Part-Time Writers

I know people who write full time and make a living at it, but most writers have to have a day job, or other financial support, so that they can pay the bills and provide for their families. They write when they can — between patients, early in the morning, instead of TV — a police officer by day and a writer of romances by night, as it were. 

My day job is household management.  My wife has an outside job, to provide our living, and I stay home and run the house. It’s a good job, from six in the morning till eleven at night — though not straight through. I am not paid in money, but in kind: a place to live, a car to drive, food, clothes, books, movies, insurance, trips to conventions, and the computer. It’s what my mother earned in the fifties, while my father earned his living at the advertising agency. 

My day job is usually flexible. I can choose when to do what needs to be done, and I’m able to write when the time is best for me, and for as long as I want, my muse permitting. 

Like so many writers, I write part-time, but a writer is what I am. My day job is just what I do for a living.

Another Form of Success

I know a few writers who don’t depend on traditional publication. They write what they want, have lots of fans, and know how to please them as well as themselves. One or two make a living at it without the need for other employment.

Those who support themselves have to work quickly, but they have the skills. Their imaginations are impressive. They pretty much do their own editing, and even distribution. They all have to produce marketable works. And they have to know how to promote. Not everybody can do all that.

Those who can write good stories. They have their own styles. Their characters are sympathetic and believable. The plots make sense and are frequently surprising. The situations and settings are interesting. The stories are internally consistent. And the endings leave you wanting more.

These few writers may not have the sales numbers of those who are traditionally published, but they are real writers by anybody’s definition. They enjoy another form of success. And I enjoy their company.

Revisions

Many writers have said that they love writing, but that they hate editing and revising. I’ve never felt that way. 

Writing is original creation. It’s hard work, and it’s exciting to see something grow out of nothing. Editing is looking at what you’ve made, realizing that it’s all a jumble, and doing your best to turn it into a story other people will want to read.

But it must be done. If you spend all your time just making first drafts of new stuff, nobody else will read it, or want to, and neither will you after a year or so. You need to take up a different set of tools, and make something good out of it.

There are a few writers who have created only a sketch or rough or first draft, then turned it over to a collaborator to finish it, and to then do the editing and revision and correction and polish. And it works, to the benefit and satisfaction of both. But I would never do that. Nobody could make the story be what I want it to be.

It is hard work, dealing with the wrongness, the mistakes, the holes in the plot, the inconsistencies, the continuity errors, the wrong words, the — hell, the junk and garbage. But I want to get chills when I read that final draft. It tells me that what I’ve done has been worth my time. So I do all that hard work until it really feels right.

It takes more time and effort than raw creation does. But every draft makes the story a little better, and after a while it comes together, and when it does, and I can visualize it, feel it, know the characters as people, share the emotions, get caught up with the flow, and then I get chills. Even if I reread it the next day. I get an immense feeling of satisfaction.

The story I’ve been working on recently gives me lots of opportunities to find satisfaction. Lots. But that’s okay. More chills every day. And as each page and scene and chapter finally comes all together, I know that I will have created a reality that other people can experience. And that makes it all worth while.

The Idea File

I used to hear writers complain about the people who ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve been asked that, but not so much any more. Maybe it’s because the people I associate with, even if they aren’t writers, already know a version of the real answer. It’s not the snide put-off: There’s a shop in Poughkeepsie where, for ten dollars, you’ll get a list of five good story ideas, or its variations.

The real answers are different for each writer, but many of them are something like: It’s not where do I find them, it’s choosing the best one at the moment, out of all of those in my head. It’s recognizing a good idea when it comes along, because of the way it resonates, the way it won’t leave me alone, not because it’s clever.

I knew someone at college who had a card file of ideas. He had five of those green library boxes with drawers, which could each hold five hundred cards. I don’t see many of those any more either. He was so proud of them. Every time he got a story idea, he wrote it down on a card, with a key word at the top, and filed it away.

I don’t know how many idea cards he actually had, surely not as many as twenty five hundred. But he just hadn’t gotten around to actually writing a story yet. Too many ideas, not enough story.

Ideas come to me all the time. Most of them I forget about at once. Every so often, an idea just won’t go away. That one I write down so I can stop thinking about it. I have a few of those somewhere. But sometimes, an idea will grab me so hard, that I have to actually sit down and start developing the story right then, even if I’m already working on one. That happens only once every couple-three years or so. 

