Priorities change and that’s okay. Writing shouldn’t consume your life.

When the act of writing stops being fulfilling, it’s okay to stop doing it for a while.

Hard work, discipline, and the grueling ups and downs of submission and rejection are part of the game. Writing is difficult, and that’s fine, but writing should also be a fun addition to the rest of your life. Your bills are paid, your house is in order, and the hours you put in drafting and editing fulfill you in the way any hobby should. Writing shouldn’t be your whole life.

In my last post, I spoke about wasting years of my life worried about my legacy. A different side of that dice is the fact that, cliche of all cliches, a writing career is a marathon run, not a sprint.

Facebook and Twitter have created an atmosphere that inundates fiction writers with constant stimulation. Much of it is positive on the surface: how-tos, ease of access to writers we admire, submission calls, marketing tips, what have you. I have benefited from these things in many ways. However, I also experience an enormous sense of not being successful enough, not being successful fast enough, or not writing or selling myself in the correct ways (per the latest Internet author marketing standards).

You may have felt this scrolling through your newsfeed. Updates of others celebrating publications in magazines; authors promoting their latest book, which seems like it took a few weeks to write; a dozen blog posts you must read about craft; advertisements hocking courses that promise to make you as good as *insert biggies in your genre*. Of course, you’re happy for them even if envious. But you also might wonder if your kayak can hack it on the white water rapid they’re on, seasoned experts navigating their way with ease.

What I’ve learned from meeting many of these “seasoned expert” writers, in whatever genre/circles, is that they’ve been at it for decades. Inundated by these constant digital reminders of our shortcomings, we lack the perspective to see their excruciating years of failures, their learning curves, and moments when they were inconsolable because no matter how hard they worked they felt like impostors, or worse, invisible.

The point of this post is not to stick it out. That horse has been mutilated plenty. I want to talk about pacing yourself, about putting your life first.

I had my first child recently. A lovely little cherub we call Isabel. She breathed new light into my life, but also, much to my surprise, re-oriented my priorities. I realized that for a longer time than I’m proud of, I’ve treated writing fiction like a second full-time job and then some. I’ve been damn close to paying no mind to anything but writing fiction when I wasn’t at the prison working my “day job.” I don’t regret the exponential growth, the time I’ve put into my learning curve, or the joy experienced when several editors said yes. But I do regret the enormous pressure I’ve put on myself to compete with those seasoned kayakers.

I worked so hard, and driving myself mad with anxiety and depression trying to wade into waters I just wasn’t–or may never be–ready for. In doing so, I neglected my adult responsibilities. I interacted with my wife in a constant state of bitterness and inadequacy. When I could have been taking better care of my mental and physical health, I became more depressed, drank, and gained fifty pounds in a couple years. When I could’ve have been saving and managing money better, in order to pay off the overwhelming amount of student loan debt I’m in, I coasted in survival mode; buying take-out even though I’m a good cook, letting interest payments pile up…

When I held Isabel, watched her looking up at me with brand new eyes, I realized all that “normal” for me was anything but. My work ethic is admirable, yeah. But letting my life remain in shambles around me is far from. The starving, mad artist shtick, viewed nakedly for what it was in that moment, with a dependent human life in my hands, seemed ridiculous. I had new perspective on my life, and suddenly being good enough at writing fiction to publish it seemed like the last thing a person should place in the center of their world. I had to become happy; I had to get back in fighting shape; I had to pay off debts, and manage my financial life smarter. For me, for Isabel, for my wife.

Some reading this might think this is the song a man sings when his dreams die. Maybe that will turn out true. I don’t know. All I do know is that writing fiction stopped fulfilling me, so I stopped for a while. Moving forward, it will be less of an obsession for me, given much less immediacy. I will view it as a lifelong process and, like I said in my last post, open myself to other writing avenues and means of self-expression.

Priorities change, and that’s okay. Take care of yourselves. Trust me, if your priorities want to change and you don’t let them, you’re setting yourself up for depression and self-hatred.

 

 

I wasted 1/3 of my life worried about this part of my writing identity.

Have you ever had a fantastic idea for a children’s book, for a personal essay about dating in your 20s, for a political op-ed, but stopped yourself because you write (fill in the blank)?

