No, I don’t have time for a coffee

It has been a while since I’ve added anything new to this blog. The reasons are myriad, and I suppose on the whole unimportant. The biggest reason I had to let the blog fall to the wayside a bit (okay, a lot), is because of time constraints. We only have so many hours in a day, and because of other responsibilities (and sometimes completely unimportant “stuff”) we give up our writing time.

People often misunderstand. They think we don’t want to spend time with them, or that we’re just being antisocial, or whatever misconception they dream up. Nothing can be further from the truth. We want to spend time with you … we want to hang out, but we also really need to write. If we don’t, we go insane. For that reason (and many others discussed below) we have to guard our writing time.

My writing buddy, Sarah, and I discussed the problems we as writers have to face every day, most importantly the attack on our time – the constant battle of having to protect our “writing” time.

 

I don't have time for a coffee

Q1: As NaNo approaches, what do you find is the biggest challenge where family and friends are concerned?

Sarah: I’m lucky in that most friends and family members know how seriously I take my writing – it’s A JOB! – and that I’m at my pc daily, from 8-1, sometimes again at night, working. I work from home, like others work from an office somewhere. And still there is often this notion of “oh, as she’s home anyway, can I drop by for a quick coffee and a chat? For her to take me to the station (as happened yesterday, thanks, MIL)? For a quick phone chat? Whatever. During relaxed times, I squeeze that in for friends, as we all have kids, and evenings are short and full. But with NaNoWriMo approaching, I regularly become more wary. THAT schedule is a monster that will eat up every available minute. And NaNo needs prep, too. And my normal writing tasks (like editing, prepping launches) don’t evaporate.

Elaine: I am part of a successful neighbourhood watch and civilian patrol group. I’m very proud of being part of that community, and as you can imagine those people have become friends over time, and a lot of them think because I’m home and “just” writing, I have time to do everything they can’t do, because they have “proper” jobs. Writing is a proper job, and not an easy one at that. Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve seen how my work as an author was pushed on the back burner and once more became ‘just a hobby’. This year, for NaNo, I’ve resolved to make it my priority to be a writer again. That means saying “no” to people a lot. It might take a while for everyone to accept that I can’t just quickly do “XYZ” because I’m at home, and no one will care if I quickly run out. I care. My home is my office. Yes, I work here, and yes I am a little more flexible than most, but I DO work. People are not overly happy that I can’t devote all my time to them anymore, but a person can only take on so much, and sooner or later we have to decide what’s most important to us.

Q2: How seriously do people take your writing as “proper work”? In general? Is it seen as a cute hobby?

Sarah: I’m rigorous about my work. If I want to have any chance of succeeding, I have to put my foot down and convince ME everyday that this IS work, and then everyone else around me. Most people know that I mean business, and with a “proper book” out, that helps with acknowledgement and being taken seriously. But everyone who loves me seems to think that “it is just me, just this short time span” out of her writing time, and what harm can that do? They are irritated or puzzled when right before NaNo I tell them No. Because if everyone came to me like that, “just me, just briefly”, my days would be torn apart and shit would not be finished. Artists need peace and quiet (well, me) to sink into the tasks and let creativity flow. So no, they don’t see it as a hobby, I made sure of that. The problem is everyone thinking, “it’s just them”.

Elaine: I started writing a serial novel for an online magazine not so long ago. That means I suddenly have deadlines. People get irritated with me when I tell them I can’t hang out to party all weekend, or that I have a deadline and have to go. I have been asked, “Why do you have to go? It’s not such an important deadline, it’s just a story.” Yes, it’s just a story … but it’s important to me, and all those books you read, and movies you watch are entertainment to you, and important to you, because the human race needs entertainment. Do people think that art just falls out of the sky? It’s created by us – misunderstood people who are pouring their whole being into something the world at large don’t understand. Writing is art, and creating art takes time. My husband, a few very close friends, and most of my family, understand that it’s my full-time job, and are less condescending.

Q3: How do you guard your writing time, and how do those around you respond when you choose writing over having ‘that cup of coffee’ with them?

