Math Things That I Need To Stop Doing

[-stands up on podium-]

Hi, my name’s McKelle, and I’m a reader/writer/artist who can’t seem to stop doing math for the things she reads/writes/creates.

Problem #1

How old were you when you first got published?

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Step One: I read a book I really liked.

Step Two: I wikipedia the author and find out his or her birth date.

Step Three: I research the date of publication of his or her first novel (sometimes the one I read, sometimes not).

Step Four: I subtract the year of publication from the year of birth to determine how old the author was when their first book was published.

Step Five: I add it to the growing list of author ages, which I then average out to determine the EPA, or Expected Publication Age.

Step Six: I start freaking out because I only have SIX MONTHS LEFT to somehow make that cut off. (A FEW WERE EVEN YOUNGER THAN ME OMFG).

I really do this. It’s a bad compulsion I can’t seem to stop. And the worst part is, many of my favorite writers were publishing at my age (or often younger). But writing is unlike other professions. For one, you don’t have to get it right the first time—like, for example, a brain surgeon. For another, it’s not the Olympics; it’s not something like if you missed it by age 19, too bad so sad. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world – at any age.”

Problem #2

How long should a book be and how long should it take you to write it?

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Step One: Determine word count of good book. Tricky. Wordcounts are not typically advertised. You can convert e-books into PDFs, copy and paste into a Word document, and check word count there. You can estimate that each page contains approximately 250 words and calculate that way. (There used to be Text Stats on Amazon, but no more).

Step Two: Compare to your book.

Step Three: Compare to your unwritten books.

Step Four: Try and calculate how long it took author to write said book (also tricky, because you have to minus out production time, which isn’t writing time).

Step Five: Freak out and beat yourself up if you’re not writing a similar pace, or if your book is nowhere near the average wordcount for the genre.

I have a mental log detailing whenever a published author announced how much they typically write in one day.

Jack London wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.  Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, “and only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”  He finishes a 180,000-word novel in three months. Raymond Chandler agreed:  “The faster I write the better my output.  If I’m going slow I’m in trouble.  It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.” Shannon Hale kicks out a 40,000 word novel incredibly fast, and then spends all her time rewriting and rebuilding what’s there. On the other hand, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full has about 370,000 words, and it took him eleven years to write it. “My children grew up thinking that was all I did: write, and never finish, a book called A Man in Full.”  That many words divided by that many working days in a year indicates he averaged 134 words a day. J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words.  It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page.

You see? Why do I know all of this? I have a problem. Clearly, there is no set solution, and the only way out of it is to just write the damned book. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The one certain thing is you must write, write, write every day.”

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Where’s your heart?

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Generally, with my posts, I try to either write a book review, give a writing tip, or spew some personal philosophy on my current career choice. This one will be a little of all three.

So I recently started an eight-to-five sort of job working on the staff of a children’s magazine.

I like this job. It’s creative; I love the publishing process, editing, going through submissions (which, with children, is a special hoot); I get to write; the people I work with are nice.

Still, it’s an hour commute both ways and this will sound pathetic and whiny to most of you (because it is pathetic and whiny), but the 6:00 am—6:00 pm days were kicking my trash. Are kicking my trash, I should say (it’s getting better). The first night when I got home, I was sure I would have no problem falling asleep at 7:30 pm. But I needed to write.

So I just . . . did. I opened the document I wanted to work on, pledging at least 500 words, and as I worked, instead of tiring more, I started to feel refreshed. I knew I would do this for the rest of my life, no matter how unsuccessful or successful I ended up.

It made me think of this quote by Gloria Stein:

“Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Now here comes the book review part. I’ve been reading a book called The Man Who Talks With Horses. It’s an autobiography of Monty Roberts, which I picked up in the first place because I based Gatsby’s (a main character in my upcoming novel) horse training techniques on Monty’s. Surprisingly, it’s really good. I mean, the man’s life is interesting, but usually I don’t like autobiographies because while the person is interesting, the book is not well written. But Monty hired a pretty-dang-skilled writing partner (Lawrence Scanlan) and the finished product is great. Go read it.

Anyway. The reason it relates to what I’m talking about. Monty is like . . . a mini-legend with horses. Not only with his training techniques, but he’s been winning in rodeos and horsemanship shows since he was four years old. He’s just good.

When he was a teenager, he did a short stint giving workshops called “Learn the Secret of a Rodeo Champion,” which would supposedly tell kids what they needed to do if they wanted to win. Then he makes the aside comment that there was no secret, that no special talent had been bestowed upon Monty Roberts. The secret, he said, was that he was obsessed. He took to horses like a holy calling, knew very early and with a lot of conviction: this is what I’m going to do. He said most kids his age rode a couple times a week, maybe the weekends, but he was with a horse often for seven to eight hours a day. At least. For them, it was a hobby, it wasn’t their life.

