BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVIII: STILL WRITING

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

 

About a month ago, I started my post “My Bad Short Bad Book” with the following:

I sat on a panel at the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference and the moderator had a copy of Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. She referenced the book a few times and recommended it, so I wrote down the title and bought a copy almost immediately after getting home.

I’ve just started reading it, and already have a feeling you’ll be seeing a longer, more detailed recommendation from me here in the next few weeks, but for now . . .

And now here it is, the more detailed recommendation . . .

Grove Press, 2014

Grove Press, 2014

Still Writing is presented as a series of short essays on the writing life from an author I’m not sure I have a whole lot in common with. Dani Shapiro writes memoirs and book reviews, the former I prefer not to write and the latter I’ve promised I never will write, but she also writes novels. I’ll admit I haven’t read any of her books, but have placed her novels on my to read list after reading this incredibly insightful book. Though we come from different worlds in terms of the material we write, I felt alternately surprised, amazed, comforted, and vindicated by the number of places in which her advice and my own overlap. What was more valuable to me as a writer (if not as an egomaniac) were the fresh ideas—the things I hadn’t thought of, or hadn’t thought of in quite that way before.

To give you a sense of her remarkably candid and readable style . . .

The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.

Personally, I have never been gentle with myself—maybe that’s something I can try to take away from Still Writing.

Still, our approaches align in a number of different respects, as in this passage that might remind you of my own “Write in Ecstasy, Edit with Intent”:

Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? Do you need to know which exit on the interstate has a rest stop? Can it wait? It can almost always wait.

I’ve bemoaned the sorry state of my old laptop, a circa 2002 Mac Book that is no longer capable of running anything but a long-outdated version of Word (which is why you might see .doc rather than .docx files from me, but who’s counting?), but when I came to this section in Still Writing, it made me realize how this machine has actually become more useful. It’s become a sort of digital notebook, a single-use device for writing, incapable of connecting to the internet:

One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which many of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key we can remove ourselves and take a ride on a log flume instead.

By the time we return to our work—if, indeed, we return to our work at all—we will be further away from our deepest impulses rather than closer to them. Where were we? Oh, yes. We were stuck. We were feeling uncomfortable and lost. We have gained nothing in the way of waking-dream time. Our thoughts have not drifted but, rather have ricocheted from one bright and shiny thing to another.

In “Writing Without Typing” I talked about how some portion of your writing time is spent not actually creating words. I wrapped a coin in a little Post-It note, but one thing I didn’t do was open up Facebook or Google “writer’s block.” I stayed in the moment and rode it out.

You might want to consider, if writing longhand doesn’t work for you, buying a cheap old used laptop, finding a crusty old version of Word, and using this same kind of digital notebook that has become my go-to writing machine.

Other advice in common, which Dani Shapiro offers in regards to minor characters, but I say is true in all things: “There is no such thing as filler or local color in life, nor can there be on the page.”

If you want to write, you have to read. I alternate between five books at once, and add other media to that wellspring. I’ll let Dani Shapiro explain why that’s a good thing:

Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. It will remind you that you are a part of a vast symphony of writers, that you are not alone in your quest to lay down words, each one bumping against the next until something new is revealed. It will exhort you to do better. To not settle for just good enough. Reading great work is exhilarating. It shows us what’s possible.

Everywhere I can I try to convince you to appeal to the five sense, and here Dani Shapiro does a much better job of explaining why that’s essential:

Write the words “The Five Senses” on an index card and tack it to a bulletin board above your desk. […] When it comes to building a character, to grounding one in a place and time, ask: What does she smell right now? What does the air feel like against her bare arms? Is there a siren in the distance? A slamming door? A car alarm? Is she thirsty? Hung over? Does her back ache? Not all of this needs to end up on the page. But you need to know. Because knowing your character’s five senses will open up the world around her. It may even unlock the story itself.

Then there’s just some good advice in general:

And know that every rule you’ll hear in a writing workshop is meant to be broken. You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fall.

Now, there were a few moments where I had to disagree with her, like in this assertion: “Unless we are writing a whodunit, or an intricately plotted thriller—writers rarely know where we’re headed when we start out.”

In my experience I’d say more than half of authors know precisely where they want to end up, even if they get a better idea along the way and end up elsewhere. I guess it could be I just hang around with a bunch of fellow outliners, but this idea of beginning a novel having no idea where you hope to end up just seems like madness. Madness, I tell you . . . madness!