Sarah: I can be too lax with such requests, as I love my people and want to spend time with them, and if they are free and just wanna come over … I can give in easily. But NaNo is the time of year where I can’t do that, or else I’d fail, and I take pride in that I never failed NaNo once, despite regular sicknesses and mishaps with the kids. I plan for a few days of “nursing time” anyway, so being a mum is always an extra struggle as you don’t get every day to yourself. I’ll have to work doubly hard. November is therefore a very complicated month, and my stress levels high. So I tell people what NaNo is and how it helps me to kick start novels, and most understand and step back. It’s not the first time, either. When I mention that it’s “that time of year” they understand. Still, things like school excursions, parents’ meetings etc. are weighed against my work, and people who don’t write don’t get the dynamics. They simply assume I can be flexible and will somehow make up for it, just do things later. NO! I have to stick to a schedule, too, like everyone who works, and that is often still hard to convey. That I’m not that much more flexible than other workers – and I don’t want to be. Being an artist is complicated enough, it’s not a straightforward job. So if I don’t protect my schedules, I’ll get into more trouble. Some friends (and at one point even the husband) rolled their eyes when I said no to seemingly small tasks. But in the long run, I think being that strict can only prove to them how serious I am about this. IT’S. MY. JOB.

Elaine: I put my headphones on, close the door and tell people to fuck off. I’ve had to use those exact words before, and I have regretted it. I don’t like letting people down, so often I’ll push my writing time back to accommodate others. My husband will sometimes say, “Oh, you can do it later when the boys are asleep.” Sure, but when do I sleep? When you intrude on our working time, we have to find some other time to work, that means sacrificing time with our family and friends. Just like everyone else, we don’t want to give that up, but because someone intruded on our ‘working’ hours we are forced to make a decision. What do we give up? Writing time or family time? Most often, family wins, and tomorrow we have to work like maniacs to catch up on the time we lost yesterday.

It’s up to the writer to make her own hours, put her foot down and say “this is my work time. You have to wait.” Most people get annoyed, a few understand. The best way to deal with it is to ignore it. The world won’t come to an end because I do not have time for that movie, or that party, or that drink right now. I will have time later, but not right now.  It’s hard sometimes, but I’m getting better at saying no.

Q4: “What do you want to say to all those people who intrude on your writing time?”

Sarah: I want to tell them that I DO love them, sooo much, but that they need to see my work like everyone else’s work. It’s just a different location. Being at home doesn’t equal being available, not even for the postman, sometimes! So please, understand that I have to protect my time to get things done, to have even the slightest chance of being successful one day. That it’s not personal, it’s protecting my workspace. I want to see them, talk to them, do tasks. Just not during “office-hours”. Over time, I think they’ll see I’m serious. I’m proving this to them by working hard, every single day, not just when I feel like it or “have time”. Sticking to my office-hours will make them see just how important my job is, and that it is a proper job, with normal, regular working hours that mustn’t be interrupted. The more I keep that habit up, the easier people will understand. I hope.

Elaine: To you it may seem like it’s “just a hobby” or “just a story.” But think about all those good books you’ve read, the joy you’ve derived from them, the discussions you’ve had (people still have endless discussions about books written 100s of years ago). Those were written by people like me. Writing is hard. We are creating something out of thin air, or as Stephen King likes to put it, we’re digging up a fossil. It’s hard. Understand, that we’re not just sitting there thinking up a story. We work out timelines, plots, do endless hours of research, put storyboards together (well some writers do), and once that story is told, we have to put in more hours editing the work, finding spelling and grammar mistakes, fixing timelines, plots, adding and cutting. Thousands of hours go into creating just one novel, and it’s all for your entertainment. We are happy when people enjoy our work. For most writers, any monetary gain is secondary to a job well done. We do it because it’s our passion. When you relegate it to something ‘cute’ we do in our spare time, you’re basically shitting on every masterpiece written over the centuries. All those authors who brought you such joy are suddenly lumped into a category of non-importance. Yet, the human race craves stories. They read them, they tell them, they watch them on television and in cinemas across the globe. Have more respect for those who pour their entire being into bringing you that pleasure. That is all we ask.

Going back to my writing roots

Since the home invasion (if you haven’t yet, you can read about it here), I’ve been battling with my writing. I can’t seem to immerse myself as fully into my make-believe worlds as I used to. This is problematic, because if I can’t see, hear, smell and feel my characters, I can’t write about them. The robbery changed me in a fundamental way, and things I used to do I can’t do anymore, which means I also have to adjust my writing routines and rituals. I used to listen to music while I wrote – headphones on, music blasting my eardrums to an early death. I can’t do that anymore. I need to hear what’s going on around me, and if I can’t hear, I get panicky, and when I get panicky, I can’t write.