Writing is the same. Nobody can tell you how to succeed at writing (even if they write a book called “How To Succeed At Writing”) because there is no WAY; there are, instead, many ways. The difference, I think, is the level of conviction in a writer. Do they love writing? Or do they just like it okay? Are they obsessed? Do they need to do it above all else?

Look, there’s no reason to get weird about it. Please don’t write a poem in your own blood or worsen the already bad reputation of the writing community by offing yourself.

But this is a path for the brave and the loyal. At some point, you’ll need to find another reason to work than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place. If you’re wondering if you’re ever going to make it, judge how bad you want it—judge where your heart is. If it’s something that’s just semi-important, that’s fine, but don’t be disappointed if you meet with semi-okay success.

All I know is this: when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I was very bad at it. I’m right now only slightly less bad at it than when I started. But I am obsessed.  If you decide to write, then you must do it, as Balzac said, “like a miner buried under a fallen roof.”

Good luck.

In the meantime . . .

. . . don’t fail as a human being.

Sorry we’ve gone a whole two weeks with zippo blog updates. I was working on three (count ’em), three deadlines, only one of which was self-imposed, and got a little bogged down. Until Proven is now officially on its first round of edits, my ghost writing MS is shined for agents and A Merry War was ready to go just in time for Pitch Madness.

But now that’s all done.

A few days ago, I was driving home from my (third) job–third not counting my own writing as paying work, at least not yet–and yawning at the wheel. On the weekends I work all night long doing custodial work to help cover rent costs after my (amazing and worth it!) trip to England kind of sank me. So anyway, it’s a little after 6 AM and I’m going home and as I’m driving along past a Starbucks, I see three girls in signature green aprons, huddling outside on the sidewalk and looking behind me at Utah’s impressively high mountains. What are they doing? I wondered, and then I realized they were waiting for the sunrise.

If you live by high mountains, then you know the sky gets light far before the sun actually shows itself (and it takes a while to get fully dark after the sun sets). I felt a sort of camaraderie with these girls, also working during these ungodly hours, who probably didn’t aspire to be baristas, but maybe CEO’s or pastry chefs or even writers like me.  So I turned my car into the mall lot, parked going the wrong away along three yellow lines, and watched the sun rise with them.

I’ve had a lot of weird menial-labor un-enjoyable jobs over the years. Some–like summers spent as a ropes course host or a Girl Scout camp counselor–have been a lot of fun. But others . . . like my brief stint as a telemarketer to pay for my speeding ticket or the job at the bakery where I had to go to work at 4 bloody AM and suffer through a supervisor who always redid my roses on the cakes because they weren’t good enough were somewhat less fun.

The closer I get to achieving my goal as a writer, the harder it is to endure these jobs I need-but-do-not-like. In his awesome keynote address for the University of Arts, Neil Gaiman said, “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

It’s tempting, as an artist–of any caliber, writing or otherwise, to throw down the gauntlet and say, “I REFUSE TO DO ANYTHING NOT MOVING ME TOWARD THE MOUNTAIN,” and get a little bitter about the necessity of staying there.

But. (there’s always a ‘but’).

There’s more to life than writing.

I know, I know. (Traitor! hissss)

Roughly six months ago, I inadvertently got some advice that was maybe the best thing I could have heard about trying to make it as a writer. It was an author interview and the student asked the author, in slightly desperate tones, what he needed to do to make a living as a writer, what were all the tricks he needed to know? What are the real chances of being able to support yourself as a writer? How can an unknown outsider get a fair shot?

The author answered like this: “Don’t be intimidated. If you’re good enough and smart enough and persistent (i.e., brave) enough, you’ll make it. If not, then with luck you’ll realize it in time to get on with another job that will enable you to support your family and have a good life.

There are worse things in the world than not making it as a writer. Not making it as a human being, that really sucks. Not making it as a writer almost doesn’t matter, compared to that.”

For me, at the time, it was like getting cannonballed in the stomach. Writing was the only thing I wanted to do. Envisioning a career where I could write all the time kept me up at night in a half-desperate fever and envisioning giving up made me sick.

But this just made me think . . . if you have to do janitor work while you write your stories, that’s not a big deal. Relax, Joe.

If nobody but your best friends and your family ever read your stories, well . . . there are worse things.

Be a good human being first and everything else is sort of secondary. Go after your mountain with everything you have, but in the meantime, don’t let it destroy the things that are really important.

What Not To Think About–How To Fail

In brief, unrelated news: I’m back from the UK!

