Series and Series

I went to a panel today (well, yesterday now — on Monday) about long series which was interesting and entertaining. (E-mail Seanan McGuire, who moderated, and tell her she needs to actually write the Ikeamancer series she described at the panel — she thought she was joking but it’d rock. 😀 )

One issue which wasn’t raised other than in passing, though, is that there are two distinct types of series, and the kind of support work one does for each is going to be different.

Most of the writers on the panel had or were working on single-story series, the kind where there’s some single story arc which the series as a whole is focused on resolving. The classic example here is of course Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien never considered to be a trilogy, IIRC; it was written as a single novel, and was published in six “books” organizationally, and in three volumes because, well, page count. But there are plenty of other series nowadays where there’s a single story and you really do have to read the whole thing, in order, to get the entirety of this single story. No skipping, no reading out of order, and if the writer dies in the middle, the whole thing up to that point (both the writing and the reading thereof) has been pretty much wasted because you’re never going to get the entire story. Someone (it might’ve been Seanan, actually [squint/cogitate]) asked whether it wasn’t a lot easier to keep people coming back and reading if each book of the series wasn’t an actual ending, but just the close of the current act. That might be true for some people, I suppose. It’d be interesting to see some good survey data on that. [Scribbles a note for an RTB column.]

The other kind of series, though, is the true episodic series, where each book is self-contained and when you come to the end, you have the entirety of that particular story. There might be some farther-reaching plot points which color all or many future books, and there might be character development which likewise shows in future books, but you generally can pick up Book Six first and read it and understand who’s who and what’s going on. You might feel a bit of confusion if some character or event from a previous book is mentioned, but it won’t be a key point in the current book (or if it is, it’ll be explained) and you’ll generally get almost as much enjoyment out of the book that someone who’d read the whole series up to that point would’ve gotten. A good example of this which comes to mind is Mercedes Lackey’s Diana Tregarde series. Each book or short story is stand-alone. There’s a chronology, and there are mentions of people and events from earlier in Diana’s life in the later stories, but you can pick up any story and get what’s going on, and there’s no point where being unable to read the next one would make you want to smash something.

The clear advantage of this second type, of course, is that if the writer gets hit by a bus at some point, it’d be a very sad thing but at least the readers aren’t left hanging with three-quarters of a story and no clue what was going to happen or how all these dangling plot points and perilous obstacles were going to resolve. and likewise, if a writer just loses that particular muse, or starts chasing a newer and shinier muse, or if the publisher decides they don’t like the numbers from Book Six and therefore declines to contract for the projected books Seven through Twelve, it’s a disappointment to the readers, yes, but it doesn’t leave this ragged, bleeding hole in the series.

A major disadvantage of the first type, or at least the one which annoys me the most personally as a reader, is that if the story is complex enough, you pretty much (or I do — maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired) have to read all the books bam-bam-bam, because in the year or more which passes between books, you forget who’s who and what’s going on and what the characters were planning to do about this problem here, and cetera. Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar books had that problem for me — I read the first one, then a year later I got the second one and had no clue what was going on. So I reread the first one, then read the second one. A year later I got the third one, couldn’t remember the characters or what each person/group had been doing again, so reread the first and second books, then read the third one. Then the fourth book came out and I couldn’t remember…. [headdesk] These books are like two inches thick, so rereading all the previous ones every time a new one comes out is no small undertaking. As time went on, it was more and more difficult to find a large enough chunk of spare time to sit down with the whole stack and catch up before reading the new one. When book four came out, I never did read it, although I bought it. There are three or four more books after that too (technically a different series, but the same verse and chronology, so I look at them as the same series) and although we might actually have those around the house somewhere, I haven’t read them and might never. I really love Harry’s work, and have since Guns of the South, but jeez…. :/

Part of the problem here is that these books are complex, with multiple protags, each with his own goal, own plotline and own set of supporting characters, and for the most part each protag’s storyline takes place in some chunk of the world (or up on the invading alien fleet ships) distinct from the others. (Very similar in structure to most of the Niven/Pournelle collaborations, like Lucifer’s Hammer, for folks more into the harder SF.) So it’s not just a matter of remembering who the protag was and what he was doing — you have to remember all the protags, all the storylines, and which goes with which. I have a mind like a steel sieve when it comes to fiddly little individual data items and couldn’t do that. I’ll admit I don’t have quite such a hard time retaining info about single-plotline series if there’s really a single plotline, with a single protag and only one actual story to keep track of. I enjoy the more complex, braided-plotline books, but when they’re series I just can’t keep track of all the different names and events and info from one year to the next.

