Category: Writing

A man writingI’m finishing a book tomorrow, and it puts me in mind of an essay (link) Stephen Hunter wrote for The Daily Beast (link) a year or so ago.  It inspired a goodly amount of bitterness among what I’ll charitably call the “writing community,” as Hunter pulled no punches about what it takes to succeed in this business.  It hurts for some people to hear, but writing is not about touchy-feely things, but about production.  If you want to make it, writer, you need to write.  Otherwise you will not get to the point where you’re doing this professionally.

And let’s be clear: this is not a comment on the skills of any particular writer, not even you.  But if you’re complaining about not having the time or the inspiration or whatever it takes to complete salable fiction, the problem isn’t people like Stephen Hunter.  He’s figured out what it takes, and he’s doing it.  It’s not glamorous, but it’s what used to be called a work ethic.

As Hunter himself says in the essay: “[T]he most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day.

I have said time and again over the past eight years, as my career has slowly crept upward with critical and commercial recognition, that I am no great shakes as an author.  I get the work done. That’s all.  Other writers are more brilliant, more charismatic, and have great tweets.  All I do is grind it out, day after day, and in the end I have something to sell while they don’t.

Yes, it sounds cynical.  People think about writers in this exotic way, as if they spend their hours daydreaming, and then capturing those dreams on a page for the delectation of readers.  It really, really isn’t that way.  Maybe some folks might manage to get a book or two out in their lifetimes after lounging in their salons, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the Muse, but most will fail because it’s about work, work and more work.  And that work never ends.


Thumbs upFor about a year and half recently, I didn’t write anything.  I didn’t have to, since the Camaro books are coming out and I’m contractually bound to publish those and only those for the nonce, but given what I’ve said about writing every day, I really ought to have been working.  But, you see, I forgot the most important thing about writing: you have to love it.

I know writing isn’t like working in a coal mine, but it’s still hard work.  It’s harder work than it has any right to be, and it’s easy to decide not to bother.  This is doubly true if you’re writing things you don’t want to write, or are writing in a way which doesn’t make you happy.  I was in that spot.

While the Camaro books were released, I wrote three books.  None of these books will see the light of day because, quite frankly, they aren’t the books I would have chosen to write.  I wrote them either because I felt they catered to an audience, or in such a way that would please that audience, not because they satisfied me as an author.

Not everything you write is going to sell.  Not everything you write is going to be salable.  The important thing is that whatever you write is what you want to write, and written the way you want to write it.  Anything else is a failure on every level.  Even if you do end up making a jillion dollars, it’s not worth the heartache.  You have limited time on this earth, and few enough opportunities to write books.  Don’t waste any of these writing anything which doesn’t fulfill you, no matter what anyone says.

These days I write what I want.  I write it the way I want to.  I don’t care if it’ll sell, or if anyone will even want to read it.  That’s not my concern.  My job is not to sell, it’s to write.  Wanting to sit at the keyboard day after day and put in the work is all that matters.


Scrabble tilesI really do.  Occasionally one will come to me, such as Camaro Espinoza (link), but that’s generally because my mind is wandering around and I start thinking things like, “You know, Shelby and Camaro both sound like girls’ names, even though they’re the names of muscle cars.”  It’s not because I have some specific use for them.  For the most part the process works like this: I’m outlining something, and I get to the point where I need a name.  Unless something pops into my head immediately, I use a random generator (link) and get what I need.  If a good name doesn’t appear in the first list, I just keep clicking until the generator either comes up with a combination I like, or I see a given name and a surname that go well together.  Name goes in the outline, and then I move on.

Similarly, if I’m writing the day’s pages, and I can’t think of a name to go into a slot, that character becomes XX until such time as I go back and fill it in.  I also tend to drop XX into places where I want to insert a specific piece of research, but don’t want to waste time tracking down at the moment.  Flow is important if you want to write as quickly as I do (link), and there’s simply no time for futzing around trying to figure out where I saw the name of some German dinner dish, or whatever.  There’s always an opportunity later on to find what I need, or name whatever or whomever I need to name.

I’m not saying this is a good technique for you.  It may not be.  I know some writers who can’t work on a piece of fiction unless they’ve created an extensive folio on their characters, specifying them down to the smallest detail.  To be frank, I don’t have the energy for that kind of thing.  As I have said before, people are very much like other people, no matter who they are or where they come from.  What’s important is what makes a character different from the norm, not the boring stuff which could apply to anyone.