In more related news, I came across this article on my Facebook feed and found myself snarkily disagreeing with everything (as I am wont to do). It’s called What Not To Think About When You’re Writing. There are many good points to what this author is saying, and I’m not disputing the wisdom of her words as much as I am, in my guilt, defending my own inability to comply to these demands.

1. Don’t think about yourself and your life.

Toughy.

In my introverted, daydreamy, sensitive way of looking at life, I find this one especially hard. “To write successful fiction,” the article tells me, “do not indulge in endless fantasies about what the piece of writing you are working on is going to do for your current state of existence.”

Well, why not?

On the one hand, yeah, vanity might effect the writing in a negative way. But rare indeed is the writer with a huge ego and overabundant self confidence. Most of us–not all, but most–are going to find it difficult, sometimes extremely so, to face endless rounds of rejection and say, ‘Doesn’t matter. I know I’m good enough.’

I say, go ahead and think, even while writing, “Damn right, this gonna be a bestseller.”

2. Don’t think about the Reality Police

Okay.

I admit this one I only disagree with for myself. There are plenty of people I’ve edited for and critiqued where I just want to smack them and say, Move ON, man. “If you get [the reality police] in your head while you are writing, you can get derailed. You lose sight of the story and focus on minute details.”

For me, an entire story can turn on the trick of one tiny, minute detail.

Furthermore, in doing proper research–in getting those little details just right even before I sit in front of my word processor–I get a thousand more story ideas than I would have without.

Nurse those details; ground your story in as intricate of a reality as you possibly can.

3. Don’t think about the industry!

Again–I must ask the question: why not?

I do agree that following trends like a puppy won’t get you very far, except maybe six inglorious weeks under a signified sign at Barnes and Noble next to the bestseller you’re mimicking. I also think everyone should love a story for the story’s sake.

But. But. 

It’s not the industry, it’s your industry. Or if it’s not, it should be. There’s an old story told about a physicist’s son who couldn’t complete the morning equation his father always gave him. The next day, the physicist asked, ‘Haven’t you been tossing and turning–trying all different ways to figure it out?” When the son replied in the negative, the father, kindly but sadly, said, “Well then perhaps you shouldn’t be a physicist.”

No one ought to know the book business better than you, because books are what you do. It’s what you breathe.

The industry is indeed an ever-changing, disloyal, beautiful thriving creature who will eat you as soon as love you, but if you’re not at least a little bit in love with it, maybe you shouldn’t be a writer.

A Labor of Love

If I start this little nugget by saying writing is hard, probably a lot of you will throw various food items at your computer screen in disgruntled annoyance. No kidding, genius, you’ll say. If it was easy, I’d be writing the next tantalizing chapter instead of wasting time on your points-out-the-obvious blog.

So let’s all agree upon the foundation that writing is hard.

It is because it’s hard that writing must, above all things, be a labor of love. Love for yourself, love for the very act, and love for what you’re writing. When an infant cries in the middle of the night, for the fourth time, the mother doesn’t get up—exhausted and delirious—out of pure self will. By her unfettered discipline does she rise! No—she gets up because she loves that gosh darn crying demanding overwhelming speck of human life that is totally dependent on her.

No amount of will or self discipline is going to continually get you out of bed unless, first, you love this crazy, crazy bizz-nass we call writing.

First, love the writer in you.

Any act of creativity basically means you’re also going to do it wrong in some way first. And then after, again. All the time. Give yourself permission to write bad—sometimes your writing will disappoint you. Sometimes you laziness will always disappoint you. You will say, “I’m not leaving this desk until I finish 1000 words,” and then you’ll waste two hours on Facebook.

Also, realize that every writer ever, that I know of, thinks they suck. We’re all failures, funnily enough. Deciding to keep writing after emerging from a smog of self-loathing must come from a place of kindness and forgiveness and, yes, love.  Elizabeth Gilbert said that, “One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.”

Which leads me to the next point: love the act of writing.

Don’t write to get published. I know that sounds obvious, but we all do it. We’re writing a great scene and we’re thinking, “This is going to look so sweet in the movie version that’s totally going to happen after this book outsells Harry Potter and Twilight combined!”

But the fact is, a rare percentage of us are going to get rich off our writing. First of all, nobody knows anything. Publishing is such a fickle thing. I’ve gotten into this really bad, neurotic habit where every time I read a good book, I look the author up on Wikipedia and I subtract the date of their first published book from the birth date to find out how old they were when their first book was published. Most of them were around my age (I’m 24) and this only panics me. My panic follows two strings: one, I’m never going to be better than what I am—I’ve hit my limitation of mediocrity. It’s like, if I wanted to be an Olympic sprinter, I could go outside every day and run my little heart out, but I’d still never be fast enough—it’s just not in me. My other train of thought usually happens when I pick up a published novel and think, “I could write this! I could be this successful writer!” (Certain porno fanfiction-turned-romance novels that shall-not-be-named sometimes spur these reactions.) 