And of course, there are going to be distinct differences in the prepping and writing for each kind of series. With a single-plotline series, you need to keep track of the over-all storyline, where the volume you’re writing right now fits into it, which threads from the previous book(s) you’re picking up and furthering in this volume and where you have to lay threads which will be picked up a volume or three later, making sure your greater, series-long plotline progresses just enough and in the right way. At the same time, you need to do all the usual novel-plotting for the current book. (I’m assuming most writers would want to at least kinda-sorta pretend that each volume is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, despite evidence to the contrary in my own reading [cough] and that there will actually be a smaller plot arc over the course of the current volume. In a way it’s just more of the same thing you do for a chapter or a cluster of chapters for every novel, but that difference of scale is a pretty significant one.

Whereas with a more episodic series, you need to keep track of your bible, make sure you’re consistent with all the usual setting and character things from one book to the next, and maybe track one or two threads of a larger event or of character development which run between books. Most of the plotting, though, will be complete within the volume and won’t have to fit perfectly into its place as Act Five of an eight-act plot, or anything like that.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of series. I just thought it was interesting that the second type was pretty much ignored at the panel. It makes me wonder whether it’s a blip in the SF/F genre, or among this particular group of writers, or whether it’s a more general trend in commercial fiction. If it’s actually the general-trend thing, it hasn’t hit my end of the business, for which I am profoundly grateful; there are plenty of episodic series which do very well indeed here, and I’m working on a couple myself — one urban fantasy and the other SF. I know Sean Michael, one of Torquere’s most popular writers, has a very successful series about a private club (which I think is a space station but don’t quote me) called the Velvet Glove, which is episodic. And Laney Cairo’s Liminus Australis series, set in a future Australia at war, isn’t going to be completely episodic, but there aren’t any ragged, bleeding plot threads left at the end of Running the Nullarbor, which is the first book. Aaand… [squint/cogitate] I’m willing to accept that there are probably some multi-volume stories too, although I can’t think of any right now. [duck] So the market’s definitely there for the full range of series types, and I’ll be keeping several sets of virtual fingers crossed in hopes that the situation will remain stable for at least the next few years.

There was also some discussion of protecting your drafts and notes, and a story about how one person’s 700+ pages of series notes vanished with a blown hard drive. Ouch. :/ At any given time, the entire contents of my STORIES folder is on my main computer, my laptop and a flash drive. The laptop and flashdrive aren’t always completely up to date (probably not as often as they should be) but at least my chances of losing everything are pretty slim.

Someone mentioned completely off-site backups, which are a good idea. There are various ways of doing this, but despite some skepticism from one or two people attending the panel, I think GMail works dandy for this sort of thing. Not as one’s only backup option, of course, but if you’ve got other backups too, the chances of everything going blooey all at once become remote.

Wikis were mentioned for organization, and I’ll admit I’ve thought about this too. Right now I don’t have enough info on any one series to make the work of setting up a wiki in the first place cost-effective, but it’s something to keep in mind as the bulk of data and frequency of look-ups grow. I know a couple of writers personally who have wikis for their writing and they seem to work well. It’s just the initial time investment, and then the required obsessiveness to keep everything updated and linked and all; I’d rather save that kind of effort for when I have more than three or four stories in a series. For right now, my notes files are working just dandy.

Oh, and there was some discussion of pitching your series differently depending on how many books the publisher will be willing to buy. So for example, you’d want to be ready to pitch a stand-alone book, a two-book series, a trilogy, a five-book series, etc., explaining how you’ll hack mangle adjust the over-all story arc to work for each length, so the publisher can choose which one they want you to write. o_O Ummm, suuure. Thanks, but I think I’ll stick with my publisher for now. New York is going steadily insane. [bemused headshake]


Goals and Deviations

My publisher had a couple of anthologies with deadlines in mid-April that I was sort of casually working on stories for. I hadn’t made any promises and so hadn’t committed to anything; it was a matter of, “Humm, that theme sparked an idea — let’s see where it goes.” The wordcount limit was 8K in both cases, and as has been happening more and more often lately, as I got into each of the stories it started looking like they were going to be longer. In one case, I think it’s heading for novella-length, which is significantly more than 8K. [cough]

So the deadlines came and went and I shrugged and set the stories aside. No big deal; I can finish them and submit them as stand-alones whenever, at whatever length they end up.