I’ve realized that I sabotage myself this way all the time. I identify as a fiction writer first. Horror writer second. Before that, a “literary” writer. Which means I didn’t let myself dabble in any genre fiction or nonfiction. For eight years, ideas for crime fiction, science-fiction, children’s books, and personal or political nonfiction would pop into my head, begging to be written. I would admonish myself, “NO, Tom, you’re a literary fiction writer. Stay in that lane.”

There’s one specific type of perfectionism I’ve been haunted by. It’s absurd and embarrassing. Heck, I almost hesitate to admit it, but it’s my truth, and maybe it will help someone.

I worry about legacy.

I know. Yikes. Here I am, most assuredly a Nobody, worrying about whether my ideas are on brand or not, instead of finishing manuscripts and publishing them. Worrying about how the public will view me when the dust of my golden years settles.

I always sought to write in ways that satisfied a particular self-image I wanted to conjure. At first, at my most naive, I wanted to be Hemingway; then, as I matured, it turned into wanting to be Stephen King, Denis Lehane, Ray Bradbury, Laird Barron, etc al. So I would have these phases where I would, again, put blinders on to all of the things I want to say about the world, and write exclusively in my “genre-of-the-week.” Of course, when you do this, last week’s writing may get thrown out the following week. After that cycle repeats itself enough, you have years without publications, nor even submissions.

Does this sound familiar? I think it might. A lot of us love literature and love writing fiction, but a lot of us also, if we’re honest, aspire at one point to achieve household literary fame. It’s strange to state that so baldly, but now that I have, I understand that it has kept me from expressing myself genuinely for three-quarters of my life. Gulp.

I encourage you to write whatever the heck your heart desires. But to be more practical, let me remind you that every writer of status, did not stifle their creativity. They wrote journalism and they wrote weird essays and average poetry and short stories you have never seen because they haven’t been put in collections. Nowadays, the big writers of tomorrow probably do freelance copy writing and content writing and also write strange flash or micro fiction we’ll never know about, even when they’re NYT bestselling authors.

Cormac McCarthy is my favorite example. He worked as a mechanic back in the day, and wrote these complex, regional, literary novels that on the surface would only be appreciated where the stories were set, in Appalachia. Suttree had a first print run of three thousand copies, and his number of fans hovered around that figure for years, as he plodded on writing Appalachians and some Westerns. Blood Meridian, held by many as one of the greatest novels ever was his sixth book. And then, All The Pretty Horses came along and became a bestseller. It took seven books. And then, boom, his back catalog went back into print and his new releases sold like hot cakes.

Imagine if McCarthy had cast aside his five ideas prior to Blood Meridian? Imagine if he was so caught up in his “image” he hadn’t written those (“I’m gonna wait until I can write a Western, I’m a Western writer!”) and therefore did not have the publishing credentials to get his sixth and then bestselling seventh books published. Furthermore, he might be a mechanic in El Paso, Texas right now who writes as a hobby…

The point here is to express yourself for your own well-being. Be congruent with yourself, your worldview, and what interests you. Write what you believe and finish things. The genre or categorization doesn’t matter. Submit your work and then publish it. Make a difference however you can. Lest you look up at thirty, like me, and realize you’ve wasted a solid chunk of life fretting about nonsense.

So long as you can see the way back to the main trail, don’t fear the sun setting through the trees.

I’d love to hear if you relate to this.

I’m in the early stages of brainstorming for children’s books about American History. This is a huge departure for me, but I think it’s a way I can make a difference in the world, perhaps moreso than escapist fiction.

What are you currently writing/struggling whether or not to write?

 

Writing Craft Lessons from Bird Box by Josh Malerman Pt. 1

I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.

josh malermanJosh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.

Here’s a list.

  1. Present Tense
  2. Limited Third POV
  3. Alternating Story Line Structure
  4. Simple language / “Minimalism”
  5. Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off

Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.

Let’s do this.

1. Present Tense

Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.

This is happening now.

Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.

The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.

My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”

I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.

Josh Malerman does this masterfully.

Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass

The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.

To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.

In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.

When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.

Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.

What We Can Learn

Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.

Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.

Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.

Farewell

I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.

But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.

Hope you enjoyed part 1 of 5.