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Part of my process involved a few weeks of ‘daydreaming’ about the new story and characters. It required me sinking deep into my imagination, shutting out the rest of the world, and just concentrating on the people in my head. But now, unwelcome thoughts intrude, and the story falls apart. I have to keep my mind constantly active to keep out obsessive thoughts – that means reading a lot of cracked.com, or watching a lot of really bad television, but nothing creative, because even reading fiction cuts off the outside world, and that drives me fucking nuts.

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Creating characters – the pantser way

I know I am not fully in control of a story, but I usually have some idea where I want to go with it. Then, I introduce characters and they take over, sometimes taking the story in a completely different direction than I had planned. I am now, and will forever be, a pantser (you can read about pantsers and plotters here). That’s not gonna change any time soon, so I have learned to just live with it. Besides, I get to be as surprised as everyone else by what comes out of my pen.

Most of the time, it works. Other times, I read back over something I’ve just written, and know right away it won’t work. That’s why the delete key was invented. I delete everything that doesn’t work, have a stern talk with my main character, who just went heaven knows where, and we try again. Remember, even your main character can go off on a nonsensical tangent that has nothing to do with your novel, or slows it down or … you know, turns it into a disaster.

When it happens, do not panic. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not the end of your novel. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed. Characters sometimes enjoy hogging the scenes, and you can always go back later and delete the unimportant stuff, or if it’s clear this new direction your main character is taking will derail your novel completely, go back immediately and delete it.

This works even for pantsers. We can generally just feel when a story isn’t going in the right direction. It’s part instinct and part experience. When I know a scene won’t work, when I know it will change the story so drastically that I won’t be able to recover it, I delete it right away, take a short break, then return to the story.

But, you may ask, what about character development, and arc and all that literary stuff that always gets hammered into our heads? I don’t know about other writers, but when I try to force development, growth, arc and what not else, it doesn’t work. My characters come out forced, fake and one-dimensional. Just like real life, I get to know my characters one page at a time, they reveal themselves, their personalities, their pasts, their interests, hobbies, and secrets to me bit by bit, and by the end of the novel, it’s all there. It comes naturally to most of us. If you’re really inside the head of your character, you won’t need to fret about this stuff while you’re drafting, it will all come out by itself.

That said, there are a few things you need to know before you start writing, and that’s a fairly good idea of your character’s back story, and what they look like. Again, you may ask, if I have no control, and know very little about my main characters, how do I know anything about them before I start? The answer is that when I get a new story idea, I don’t start writing right away. When a character shows up to “tell” me his or her story, I usually give it a few days before I sit down to write it. My husband calls it daydreaming, I call it work. Basically, I do no writing for a few days, but whenever I get a chance, I sit back, pop on my headphones, turn up the music, and let the character in. He will tell me his story, not all of it, but enough to give me an idea. This is usually the time I get a clear image of what the character looks like, I get glimpses into his personality, his past, his working life, etc. and I take notes.

Here is a short list of the things you need to know about your main character/s before you start writing about them:

1) Looks (hair colour, body shape, eye colour, height, etc) – You don’t have to go into too much detail here if you don’t want to. Some authors like to describe a character’s looks down to the over-sized pore on their chin, others’ enjoy giving only a faint outline, leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.
2) Job – Does his/her job allow them a lot of freedom? Will it make them rich? Are they in a dead-end job that makes them miserable? Perhaps, they have a low-paying job, but it’s one that makes them insanely happy.
3) Education – Education makes a big difference. Educated people talk and think differently than uneducated people, and the higher they’re educated, the “higher” the language. Education also shapes things like diet, sleep patterns, lifestyle choices (the amount of children they have, for instance), what they read, etc. Again, you don’t need to give details, but in your novel, through speech and narration, you’ll want to show your character’s level of education. Remember that not all education is formal. A lot of very successful people are self-educated.
4) Childhood – What kind of childhood did your character have? Happy, sad, abusive? Again, you don’t need much detail, but our childhood follows us into adulthood, it shapes us into who we become. The same is true for your characters. It’s important to know at least a little bit about your characters’ childhood.
5) Relationships – How does your character deal with romantic relationships? Is he a serial monogamist or an incurable womaniser? Maybe he’s a little bit of both? What about friendships? Does she make friends easily, or does she keep everyone at a distance?