I’d promised myself I was going to get my urban fantasy novel done and submitted (and hopefully published) this year, so I turned to that and started working on it with great energy and determination. I was doing well and had added almost 15K words to it since mid-April and I’m thinking another 15K or so (give or take 5K) and I should be done and ready to break out the sandpaper.

Then a couple of days ago my publisher said that they were still looking for stories for the pirate anthology, and they were also running low on stand-alone short stories. The anthology was the one where the story was looking at novelette length rather than novella, so I figured I could rip out a subplot and bring it in under 8K. Good deal, right? I have another shot to submit this story and I help out when my publisher is feeling a little squeezed.

So I set the novel aside (again) and I’ve gone back to working on the short. It’s a fun story, pirates with a twist, and it’s looking good; I have a better idea where I’m going with it now — letting it simmer in the back of my subconscious has done it some good — and with the modifications I have in mind, it should come in within the length limit.

Of course, my novel is still sitting there, staring at me with an accusing typeface. [wry smile]

It’s said that whenever you get onto the right track, the universe will conspire against you. When you set out to make a major change in some aspect of your life, to move away from some self-sabotaging behavior you’ve been stuck in, when you’re making some real progress, “things” will turn up to try to shove you back into your old patterns. Weird things. A meteor will hit your dog, as Steve Barnes says. It’s not always a matter of lame excuses either — often it’s a matter of being tempted away from your larger goal by opportunities to achieve smaller ones, if only you’ll set the larger goal aside. Or something will come up, a lost job or moving house or a family emergency which takes up all your time and attention, which is a good excuse, not a lame one. These things are important and have to be dealt with. But still, it’s a delay in achieving that big goal.

I’ve been having a pretty lousy year, writing-wise — actually longer than a year. I had a short story come out in December of 2007, then another in October of 2008, then one in January of 2009. That’s really pitiful. I mean, if they were novels I’d be really proud, but shorts? :/ I wrote very little in ’08, almost nothing for the first nine months. That 40K words in two weeks in October was awesome, but that novel (different one from the one I’m working on currently) is still unfinished.

I finally determined to buckle down and get back to writing regularly and submit more this year, including the urban fantasy novel. And I was making good progress on it when the call for short story help went out from my publisher, and I figured, Hey, I’ve got some things I could work with, I can help with that. So it’s a good thing, right? If I finish this short for the anthology and it gets accepted, that’ll be another publication this year, and I can get back to the novel after.

But I’m kind of wondering whether something else might pop up after I’m done with the pirate story.

Having a novel published has been a major goal of mine for a very long time. I’m getting closer to accomplishing it than I’ve ever been in my life, but right now it’s stalled. Publishing another short would be very cool — and it’d be my first anthology contribution — but it’s still a deviation from my larger goal.

I’m focused on the pirate story and I’m approaching the home stretch. I’ll finish this one and submit it, and we’ll see what happens with that. But then the plan is to get back to the novel. We’ll see whether any other really good opportunities to help someone out pop up at that point.

Anyone else bucking the universe? What’s popping up to distract you away from your goals, writing or other?


Naming Oops

So I’m going along working on my new book (and seriously, it’s amazing how much progress you can make when you ignore the internet for days at a time) and I’ve got a little over 40K words when it suddenly hits me that the name of one of my two main characters is the same as the name of one of the main characters — the POV character, in fact — from my last published story. [headdesk] So I picked a new name, did a search/replace and kept going. Although I still catch myself using the old name periodically, so I’ll have to do another search/replace when I’m finished, just to make sure I don’t have one of those mid-text name changes once the book hits publication, ’cause that’s really embarassing.

[I know, that’s one of the things editors are for, but I’ve seen it happen in other people’s books so obviously editors can miss these things too.]

