Off My Lawn! Steven Harper vs. The Solitary Writer

SteventreeSteven Harper (Okay, Canadians, settle down–that’s Steven, not Stephen) is one of my colleagues from SF Novelists and his new novel, The Havoc Machine, is the fourth novel in the Clockwork Empire series.

He Tweets, speaks Facebook, and has a web site about the Clockwork Empire series and his other writings here.

Here’s a picture of him alone (unless you count the tree) as he very kindly joins us today on Off My Lawn! to take on the myth of The Solitary Writer.

Marcel Proust famously lined the walls of his bedroom with cork to shut out the world because the slightest noise wrecked his concentration and stopped him from producing even a word. Writers, he claimed, must work in solitude. Indeed, writing by definition is a solitude-heavy profession laden with lonely people.

Virginia Woolf agreed with him, to an extent. Woolf maintained that in order for a woman to write fiction, she needed a certain amount of wealth and a room of her own. Solitude.

Oh, if only.

I’m a single father of three sons. During the time it took me to write the above words, I had two conversations. For the first, my youngest son danced into my bedroom office room wearing nothing but a Spider-Man cap and a smile while he sang, “See my butt!” to the tune of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s “Be Our Guest.” For the second, my middle son stormed in to complain that his little brother was singing naked in the hallway outside his room.

I wrote my steampunk novel THE HAVOC MACHINE under six months of these conditions and worse. While I was busily putting the adventures of Thad and Sofiya into words, I was interrupted for homework help, argument moderation, requests to play soccer, transportation to music lessons, and several bouts of “Hey Dad–are you busy?”

I can hear Virginia Woolf gleefully pointing out how right she was. See? All those interruptions just hurt writing! But here’s the thing:

Every other weekend, the boys go to their mom’s house, and I =do= get solitude. A whole weekend of it. You’d think I’d be rolling up my sleeves and really pounding out the words, right?

Nope. I don’t produce any more wordage when the boys are away than I do when they’re at home.

I think it’s the interruptions that allow us to write. They pull us into the world, keep us grounded in reality so we can produce proper fiction. Utter solitude might have worked for Proust in his cork-lined room, and Woolf may have yearned for a room of her own, but ultimately, it’s the writing, not the situation, that create the book.

Havoc Machine Cover2About The Havoc Machine

In a world riddled with the destruction of men and machines alike, Thaddeus Sharpe takes to the streets of St. Petersburg, geared toward the hunt of his life….

Thaddeus Sharpe’s life is dedicated to the hunting and killing of clockworkers. When a mysterious young woman named Sofiya Ekk approaches him with a proposition from a powerful employer, he cannot refuse. A man who calls himself Mr. Griffin seeks Thad’s help with mad clockwork scientist Lord Havoc, who has molded a dangerous machine. Mr. Griffin cares little if the evil Lord lives or dies; all he desires is Havoc’s invention.

Upon Thad’s arrival at Havoc’s laboratory, he is met with a chilling discovery. Havoc is not only concealing his precious machine; he has been using a young child by the name of Nikolai for cruel experiments. Locked into a clockwork web of intrigue, Thad must decipher the dangerous truth surrounding Nikolai and the chaos contraption before havoc reigns….

Off My Lawn! Linda Nagata vs. “Stop before you’re done.”

red first lightI have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.

Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:

There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.

To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)

Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!

I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.

We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.

But myths about writing? Those are universal.

The one that annoys me the most has several variations:

* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.

What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”

For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.

Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.

To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.

Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.

Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.

Off my Lawn! Jaine Fenn versus “Write every day!”

I am just beginning to know Jaine Fenn because we’re both members of SF Novelists. She is a British SF writer who studied Linguistics and Astronomy and had a career in IT before swapping financial security for the chance to tell tales about how the future might be. Her Hidden Empire series is published by Gollancz. Downside Girls is hot off the presses as of two days ago, and is a set of interlinked stories set in her Hidden Empire universe. Here’s the cover:
Jaine Fenn Covers

Today, on Off My Lawn, Jaine talks about the advice, often give to aspiring writers, to write every day.

One piece of advice commonly found in writing ‘how to’ books is ‘Write Every Day’.

Okay then! Soon as I build my time machine I’ll get right onto that.

Apparently Stephen King writes every day. This grand master has lots of
useful advice:

So if a ‘Write Every Day’ regime is good enough for him then surely it should work for you and me. Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me.

Firstly, there are not enough hours in the day. Most writers have families and/or day-jobs. We like to see our friends, to engage in hobbies and go on holiday. We generally require more than two hours sleep a night. For many of us, if we don’t cook/clean/shop/child-wrangle then we’ll end up starving/drowning in kipple/unwashed
underwear/feral children. Finding a significant amount of keyboard-time in our schedules isn’t always possible.
Ah, you may say, but you have to make time. Fine. I refer you to the second paragraph above. And if you’ve already got a time-machine, I’d like to borrow it please.

Often we end up snatching the odd hour or two, and if writing isn’t our main source of income, even that can be fraught with guilt. But yes, an hour is better than nothing. Of course it is. And even if you don’t make it to a keyboard, you can – and should – still be developing stories in your head.

