The Writer’s Craft: Doors, Open and Closed

Writing, especially fiction-writing, is a strange profession.  Of necessity, it isn’t the sort of work one usually does with other people around, turning to others and casually chatting between sentences.  It’s a craft that demands seclusion because it demands immersion–in our stories, in our characters, and in the worlds in which those characters live and breathe.  It’s work that depends on the creative act of opening a door between our world–the routine realm of the everyday–and the territory of imagination where the act of fiction-making takes place.

In Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, the author advises would-be writers that their workspace should include “a door which you are willing to shut.”  “The closed door,” King writes, “is your way of telling yourself and the world that you mean business: you have made a serious commitment to writing and are willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk (155).”

This idea of the closed door as essential to the craft of writing—as important as the open imaginative door that is also crucial to the process—is, I believe, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to beginning writers.

We live in a world saturated by social media, and our society constantly feeds us the idea of the need for connection.  Social media is not just a distraction for the writer, either: it’s an important business tool; a crucial part of the machinery of marketing and self-promotion.  And yet, having Facebook or Twitter open is akin to having the office door ajar, and makes it a temptation not only to get distracted, but for other people to think we’re available for distraction.

The problem exists on both sides of the office door, in this case.  Beginning writers may not really have mastered the discipline to treat writing the way they would going to an actual office building to sit behind a desk for eight hours.  There may be a tendency to see the time spent at the computer as a hobby, and no one gets mad if their hobby-time is interrupted by phone calls or prompts for Facebook chats, right?

So, as King says in that quote, if you’re serious about this craft we call writing, treat it with seriousness. It’s work.   It may be fun work, but it’s still work.  And if the world around you sees that you view your craft that way, eventually it will, too.

Forget about the cute stereotypes of the easily distracted writer; the one who writes for an hour and spends the other seven surfing the net or looking at the ceiling.  These images aren’t cute; they’re sloppy, and they’re nothing to aspire to.

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, then write seriously.  And that’s not a comment about choice of genre: I write science fiction, fantasy and horror novels.  But I do what I do to get the stories told, and then to get the work out into the world.  I’m not filling up the page because I’m bored, or just because I think it’s a better use of my time than watching television. Choose a block of time each day to close the office door—keep it closed–and open the one in your mind. You’ll be surprised how much difference writing with intention will make.

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Tell Your Story

In my life, I’m a guy who writes, and sometimes, too, a guy who teaches writing.  And in both capacities, I find myself being asked about inspiration.  “What if I run out of ideas?”  I get asked, by students and sometimes by beginning writers.  And I have two answers to that: “go back to your characters”, and “look at your own experiences.”

Characters should be the root of a story–stories record the lives of the characters in them, and experiences make up the life stories we all live through and share with others.

Life experience offers, for me at least, an endless well of ideas for stories and characters to fill those stories.  Sometimes a story springs from something that’s current; some struggle I’m dealing with and can’t make sense of any other way than on the page.  That was the spark that became my science fiction novel “Annah”, and the “Children of Evohe” series of which it is a part.   Sometimes, a story comes from reminiscence; from recording and sifting through the sweet, the bitter, and the bittersweet of the past–such as the experiences that led to my still-in-progress urban fantasy novel “The Kind.”

In the end, our characters are always their own people–they have to be, to have a weight and consequence to readers who don’t know us or the experiences that spark our stories.  But they help us to articulate those experiences to others, and, in understanding our characters–in looking at them as people, rather than moving them about with manipulative disregard, like paper dolls or pawns on a chessboard–they help us come to better understand ourselves.

One of my favorite authors, Clive Barker, once wrote: “I am a man, and men are animals who tell stories.  This is a gift from God, who spoke our species into being, but left the end of our story untold.”

When I write, I tell my story, even if, from one tale to the next, I tell it using different places or different names.  There is, I find, always truth in fiction.  And if you’re writing stories that are true–even if they happen to be fiction–you’ll never run out of things to say for very long.  Writing’s like life in that sense.  While life is in us, the gap between one breath and the next is never very long.  And  the word”inspiration”,  itself, comes from both the notion of drawing in of breath and the idea of Divine breath–or, to look back at Clive Barker’s quote–the divine Word.

So, for those of you who write, or want to write, remember–take a deep breath.

And tell your story.