Dry Spells

Any writer will tell you that writing ain’t always easy. There’ve been reams of articles written about it, and there’s even a name for it: writer’s block. And even when it’s good, I’ve heard it described as sitting down to the keyboard and opening up a vein—a description I completely agree with.

No, it’s not digging ditches. Thank God. I’ve done my share of that. You don’t finish a writing session with sore muscles and aching joints. You don’t have to pop aspirin to get through the next day.

Or maybe you do. Writing isn’t necessarily physically demanding—depending on how comfortable your chair is—but it’ll sure as hell wear you out mentally. And, if  you have eyes that are slowly going like mine are, you might come away from your session with a headache. One of the first things I plan to do if I ever get some pay for this gig is pay a visit to an optometrist.

And that’s when things are going good.

What about when they’re not? What about those times when it seems more like you’re carving each word from stone with hammer and chisel rather than typing them into a computer (or typewriter if you’re Cormac McCarthy)? What do you do then?

I ask because this seems to be a universal question among writers—and it’s one that doesn’t appear to have anything resembling a universal answer. It’s more like you gotta figure it out for yourself. The answer changes, depending on who you’re asking.

There are some suggestions that come close to universal answers, chief among them being: write something every day, even if you delete it all the next day. That’s all well and fine, but I can’t work that way. I write seat-of-the-pants, and if the feeling isn’t there, it’s just not there. I can’t sit at the keyboard and pound out words like some kind of machine. It’s just not in me.

That makes me wonder: am I cut out to be a writer? Will I be like Harper Lee and only write one novel? Well, no, because I’ve written more than one.

All right. So I’ve written more than one. Then why does it feel like I’m crawling through the desert right now, searching for an elusive water hole? Why do I have trouble coming up with posts for this blog, for crying out loud?

I’ve been giving that a lot of thought lately. Part of it, I’m sure, is that I’m waiting for that flash of inspiration. Except, that doesn’t work. With Pipeline (I’m gonna keep calling it that for now, just to give it a simple working title), I didn’t have a flash. I read an editorial and had an idle thought. And, since it was close to NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d unofficially see if I could write most or all of it during the month of November, 2010.

Well, the cosmos had it in for me that month. For a full explanation, read my entry titled “Thermal Creep.” No, it’s not about some guy getting all hot and bothered while he’s watching through your bedroom window. It’s about a very real, though apparently fairly rare, problem that crops up with computers. And it hit mine, putting me down for something like two weeks. I tried writing long hand, but that didn’t work out worth a damn. I can’t keep up with my thoughts and, more to the point, can barely read my writing if I come anywhere close to keeping pace. I think I managed to write a grand total of four or five thousand words in two weeks.

And, the thing is, the story was burning inside me. I had to write it, had to get it on paper (as it were). In the long run, I think maybe that little period did more good than harm, thankfully, because it gave me time to get some good backpressure built up, so that when I got my computer back, I was almost afraid to open the valve. Looking at my spreadsheet I kept for the novel, from November 22, about the time I got the machine back, to January 5, I wrote 35,447 words—and that’s with enough days skipped here and there that I totaled 27 days of writing.

I’m not quoting those numbers at you in order to brag—though it does feel good to say these things. I’m just saying that, when it’s good, it’s very good, at least in my opinion. In something like 75 days, if I remember right, I wrote almost 214,000 words, and most of those sessions lasted something like two hours.

Now, let’s contrast that with what I’ve done since.

Of course, I don’t keep records of how many words I didn’t write on a given day. I’ve started some projects, written some short stories—a couple of which I’ve yet to finish, and may not ever—but on the whole, I haven’t done a lot. As I said, even blog posts haven’t come easy.

So what’s going on? Why does this happen to us?

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else. We all have our different methods of writing. I know that part of my problem was, even after taking a month away from Pipeline, I found it hard to concentrate on much else. I knew the editing process was coming up, and I was eager to get to it. I wrote most of the short stories during this period, and that makes me think that’s gonna be the norm for me when I finish a novel.

