The creative path can be a lonely one. Your family and friends love you and want you to be successful, but sometimes… well, sometimes it’s a lot like this.
Some days it’s easy to get your word count in. The story come so easily it almost feels like it’s coming from somewhere or something else. It feels like you are just a conduit, fingers flying to keep up with the words streaming in your head. These are the best of days.
Other days it’s not so easy to get your word count in. No matter where you go, how hard you try, the words just are not there. Everything is a distraction, the world is just throwing obstacles your way left and right. These are not good days.
A few weeks back I participated in the inaugural Illumination Author Event in Denver. The Illumination events are wonderful intimate events where readers get to have lunch and network with their favorite authors. The first event was in Denver, but they are being scheduled all over the country. Check out the link above for more details.
As part of the event each author gives a talk. I thought I’d share a version of it here, for those unable to make it to the event. I called the talk The Magic of Finishing. What do you think? Tell me in the comments below.
~ The Talk ~
I remember writing my first short story, I was about nine years old. I called it Halloween Ghost and it was about a boy stumbling upon a haunted house while trick-or-treating. The boy is captured by the resident ghost. But it turns out the ghost is a friendly sort and was just giving away giant servings of ice cream. In reading it now two things are very apparent, one – my love for all things speculative has been a life long passion, and two – spelling was not a gift of mine at that point in my life! I’m pretty sure I found every possible spelling of the word ghost in the 100 words that made up that story! Also, full disclosure, I still love ice cream.
I was very excited about the assignment, I remember it clearly – I loved writing even then. But what I remember most clearly is the lightning strike of inspiration I got when the story popped into my mind. The idea seemed to come straight out of the aether – some gypsy-voodoo-black-magic that I’d somehow managed to get on me or to step in. Like walking through an unseen spider web, though much more pleasant. (And with none of the frenetic GET IT OFF ME dancing.)
It felt as if it had come from out there, rather than from inside of me.
I continued to write over the years, but I never finished a story. I wrote while I rode the wave of inspiration but when inspiration abandoned me I abandoned the story. For decades this was my pattern. My life is littered with half written books, characters half formed, their lives paused 1/4 of the way down a page, with a backstory but no future story. Villains abandoned at their peak, hero’s forced to linger at their point of greatest weakness, characters stuck where things are most dark, most dire. It’s pretty gruesome back there!
Somewhere after that first lightning flash of inspiration I’d picked up the habit of seeing writing itself as gypsy-voodoo-black-magic. Something that came from “out there” and if it comes from “out there” that means I have no control over it. I am subject to the fickle whims of the muse. If the muse stops weaving her magic what am I, a mere mortal, to do about it?
In looking back at it now I realized I’d believed this about all sorts of things, not just writing. I’d never really finished anything that mattered. Yea… I did the usual stuff – I graduated from high school and went to college. I graduated from college too, and got a job. That job led to another job and into roles with increasing responsibilities. By all outward indications I was successful and accomplished. But I knew something no one else knew.
You see, when I was nine I wanted to be a writer. By the time I started college I wanted to be a biologist or chemist. I left college with a BS in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and by the time I started working in my first “real job” it was in technology.
Now, meandering paths are not uncommon at that stage of life – many, maybe most of us, have no clear idea what we want to do when we’re twenty. But what might not be so obvious is that, for me at least, the spaces between those bullet points were trade off’s.
Science for writing – it’s a far more pragmatic career choice.
Criminal Justice for science because it was just plain easier.
Technology for law because that’s where I could find a job.
It turns out I loved working in technology, I’d stumbled into another passion and I’ve stayed there ever since. But even here there were tradeoff’s. Despite what I told others, and despite what I told myself at the time, the underlying reason for every one of these trade off’s was fear.
What if I can’t do it?
What if I’m not good enough?
Not smart enough?
Not cool enough?
What if I try my hardest, but still fail?
Instead of working hard for what I wanted most, I spent my time working a little for what came easiest. It was easy to blame the fickle muse for this. To hide the path of least resistance within the guise of magic-from-the-aether. To claim I followed the path of inspiration. But eventually I started to wonder about this muse of mine. What kind of sick bitch was she to start me down one path only to yank the rug from under me and send me careening off in some new direction? It was like the most serious game of keep-away I’ve ever heard of!
Now, to be clear, we should follow our inspirations. Inspiration is an expression of our intuition, it tells us where our passion lies, where our talents reside. But believing that people accomplish things because they have some super-secret tie in with some super-muse, or because they’re gifted with gypsy-voodoo-black-magic is a mistake. The truth is that finishing stuff is hard no matter who you are. And it takes a lot more than inspiration to carry things through to the end. Whether you are getting your degree, getting fit enough to jog a mile, or writing a book, finishing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.