Anyone else here ever done that? Anyone? Show of hands…? [wry smile]

What’s really annoying is that I do keep written track of all the names of major characters in my published and hopefully-to-be-published stories. I have no idea how I missed the duplication, although I suppose having to swap in mid-stream will encourage me to check the Already Used list more carefully in the future.

The second annoying thing is that I used to be able to keep the names of every character I’d ever written in my head, along with characteristics and plotline. Heck, I used to be able to remember the title and character names of every book I’d ever read in my head; that petered out somewhere in my mid-twenties or so, at which point I owned four or five thousand books and had read a lot more. It’s weird that I was ever able to do this, because my memory for individual data items has always been pretty abysmal, other than this one quirk. But still, you’d think I’d at least remember my own characters. 😛

Angie, heading back to the word processor

New Market

Holly Lisle is putting together a new sort of online magazine project based primarily around serials, although with some shorter one-shot stories too, and with issues grouped into “seasons.” She explains it better than I do. 🙂 Anyway, it’s called Rebel Tales, is starting off as an F&SF market, and she has the preliminary writer’s guidelines up.

The guidelines are worth reading even if you don’t plan to submit; she has a refreshingly blunt, take-no-prisoners attitude toward people who submit without following instructions, or without being able to write terribly well, or without knowing what SF or Fantasy actually are, or even what a story is. I got a few chuckles while reading.


More Expectations

Remember how I mentioned a couple of posts ago that the universe has been dropping “EXPECTATIONS” anvils on my head recently? I just got another one (Oww!) and thought I’d share.

I’m reading Sparks of Genius, by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, a book about creative thinking tools used by various genius-type people. It’s really good so far, and I’ll probably do a post about it when I’m done.

This bit caught my eye, though:

The mind’s preconceptions can alter our other perceptual sensations, too. A simple example can be found in Zap Science, produced by the Exploratorium science museum of San Francisco. On page three of this stimulating book is a picture of a pizza covered with a removable piece of plastic labelled: “Mystery smell. Peel off and replace.” The picture conjures in most people’s minds the taste and smell of pizza. But, as the text says, “It doesn’t smell like a pizza does it? It smells like… like… like… How come you can’t think of the answer? Because we crossed up your mental wires. We put a picture of a pizza with the smell of a chocolate chip cookie. Messes up your brain.” In fact, many who encounter the pizza picture find the cookie smell nauseating even though they like both pizza and chocolate chip cookies separately. Our mental expectations mediate perception just as certainly for touch, taste, smell, and hearing as for vision. [pg. 43]

That’s pretty awesome, in and of itself. But it’s also a great example of how our expectations can mess with our perception and enjoyment of what we actually get, if it’s different from what we thought we were getting. If people who expected pizza can actually feel nausea at the smell of a chocolate chip cookie, then it’s even less weird that someone who buys a book labelled Genre A will be at the very least annoyed when they read the book and find that it’s actually Genre B.

People involved in marketing should be forced to study these phenomena.


Sticking the Landing

There’s a Nonymouse over in a discussion on agent pitches at writers’ conferences in Agent Kristin’s blog who just Does Not Get why an agent would require a completed manuscript from a newbie writer. Just does not, no matter how it’s explained. I tried one more time a little while ago and hopefully that’ll make the lightbulb glow, but I’m not betting on it.

This person seems to think that absolutely anybody who sits down to write a novel can finish — that it’s easy, just a matter of having the time. Maybe for them it is, I don’t know. But they’re completely dismissing the possibility that someone who wants to write a novel might actually find that they’re unable to, or that no matter how fantastic their idea is, or how perfect and sparkly their first hundred pages might be, there’s always the possibility that fifty or a hundred pages after that they’ll write themselves into a corner or fall into a pit and be unable to get out. There you go — abandoned manuscript. I think most writers have them. Heck, I have a few myself, and probably over a dozen if you count all the shorter pieces I’ll likely never get back to for whatever reason.

