Writing Sucks

Writers don’t make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don’t work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck’s book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man’s stupid words. And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more.

– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

Writing sucks. Go on, say it. It’s okay to admit it, even to yourself. There is nothing that we as writers hate more than to spend our precious minutes typing or writing or agonizing over that one silly word that just seems so out of place, but without which my whole story falls apart. We stare at the screen or the paper for a few seconds, then minutes, and then our brain finds something useful to do, like Facebook. Or scrubbing the water stains between the wall tiles in the shower.

Man Writing at Desk

Maybe this guy does it for the money.

Somewhere in the midst of all of our anguish and despair, hiding like a frightened puppy behind a wall of shame, self-loathing and our oh-so-frail egos, there is a story or a poem or an essay. And, like a puppy, you cannot stand and yell and demand that the story obey you. All that will happen is that your beautiful, magnificent idea will retreat further and further into the darkest reaches of your mind, until eventually you are so weighed down by your own terrible feelings of insufficiency that you collapse on the floor and give up the idea of ever being a writer or a poet or anything at all to do with words.

Stories cannot be ordered around. They are not soldiers. They are dirty little children trying to stay outside as long as possible after the dinner bell rings. A story must be coaxed, it must be enticed. And that can take a long, long time. Days, weeks, months or years even.

But when the story comes, and it will come, be prepared. You may not leave your laptop or your typewriter or your notepad for weeks. There is something about the rush of words that is better than any other worldly experience and more addicting than any drug. It is as though you and your story are one and the flow of energy and force that grows between the two of you can conquer any obstacle and writing is no longer a chore but a blessed, blessed gift.

Writing stories is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the weak-minded or the cowardly. Writing is for the courageous and the bold that are willing to venture out into the world they create and seek the stories out, to search for them and to draw them out with promises of dedication and persistence and love. And writing is for the patient, who are willing to give the stories room to breathe and to grow.

Writing sucks. And writing is beautiful. Story-telling is truly the oldest profession and the oldest hobby, and we owe it to those who came before us to give the telling of stories its proper and honored place in the world. Maybe it’s hard. Maybe it’s time-consuming. Maybe the money’s only good for three or four dozen people. But we don’t do it for the money. We don’t do it for the fame or the influence.

We write because there are stories out there that will never be given form if we don’t.  We write because the stories simply must be told. There are millions of stories, and they are waiting. They are waiting for you and for me to stop puttering around and to stop complaining and to write. Write well, write poorly, write quickly or slow. It doesn’t matter. If it’s there, it’s there, and you owe it to yourself and the story to give up on your excuses and your reasons and your whining and your over-sensitive ego and just do it.

This article/blog posted can also be found at Xenith.

Short Diversion

This story was dying to be told, and I needed a creative break from my novel to tell it.  I’ll get my words in for my novel this evening, but for now, enjoy.

A Unique Flavor
by David Harris

The problem with modern dining, Henry Dickerson was used to saying, was that most restaurateurs had a goal of serving as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible, and with as little fuss as possible.  The problem, in short, was derived from the obsession of the owners to creating a profitable business rather than a work of art.  Take, for example, Vitalia, which for three weeks in the late nineties was the fashionable place for dinner for all manner of celebrities and well-to-dos in Los Angeles, owing to the popularity of its founding chef and proprietor, Antonio Lugiano, winner of a James Beard award and two Michelin stars for his work as the executive chef of Piccola Italia in San Francisco.

If Lugiano had spent half the time in his kitchen that he spent coddling his guests, Henry wrote, he might have produced a meal that warranted, at least, a fair critique.  As it was, Henry was still wondering if he might have been too lenient in his description of the chef’s veal parmigiana.  He was, however, rather fond of the phrase ‘noxious slag.’

In the days following the review’s publication, Chef Lugiano sent a number of kind letters to the paper, requesting that Henry Dickerson return to the restaurant and give his cuisine a fair second chance.  Henry’s editor forwarded these letters on to him as a matter of course, and he even read a few of them.  He had not, in thirty-seven years of dining, given any restaurant a second review.  It was a matter of pride, if not one of scheduling.  Henry ate at a different restaurant six nights a week, and his wife, Emily, prepared dinner for him on the seventh.

