Everybody To Their Limits

It’s been rather a while since I updated here, and some of you may be wondering why. Well, I recently suffered a strain injury in an anterior tentacle in a painful location, and it rather turned my life upside down for a time. My regular day work was out of the question for a number of weeks, and I was stuck reposing in a Cyclopean cairn, from whose cavernous depths the ancient ancestors of humanity once fled convalescing at home all that time.

I’m sure some out there would say “Oh, man! That’s perfect! All those weeks, getting to stay home from work, and no one can say boo about it! Meanwhile, you can just stay curled up in as comfy a chair as you can find, and use all that free time to write!” I’m sure some might even judge the situation too wonderful to be believed; they might think they were “reading between the lines” to get to the truth (they wouldn’t be, but that wouldn’t stop them.) “Oh, right, you had an injury? Wink wink! And that injury kept you out of work, right? Wink wink! Man, ain’t that just a shame, to get stuck with a couple of free weeks of writing time like that! Wink wink!”

There’s just one problem: I couldn’t write, either.

That’s not easy to admit. Because let’s face it, only one thing really separates actual writers from the infamous “aspiring writers” whose writing “careers” start and end with talking a good game about all they’ll write on that mythical someday: the actual writers write. And they write. And they keep going until they finish what they’re writing, and then they find something new to write. Any considerations about whether inborn talents or learned practices make some people better writers than others – that all comes later. The big distinction is between those who write and those who don’t.

That can make interruptions to writing productivity feel like a threat to identity.

We tend to forget just what an amazing and complicated endeavor writing is. The non-fiction writer has to get into the mind of their reader and figure out both what that reader doesn’t already know about that subject, and how to present everything the reader needs to know, in an order that makes clear sense. The fiction writer faces different but similar challenges; they may have the liberty to make up their material, but that clear field comes with the down side that the readers are not going to know anything the writer hasn’t told them.

To put aside the things that you yourself know, get into the head of someone who doesn’t know them yet, and execute a plan for bridging the gap between the two – those are some impressive mental faculties required there. It shouldn’t be a surprise that certain circumstances – such as, oh, pain that feels as though a third-grade chess club has been taking turns curbstomping you for the past two hours – might make it difficult to get use out of those faculties.

But every real writer knows about aspiring writers. We know that aspiring writers are all about the excuses why, at any given time, it would be unreasonable to expect them to get actual writing done. That consciousness makes us reluctant to accept for ourselves anything that sounds like such an excuse.

Even when we resist the temptation to put ourselves under this pressure, other writers may step in to apply it, acting only from the best of intentions. I once listened at a convention panel as one of the panelists, an author with a not-unimpressive publication history, pointedly related the story of another author who produced his quota of daily pages even as he went through chemotherapy. The panelist might not have actually said the words “therefore, unless you’re going through something even worse than chemo, you have no excuse,” but that was definitely the subtext.

I don’t think that panelist was as helpful as he was trying to be. Yes, there are the “aspiring writers” who just crave the cachet of the title “writer” and have no intention of ever putting in the sweat to earn it. Yet surely the ones who actually need guidance are the real writers, the ones who want to put in the sweat, but are held back by obstacles. Obstacles of physical (or emotional) pain that interferes with concentration. Obstacles of inexperience, knowing that something’s gone wrong with the story but not knowing how to diagnose or fix the trouble. Surely these are the people who need a helping hand to get past their obstacles – and sometimes need to be told, “It’s okay. Having limits on what you can do doesn’t make you a fake or a failure. It just makes you human.”

Bestselling steampunk author Gail Carriger recently posted a confession (her choice of words) to her public journal that one of her upcoming books would be coming out later than anticipated, because she discovered her creative brain couldn’t handle working on two books at the same time as she had planned to do. There’s no question she found it a difficult admission to make, but her fans were supportive, and as I pointed out to her, she was actually doing a good thing for other writers, acknowledging that even the writers we take as role models, those on the far side of our own creative gap, are humans just as we are, with weaknesses and limits.

I’m happy to report that, even if it took some time and demanded a lot of patience, my physical recovery and writing are back on track now. The first draft of the next story in the “Nightbird” universe is now complete and undergoing revision; I hope to have it out in just a couple of months. Three books helped especially with restarting the writing, but unfortunately, I can only tell you about two of them.

The first, which I’ve mentioned at the Little Hill before, is Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D. Laws. This book helps answer the question “What do I write?” Seeing each possible turn of the narrative as a “beat”, and how different beat combinations produce various effects, illuminates the composition process. To lapse into programmer-speak for a moment, you’ll come away from this book with useful heuristics for how and when to twist your narrative.

The second book is The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. Laws’ book helps you see clearly what you want to write; Rand’s book helps you see how to write it. As befits its central premise (that 10% can and should be edited from first drafts) the book is surprisingly slim, but well worth the investment. I look forward to using it even more as the next Nightbird story goes through editing, but I found the perspective it gives useful even while putting the first draft together.

The third book, an “action thriller” e-book, was highly useful for motivation. Unfortunately … it wasn’t for good reasons. It wasn’t because the author had succeeded in doing what he wanted to do. Every now and then I would open up my e-reader app, give a diligent effort to pick up where I’d left off; every time, a slog of just a few pages would fill me with a burning desire to return to my work.

While the situation was tremendously useful, I did feel bad about treating another author’s work in this way. Worse, for the longest time I couldn’t even identify what in the writing made it so grueling; the prose was certainly serviceable, and if characterization was thin, well, few people look to “action thrillers” for deep characters. The clue finally dropped when I reached the beginning of Chapter Three, read a quirky piece of off-hand detail, and realized that that detail was, at best, the second thing so far in the whole of the book that wasn’t cliche. Reading this book for the first time was like reading any other book in its genre for the hundredth time; freshness was not there.

That’s why I can’t in good conscience tell you which book this was; the author did his best, and who knows? Perhaps to another reader, the flaws that I found inescapable they will find invisible. I’m still wondering whether there’s any diplomatic way to contact the author and suggest he should work harder to push past his “Level One” ideas, find ways to make his heroes and villains and tense action scenes ring with individuality. But perhaps that was the best novel he could write at the time. He surely has his limits, just as I have mine. May we both judge wisely when to obey those limits, and when to strive past them.

About jdcburnhil

Author of "Nightbird Descends," available from Smashwords and other fine e-book retailers.
This entry was posted in Announcements and News, Fiction, How-to (Fiction) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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