Which brings me on to the second reason I don’t write every day, the one unrelated to excuses and a chaotic lifestyle. The one that comes down to how creativity works.

The act of creative writing has been likened to drawing water from a well. If you keep taking the words out – if you make yourself produce several thousand words every single day – you may well find that after a while all you’re bringing up is mud.

This isn’t true for everyone, but for those of us not blessed with Mr King’s prodigious talent, the well of creativity isn’t bottomless. It needs time to refill.

When up against a deadline, I can write three thousand words a day. But if I do that for too many days in a row then, deadline or not, those words are not going to end up in the finished story. They’re just noise. For some people, making that noise is a good thing, especially when they first start out. You might subscribe to that school
of thought, and write every day despite the sure knowledge that some days you’ll only dredge up mud. But that doesn’t work for everyone.

For me, it’s frustrating when what turns up on the page is wastage. I might learn some lessons from it, but it won’t earn me a living – nor should it, because no one wants to pay for mud. And I could have used that time to clean the bathroom.

Every few days, even on deadline death-marches, I’ll find myself vacuuming the stairs, or digging the garden, or just going for a walk, but in my case this isn’t just writing avoidance. I’m waiting for the well to refill. Ideas need time to ferment, plots to coalesce.

On a Venn diagram of ‘writers’ and ‘OCD sufferers’ you’ll find a big overlap. Writers are good at setting up, then knocking down, mechanisms allowing them to almost write every day. We reorganise our lives, then find creative reasons not to write, and often punish themselves for not doing so. When I was writing Queen of Nowhere I was in the interesting position of writing about an obsessive while behaving obsessively, and I found a few insights there, I can tell you.

Fortunately, it being my fifth book, I had my coping mechanisms in place. I did not write every day, and I did not punish myself for not doing so. I still made my deadline.

So, if you’re someone who has learnt enough of the craft to get the basics down and has a busy life, instead of “Write every day,” the advice I’d give is to write regularly. It might just be a few hours on Saturday mornings, during your lunch break on days when the job isn’t too crazy, or an hour or two while the kids are at school,
but schedule it in.

If you’re being paid to write to a deadline you’ll be able to justify that time, but even if no one is paying you to write your story put aside some time, regularly, to write. Just not every day.
Thank you, Jaine! What do you think, folks? When and how often do you write?

Here’s a little more about Downside Girls: The floating city of Khesh rests above the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. For the Topsiders life is about luxury and opulence, while for those of the Undertow day to day survival takes precedence. Khesh City is a democracy by assassination, where the Angels – deadly state-sponsored killers – remove those unworthy to hold office. When Vanna Agriet accidentally spills her drink over an Angel it could spell death, but instead it leads to a rather peculiar friendship.

Next Big Thing

In lieu of a writing lecture or an Off My Lawn essay, today, I give you this: the incomparable and fantastic Jessica Reisman has tagged me in the “Next Big Thing” meme. Here are her answers, about Deep Terrain. Which I’ve read, which means you may all now be jealous of me because it’s a furling diamond of a book, packed with sparkle and wonder.

1. What is the title of your Work in Progress?

I have a trilogy coming out from Tor Books, set in the same universe as my novelette “Among the Silvering Herd.” The first of these is (currently, tentatively) entitled Child of the Hidden Sea. The second one, which is the book I’m actually working on right this minute, is called Daughter of No Nation. I think it can fairly be said they’re still both in progress.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

A few years ago, after the eighth or ninth family funeral, sometime after I had finished Blue Magic and realized it had a quite imposing body count, I set out to find myself a project that would be nothing but fun. (Fun for me, you understand, but also fun for readers.)

I did a lot of thinking, then, about the things I always write, the things I find fun, the character traits I most admire in my loved ones, the books I like to read and basically everything I find cool, compelling, or adorable. I thought about writing books that would have adventure! And sex! And the ocean! And alternate worlds and serial killers (okay, slightly less upbeat there) and old lady spies and child geniuses and all the splendor of the natural world and nations of reformed pirates who claim to have gone legit and magical sailing ships and at least one character of jaw-dropping, unsurpassed, make-the-room gasp physical beauty. Those of you who’ve read “Among the Silvering Herd” already know who I’m talking about.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

I call it other world fantasy. Ecofantasy also, once again, does apply.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Gale Feliachild would have to be Helen Mirren, with a very butch haircut and not a British accent.

Clydon Iblis Banning is Paul Gross. And by that I mean Paul Gross now, chewing scenery and looking lascivious but also waving a big sword around. Did anyone else see him in Eastwick? OMG. That.

Sophie Hansa? Dunno. I have yet to see a 24-ish actress with bigtime comedy chops, curly brown hair, the shoulders of a swimmer, and more cute than you can shake Paul Gross’s sword at.