I am working on three books at the moment, code named The Empty House, Star Kings, and Soul Stone. When I run out of steam on one of them, I switch to another. I’m making progress on all three. 

Who needs another idea when you’re writing three novels simultaneously? I have all I can deal with at the moment.

A Sort of Success

I’m a storyteller. I am full of stories, usually novel length, that I want to write, for myself and for other people. I have published some of these the traditional way, but as I grew to know myself better, I became less marketable. My stories (novels) were too short, or too long, or with no clear genre, or too slow to start, or whatever, and checking a publisher’s guidelines suggested, too many times, that I shouldn’t even submit. Unless I twisted the story to suit what they wanted. Not what I wanted. 

I had stories that I really, really wanted to see in print, but unless I forced them to conform to editorial demands, — or, really, marketing department demands — then they would never get out there. One time it took three years for an editor to reject a novel. I was in my sixties then, and just didn’t have time for three-year rejections.

So I gave up traditional publishing — they didn’t want me anyway — and decided to learn how to publish for myself. Long slow stories, character growth and development, something between fantasy and horror and science fiction and real life.

I’ve sold a few. I’ll never be rich and famous. But I have fans, who really like my work, and who want more. So, I guess, in a strange way, I am a sort of success after all.

Every Book is Different

Every book is different. Not only the stories, the plots, the mood and tone, but even my working methods are different. Instead of sketching and drafting the whole novel, then going back to develop, simplify, tighten, expand, check continuity, consistency, and completeness, all the way through, then revision and corrections and polishes, as I usually do, this time I am hammering out each chapter of Soul Stone one at a time, every step up to a good clean draft. And I’m editing and revising and checking continuity as I write, instead of doing a clean pass all the way through. This is so different from the way I usually work, and I don’t know why I should be doing it this way.

But every book is different, in construction, form, atmosphere, demands, and even methods, as in this case. I have learned, the hard way, to work as my muse suggests, not according to somebody’s principles, even my own. This forging the story, chapter by chapter, is what’s working for me now. If I try to plan ahead (I do have an idea of what the ending is about — more or less), then I go off track, or stop cold, and can only throw those plans and pages away. And if I move ahead without finishing a chapter, when I go back to it I make changes that invalidate parts or all of the chapter following. For this book, forging this way works all the time.

One story at a time for Star Kings. One story-chapter at a time for The Empty House. Maybe I’m just evolving.

It’s been a while …

I have not been posting lately. I have been deep in my current project, working title Soul Stone, and by the time I quit for the day, I have no creative energy left.

Writing a blog post is not something I do ad hoc, off the cuff, one draft then post. I put as much effort into it, word for word, as I do into my stories: Sketch, developed rough, clean draft, revisions and edits, lots of polish. I try to devote Saturday mornings to it, but trips, health, social commitments, family obligations, demands of the current novel, and real life have been keeping me from it.

I don’t have as much creative energy as I used to, even ten years ago, and as I get older, there’s less and less. I start about 6:30 in the morning. If I’m lucky, I can do some work after lunch (which is at about 11:00). More usually, I stop just before lunch. Some days I run out of steam long before that. Some Saturdays I don’t have the energy to even put a final polish on a post I’ve already written.

My stories are so important to me that, even when I can no longer write, they churn away in my mind, in the back of my head, and I have little interest in anything else. So this is not an excuse, it is just by way of explanation. I have not forgotten. I hope to have something more interesting to say next time.

Trust Your Muse

I am learning, once again, something I have always sort of known, but which I keep on forgetting. It is that, for me at least, writing from the head, guided by intellect, doesn’t work. Intellection has its place, in development, revisions, and corrections, after at least the first draft of the story is finished. 

What does work for me, is writing from the heart, or from the gut, from something inside, guided by feeling, not by thought. Some people might call it inspiration, and I have been struck by inspiration, one time, when I wrote The Planet Masters — seventy five thousand words in eight and a half days. 

I’ve always known that I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I would wait forever. What I have to do is be receptive to the whisper in the back of my head, that which comes from my heart, my gut, the chill down my spine.