Inspiration is designed for the start. Sweat, dedication, and courage are designed for the finish. I’d lived my life waiting for the magic. I’d made the mistake of believing all I needed was that magic. I’d forgotten all about sweat part. I’d forgotten the courage part.
There really IS magic in writing, and in life. Inspiration and creativity are magical… random junk from day to day life go in, it sloshes around somewhere in your gut, turning into some primordial semi-toxic stew that occasionally vents off some nasty stench, and then suddenly out of the blue – POOF! Ideas come out. It’s an amazing thing. I’ve got no clue how it works.
But the actual writing part, the doing, is sweat and courage. It’s showing up EVERY SINGLE DAY no matter where your muse is. Some days, the magical ones, words flow like warm honey. Other days it feels like you’re crawling across a mile of used needles, bloody hospital scalpels and poo.
When I realized all of this I realized my muse had done her job well. The rest of it was on me. So, I found my courage and began finishing the really important things. I started writing again – in earnest – and I’ve published two books so far, realizing a lifelong dream of being a writer. I made a dizzying career change and launched my own business, I finished a degree I’d long wanted but kept putting off. Inspiration told me what was important, sweat and courage helped me to finish the job.
You see, finishing has nothing to do with inspiration and has everything to do with hard work and the courage to keep to your path. It’s showing up every day, as I mentioned. It’s refusing to give in to the blank looks you get from people when you tell them what you’re trying to do, it’s continuing with your efforts even when you see no results. It’s not glamorous. It’s actually quite ugly. It often involves crying. There’s almost always blood. But after all of that, at the end of the day, when you have finished, it is pure magic.
Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, one of the best books of all time. It’s a classic for good reason! I recently reread it with my book club, and I loved it as much as an adult as I did as an adolescent. There are about a thousand lines I could choose from this book, but since this blog series is all about opening lines, here it is.
I love this line. So simple, but saying so so much.
It was a pleasure to burn.
~ Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Kushiel’s Dart is the first book in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. I came into them late, fortunately, so I was able to sit down and read them all straight through. If you’ve not read them, you absolutely should. Less magic, more political intrigue, but all sexy and entertaining as hell.
Here is the first line from the first book in the series, Kushiel’s Dart. It still gives me shivers.
Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.
~ Kushiels Dart by Jacqueline Carey
My inaugural First Line Friday post is from the book I, Lucifer written by Glen Duncan. I loved this book from the first word to the last, but the opening sentence… One of my all time absolute favorites!
I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of the Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of This World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer, and without doubt Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx) have decided – oo-lala! – to tell all.
~ I Lucifer, by Glen Duncan
By the end of that sentence I knew I had a winner, and that I was going to love this book. Duncan didn’t disappoint!
Give me one of your favorite opening lines to a novel in the comments below.
I have always been annoyed by the habit of constantly clumping sci-fi and fantasy together as if they were a single genre. They are two very different styles of storytelling. As different as romance and action thrillers, or horror and mystery, and just with those genres, often people who read one don’t read the other. Why oh why do people keep lumping them together?
I felt this way, that is, until I read A God Blasted Land. Lee Carlon has managed to create a series that is, indeed, sci-fi AND fantasy and worthy of the title!
Avril Ethanson is a technology Salvager, a young man with an ability to naturally interface with technology, whose life is forever altered after a run in with an assassin. Everything he thought he knew about his life is thrown into doubt as he struggles to stay alive and out of the clutches of the people chasing him.
A God Blasted Land combines futuristic tech with immortals, shape shifting dragons and magic in a fun and fast read. It is a bit short, but a great introduction to what is to come with the rest of the series, and it leaves you hungry to learn more about the world he’s created and the fate of his characters.
The fact I’d gotten here after smoking some crazy shit from a strange asian dude and being sucked black-hole-style into a door located in my left eyeball should have been a sign. But hell, I thought it was part of the trip. Seriously, inter-dimensional time portal bars just doesn’t exist in the real world.
Except they do. I’ve been there.
The bartender was a tall black man with dreads that were actually tentacles he could control like arms. Dude, you have not lived until you’ve seen a tentacle-headed bartender serving drinks so fast you can barely see them mixing. No one waited for a refill at the Strange Cafe.
There were tables on the ceiling, green fire crackling in every corner, a band that played their own bodies… seriously, the drummer sat on stage with hands that were cymbals and knee caps grown into bongo’s being slapped by ‘hands’ that grew out of his man-boobs. The bass player stretched his toe into an instrument seven feet tall and played it using his johnson. Best damn music I’ve ever heard. I couldn’t stop dancing.