I also think that the well was—and still is, to an extent—empty. Unlike a real well, though, this one is slowly refilling. I’ve gotten some creativity here and there—I’m pretty sure about three of the projects I’ve worked on since then will see endings written to them. But I certainly haven’t written over thirty-five thousand words in twenty-seven days. Far from it, I’d say.

Because I write seat-of-the-pants, I think that an integral part of my writing is reading. In other words, I’m kinda like a sponge: I have to soak up creativity until I just can’t hold it anymore, and then I’ll sit down and write. I’m starting to feel that burn these last few days, and I want to get back to work on Spree, which is close to half-written already. I’ve added to the ms here and there since finishing Pipeline, but there hasn’t been a stretch of days where I’m consistently meeting my 2,000-words-per-day standard. I just haven’t felt a creative bone in my body. I want to write. After all, it’s what I do, it’s what I am. But there has to be something there, even if I don’t consciously plan my stories. I think my subconscious is still brewing up this particular recipe.

I’ve been reading a lot. I’ve read all three books in the John Wayne Cleaver series—the ones about the teenager who thinks he’s a potential serial killer. I read Low Town, the crime/fantasy I reviewed last week. I just finished Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, the first book in The Broken Empire (it’s another dark, gritty fantasy), and started on the third Dexter book (I highly recommend them, if you’re late to them as I am ). Plus what feels like about a hundred other books besides. I’m going through almost three a week right now, besides watching movies like they’re going out of style.

In some ways, all that reading and movie watching has made me feel a little guilty. I’m consuming without creating. But I realized, in thinking back over my creative periods, that that’s how I work: I have to absorb a God-awful amount of material before I can make the connections to write my own stories. If that means I don’t put out 300,000-word books like Stephen King, so be it. I know I sure as hell won’t be writing one a month, like the guy who wrote the old Doc Savage books did (his name escapes me at the moment).

So that’s my solution to this conundrum. It’ll likely change over time, because I’ve never felt so directed to write as I have in the last two or three years. I’ve always just dabbled at it without getting down to brass tacks. Now, I’m getting serious about it, pursuing the dream, so I’ll be figuring some of this out as I go. And I’ll be sure and post the solutions as they come to me, as always in hopes that it’ll help someone else. That’s the main purpose of this blog: to hopefully help another writer, even if it’s only to renew their own desire to write.

Now, just briefly, on another subject: this past week at writer’s group, I got back one curious copy from one of the writers there, and I’m wondering if anyone else has come across this: at each and every occasion where I used italics, whoever this was—they neglected to put their name on the ms, one reason I’ll largely ignore comments—noted that there wasn’t supposed to be italics.


I mean, if they’d noted that I was supposed to underline instead, as used to be the case (and I think still is at some publishers), I could understand that. It’s a matter of technicality. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly not the case anymore, since we send things electronically and, even when we don’t, our printers aren’t dot-matrix any longer—it’s easy to tell when something is supposed to be italicized.

But that wasn’t the case here. The note just said no italics.

If you want to get me militant, tell me to change my writing voice. Mistakes I can tolerate. Wordy sentences, yes, please oh please let me know because I don’t want to drag down the reader or feed them irrelevant material. I freely admit that I am capable of putting in passages that interest me and no one else.

But don’t try to change my basic voice. I personally think that’s an insult to any writer. I’m not about to try and change anyone else’s voice, and I don’t want them changing mine. It’s one of my peeves. This particular criticism seems aimed that way, since there’s no other justification for the comments. I suspect I know who it was, but I won’t go any further on that. The aim of this is not to point fingers, but to ask if anyone can explain where this came from.

And, since I’m running long, I’ll leave it off here. I can get going on changing another person’s voice to fit your own and it’s hard for me to shut up. It’s like living your life through your kids. I don’t believe in that, either. Or, God forbid, getting the attitude of “I’ve been published so I know all the answers.” Please don’t let me get that way. I’d rather not ever get published at all than cop that attitude.

And that’s my mini-rant for the week.




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