This may account for why it takes her so long to get through a novel: “Over the course of the two years it took me to write that novel, the story took shape one word at a time.”

For the last word on productivity, I’ll refer you to the considered opinion of Stephen King.

And I just have to ping her on this disconnect. In the same paragraph in the essay “Channel”:

. . . as I plan the rest of my day (student work to be read, a book to review, [italics mine] a speech to write, a few small essays to think about) what I am really struck by is the fullness of this, this writing life. My job is to do, not to judge.

But writing a book review is judging rather than writing. I hope we’ll be able to someday convince Ms. Shapiro to give up that secondary pursuit, which is clearly beneath her, and stick to her own work, leaving her fellow authors to their own devices.

Could it be all the years I spent as an editor, deeply connected to the success of others? Whatever it is, I honestly don’t have this issue:

I could give you a list right now of the writers whose books came out at around the same time as mine, or who are at the same point in their writing lives, who have gotten more. It’s hard to admit this. I didn’t want to write this chapter, to tell you the truth. Because envy is an ugly, shameful thing, better shoved under the rug. Except that we all feel it. We have experienced that stomach-churning sickness, that spiritual malaise, of coveting another person’s good fortune.

I know I’ll never sell like J.K. Rowling or the aforementioned Stephen King, so why covet marginal success? I say: All power to my midlist brothers and sisters!

What I loved most about Still Writing, and what I always hope to find in any book on writing (and I try to read as many as I can!) is new advice—something I’ve never thought of. First, it renews my faith in the fact that I don’t know everything (how boring would that be?) but mostly it gives me new tools to do what I do better.

I’ve been confronted by copy editors with what Dani Shapiro calls “tics”: repeated words that I can’t see as I’m typing them, or at least don’t recognize them as defaults, as thoughtless filler. Here’s Dani Shapiro’s reaction to having it called out by a copy editor that the word muffled appeared eleven times in her manuscript:

Sounds were muffled. Feelings were muffled. How had I not noticed? Muffled is not a word I use regularly in conversation. What happened? How had I not caught this, in read after read?

The more I thought about it, the more I understood. And fortunately I still had time to do some small but important revisions—which don’t have to do simply with removing the muffleds, but rather, with realizing that each time I unconsciously repeated the word, I was not close enough to the interior life of my main character.

I knew it was bad, but I have to admit I didn’t think it was that bad. But it really is that bad!

But best of all, for me, was the advice I know I desperately need to follow, that speaks to my own biggest issue, which has become actually writing:

I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize the day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I’m aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.

There really is considerable power in simple semantics—the actual difference between thinking of writing as a rhythm and calling it a discipline:

Some writers count words. Others fill a certain number of pages, longhand, have a set number of hours they spend at their desk. It doesn’t matter what the deal is that you strike with yourself, as long as you keep up your end of it, that you establish a working routine for yourself, a rhythm. I prefer to think of it as a rhythm rather than a discipline. Discipline calls to my mind a taskmaster, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list . . . Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work.

That’s good advice, even though she almost immediately admits that that rhythm “fails, it falls apart, it gets interrupted.” But to try is the thing.

More and more I wonder if all artists suffer from attention deficit disorder:

I like excitement as much as the next person. Perhaps even more than the next person. But I get over stimulated easily, and I can feel my brain shorting out when I have too much going on. And it doesn’t take much: a good piece of news, a nice review, a longed-for assignment, a cool invitation, and suddenly I can’t think straight. The outside world glitters, it gleams like a shiny new toy. Squinting, having lost all sense of myself, I toddle with about as much consciousness as a two-year-old in the direction of that toy.

If I get any amount of money in, I invariably take the rest of day off. I don’t know why this is. If someone calls me between the hours of ten a.m. and one p.m. that’ll blow my whole day. This is a tough one. It means, I think, adding a little discipline to your rhythm. But at the very least it’s good to hear from someone as smart and accomplished as Dani Shapiro that we’re fellow travelers on the same journey to different places.

Read this book!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVIII: STILL WRITING

  1. morgynstarz says:

    OMG, LMAO. Trying not to spit on the screen of my Windows 7/Word 2003 Laptop.

    I love craft books and this one sounds like a winner.

  2. Niina says:

    I hadn’t heard of this book before but I really liked the excerpts you posted, so I will definitely look into getting it now. Thanks for the recommendation!

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