Vitalia shut its doors less than eight days after the dismal critique, and Henry Dickerson’s reputation as the harshest and most influential critic on the West Coast was maintained.  To his credit, Lugiano opened another restaurant in Seattle, but that restaurant served only greasy fast food to unseasoned and untrained palates.  Like Lugiano, dozens of chefs found their careers escalated or shattered by Henry’s weekly restaurant column.  Henry estimated once, that over the course of his nearly forty year tenure at the Los Angeles Daily News, he has completely ruined no less than three hundred chefs, both established and aspiring.  He claimed no shame and no regret over his reviews, and was proud to say that in that time he had also brought up and promoted two dozen or so chefs who had become internationally renowned in the culinary field.

It was never personal, Henry stated in a recent interview with Food & Wine Magazine. But, he would say, if a chef didn’t have what it would take to be successful, he felt an obligation to help that chef along in his decision to pursue another line of work. With no small amount of pride, and his cheesy sideways grin, he reminded the interviewer that, for almost four decades, the dining experience in Los Angeles owed its excellence and good taste to no one else but Henry Dickerson and his typewriter.

That particular Thursday evening belonged to the grand opening of BonVivre, an intriguing concept restaurant which, despite the misleading name, was not going to serve French cuisine at all, but instead, the chef, only five years removed from his culinary training promised a ‘unique fusion of classic Mediterranean and Asian flavors served with a modern flair,’ according to the invitation that Henry received from his editor.  It was not at all customary to invite a critic to such an opening and Henry’s editor was appalled that he was even willing to accept it.  Along with the personalized invitation, though, there was a letter in which the new chef, Isaac Florence, had expressed his admiration of Dickerson’s work and confessed that it was a weekly reading of Henry’s column that inspired him to take up cooking in the first place.  Under the circumstances, how could he refuse?

The exterior of the restaurant, Henry noted on his arrival, was nothing remarkable, but he would have thought less if it had been.  Too many chefs and restaurateurs, in their attempt to attract customers, relied on flashy signs and expensive marketing campaigns to bring diners to their tables.  None of that was really necessary, though, Henry always said.  Cook and they will come, he would say.  Cook well, and they will come back.  A small outdoor patio to the left of the door housed a half dozen bistro tables.  It was a nice touch, Henry thought, but all too predictable these days.  Starbucks had outdoor dining, for heavens’ sake.

A hostess opened the door for him as he approached, and he was polite enough to tip his hat to her as he entered.  There was no excuse for poor manners.  The lighting inside reminded Henry of a seedy bar that he had frequented in his mid-thirties, and while any other comparison to such an establishment would have meant the instant demise of a restaurant, Henry had pleasant memories of that bar, and so the feelings which accompanied the memories were nostalgic rather than disagreeable.  The grand opening was smaller than most, as the space appeared to accommodate no more than forty guests at one time.

He gave his name to the young man behind the counter and found himself immediately escorted to a tiny, out-of-the-way table in the corner, next to a fountain, the sound of which Henry was forced to admit he found pleasing, rather like a symphony of splashes and ripples.  Yes, he replied to the server’s question, he would take a glass of wine, and no, he did not need a menu.  Whatever the chef decided to serve would be fine.  He would need an appetizer first and a salad.  He rather thought he should like something with beef.  Dessert, he concluded, would be completely at the fancy of the chef.

The server disappeared toward the kitchen and Henry took the opportunity to observe the rest of the clientele.  Much would be said of the restaurant’s first guests, and a surprise appearance from one or two well-liked celebrities would have almost the impact of a positive critique from Henry.  He smiled. Almost the same, but not quite, he thought.

