We’re sidekicks.

WILLOW
With magic. And army stuff, and wolf… power, and—

BUFFY
Funny concussions. Until I get you killed, and then—

WILLOW
Get us killed? Buffy, we’re not your puppets.

XANDER
…Or your puppies…

BUFFY
You’re not the Slayer, either.

XANDER
No. There’s this thing called free will. Not to be confused with the movie about the whale, but still very big. You have to do this; we chose to.

BUFFY
This isn’t an elective. God, this isn’t even a democracy.

There’s a moment as everyone digests this.

WILLOW
You’re firing us?

XANDER
You can’t fire us. We’re founding members. We get the newsletter.

WILLOW
We write the newsletter.
—–

LIBRARY – LATER


Buffy is collecting her things. She’s slow, clearly down as she gathers her books and slaying gear and pushes open the back door… revealing a vampire, fist raised to knock and a package clasped in its free hand. Buffy stakes it reflexively, without any drama, taking the package from its hand as it dusts. The package reads ‘RUPERT GILES’. She tucks it under her arm and turns to leave, only to discover Angel, lurking in his silent Angel-y way.

BUFFY
One of these days I’m going to stake you too.

ANGEL
I was going to get that guy for you. I was just looking for a stake.

BUFFY
Sure. Scaredy cat. How long have you been out here?

ANGEL
Long enough.

BUFFY
It didn’t occur to you to come in and back me up?

ANGEL
It sounded like you might start throwing books. I thought I’d wait out here, since they make those out of wood.

BUFFY
The guys were pretty…
(long pause)
…paper is wood?

ANGEL
Are you okay?

BUFFY
I guess. No. I’m the slayer. They’re my responsibility.

ANGEL
They’d probably disagree.

BUFFY
So, if you got a papercut…?

ANGEL
To my heart?

BUFFY
Oh. Right.

—–

I’m posting this almost entirely for the the “or your puppies” line, which ISN’T EVEN FUNNY unless you watched Buffy and know Oz was a werewolf. Oy.

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A for-realsies blog. FOR REALSIES.

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After has been going better than it has been in months. A while ago, I said something about it to a friend and she said, “oh, so you’re still writing it?”

Yes, I’m still writing it.

I’ve just stopped talking about it, because I ran out of ways to spin my lack of progress.

I’m about to start my first draft again, from the start. It’s maybe the 6th or 7th time I’ve done so, but I’m hoping that this time might be the last. I’ve thrown out or can’t use over a hundred thousand words of material. It’s frustrating, and it’s depressing, and there were a few months there were I was frighteningly close to hating the whole project. But I’ve never stopped writing – and I have no intention of that changing.

One of the walls of my bedroom is covered in post-its. I have spreadsheets and documents and flow-charts and note cards, and I still – almost a year later – don’t know how my first act should run. So I write it, and I write it, and I write it. So far, one scene – the first scene I ever wrote, months and months ago – is the only scene that stays constant. Months ago I was blogging about trying to find the feel of the universe, and in some ways, I’m still there. Some days it feels like, if nothing else, I’ll surely eventually exhaust all the ways this story shouldn’t go.

I hope so. I don’t know for sure, but I feel close. What I wrote this week – every day after work in the library – feels real. The worst part is that once I get out of the first act, I have a solid outline. I how the rest of the story goes, I just can’t work out how to get these people colliding in the right ways – and how to make the prose feel the way their world feels in my head.

But I’m closer.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. I always think of Patrick Rothfuss, who said — roughly — in response to fan complaints about how long it was taking him to write The Wise Man’s Fear, “You know I have to make all of it up, right?”

Honestly, it’s huge. I’m excited.

It’s funny, at this point, three years in, really knowing what it means to write a novel. To still want to write novels. To have a job where I’m paid – well – to write stuff that, if not all that interesting, is definitely satisfying, and know that I’d still rather be sweating and agonising over my laptop. Ruining my posture and my eyesight and my social life for people who don’t exist.

The idea of the tortured writer, hunched in a dark room with a bottle of whiskey and their own misery, probably holds a grain of truth. It’s a satisfying process – an amazing, rewarding, incredible process – but it’s not a fun one, a lot of the time. You struggle through the horrible days where you’re grinding out horrible words you know you’ll delete tomorrow, to get to the days where something clicks, or surprises you, or a recalcitrant character starts to talk back. Those days are incredible. On those days, I remember why I do this. Nothing else – nothing else – feels as good as that. My stomach churns and my hands shake. I get so excited I feel physically sick.

It’s a drug, essentially. And sometimes the hardest part is that I can’t share it with anyone – I can’t show you how it feels, and no one in my life will ever be able to be part of those moments, or feel it with me. The best moments of my life are always going to happen on my own.

Which is okay.

But just because I’m not talking about it doesn’t mean I’ve given up, or ever will give up. The opposite.

It doesn’t sound like the most positive recommendation, I know. It’s not really. There’s a reason that so many published authors’ top piece of writing advice boils down to “If you can do anything else, do that instead.” The idea of novel-writing as this creative fiesta, a giant free-for-all of conjunctions and characterisation, is as crazy as the maudlin drunk crying over a typewriter. Writing a novel, producing hundreds of pages of carefully structured story, is more science than art, and more slog than science. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill, and at this point, I’d tell you that even more than creativity and talent, it takes being pedantic, more than a little obsessive, and obstinate to the point of insanity.

But most of all, it needs to be in you. It needs to be part of you. You need to have no choice.

So that’s where I’m at. And right now it’s kind of awesome.

—–

NB: all quotes not ACTUAL quotes, as I’m WAY too lazy to find sources. The second one is definitely attributed to David Foster Wallace at least, but I also feel like Maureen Johnson has said it well too. WHERE she might have said it is a MYSTERY. Everyone loves a mystery!