I first started what I call Soul Stone in 2010, and wrote three good chapters, just going with what came to me. Then I wrote sixty thousand words from my head and came to dead stop, a victim of intellectual ought-to and disregard of character. It took me eight years to figure out what I had done wrong. I kept the first three chapters, threw the rest away, and carried on from where I should have left off.

I created a new and marvelous and complex setting, with which I expected to have a lot of fun, and tried to explore it, but no matter how wonderful a setting is, it isn’t a story. The setting is still there, but I’m not using it. 

I wrote a series of chapter objectives, things that each chapter had to accomplish, and superficially they were right. But the story was a robot, it never came to life. I threw it all out. 

I tried other ideas, a but each was only an idea, none of them informed or supported a story. I had forgotten to listen for that whisper. Every attempt to anticipate future chapters failed. My character grows, discovers truths I didn’t know about, experiences events that come by surprise — to me as well as to him — and makes those future chapter ideas irrelevant. 

I think I know what the ending is about — one of three possible endings — but I’m not going to tell you. I did know was what my latest chapter was about, and I finished it, and now I have stopped for a while, to deal with a soul-crushing to-do list.

When I get back to the story, I will know from the gut or heart or spine what the next chapter will be about, and it will move forward when I pick it up again. This has happened several times already. But not now. I need a break, to let my unconscious work on it for a while. At least, that’s the whisper that I almost hear.

And I have to trust my muse, whatever a muse may be. What I write with that trust can be improved and shaped later, by applying acquired skill. But the story comes from somewhere else, and raises goosebumps all over my body. I can feel it working now.

The muse never strikes, except by surprise. But if you listen carefully, you can hear it whisper.

Work for Hire

Writers who do work for hire are sometimes considered to be rather marginal. I’ve done it, when I was asked to do it by an editor, and I was paid quite well for it at a time when I couldn’t seem to sell any fiction. Believe me, that work was not at all marginal. It was a text book on computers, not programming, and I revised half the chapters to bring them up to date. That was a long time ago. I’m proud of what I accomplished, but I don’t include it in my bibliography, and when I was asked some years later to do it again, I refused. That refusal ended my career as a non-fiction writer.

Writing fiction for pay — not the same as being paid for what you publish — is suspect. Are ghost writers really writers? Are lesser-known writers who are paid by famous authors to flesh out their outlines really writers? How about artists for paint for hire, like, say Michelangelo, or Joshua Reynolds? 

I was hired, in a way, to write three novels based on the “V” tv series. I did not enjoy doing them, but one of them turned out to be a best-seller. I was asked to contribute to the Elfquest anthologies, “Blood of Ten Chiefs,” which I did enjoy, and was included in all five of those which were published.

How about those who are under contract to magazines or newspapers to write fiction, such as Dickens or Dostoevsky? Are they working for hire? How about the writers who are contacted by a book editor, who wants stories based on an idea he had. I have several on my shelf. Were they working for hire? A number of writers were told by a magazine editor to write a story based the cover illustration he had. Where do they fit in?

I think you can see what I mean. The line grows blurry. I think it’s just a line in the sand. If you write, you are a writer.

Real After All

A friend of mine once insisted that people who who publish by other means than with a nationally recognized publisher aren’t really writers. His publisher is nationally recognized, and he is, by this definition, a real writer, and very successful. Small presses with limited distribution and small print runs are suspect. Vanity publishing isn’t really publishing, and doesn’t count by anybody’s definition. It is self-publishing which made my friend angry.

I can understand that. There is so much mediocre, poor, bad, and garbage writing out there, writing which has not been vetted by a professional editor, that it can be difficult to find something worth reading. There is, of course, bad writing and storytelling put out by traditional publishers too.

But think think about it. If traditional sales by traditional means are the only definition of being a writer, or poet, or artist, so many who are recognized today aren’t, “really,” what we think they are.

Emily Dickinson can hardly be thought a poet, as fewer than a dozen of her more than 1,800 poems, were published in her lifetime. We don’t think of her as being just a recluse and dilettante. Franz Kafka certainly couldn’t be considered a story writer, per se, since he instructed his literary executor to destroy all his work — which, fortunately, he didn’t do. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life, so you couldn’t really call him a painter. 

Which is silly, because they really are those things, aren’t they. And so are the rest of us.