Linda Seed's Blog

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Is Inspiration Key for Writers? No, But Actually Writing Is

A lot of advice is floating around out there about how to be a writer. Everybody who's made any money in the business seems to have a book or a workshop offering guidance on everything from plotting to voice to marketing. Some of the advice is good, and almost all of it is well-intentioned.

Rarely do I come across any writing guru so wrong-headed that I feel the need to respond to them publicly. But last week, I attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and I found myself at a workshop that had me struggling not to jump out of my seat and argue with the instructor.

The instructor, whose name I won't mention here, was lecturing on the correct state of mind one must have before sitting down to write a novel. Inspiration is essential, she said. You must think about the book, plan the book, and meditate on the book until the fire of artistic inspiration burns so brightly in you that you simply must write or you'll implode into a cloud of pixie dust and repressed dreams.

I paraphrase, but that was the gist.

Only when you simply can't do anything but write must you actually sit down at the keyboard and put words together. You write only when you simply can't contain yourself any longer.

I have a response to that, and I'll give it to you now because I'm aflame with the need to say it:


Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

The advice is simply wrong. Writing is something you do, it isn't something that happens to you like a fever or a lottery win.

Writing is an art, yes. But it's also a job, a practice, a habit. It's a skill that you have to hone through daily effort. It's a profession that takes ongoing dedication.

The advice that instructor gave her eager students was not only wrong, it was destructive, for several reasons:

1. It makes new writers think they're not good enough.

If you're only fit to write a novel if the inspiration for it is bursting out of your chest like the creature in Alien, then most of us are, therefore, unfit to write a novel at all. I haven't been at this very long in the whole scheme of things, but I've been at it long enough to know that if we write on a regular basis, we're writers. What if I bought into the line that I'm only a writer if I feel that divine glow of artistic fire? I might conclude that I'm not a real writer at all.

And then I might quit, deciding that I'm unworthy.

2. It encourages sloppy work habits.

If I'm a plumber, I'm not going to refuse to work on a clogged drain until I'm simply so inspired that I can't restrain myself from working on that clogged drain. I'm going to just get to the client's house and remove the hairball that's blocking the pipes. It's my job, so I'm going to do it whether I feel particularly inspired or not. If I don't, then I'm not much of a plumber, and I won't have a job much longer.

Similarly, a writer can't always afford to wait for inspiration. If you're traditionally published, you've likely got a deadline, and if you don't meet it, you're probably going to lose your opportunity. Deadlines don't wait for inspiration.

Self-published authors like me make our own deadlines, but the same goes. Our readers aren't going to wait years for us to be inspired—they're going to forget about us and move on to other things if we don't keep publishing new work. And the mortgage isn't going to wait for me to be inspired, either. It just needs to get paid, and that won't happen if I don't produce new work that will, in turn, produce new royalties.

I'm a professional with a job to do, and as a professional, I'm going to show up every day and do that job, inspired or not.

3. The writer's brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to perform at top capacity. The more I write, the better I get at writing. It's like any other skill, and like any other art. If you stop doing it, you'll forget how to do it, or at the very least, it'll become harder. This workshop leader's advice completely ignores the fact that practice improves performance.

4. It reinforces the idea of writers' block.

Writers' block is like the monster in the closet that you were afraid of as a kid. The more you believed in it, the more it became real to you, and the more it became real to you, the more it interfered with your sleep and made it impossible for you to get out of bed to go to the bathroom.

If we accept the idea that we must be inspired in order to write, then we must also accept the idea that there will be times when we can't write. And once you let that idea in the door, you're pretty much screwed. The book won't get written, and the sink won't get unclogged. And good luck getting all the way to the bedroom door before the closet monster eats you.

What do writers do? They write. They don't write if they feel inspired. They just write, regularly, because it's their job, because it's their thing. Because the words need to get written no matter what mood you're in.

If I wrote only when I was inspired, I'd have succumbed to writers' block long ago, and I'd be wallowing in failure and frustration.

5. It reinforces the idea that writers are a special breed, and you're not one of them.

Writers aren't some otherworldly creatures divinely chosen to bestow their ideas upon the world. A writer is anybody who sits his or her butt in a chair long enough to write something. And I know that idea is threatening to certain people in the industry who have a lot invested in feeling special. But the fact is that anybody can do it. Not everybody does it as well as others, but anybody can do it.

Bottom line: If I wrote only when the fire of inspiration made it impossible not to, I'd have written one book and stopped. Which means that a couple of the novels I'm most proud of wouldn't have been written at all, and I wouldn't have readers waiting for my next book, because there wouldn't be one.

If I wrote only when I was inspired, that inspiration that I was waiting for might never come, because the mental muscles involved in making it happen would be so out of use that my brain simply wouldn't work that way anymore.

I write because I've made the commitment to do it, and because I have things to say, not because I've won the Inspiration Sweepstakes and simply can't do anything else.

Writers write, always. Inspired or not, special or not. Writers write. That's the only requirement, but it's a pretty crucial one. Inspiration can come along for the ride or not, but either way, this train is leaving the station.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

What I'm reading: The Handmaid's Tale, The Nest, more

Like most writers, I love reading, and I fill pretty much every spare minute of my day that way. I read before I go to sleep, when I eat (but only if I'm eating alone—manners count!), when I need a break from writing, and when I just need to retreat from the stress of whatever might be bothering me that day.

Here, in no particular order, is what I've been reading lately. These aren't reviews as much as brief impressions. Maybe you'll find something you'd like to try, too.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

When the Hulu TV series debuted and everybody started talking about this book, I realized it was something I should have read a long time ago but never did. So, I set out to correct that.

Of course, as many people already know, the book is brilliantly written and utterly devastating. In the current political environment, it's all too easy to imagine an America in which Constitutional protections no longer exist, freedoms are a thing of the past, and women are treated as chattel. It's just so frighteningly plausible.