Personally, I’ve yet to finish anything novel length. I’m still cranking away on my current novel-length WIP, and although it’s slowed way down over the last three months or so, I’m still working on it and still have hopes of finishing. But if I do, it’ll be the first time. I have other pieces which were novels in potentia but which will never be finished; I just ran into a roadblock I couldn’t overcome and… there you go. I was headed in the wrong direction, or tangled things too badly to ever straighten them out in a realistic way, or got discouraged to the point where I just can’t bring myself to work on them anymore. I can think of three particularly early attempts (one started when I was thirteen) where I didn’t have a clear understanding of exactly what a plot was when I started writing them; one was actually a series of episodes with whatever connective verbage I banged out before thinking of something new for the characters to do, and another was a lot of characters and motivations who searched hard for a main plot but never found one.

I don’t regret writing any of them, though. They represent tens of thousands of words for the bit bucket, yes — maybe even hundreds; I don’t know because I never kept a tally and I don’t have most of them anymore — but they were all valuable as practice. Every one of those dead ends, no matter how frustrating they were at the time, have contributed to making me the writer I am now. And once I start finishing novels, there’s an excellent chance that the first few of those won’t sell either. As painful as it is to consider the possibility about something I’m currently working on, it is a possibility, and more than that it’s a likelihood. But even if I end up with a novel or two or six in the trunk, completed but unpublishable, those will be practice too, and when I eventually do make it, anything and everything I’ve written will have helped me get there.

Sure, you hear about a writer every now and then who sells their first novel. Sometimes it’s even a bestseller. Maybe Kristin’s Nonymouse will be one of those people, I don’t know. But for the other 99.99% of us, getting good enough to have a novel finished and published is a process, and it includes learning how to actually finish the book. There are a lot of steps in between deciding to try this novelist thing and actually getting a novel published, and every one of them is a necessary part of that process, including learning to get all the way to the end, wrap up the story and stick the landing.


[ETA: comments closed because of spam-storm.]


I’ve thought for a while that a big chunk of marketing (pimping, promoting, whatever you want to call it) is about managing expectations. Recently the universe has been dropping this concept onto my head like a series of anvils — in a review of a book which wasn’t quite what the reviewer was expecting, although she liked it anyway; in a couple of blog discussions about badly-researched historicals; and in a review I did recently for my publisher — so before I go completely comatose from the multiple concussions, I thought I should talk about it.

About twenty years ago, I was a huge Alan Dean Foster fan; I always looked for anything new by him when I browsed the SF/Fantasy shelves at the bookstore. One day I saw a new book of his called Maori. It was set in 19th century New Zealand, which I’d barely heard of at the time, and it sounded interesting. I’d read a few historical fantasies before and this one seemed new and different, so I bought it and read it. And all through the story I was waiting for the “fantasy” part to begin. And waiting, and waiting and waiting. After a few hundred pages I’d gotten kind of annoyed. After all, if this was a historical fantasy, then the “real” plotline probably couldn’t have begun until we actually, like, saw something magical, right? Well, the writer seemed to be taking a horribly long time to get on with it already, and then I got to the end and he never had.

Of course, it wasn’t a historical fantasy — it was straight historical fiction. It was a good historical, but it wasn’t what I’d expected, so I spent the entire time I was reading it waiting and waiting, getting more and more annoyed and confused, and despite its being a good book, I didn’t enjoy reading it because my expectations had been set up for a different experience.

My expectations had been based on a few things. First, it was Alan Dean Foster. I’d never known him to write anything before which wasn’t SF or fantasy, so it seemed reasonable that this was too. Second, it was shelved in the SF/Fantasy section of the bookstore, which is usually a pretty good hint as to a book’s genre. Third, the cover had the words “The epic historical fantasy of the year!” printed on it. So I don’t feel too bad about making this mistake. [wry smile]

In this case, a good book — and once I was finished, I could look back at the book and acknowledge that yes, it’d been a good story and well-written — was ruined for me because the marketing led me to expect oranges and then gave me carrots. They’re similar — they’re both vegetation, they’re the same color, and they can both be described as “sweet” — but when I’m set up to judge a product by its orange-ness, carrots are always going to fall short.