No. Seriously. I couldn’t stop. I danced until I had blisters on my heels, my legs were in agony and my knees screamed pain. I felt like I’d been stretched and crushed in one of those medieval torture devices, my cheeks sewn into a richter mortis smile. A nice lady covered in iridescent blue scaling took pity on me and intervened. She started to get amorous but when a questing trunk emerged from her belly button and began fiddling around my back door I suddenly remembered Lucy and begged off because I was a married man.
When I finally stumbled out the front door the sun was high in the sky and I was ready to sleep for a month and tell Lucy about the crazy trip I had. But our campsite was nowhere to be found and nothing looked right. We’d been camping here for years, I knew this area like the back of my hand, but it was like every mole, follicle and line had been rearranged.
The trees were taller than I remembered. The air smelled deliciously clean. I stumbled to the dirt road that led to the campsite but there was no road. I walked to the overlook where we’d spend our evenings watching the sun set and stared in slack jawed amazement. None of the stuff that should have been there was there.
I-70 should have been visible far to the east, but wasn’t. Instead of an interstate there was an uninterrupted expanse of forest. In fact, that was all I could see, forest. Nothing but trees in every direction. There were never this many trees before. The only place on the entire planet forested like this was the Amazon for fucks sake. But there it was stretching before me, undeniable in its vast solidity.
I stumbled back toward the bar thinking this was an elaborate hoax put on by my friends. They’d never let me live this one down. My foot caught on something and I fell to the ground banging my shin. I looked down and saw a signpost. Old and barely legible. I cleared away the forest debris and felt shock sink to my bones.
Stu Jackson rests somewhere in these woods, lost July 2013. Well lived, well loved, well missed. ~2043
July 2013 was the camping trip they were on right now. He continued to the bar, fuming at his friends, they had taken this too far. Ha ha, funny, assholes.
He stumbled up the steps of the cafe and was stopped by a large sign he’d not seen when he came here last night.
Be ye warned, time does not travel the same in all places. One minute at Strange Cafe and a decade may pass at home. Please check the time table for your zone in advance! Strange is not responsible for lost decades or eternities! Enter at your own risk.
The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, is a near future dystopian novel set in what was once the United States but at the time of this tale is called the Republic of Gilead. The Republic of Gilead was birthed when a powerful group of ultra conservative religious types overthrew the American government in response to social unrest and declining birth rates among the upper crust white American population.
It is an unforgettable story about race, gender, and at its core, about power.
The story is told through the character Offred, in the early stages of social reconstruction. She is no longer allowed to read, yet of course remembers how; is not allowed to show skin even on the hottest of summer days while of course remembering summer days in a light t-shirt and shorts; and she is a handmaid – a woman who remains fertile and as such is a highly sought after commodity rented by the powerful elite in order to bear them children – and has no say in who she is rented out too.
What I found most haunting about this novel is the very realistic and dramatic societal shifts that happened almost over night. The coup d’etat was swift and sure while the bulk of the population swooned in shocked complacency unable to believe what was happening even while the heavy wet wool blanket was being pulled over their eyes. As Offred put it, “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
And most disturbing was the effectiveness and thoroughness of the subjugation and the impact this had on a once thriving and capable woman. Forbidden from speaking to one another, not allowed names, unable to drive or read. Punishment swift and severe – hanging. Or a beating. And the engagement of individuals within the social group being controlled in order to do the controlling.
The Handmaid’s Tale may be a dystopian fantasy, but it hit far to close to home for my comfort. This felt much more like a horror novel, an exploration of what hell must be like for people everywhere, and an exploration of what some in this country seem to be seeking even now.
2012 saw legislation across this country that weakened the Violence Against Women Act, several states attempting to pass (or passing, in some cases) laws preventing women access to even medically necessary abortions or for cases of rape, incest or severe health issues with the fetus. There have been repeated attacks on Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides much needed access to basic female health needs as well as education and family planning services. Additional attempts at redefining ‘life’ could make standard birth control methods such as the IUD or birth control pills illegal – dramatically impairing a woman’s ability to make healthy decisions about her future.
Most of these have been blocked by responsible and reasonable members of our government and community, but many states have not been so lucky and have seen a dramatic regression in women’s access to the most basic of things. The most recent presidential election seemed to indicate an awakening toward these issues, but the momentum seems in large part to have waned once Obama was elected.
The truly terrifying thing about Atwood’s novel is just how close we are to a very similar fate. And that my friends, kept me up at night chewing my fingernails to nubs, as I read through this excellent novel.
An absolute thumbs up. A compelling story that keeps you reading well into the night, characters who break your heart, and a setting that is as chilling as any horror story I’ve ever encountered… The Handmaid’s Tale is a must read.