View from the end of our street, February 22nd, 2019

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Burden of Being a Writer

          "When you're a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of a normal person.  There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something.  But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer.  He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there's this cold observer who cannot cry."
                    ~ BRIAN MOORE
          Let's get one thing perfectly clear:  I am a hobbyist author.  For most of literary history, the term "author" has described both a professional and his or her profession, and by no means has that profession fallen by the wayside.   But now, over the past decade or so, through the magic of the internet, it is the case that anyone can write anything they choose and, without regard to whether they have any idea what they're doing, make a few mouse clicks, and voila, their opus is for sale on  These are the hobbyists, myself among them, who publish 5,000 new books every day.
          Those 5,000 new books run the gamut from "How does this guy not have a book deal?" to "This guy is unable to form a sentence in the English language."  The only statistic in question is how many of us admit that we're hobbyists, and how many put that unedited, virtually unreadable first-draft up for sale, and immediately list "Author" as their profession on their tax return.  But there is one area in which the professional and the hobbyist are indistinguishable.  I refer here to those hobbyists who have put at least some level of effort into learning The Craft.  You've taken a class, read some how-to books, or otherwise made some effort to grasp the basic principles of what you're trying to do.
          Once you understand how plots and characters are created and developed, you always have one eye out for another author's technique.  Now, when I read The Sword of Shannara, I'm no longer just on an epic quest through the wild with Shea Ohmsford.  Part of me is standing behind Terry Brooks watching his technique, second-guessing his choices, trying to understand why he gave the reader this critical piece of the puzzle now, and not earlier or later.
          You are told what the author feels you need to know at the time you need to know it.  That's all well and good, and when you are immersed in a tautly-crafted read, you aren't even aware that you're reading; the experience being described in the book is going on around you, and you aren't just reading.  You're hearing the twig break in the darkness, smelling the prosecutor's harsh after-shave lotion, and even though there is nothing to hear or smell, you are there!
          Compare this to what happens on a movie set.  The camera is dollied along a suburban street, and you as the viewer take in the details of everything from the house numbers to the garden gnomes, and maybe wonder what sort of life is lived in this house or that.  But those houses are only the fronts, plywood cutouts hung on scaffolding, and as a writer, part of you is constantly trying to pull back the veil and see how this other writer built his scaffolds.
          I myself write in third-person viewpoint, which means I tell a story in the form of "he did this," and "she said that," but I'm not completely omnipotent.  Each scene has a "viewpoint," a character through whose eyes that piece of the narrative is told.  I aim for 80-100 scenes, generally four to a chapter, with plot twists at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter marks, and never more than six viewpoints.  The majority of the story is told through the eyes of the Protagonist, with a lesser number of scenes falling to the Opposition, the Confidant, and the Henchman.  My protagonist always has a distraction going on, rats in the basement, so to speak, while he's trying to deal with the wolf at the door.  Sometimes this distraction takes the form of a fifth character, and on rare occasions, I'll use a sixth just to stir the pot, but never more than that, and when I see a well-established professional introduce that seventh main character, I'm out of the plot.  I want to know why, what story point made it necessary, what was the author trying to accomplish, did she succeed, how did she make it work?
          And that's the burden.  You're a reader trying to have a good time, but you're also a writer trying to improve your own Craft, and how better to do that than to crack the code of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Michael Crichton?  If you're a writer, you know that it never stops, and it does interfere with your enjoyment.  I can't say whether it's worth it.  Financially, certainly not.  I often joke that one month, my book sales paid for my internet service, but that isn't really a joke.
          But as a hobbyist, it has been very much worth doing.  I have a number of writing friends that I get to rub elbows and compare notes with, and the feeling you get when someone tells you in person, or better yet, posts a review praising your stellar work and divine skills is worth almost any sacrifice it might take to get it, even if the numbers aren't that great.  And they won't be.  I have turned down a book-signing, a couple of conventions, and a radio interview, because even though the chances are infinitesimal, there is that fraction of a percentage point of possibility that some unsuspected event could catapult me to celebrity, and I don't want to live that life.  I'm happily retired, have a great relationship with my family, and that's the way I want to keep it.
          Doesn't mean I don't carry the burden, though.  How about you, my writing friends?  Do you experience anything like this?  Leave a comment, and let's explore how it affects you.