He fumbled around in his coat for the index card he brought with him for his notes and discovered along with it a pen and the medication which his wife insisted he take.  She must have stashed it into his coat while he wasn’t looking.  Henry despised the medication and told Emily as often as he could that the blasted pills ruined his sense of taste, and what use would a food critic be without his taste buds.  It would be on the nature of a symphony conductor with no arms, he argued.

Henry left the bottle of pills where they were and put the card and his pen on the table.  Three things were handwritten on the card already: the date, the name of the restaurant and the name of the chef.  He could fill in the gaps throughout the evening.  Other critics used notepads, but Henry complained that the weight of the pad in his pocket might throw off his balance.  A flimsy excuse perhaps, but Henry was sixty-seven years old and who was going to argue with him?

The first course arrived after only a few minutes: a salad of beans, sprouts and carrots served over pan noodles and a spicy chickpea soup.  Henry jotted the names of the dishes onto his card and began eating.

Food represented a spiritual experience for Henry, and such experiences required time to marinate and absorb.  He relished every bite, analyzing each flavor and component as only a true connoisseur of fine dining can do.  Each spice and seasoning flowed through his senses like a river, touching every part of his soul.  There was no way really to explain it, but he always tried.

Chef Florence came out before the entrée was served and introduced himself.  He asked pleasant questions about Henry and made small talk for a few moments.  At last he thanked Henry for coming and offered his assistance if he had any questions or concerns about anything.  Henry smiled and said he would be fine, and the nervous chef returned to manage the kitchen just as Henry’s meal arrived.

The aroma from the dish overwhelmed him before he even saw it, and he knew that this would be a spectacular meal.  The main course was a deconstructed gyro, and although Henry had requested beef, he was not unhappy to smell the lamb on his plate.  The lamb was sliced thin and sauced with spicy tzatziki and spread over brown rice and vegetables with a half-slice of pita bread to the side.

Henry did not have words to describe how marvelous the flavors were.  The moments he spent savoring the essence of a spicy Mediterranean sandwich mixed with a hint savory Eastern color were practically divine.

His dessert, a slice of simple chocolate pie with a touch of mint, was no less appealing even if it wasn’t as original as the rest of the meal.  In all, he spent nearly ninety minutes enjoying his food.  At the end, he sipped the last of his wine, paid his bill on the Daily News’ account and left a generous tip for the server from his own pocket.  Henry caught just a long enough glimpse of Chef Florence to incline his head in farewell just before he left the restaurant.

His wife, all smiles as always, greeted him at the front door, took his coat, removing the contents of the pocket in the process, and handed his notecard to him.  She then smiled and left him to his work.  Henry took the creaky stairs down to the basement and set the notecard on the desk beside his typewriter.

As part of his tradition, he threw a round of darts before sitting down to type.  It wasn’t a bad score, either.  His first shot landed inside the triple seventeen, and the second inside a double twelve.  The third and final shot landed in the black of the twenty, just outside bull’s-eye.  He frowned at the last throw and made a motion toward the board to retrieve the darts.  Duty called, though, and he sat himself down at his desk.

The letter from Chef Florence still rested beside the typewriter, and Henry opened a drawer to put it away.  In that same drawer laid two small books, one with a white cover, the other black.  He removed the black book and closed the drawer after.

Henry sighed.  It just wasn’t fair to poor Chef Florence.  He opened the book to the seventeenth page and chose the last of the three words listed: repugnant.  It was a close call, too, because it was the first word from that seventeenth page that had created the promising phrase from the week before.  A half inch in either direction, and his readers might have started to suspect something odd, or more likely thought his vocabulary was slipping.  In thirty-seven years, though, Henry Dickerson had never repeated a phrase two weeks in a row.  He typed his review and placed it neatly on his desk to be delivered to the paper in the morning.

In his memoirs, ten years later, Henry claimed that his lamb was undercooked and the dessert had been burned.  It was a difficult review to write, he explained, because the young chef had so valued his opinion.  Fortunately, Isaac Florence turned out to have a talent for finance, and succeeded beyond belief in the stock market and several profitable hedge fund investments.  Some chefs have it and some don’t, Henry Dickerson said in his book.  It was his job for over forty years to decide which chefs were which.