Some historical romance fans don’t know and don’t care that Arthurian-era Britons didn’t use forks to eat, or that Arthur’s knights wouldn’t have worn full plate armor. They’re just looking for a fun romp they can enjoy while kicking back with popcorn, they don’t want to think too much, and what’s fun for them is reading about two hot people having adventures and sex in cool costumes (and no, the women in that period didn’t wear hoopskirts either) and maybe a couple of sword fights. Too much historical authenticity can actually be a turn-off for these folks; they’ve gotten their ideas about what the Middle Ages or King Arthur’s Court are like from Hollywood and they don’t want to be slapped in the face with the grim, dirty, flea-ridden reality of it.

Other historical romance fans are history buffs, or even have degrees in the subject. Having your Regency lady wearing her gloves at an inappropriate time will have them rolling their eyes and writing snarky blog posts. Describing your character as a Florentine Guelph and then showing him cheering the Emperor (unless of course he’s trying to get close enough to slip that dagger between his ribs) would probably get your authorial persona burned in effigy. (And even without the flames, there’ll be more snarky blog posts.) To a dedicated history fan, details are important, and you always have to assume you have readers who know more than you do, so you need to do your research and be thorough about it, and careful to get things right. Perfection is unattainable, of course, but it should always be your goal if you want to satisfy this group of readers.

Both kinds of books have their audience; each kind is preferred by some people and rejected by others. This is good news for authors who like writing one or the other type, but only if you make it clear what you’re writing, so the readers who’d enjoy your book know that it is the kind they prefer. If you fool someone who likes rigorous historicals into buying your popcorn historical, you get their money that one time, but they’re left with a negative experience associated with your name. There’s a good chance they’ll never buy another one of your books, even if you later start writing rigorous historicals. And they might feel iffy about your publisher, too.

Which isn’t at all unfair, because much of the responsibility for marketing the book rests with the publisher, especially if it’s one of the larger New York houses. If you’re writing a popcorn historical and your publisher gives it serious art, and writes the cover copy to emphasize the sweep of historical events rather than the sex, adventure and humor which are its real strengths, the writer is pretty much hosed right along with the readers.

The problem isn’t always a matter of overt marketing, though. Some writers or publishers become known for certain things; if 90% of the books published under a given label have romance plots, then readers will come to expect romance from those books. Even if a book doesn’t have “The epic romance of the year!” printed on its cover [cough] if every other book a person has read by that writer or that publisher has been romantic, then they’ll probably expect the next one to be romantic too. If it’s not, then there’s a good chance that reader will be disappointed, even if the book was excellent for what it was. When this kind of exception to a rule — even an unspoken one — is made, it’s good for everyone, writer, readers and publishers alike, for the readers to have some way of knowing in advance just what they’re getting. If they’re set up for a genre romance and they don’t get one, they’re likely to be disappointed and annoyed. If they’re set up for a mystery or an adventure or whatever the book is, they’re more likely to enjoy the story because they’re not waiting and waiting for the romance while they read, or left disappointed at the end when the main characters shrug and wander apart.

If you’re selling carrots, make sure your sign says “CARROTS” in large, easily-read letters. Make it clear to the orange lovers that you’re not selling oranges, market specifically to people who love carrots instead, and your customers will be happy. If you want to tap into the orange-lover market, get some oranges to sell; don’t try to slip them carrots and hope for the best.

Which seems to be what Mr. Foster’s publisher tried to do, twenty years ago. They knew his main audience was SF and fantasy fans, so they put “Fantasy!” on the cover of Maori, and the bookstores put it on the SF/Fantasy shelves. It went out of print pretty quickly; I don’t know how well it sold, but I’ve never gotten the impression that it was a fan favorite. And that’s a shame, because it deserves to be a favorite of the kind of readers who are fans of historical novels. Even if some bookstores put a few copies over on the Historical shelves, chances are anyone who preferred straight historicals would’ve avoided it because if the “historical fantasy” text on the cover. Mr. Foster and his book were screwed from both sides.

Looking at a list of all his published books, I just realized that after I read Maori was when I backed away from Alan Dean Foster’s work. I still bought some of his books, but I was more likely to stick with series books I already knew I liked, and less likely to pick up his single-title books. He’d been on my buy-on-sight list before that point, and after that I no longer trusted that I’d always enjoy his work. I didn’t even consciously realize it at the time; it’s only now, looking at the timeline, that I see what I did and when. So whoever made the marketing decisions about Maori lost me as one of Mr. Foster’s raving fans, one of the people who bought everything with his name on it. After that, I was only a regular fan, someone who bought his books occasionally. I wonder whether Ace thinks getting my $4.50 for Maori was worth that loss?

