Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Writers’ Maladies

     Good morning, Gentle Readers. If you’re as thoroughly sick of the Page One news as I am, perhaps you, too, will appreciate a diversion into one of my other obsessions. For my part, I positively need it. Any more “news” of severed heads, bits of bodies, Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management shenanigans, slanging matches between presidential candidates, or universities and their “safe spaces” and I just might haul out the Barrett .50 and the emergency package of Oreo Double-Stufs.

     Writers of fiction deal with certain, shall we say, disorders of the psyche, most of which most non-writers are blessedly spared. As I’m slowly recovering from one myself, I thought the subject might make a “welcome change from potatoes.”


     One that’s not solely a writers’ problem is specific to the fictioneer who strains to support himself on his writing alone. It’s generically known as poverty. There have been many well-known writers who couldn’t do without their “day jobs.” The one that comes to mind immediately is Anthony Trollope, who allowed himself a bare fifteen minutes to write each morning before heading off to his salaried job as a postman.

     This can be a transitional stage, of course: the writer who starts out writing in his spare time, if he acquires a large and loyal following, might eventually be able to do without his wage gig. For example, Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman before The Hunt for Red October made him wealthy enough to purchase the state of Maryland. It’s unwise to count on that from the outset, but it does happen now and then. Still, the majority of us combine our fictional endeavors with something more mundane, in the interests of regular nutrition.

     Some writers find financial pressures to be a stimulus to creativity. Mickey Spillane once told of a “dry” period, in which he felt wholly uncreative and spent weeks doing nothing but lolling about on the beach. The spell broke when his accountant called to tell him his bank balance was nearing zero. “Damned if I didn’t start having one idea after another,” commented Spillane. It would be nice if it worked that way for all of us, wouldn’t it?


     Another problem writers often confront is something I call, semi-ironically, “grooving:” becoming so locked into a particular story setting, Marquee character, or theme that he cannot depart from it. His “groove” has become too deep; he can no longer reach the lip, hoist himself out, and try something else. This is most common among writers in tightly defined sub-genres, such as “hard-boiled” mysteries or techno-military thrillers.

     Sometimes a writer’s readership can precipitate the problem. Consider Lee Child, one of the most popular thriller writers currently producing. His series of novels featuring itinerant ex-military-cop Jack Reacher commands an immense following. Can Child write about anything else at this point? Perhaps – but perhaps he feels he must remain with Reacher, to keep his existing readers happy and loyal. Given the financial inducements involved, it would surely be hard for him to consider dedicating months or a year to the evolution of a wholly new character and setting.


     The third writers’ complaint I’ll address today is “forgetting why you came.” An extended story series is often tightly coupled to a specific theme, from which the author’s motivation arises. When the theme has been adequately expressed, the series should come to an end. However, if the series has become popular, a variety of the “grooving” malady described above might kick in: the author persists with the series, or important elements thereof, but either strays fatally from the energizing theme, or beats it brutally into the ground.

     A setting and character group sculpted toward the enactment of specific kinds of dramas should not be ripped from their thematic foundation and put to other, less compatible uses. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin would not function as itinerant preachers. Katniss Everdeen would never make a general. Try to imagine 24’s Jack Bauer as a DEA agent, or Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a crusader against homelessness. Such notions grate against the mind...yet sins worse than these have been committed by writers desperate to squeeze one or two more books out of a setting and protagonist.

     It’s just as bad to hammer one’s theme relentlessly. Granted that some themes have more juice in them than others. My personal favorites, freedom and the Christian ethos, can seem inexhaustible. Yet these, too, can be abused, especially if one perpetuates the setting and Marquee characters associated with them past their “sell-by dates.” One must not cudgel one’s readers with ideas one has already adequately expressed.


     There are other problems common among writers, of course. The above are the ones most on my mind this morning, specifically because of their power. Their allure and my desire to avoid being sucked into them have clashed from time to time, including recently. When I become aware that one is about to sink its fangs into me, I step away from the keyboard and do something – housework, yard work, exercise, anything! – other than write until the evil glamor has dissipated. (I’ve waxed the garden hoses more than once.)

     And yet, the magnetism of such a trap can pursue me even as I struggle to wrest myself from its grasp. For example: My recent failure to complete Statesman in a satisfying manner got me wondering, “What could I attempt that’s so distant from this that even flirting with it for a while would be refreshing?” I settled on a romance. (My first agent repeatedly suggested that I “write a nice romance.” Back then, I pretended that I couldn’t hear her. Perhaps this is her revenge.) So I set to the task...and immediately found myself pondering how to use the characters from a story I’d written a decade ago. Yes, yes, their story was a horror pastiche written as a sort-of-homage to the great horror writers of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, but still...

     Beware, Gentle Reader!

1 comment:

Dystopic said...

My problems are of a more basic nature. There are stories I have in my mind, characters, settings, events... they are fully formed there. But I cannot seem to put them to pen in a way that gives justice to them.

I'm perpetually disappointed in my own writing. And so, invariably, after a few chapters of mundane storytelling I give up and move on. But I can't disengage from it either because I greatly desire to become a writer of fiction. Not for money, per se, or for fame, or any of that. Rather, I just want to tell these stories I keep thinking of.

So I am stuck in an endless loop. Sarah Hoyt once told me to just say fuck it, more or less, and write one to completion anyway, even if I thought it was garbage. Maybe I'm right and it is garbage, but the doing becomes an exercise and a learning experience. Or perhaps I merely *think* that it is garbage, and it actually turns out to be something readers will enjoy anyway.

I'm still mulling that over.