These are both dangerous, and incorrect, ways of thinking.

Once upon a time, after years of struggling to get his films made, an Italian filmmaker sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog, saying how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter that essentially said: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

In other words, if you’re feeling resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated, just remember: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.”

And finally, love what you’re writing.

Don’t try and follow trends. As Neil Gaiman says, “Make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do . . . the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

Above all, tell a good story. And it will be good, no matter what it’s about, if first and foremost, you are excited about it.

So, as Jackie DeShannon would say, “put a little love in your heart,” and keep writing, writers.

To Be a Writer

Are writers born or are writers made?

I’m inclined to say both, though I’m definitely of the made variety, and self made at that. It’s true that a certain type of person is more inclined toward the writing life style. Perhaps introverts who are empathetic and intuitive and disorganized in their lives. Even though the project of fiction consists of giving causal order to a chaotic universe, you have to thrive in chaos in order to create truly living fiction, and as Orson Scott Card says, “you have to be able to delude yourself into thinking that you really understand people and why they do the things they do.”

You need to, as I do, be able to draw energy from being alone. Writing is a lonely profession in which you must endure long periods of solitude without flinching—and even enjoy such times. A book is never really written by only one person, but the hard, monotonous part of the work—like the slave driven donkey being forced up a mountain—belongs solely to you and usually must be done alone.

On a more practical level, you must be a delicately balanced combination of confident and self-critical—to learn from your errors and improve, but also have enough guts to continually send your work out for publication. Anyone who puts a word to paper could be called a writer, but many fail because they never learn any better than their first attempts, and then give up because they’re insecure about those first attempts.

I took a class studying the art of the short story once, by the poet Laureate in Utah. One of his nonfiction essays combined a series of moments in his life all illustrating something he’d learned about death. It was a beautiful essay, but I couldn’t help thinking, Yeah well, if those things had happened to me, richly interesting essays would pour out of my fingers too.

I was joking, and this professor responded to my question, “So are you just born with a poet’s heart, and if you don’t have it, too bad?” by saying:

You must train yourself to see life as a writer.

Neil Gaiman has said: “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

It is the sacred duty of a writer to pay attention—to notice life. And to remain, against all odds, in the present. On the days where I feel like my solitary and artistic choice of profession is a little self-indulgent, I think about the primary contribution great books give to people, or at least to me, and this is to tell the truth. Fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales—it doesn’t have to be couched in reality to tell a truth. In fact, sometimes truth is more effectively presented in obvious fiction.

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So, I think maybe after we’re done reading a lot and writing a lot, one of the best things a writer can do is observe. You’re presenting life to other people in way that will hopefully mean something to them. You’re the channel. The translator, the mediator. To quote Elizabeth Gilbert: “We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope.” Understanding what you’re seeing is a tricky skill to learn, and even trickier to present it in an entertaining but honest way to others.

But that’s your job as a writer.

The Cubicle is Chasing You

I had a writing professor once who said part of the reason he never gave up while he was in grad school was the cubicle that chased him right over his shoulder. I pictured this floating desk monster thing hovering in the air, sucking like a vacuum. And maybe laughing with this deep throaty sound as it chased after its sprinting, panting writer victim.

It’s nice to think you can spend your whole life suffering and trying with your art, but the reality is, at some point, you have to support yourself. Get a real job, as they say. And if you’re a writer, then the chances are you aren’t good at anything else besides writing, which means you can expect some low-level entry job that maybe a high level primate could do just as well. Hence, the cubicle monster.

You run from it because if it catches you, that’s it, you’re done. You must do whatever writing you can within its bonds and while not impossible, this is always more difficult. I don’t mean to imply that while you’re struggling to make it as a writer, it’s blasphemy to work somewhere else, doing something else. It’s not. What I mean is, nothing but a full-out sprint, or in other words, your very best effort, will produce much.

Except for that one. That rare exception. As Anne Lamott says, “We do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”

That being said, if you worry about the cubicle over your shoulder, I invite you to draw inspiration from . . . Arnold Schwarzenegger. Fo real.

1. Trust yourself

Don’t wait until you know who you are before you get started

2. Break some rules

Steal like an artist

3. Don’t be afraid to fail

Create volumes and volumes of crappy work

4. Forget the naysayers

No one can do the work you do except you

5. Work like hell

Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done)

6. Give something back

Write the book you want to read, and make your art for those you love and those you’d love to meet