Interrupting the Plot

Technical-ish post!

In case you haven’t read the ‘synopsis’ of my story, I am writing a sci-fi/fantasy/post-apocalyptic blend story.  I’m trying very hard as I write to follow a few of the traditional ‘quest’ archetypes while still maintaining believable characters and a unique setting.  I’ll admit that it’s harder than I thought it would be.

Now, I’ve read enough epic fantasy and science-fiction to know that there’s really only one good way to get from point A to point B in a quest novel (or series).  And that is to encounter as many interruptions, sidetracks, false trails and frustrating no-win scenarios as you possibly can before finally stumbling headfirst into the fiery lava chambers of Mount Doom.

My characters are not traipsing their way through Mordor quite yet, but I’ve discovered as I’m writing that I’m really a much meaner person than I’ve ever given myself credit for.  I mean, if I personally ran into the types of plot-problems and dead ends and such that I put my characters through, I would be lying on the fetal position whispering strange chants for hours on end by the end of chapter three.

But, I’m also finding that by throwing these characters into the types of challenges that I have been, two very important things start to happen. One, I have an actual story developing, which is pretty outstanding, and two, I’m learning more about my characters than I ever could have imagined.  Their reactions, their dialogue, everything is coming alive for me.  I feel like, by interrupting all of my characters’ plans, I’m finding out who they really are, which is going to be oh-so-helpful when it comes to rewrite time, because I will know exactly how they will react.   I will know what they will say and do in almost every situation.  They will become believable and I will be given all the credit.

Being a writer is awesome.

At Least It’s Something

Well, folks, some days you just have to mail it in.  My best efforts today were thwarted, and I’ve just now squeaked past my daily 1,667 to wrap up the night.  I was worried for a little while that I was going to end up with more calories burned at the gym tonight (1,244) than words put down in my novel.  Fortunately, a few late night bursts pushed me over the edge.

I don’t know how to feel about today’s writing, but I will say that I’m glad I didn’t just sit back tonight and think ‘What the heck?  I’m ahead.  I’ll just take the night off.  I don’t want to sound like a workaholic, but like I keep telling Ashley, I don’t want to lose the momentum I’ve gained over the last eleven days.  Even if it is ‘the bare minimum,’ I’m proud to say that today, when it was hard, I still produced something. I didn’t give my muse a rest, and I didn’t pack it in when the going got tough.

Not much else to say about it, I guess, but I’ll be back in the saddle tomorrow, and 30k will be mine by 6 am.  Take it to the bank.

Running and running and… running.

I imagine that the feelings I have toward my novel right now are very similar to those of a runner who has just completed mile number five… of a marathon.  It’s a good feeling to have reached that marker.  You run over to the side and grab a cup of water, throw it down your throat and press on to the cheering cries of the crowd, who are all waving their hands and secretly – or not secretly – jealous that they are not also running a marathon.

There is still, though, in the back of your mind, this tugging, nagging feeling that says: I have how many miles left?  At just shy of 30,000 words, I have that same nagging voice in the back of my head.  This afternoon, I politely told that voice where he could shove it, and proceeded to write 2,500 words, bringing my total to 27,606.  See, I’ve decided that my focus while I write this novel (or any project from now on, for that matter) is going to be on what I’ve finished and where I am.  Worrying about what I’ve got left to do seems like it only leads to further stress and panic.

I ‘finished’ early today, which means I got my quota in before 9:00, which is a good day for me.  I’m torn now between writing more later today and trying to push past the thirty thousand mark and taking the rest of the night off to relax and saving that 30k line for tomorrow.  For now, I’m going to bask in the wonder that has been ten straight days of literary abandon.  Ah, feel that cool crisp breeze flowing over my face.  No wait… who opened the window?! It’s freezing in here!

See you tomorrow for more writing updates and anecdotes and witty one-liners, and also, tonight or tomorrow 30,000 words completed!