What really annoys me is that if it’d been marketed as the historical novel it was, I’d probably have bought it anyway, enjoyed it, and kept buying all of Mr. Foster’s books. That’s my loss as well as theirs.


[ETA: comments closed because of spam.]

Inspiration vs. Perspiration

There’s a discussion going on at Nathan Bransford’s place about what writers owe their readers, in the context of sequels and delays and missed deadlines. It’s interesting in its own right, but what struck me was the thread in the comments about inspiration and the muse and how impossible it is to write anything at all unless the planets are properly aligned, or whatever each individual writer takes as a sign that It Is Time To Be Creative Now.

I’ve run into other writers saying similar things, both online and in writing books and articles. But I’ve also seen writers saying the exact opposite, and it seems to be mostly the full time writers, the ones who pay all their bills with their keyboards, who think that the whole muse/inspiration thing is a lot of hooey and whining. As Mercedes Lackey puts it, all that’s needed is to apply seat of pants to seat of chair and do the work. According to her, writer’s block just means you don’t feel like doing the work, but you get a lot more sympathy and petting if you say you’re blocked than if you say you don’t feel like working.

Me, I’m kind of in the middle. For me, there are times when the words just flow (my fondest writing memory at this point is last October, when I cranked out 40K words of my WIP in two weeks) and there are times when I have to hunt every word down with a flashlight and pliers. I have some techniques I can use to get past a blockage, but they all take focus and concentration, and there are times when I can’t muster either one.

I’m bipolar, which I’ve mentioned before, and my moods (which affect such things as ambition and energy level) are subject to the whims of my wildly veering brain chemistry. When I’m in a low, I can’t scrape together enough ambition or energy to do much of anything at all. When I’m sort of in the middle I’m just like everyone else, and the writing is usually work but I can do it if I decide to, including working through a block.

When I’m in a high, well, it depends what kind. The best kind is what I think of as a productive high — lots of energy and ambition, the confidence to believe I can do anything at all [this is the part known as “mania,” which is where the “manic” part of manic-depressive comes from, and no, it doesn’t necessarily lead one to thoughts of taking over the world 😉 ] and I do some of my best work, no matter what kind of work I’m doing, when I’m in this chunk of my cycle. Some highs are less productive, though, and if I’m irritable (pissed at the world, snappish, no patience of any kind) or if thoughts are racing around in my head so furiously I can’t grab on to any of them, work is pretty much out the window.

[BTW, I have no problem talking about any of this. If anyone is thinking about writing a bipolar character, or is just curious, feel free to post here or e-mail me and I’ll be happy to answer questions.]

Of course, the times I enjoy writing most is when I’m on a productive high. Story ideas pour out, and I have enough focus to concentrate on a single story and make significant progress with it. Even when I’m in the mid-range, though, I can usually manage. I might have to kick my butt to get it into gear, and put in some Seat Of Pants In Seat Of Chair time to work through whatever problems might crop up, but I can do it, and if I don’t it’s my own fault.

Recognizing where I am can be a problem, though. It’s a forest-and-trees thing, where the person experiencing an episode is too close to the issue, and possibly too judgement-impaired, to be able to spot what’s going on. I don’t know how often it’s suddenly hit me that, hey, I’ve been depressed for a while now. Or, wow, irritable high! Sorry, everyone! (The recognition usually hits after the fact, unfortunately, when I’ve shifted back a bit and my judgement is better.) So there are times when I’m trying to make the words come and they just won’t, I can’t focus enough to work on a story because there are six or ten other ideas all shouting at me from behind my eyeballs, and trying to chase them down is just pointless and frustrating. I’d rather do that, though, than not try to work when I could if I only would try, you know? Although I’m not successful at making that happen a hundred percent of the time, either. :/

That’s me. It’s hardly ever boring [wry smile] but I deal with it as best I can, and occasionally I crank out a story I think is pretty good.

How about you? Where does your opinion fall on the inspiration-vs.-perspiration scale, and what do you do about block?