What about arc? That, I feel, should develop naturally. Just like we grow as people in real life (or sink to the pits of despair), so your characters’ arcs must evolve naturally as you write. When you try to tie your characters down to a certain arc, try to force their growth or fall (there is more than one character arc), you will end up with stilted, forced characters.

What about personality? The same applies. You can have a faint idea what your character is like, but we are all multidimensional beings, with several different personality traits, if you try to hold your character to the few you’ve written down for him, you’ll end up with boring, predictable characters.

Of course, there are many writers who do it differently, and end up with great characters. There are also many who do it the way I do it, and end up with boring, flat characters. You can map out every detail of your character, right down to the car she drives, and the hair products she prefers, but most pantsers don’t do it. We like to get to know our protagonists (and even our antagonists) like we get to know people in real life.

When inspiration runs dry

It happens to the best of us. One day, we sit down at our desks and have no idea what to write about. We can wait for inspiration to hit us, or we can go looking for it. I prefer going out to look for it. Lately, I’ve been overrun with ideas (I’m not trying to rub anything in here, but it’s like someone gave my muse a kick up the ass or something), but it wasn’t always the case. I would go from site to site, blog to blog, forum to forum, trolling for ideas. Sometimes, something would hit me, more often than not I’d just get lost in a maze of true crime sites.

Writing prompt sites are rarely inspirational – often, it borders on those essay topics your high school English teacher assigned. While they feel familiar, those prompts will rarely lead to anything more than a writing exercise, which isn’t necessarily bad, writing well takes practice, and you have to do it every day if you want to be good at it. Athletes run every day, we write. That’s the nature of our beast.

So what to do when you find yourself sitting at your desk, drumming your fingers, wracking your brain and thinking that maybe it’s time to give it all up? You go looking for ideas, that’s what you do.

Dreams
Stephen King wrote Misery based on a dream he had. I have written short stories based on dreams I’ve had. I have woken up from dreams so vivid and fresh, but incomplete, that I wanted to know, what happens next? Keep a dream diary. When you wake in the morning, write your dream down. Remember to include how the dream made you feel. Emotion is an important part of fiction writing, and you want to hang on to the feelings you experienced in your dream. Don’t just write down “scared” or “happy” – go all out, and describe your emotion in detail. Often that little exercise is enough to kick start you creativity.

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Training your muse

I’m not always fond of using the word muse, because the way I see it you are your own muse, but writers like to give their talent a name, so let’s call it the muse, shall we?

Traditionally the muse is female, but screw tradition. Your muse can be anything you want it to be. Sometimes, we get a say in the matter, other times we really don’t. My friend Sarah Dahl’s muse is a troll. Mine is a short, sturdy man with long black hair, bright blue eyes, tattoos, a little stubble on the face, and a penchant for leather. He’s a bit of a bad boy, forever getting into trouble. I didn’t choose this guy, he just showed up one day. There he was, sitting on my desk, one ass on, the other off, swinging his left leg to and fro, going, “Howzit? I’m your muse.”

The muse, I guess, is the one responsible for your inspiration. He runs off, fetches the people who needs to tell their story, and brings them to your desk (or wherever you sit and work). Other times, he comes back to you alone, but he’ll have the story ready for you.

Often though, the muse just won’t cooperate. He’ll show up late, or he’ll just sit there, twiddling his thumbs, refusing to fetch your story for you. Other times, he’s so stubborn he won’t show up at all.

You have to train your muse to show up at the same time every day, and do his job! It might take a while, but it’s worth it in the end. So where do you start?

Start working at the same time every day
If you are new to writing, you may not yet know when your best writing hours are. Everyone’s most productive hours are different, but most of us can write any time of the day and night when push comes to shove. The idea is though, to start writing at roughly the same time every day – that way, you’ll get into a nice rhythm and your muse will get used to you being at your desk at the same time every day. At first, you’ll have to go fetch the little bugger, tell him to sit down and stay put, but over time he’ll get used to it, and eventually he’ll show up at the appointed hour, ready to get started.

Do not wait for the muse to come to you
I can not stress this enough. The muse is a fickle being, and if you wait for him, you’ll wait forever. If he refuses to show up, get up and go find the bastard, feed him some caffeine, and tell him to do his damned job, or he’s fired. If he just sits there and watches you with his pretty, big blue eyes, ignore him. Start writing anyway. Write about anything, your day, your luscious green pot plant’s life cycle – anything will do. Yes, it will probably suck eyeballs, and it will be painful, but eventually the muse won’t be able to resist and he’ll jump in to help.

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