First Snow and Another Milestone

Snow is falling as I type this, for the first time this year.  It’s odd for the first snowfall to come so late in the autumn here in Colorado, but I welcome it.  There’s something to be said for the serenity and innocence that comes with writing while the snow settles onto the ground.  I shut the lights off in my office while I wrote, and opened the blinds, so that I could see it coming down.

I don’t know if it was the snow falling or just sheer determination that pushed me over the hump today, but I got myself motivated enough this afternoon to finally crawl, bleeding and gasping for breath, over the halfway mark, at least for this month’s writing challenge.  As far as National Novel Writing Month is concerned, I’m now 50% through.

With respect to the finished product, though, the number is not quite so high, but I would place it at a respectable 20%, which I still find encouraging.  I expect to cross over the fifty thousand mark sometime during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and really, I think that’s a good thing to finish NaNo so early, because it gets the monkey off of my back, and it lets me gently escort the elephant from the room.  At fifty thousand words, I will still be less than half finished, but I will be so far into the story, that I’m sure there won’t be any turning back.  I may still use the NaNoWordSprints twitter account as a motivation for me to write every day, but the contest will be over.

One of the things I’m starting to see now, as I get deeper and deeper into my main character’s background and into the story itself, is how many loose ends there will be to tie up as I come tumbling toward the end of the novel.  It’s almost as if the novel writing process is one that pays you back as you put effort and time into it.  I don’t want to call it literary karma, but the principle seems to be the same.  What I do for the story in character creation, situation development and sheer determination looks like it will come back and write the last third of my story for me, provided I’m willing to spend the requisite time in front of the keyboard.

The novel I’m writing, I think, is going to be the first in a series, either three or four books long, and I know that some of those loose ends are going to need to be left untied, and more will need to be unraveled as I get further along in the story, but I’ve got to tell you, until you get this far into your novel, you’re not going to be able to see how fulfilling it will be.

I love writing.  I can’t say that enough.  I don’t know why it took me so long to finally, really, sit down and just do everything it takes to press forward with my goals and my dreams.  It could not be more appropriate right now for me to see the snow falling.  It brings with it a sense of renewal and carefree persistence that I could not possibly frame into words.

My Muse is a Spoiled Child

I came down to the wire on this one tonight.  Ashley and I went out shopping for – you never saw this coming – Christmas decorations right after dinner (Chicken and Asparagus in a Mushroom Cream Sauce – she did well tonight!)  Anyway, I stumbled back in front of my computer at a quarter to ten with nothing written for the day, and just decided to plow through it,  An hour and a half later, I had another supporting character that I was not counting on, and a plot twist that will easily keep me occupied for the next six or seven thousand words.

I read a huge chunk of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ today between calls, which was an adventure given how busy I was at work all day.  I also read some of it during my lunch and breaks, squeezing in a few words wherever I could.  Now, I like Stephen King’s writing, even if I don’t necessarily appreciate all of his stories.  His manipulation of the English language and his easy way of making you relate to his characters is something to be admired.  What I also found interesting was that his ideas about writing seem very much to match my own.  Or rather, mine match his, as I’m sure he came up with it first, and since he’s more than proven his skill with words, it looks better on my part to be the one agreeing with him.

There was a brief surge of despair, mixed with apathy and a tiny bit of internal complaining today.  I had a hard day at work.  I was busy, and I don’t like my job, and it was draining and boring and frustrating all at the same time.  And, at the end of the work day, I was still holding onto a great big goose egg for my daily word count.  I had passed twenty thousand in a single week.  Was I about to let myself crash and burn now?

Turns out, the flesh is willing, but the muse is a cranky, little boy when he doesn’t get his dinner.  All day, I felt out of place, uncomfortable and awkward because I hadn’t been writing, even a bit.

It was fabulous.  I hope that feeling increases over time.  I want to get to a place where writing is like eating, and I can physically feel the discomfort of not doing it.  I think, then, that I’ll be close to feeling legitimate about this.