It's always nice when brilliant literature is also compulsively readable, and this book was. I could barely put it down.

Wifey, by Judy Blume

I remember when this book came out, back in 1978. I was ten years old, and I knew Judy Blume for her children's books, like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Blubber. I remember the hushed rumors in the school hallways that Judy Blume—yes, that Judy Blume—had written a dirty book.

And it is a fairly dirty book, though not by today's Fifty Shades of Grey standards. It's also a flawed book. But it's funny, clever, and surprisingly poignant in its message about the difficulty of finding fulfillment within a marriage to a man who feels it's a woman's duty to cook pot roast every Wednesday and look good at The Club to impress the Joneses. The book's a little dated—thankfully, marriage doesn't usually look like this in twenty-first-century America—but the main character's frustration comes through loud and clear despite the changing times.

Golden Prey, by John Sandford

Dang, I love me some Lucas Davenport. John Sandford's Minneapolis police detective never gets old for me, even after twenty-seven books. Somehow, John Sandford keeps the dialogue fresh, the plot exciting, and the bad guys three-dimensional book after book. Some of my favorite series detective novels lost their zing as the series continued (I'm not mentioning any names), but Sandford's Prey series delivers every time.

It's one of the few series I'll pay full price for, even in hardcover. I love Sandford's Virgil Flowers series just as much. The books are gritty and the crimes are vicious, but somehow it all still comes off as a lot of good fun.

End of Watch, by Stephen King

Stephen King's a master. He just is. End of Watch, the third book in the Bill Hodges Trilogy, doesn't disappoint.

I did find it kind of odd, though, that the first two books in the series were mostly straight detective novels, but the third veers off into the paranormal territory we're more used to seeing with King. I might have enjoyed End of Watch more if King had stuck with the premise that the trilogy would be old-school crime novels without the paranormal pyrotechnics.

But in the end, King's writing makes it all worthwhile, as it always does. I particularly enjoyed the flawed character of Bill Hodges. He's fully realized, and seems to come to life on the page.

House Rules, by Jodi Picoult

This book, about a young man with Asperger Syndrome who's accused of committing a murder, started off really well, but then ...

This is the second Jodi Picoult novel I've read—the first was My Sister's Keeper. Both books gave me a similar experience. In both cases, it went something like this:

This is good. This is very good. Wow. I can't put this book down. This is great. Okay, now, that seems unlikely. Why is he/she doing that? Okay, but it's all going to work out, I'm sure ... Huh. Well, that's odd. I wonder what ... ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME? WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THIS ENDING?!!

The Nest, by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

There's this family, and a dispute over an inheritance ...

The setup might seem like we've seen it before, but this book was so full of interesting characters and family dysfunction that it all seemed new and fresh. The author avoids the trap of cliches to take things in a few directions I didn't anticipate.

The character of Leo Plumb, whose charm and favorite-child status seem to help him land on his feet no matter how badly he's screwed up, was a lot of fun. The family dynamics will be familiar to anyone who's ever had a dispute with an adult sibling.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lindsay Lohan, My Dog, and Hoarders are Killing My Book (Or, Why Working from Home Is Basically Crap)

I've had some difficulty writing lately. Or, to be more accurate, I've had some difficulty not doing other things long enough to get my daily word count done. Lately, a typical writing day for me looks something like this:

6 a.m. to 9 p.m.: Wake up kids, make breakfast, get everybody ready for school, get everybody delivered to school, shower, and do the various housework-type tasks that enable me to keep my home relatively hygienic and not resembling something from an episode of Hoarders.

9 a.m.: Prepare my writing area. I arrange things just so, with my cup of coffee, a notebook for whatever blindingly brilliant insights come my way, and a comfortable chair.

9:05 a.m.: Begin to write.

9:07 a.m.: Notice that I have a notification on Facebook. Check it out, to see that it's a meme about Sean Spicer.

9:08 a.m.: Write some more.

9:10 a.m.: Remember that I need to wash towels or we won't have any clean ones for the next day. Go upstairs, throw a load into the washer.

9:15: Look in the fridge for a snack, realize that we're out of yogurt. Find a pad of paper to start a grocery list.

9:20 a.m.: Okay, it's really time to write now. Actually succeed in writing two paragraphs.

9:30 a.m.: Get an email from my husband asking if I can pick up youngest child from school this afternoon. Answer in the affirmative.

9:35 a.m.: Start wondering how my Facebook ads are doing. Check the Ads Manager to find out my cost per click.

9:40 a.m.: Write another paragraph.

9:45 a.m.: Realize that I need to research tibia fractures for my story line. Spend the next thirty minutes going down the Internet rabbit hole looking at X-rays, diagrams of bones, and websites about orthopedics.

10:15 a.m.: Write another paragraph.

10:25: Wonder what Lindsay Lohan is up to these days. Might as well check!

10:40 a.m.: Remember that I have nothing in the house to cook for dinner. Google "what to make for dinner." Sift through casserole recipes and Martha Stewart quiche recipes.

11 a.m.: Go to the grocery store to get ingredients for quiche.

12 p.m.: Lunch!

12:30 p.m.: Write another two paragraphs.

12:45 p.m.: A nap sounds good. Naps are awesome. I'll concentrate so much better after a nap.

2:30 p.m.: Wake up from nap, realizing that I slept almost two hours rather than the 15 minutes I'd planned. Rush out the door to pick up kids from school.

3 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Bring kids home, do more laundry, dispense snacks, nag people to do homework, make dinner, clean up from dinner, chat with husband about his day, my day, and the dog's behavior issues.

7:15 p.m.: Look back at my day, baffled about why I didn't get more writing done.

I'm thinking I might need a better system.