As for Captain Parrish, I think we discussed this here, once. I will try to find the thread for you soon.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

When marine videographer Sophie Hansa goes in search of her birth parents, she finds herself on the world of Stormwrack, caught up in the attempted murder of a government operative who might also be her aunt, and hunted by pirates who think she may hold the key to breaking a hundred year old peace compact enforced by an immense magical warship known as Temperance.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am blessed and delighted to be able to say this is my next project for Tor Books, and that my agent Linn Prentis sold it to Jim Frenkel earlier this year.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Well! With the first book, I wrote a few chapters to give my editor an idea of what I was planning. And then I had created this fabulous universe to play in. But what if the book didn’t sell? So I wrote “Among the Silvering Herd.” And then another story. And then I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and I wrote a few more chapters of the first book. And then I wrote another story… A year later I had a novel and five stories, plus fragments of other things. So, really, who the hell knows?

With the second, sixteen weeks, with the help of the Clarion West Write-a-Thon. That’s the difference between waiting to find out you’ve sold something and suddenly having delivery dates.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Actually, I see overlaps with Jessica’s novel: ships and banditry and adventure are part of the picture in both series. M.K. Hobson and I also write about similar things, often, though the end result is nothing alike–magical goo and the intersection of science and magic and enchantment fueled disasters and now–I’m a chapter or so into the rocking and delightful The Warlock’s Curse–slavery.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Stormwrack is a world with two hundred and fifty island nations, each with their own microclimate and unique ecology. These nations are the Galápagos Islands on a world where there’s almost nothing but ocean. Those islands, the people who study and film them, and Darwin’s travels there were key sources of inspiration.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There will be humor! And romance! And people trying earnestly to do science that might explain a world (or possibly a future Earth) where you can raise the dead and magically ‘tame’ a volcano or turn someone into a giant. I am having an obscene amount of fun writing all of these Stormwrack pieces, and the idea is for all of you to have a blast reading them.

I am tagging Hobson on this. Here’s a link to her Goodreads giveaway, and the beautiful Warlock’s Curse cover:

Off My Lawn! Cat Rambo vs. Writer’s Block

Cat Rambo and I met doing Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings at a bunch of conventions through the zero years, mostly Pacific Northwest events like Orycon and Norwescon. I’ve thus heard her read fantasy, horror and science fiction, and one of the things I admire most about her, besides her multi-genre range, is her ability to tell a story quickly that will cut right through all defenses and into the hearts of her audience.

Cat has a new collection of SF stories out… really, it’s more properly two collections. It’s called Near + Far and here’s the NEAR half of the cover:

Cat Rambo Near and Far

Today on Off My Lawn, Cat’s tackling the difference between writer’s block and waiting for your Muse to come.

Ah, writer’s block. Writers in films certainly seem to suffer from it, whether it’s Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction or Billy Crystal in Throw Momma From the Train.

They can’t get started, the words don’t come. The muse is out to lunch, and has left no forwarding address.

I’ve got mixed feelings about such portrayals, because they make me feel guilty. Sure, I acknowledge there are valid sources of writer’s block: illness, mental trauma, general life upheaval. But the truth of the matter has always been that even when I’m languishing at the keyboard playing Bejeweled Blitz in an attempt to get my creative juices stirring, I still know: I could be writing, and should be.

Yes, writing that comes easily, breathlessly, spilling onto the page as though you were channeling Calliope herself, is sometimes wonderful. And the writing that comes with difficulty, as though you were scraping the words out of the top of your skull with a melon spoon, may not be great. But there are always words to write, even if they’re “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again.

Part of the my philosophy of writing grows out of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bone. For Goldberg, writing is the most important thing. It is the act of having written that matters, not what you’ve produced. And I agree, because the day after I’ve forced to write, it’s easier to do so, while the day I spent conquering the world in Civ 3 made me, if anything, less fit to write.

The blank page is scary. It’s a large and unguessable territory. It’s easier if you go in with a plan of action, a list of sights and scenes and senses you want to hit. But sometimes you have to trust yourself just to write and see what comes out. Because the brain gets bored with saying “I don’t know what to write” over and over again. It starts tossing out wild and entertaining notions, comes up with odd and unscripted moments. That’s often when you’re best in touch with that unknown side of you, that side that will never face you directly but will manifest best and most brightly in your writing. Learn to trust that hidden side to supply you with details you can excavate in rewriting. Learn to collaborate with yourself.

I don’t have the time or patience for writer’s block. Writing is what I do and unless I do it every day, I’m not happy with myself. Sure, some words are crap. But some are good, and the more I write, the better they are.

When I was at Hopkins, one of my teachers was Stephen Dixon, who had something like 14 or 15 books at the time. Whenever you talked to him in the hall, you knew what was going on in his head: “We could both be writing.” It was sobering how devoted to producing the text he was – in those pre-computer days, he just typed his manuscripts over and over, refining them with each pass, until he was done. Think of how much easier we have it now.

So yeah. Writer’s block? Maybe. I don’t want to offend anyone with categorical denunciations. Let’s just say sometimes it might be real – but sometimes it’s an excuse. And I just don’t have a lot of patience with that, anymore.

Near + Far is full of stories. I could have had twice as many in it. They’re stories that could have stayed in my head, much more perfect, elegant and beautifully realized than their actuality. Or I could do what I did: write them and get them out of the way, making room for more to come.

Here’s the Far cover for Near + Far

Cat Rambo Near and Far

(Previously, on Off My Lawn – Write What You Know?)