*          *          *

          In other news, Den of Antiquity is set to release over the coming weekend.  A dozen members of Scribblers' Den, myself included, contributed short steampunk stories to this anthology.  The theme of the stories was to include a "Den," be that a cozy room in one's home, an animal's lair, or a den in the sense of a den of thieves.  This will be sold on at a modest price, and in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, all proceeds will go to Red Cross Disaster Relief.  All of which means you get to have a good read and do a good deed all at the same time.  I will have full details of the purchase options in my next post, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, so whether you're a dyed in the wool steampunk aficionado looking to sample some lesser-known voices, or you're curious about the genre, and would like to dip your toes in around the edges, this is a great opportunity for you to add some excellent works to your library without cleaning out your wallet.  Check in here next Tuesday, or if you can't wait that long (I hope!), visit Scribblers' Den or many of the fine blogs in the sidebar on Saturday for opening-day announcements.
          And on that note, I'm going to skedaddle.  I'll have the house to myself today, which means some more work on Stingaree will be getting done, so I need to do a little housecleaning and run an errand so I'll be in position to take advantage.  Be here next Tuesday for the anthology, and of course my scintillating blog post, have a great weekend, and always remember to read well, and write better!

~ "Blimprider"


  1. Great post, Jack. Actually one of the biggest mistakes I've seen (and even made in my early days) is to go to a convention or do a book signing with the idea that it would catapult me to that next level, whatever it will be. It won't happen. The reason to go to those things is to have fun interacting with fellow readers and writers. If you do have fun doing those things, they're great. If you don't, you probably shouldn't go. There are lots of great and successful authors who make few, if any, public appearances. By the way, I read my preview copy of Den of Antiquity last week and really enjoyed your story.

    1. Good morning, David. First of all, thanks to you, and everyone who took the time to read and comment. I think I'm viewing it in exactly the opposite way that you are. I don't attend cons and so forth in the hope that they will make me a star. I avoid them in the fear that they might. There are stars out there, and something launched them. I don't know what those somethings were, but it seems a good policy to not court something that you don't want. Plus, I prefer people in small groups.

      So glad you enjoyed Brass & Coal. That was really a step outside my comfort zone. My take is that I failed to really hit the comedy notes I was trying for, but it's not a bad story for all that. I can't wait to see what everyone else thinks of it. My computer had a fit when I tried to download my copy, so I haven't seen anyone's yet. I'll be seeing them with virgin eyes tomorrow. The Jackalope Bandit is a great title, speaking of comedy, and I'm looking forward to a fun read there.

  2. I've just read the latest book from one of my favourite authors, and am still digesting it. I've come to grips with her style over 8 or so books, so I get swept up in the narrative now without getting too caught up in HOW she did it, but I know what you're getting at. While I was doing a lot of exhibition reviews (when there was still some money in the arts in Australia) people used to ask me how I enjoyed the shows if I knew I was going to be writing about the work... Then again, I'm an artist myself, and figuring out how someone made an object or drawing is part of MY craft too... Ultimately, I think as makers (and given my background, that's how I see myself as a writer too) we are always going to be curious about how someone else tackles the technicalities of the craft. The real trick, as for any other craft, is how we learn those tricks and then create something that's ours and original, rather than a pale copy of something by someone we admire...THAT'S the eternal challenge, isn't it? Finding our own voice, creating our own handwriting, so to speak...?

    1. What? My new book isn't out yet! No, seriously, I get that. With close to 40 books by R.A. Salvatore in my wake, I have come to love and expect certain aspects of his style. The last book of his that I read, The Last Threshold, saw him depart so far from his literary home base, that I have not yet returned to the series. I have read about various reasons for him doing this, from tiring of the series to rebellion against some draconian demands from his publisher, but there's a lesson there for series writers everywhere.

      And there's one of the lessons I've learned from an established author: You cannot get so big that your fans won't turn on you, and if you've found success with a certain formula, change it at your peril. And thus another bit of knowledge goes into my Personal Style, and R.A. Salvatore's experience enters my writer's DNA. Incredibly enjoyable, this challenging journey!

  3. Great post, Jack. I'm at the other end. I hope to make this a career (albeit a poorly paid one). I do writing courses, read books to improve. I understand this will be a hard slog.
    I still get excited when someone buys my book. Conventions are fun; I get to chat with fellow authors, get tips, get contacts and have a grand time. I love meeting and interacting with my readers. It gets me out into the real world again.

    1. I wish you the best of luck in that aspiration, Karen. While the odds are, indeed, against you, people break out of the pack and find success every day, and there's no reason you shouldn't be one of them. The beauty of writing is that while you're waiting, it is a most enjoyable and satisfying pursuit to engage in for free, and nothing you learn on the journey is wasted. So yes, by all means, attend every event you can reach, accept every interview, keep improving your Craft and keep it out there in front of readers every day. Before you become dominant in any field, you must first become known.

      By the way, I still get excited when someone buys my book, too. The validation that comes when someone finds your work, your humble effort, worth paying money for is indescribable. But of course, if writing is in your blood, you write no matter what. It's nice to be recognized, though, and readers of this comment should pay special attention to Karen's story, All that Glitters, in the anthology being released tomorrow. There's a good likelihood that she's going to be a strong voice in the genre, and this is a great opportunity to say you knew her when...