Friday, September 5, 2014

The Care and Feeding of an Author

This blog is about my writing experiences, and for other authors and would-be authors to pick up something I've learned over the years.  However, today I'd like to depart from my usual format and offer something different, for non-writers.

If you have a friend, child, parent, or other loved one that is a writer, I'd like to offer some suggestions based on my life and the support of my family and friends.

The first thing to understand about writers is that we're a fragile, uncertain bunch in all but a very few cases.  We're insecure, uncertain, and nervous about our writing.  Its sort of a mix of major highs and lows, alternating between confidence and joy... and fear and misery for most authors.  Sort of like this:

The author on a good day

The problem is that writing is a very lonely sort of endeavor.   As we work, we have no feedback, no way of knowing whether something works or doesn't and cannot get that feedback without someone reading the work.  But its not ready to read yet, full of errors and in need of editing.  And until we finish a scene, it won't make sense anyway.  And besides, that scene is only understood in context of the previous parts of the book and go away, I'm not done yet.

So we're left uncertain: did this work?  Am I doing something new or boring?  Is this character convincing?  Did the mood carry across properly here?  Will people like this or am I just wasting my time?  But then the author reads back and goes "wow this is a lot better than I hoped, I might be able to do this!"

Pete Townshend wrote a song in the 70s called "Guitar And Pen" that is about songwriting but really does capture this sense very well:

When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you're kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they're worth keeping, they're not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say

When you sing through the verse and you end in a scream
And you swear and you curse 'cause the rhyming ain't clean
But it suddenly comes after years of delay
You pick up your guitar, you can suddenly play
When your fingers are bleeding and the knuckles are white
Then you can be sure, you can open the door
Get off of the floor tonight
You have something to write

When you want to complain, there's no one can stop you
But when your music proclaims, there's no one can top you

So if the writer you know seems schitzo or manic depressive, there's a reason. They are fighting something inside them and trying to get something out on paper that's new and fresh and powerful, and they aren't sure they can do it.  Please be patient.  If they really are a writer, if they really have the talent, then something wonderful is inside them fighting to get out and onto that page.

Go away, I'm writing
You have to be patient with your writer.  They're struggling with a significant task every time they write a book.  They can only write in their way, which might be very frustrating and even confusing.  Often writers will run off to a cubby hole and write all by themselves, disappearing for hours a day.  

They will tend to be daydreamy, thinking about their characters and setting.  They may pester you with ideas and sections of their book, hoping to get feedback.  They may be very moody, sometimes being very happy and others being curled up weeping and their reasons will make no sense at all to you.  Be patient with them, its a very difficult process, especially with their first book.

Calvin gets distracted
At the same time, you have to hold them accountable.  Its too easy as an author to use writing as an excuse to not do other things, or to be moody and distant.  Being a writer does not somehow give me a license to be unsociable, lazy, or rude.

And further, writers need to be held to the fire.  Because there's no boss, deadline, or pressure to work as a writer, it takes self discipline to keep going and focus on a single project.  Writers are flighty and easily distracted.  They will claim "writer's block" when what they really mean is "I want to be on Facebook because I'm afraid this next section is too hard to write."

They need your help to stay on the job, your encouragement to keep writing, and your support to face each new chapter.  Every writer that means to do this seriously needs to finish their work.  Not work on it a while then do something else, then start a new project, then play Skyrim, then watch a movie for "inspiration."  They need to bear down and get it done.

This doesn't mean working over a keyboard for 15 hours straight without food, but it does mean they need to ignore distractions and keep going on a project to finish it off.  A writer that never finishes a book will never be an author.  They will never have a book to show off and feel accomplishment from.  They will never feel the soaring joy of having someone else read their work, they will never know what it is like to have people take them seriously as a writer.

Each writer has their story to tell, though.  And as much as you might want to help, or contribute, or offer your great ideas... don't.  Unless they point blank, in plain English, specifically ask you for ideas, don't.  Let them do their job, their way.

Tinkerbell doesn't want your help
Its not that you can't have great ideas, I have no doubt you do.  Its that they have to come up with this story and fit everything together like a 150,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and it only fits together with the right pieces.  Your pieces might be brilliant and fun and visionary, but they're for another puzzle.  It almost certainly will not fit in the writer's puzzle.

So try to restrain yourself from offering "brilliant suggestions" to how to make the book better or stuff you want to write about but don't have the talent or drive to do so yourself.  Unless they really want you to help them, please keep it to yourself.  At best it will be distracting and confusing, and usually leaves the writer in a very uncomfortable place of not being sure how to respond without hurting you or sounding rude.

Your writer will probably want you to read and critique their book.  A lot of the time this is a bad idea.  Its difficult to be objective, for one thing (my little boy is a genius!!!!), and when you are objective, sometimes its very difficult to be able to critique honestly and openly.  Sometimes you can be too close and any criticism hurts too much.  Usually, non-writers are not great editors, and your suggestions only lead to problems or confusion.

A good writer is open to criticism and questioning of their work.  An honest writer knows they aren't good enough to be perfect and above any question or critique.  But all writers are human, and some times we don't respond very well, or like we ought.  I try very hard to be open and humble to anyone's suggestions, but sometimes I react poorly.

Other times, people have criticisms that just don't comprehend what I'm trying to do.  So what you see as a problem might actually be a feature.  If you say the book is too sad, maybe that's exactly what they are trying to write.  If you think the plot is contrived, maybe you didn't understand what they were striving for.  Still, a good writer will take feedback and consider it - maybe what they were trying to do wasn't clear enough.

And, sadly, sometimes, people are writing who aren't writers.  They just don't have it in them to craft an interesting, unique book.  They are trying and they have all the right tools, sometimes even the jargon and the technique from endless classes and books.  But they just aren't writers.

In this case, be supportive, but don't buy into their dream.  Don't fund their vanity publishing project, don't pay for that Larry Elmore cover, don't help them advertise their awful book.  They will very likely find something else to do instead.  And when they figure out, finally, that this is not their calling, be loving, comforting, and supportive, not mocking and contemptuous.  But be absolutely certain they are not any good; not just new at it, not just rough and raw, not just a style or genre you dislike, but genuinely without talent or hope.

Because just because you don't like a book, genre, or style, doesn't mean its bad.  And just because someone can't spell or has mangled grammar doesn't make them a bad writer.  Those are skills that can be learned.  Writing is about an ability to communicate and craft stories, even if they're spelled atrociously.  They'll get better.

Writers need love too, maybe more than most folks.  We aren't very good at showing it, most of the time.  But we do.