The Sacred Work of Storytelling

Nearly two weeks ago, the sun disappeared (at least if you were in the direct path of the eclipse). For a few minutes, the air grew cooler and the birds grew quiet. I couldn’t help but think about how ancient people must have viewed an eclipse. They may have wondered if the sun would come back. Their worry may have made them anxious enough that they came up with elaborate rituals to appease the Sun and make sure he (or she) didn’t abandon them altogether.

But who came up with the rituals, the story, the cosmography, that explained why the sun disappeared and what must be done to ensure it always returned? Priests, you say? Priests may have performed the rituals, but the person who created the myth the rituals were built around was undoubtedly the tribe’s bard or storyteller. She or he might not have had the position officially, but they were the members of the tribe with the imagination and the gift with words to explain the phenomenon.

The word religion comes from a Latin word that means"to tie or bind". And that’s what religions do—they tie the events of the world together and make sense of them. They also bind people together in a shared experience, even if that experience is a re-enactment or ritual connected with the story created by the storyteller. Storytellers make sense of the world. And that’s why I believe we will always have need of them, not matter how sophisticated the world is.

Just look at the rabid following of The Game of Thrones series. It keeps gaining momentum and attracting more viewers (and readers). We dissect and analyze the episodes and return to them over and over, trying to figure out this world George R.R. Martin has created. We want to know the "why" for all the details in this world and we want to make sense of the events that take place. Martin, the storyteller, has created a grand myth, an imaginary world that people discuss as if it were totally real.

That’s what writers do, and that’s why storytelling is so important. The worlds we create as writers connect people. In making sense of imaginary worlds, we help people make sense of the real world. (Which at times is proving to be just as horrific and terrifying as anything Martin has created.)

Despite the multitude of fans, there are plenty of people who consider TGOT escapist fiction and therefore, silly and unimportant. But I would argue the series isn’t trivial or a waste of time because it binds us together and gives us a story that we share. As we reflect on the meanings of the myth, we reflect on our own values and what is important to us. We are forced to confront questions of good and evil and what is involved in making those distinctions.

A recent study showed that reading fiction tends to make people more empathetic in their choices. Experiencing things from the viewpoint of a fictional character teaches us to get outside our own world viewpoint and look at things in a new and more empathetic way. Maybe storytelling can’t change our turbulent, chaotic and violent world, but it can help us make sense of it and connect us in meaningful ways.

Storytelling is ancient and at the heart of the very essence of what it means to be human. So next time you get totally discouraged and want to give up writing, remember that the work we’re doing as writers is sacred and essential.

The Dreaded Blurb

My publisher has a policy where they won’t start the editing process until you’ve finished the art memo and a promotional worksheet for your book. The worksheet includes writing a blurb.

In the old days (sigh) my editor or someone in the marketing department wrote my blurbs. I still had to come up with the tagline, but that’s much shorter than a blurb and easier to manage. The blurb, which becomes the back cover copy for print versions and the description on ebook sites, is supposed to tell the reader the basic plot of your book and at the same time, entice them into wanting to read it.

I know authors who like to write blurbs. They consider it challenging and fun. For me, the process elicits a deep groan. My first problem is that I tend to write long. Most of my books are over 100,000 words. My second problem is that having finished this book only a few months ago. I’m still too close to it to have a good perspective. My third problem is that I’m not good at knowing what readers look for in a book. I read book reviews almost every day in my job at the library. But book reviews critically evaluate a book and summarize the plot in a cold, logical way. Not a good model for a blurb, which is sort of a love letter to your book.

So, I asked my author friends for help. I came up with several blurb versions and we went out for tea and started reworking them. They took lines here and there they liked and rearranged and combined them. They also scratched out a lot, pointing out I was giving away too much of the story. “Take that out,” they’d say. “Readers don’t need to know that.”

During the process, I realized my instinct with a blurb is to outline the plot. But that’s not the idea. The blurb is supposed to tantalize and intrigue. Raise questions and then not give the answers. That’s a basic principle of fiction. You keep reading to find out what’s going to happen.

All at once, I understood I’d been doing blurbs all wrong for years. (Fortunately, I’m much better at taglines, which are so short you can’t give much away.) It's probably obvious to most authors that the blurb is supposed to keep the reader guessing. But my background in journalism pushed me to “tell my story”.

Eventually, my friends came up with a blurb they agreed on. To me, it feels vague and almost unfinished. But that’s probably a good thing.

In this business, you’re always learning. Sometimes the most obvious things have to be pointed out to you. Without the help of my friends, I’d make even more mistakes than I already have. Maybe that’s the most important lesson of all.

How about you? Do you like to write blurbs? Hate it? Do you have any special techniques or advice for the process that might help other authors?

Something Extra

I recently read a women’s fiction novel by an author I’ve enjoyed before, Lisa Jewell. It had the usual things she does well: interesting characters, complex relationships, an appealing and well-developed setting. But it had something else, a suspense plot. This “something extra” made it an even more compelling book. The book worked as women’s fiction already. The suspense plot took it to another level.

I’ve noticed this kind of “genre crossbreeding” is happening more and more. It started in romance years ago when authors began adding suspense to create the romantic suspense sub-genre, and paranormal elements to create paranormal romance. Then historical mysteries took off, followed by mysteries with fantasy or sci-fi elements. And what is urban fantasy, other than an action/adventure novel set in a fantasy world?

Even literary fiction has gotten in on the trend, with authors adding strong genre elements to books written in a literary style. An example is one of my favorite mystery authors: Benjamin Black, which is the pseudonym of John Banville, an acclaimed literary writer. There's a mystery at the core of his Quirk series, but the writing is also beautiful and evocative, providing a thrilling and enriched reading experience.

In the very crowded publishing world of today, there are so many well-written genre books that you have to find some way to set your novel apart. Adding elements from another genre is a good way to do this. A friend of mine, Amanda Cabot, writes inspirational romance. In her most recent novel, she added a mystery subplot. From the reviews she’s gotten, readers loved it. The mystery was “something extra” that made the book even more satisfying.

In some ways, the trend can be a disheartening. You’ve reached the place where you’re very good at writing books in your genre. Now you realize you have to up your game and work even harder. But another way to think of it is an exciting opportunity to stretch and expand your skills.

Without my really planning it, there ended up being a mystery subplot in the historical romance I recently finished. In addition to the love story and the other usual plot elements, someone attempts to murder a secondary character. I’m not a plotter, so after I finished the first draft, I had a lot more revision to do than usual. I had to make sure the timeline made sense, the clues were there and the mystery—in addition to everything else—got wrapped up satisfactorily.

The book was more work than any I’ve written in years. But it was also challenging and gratifying. Knowing that I’d enriched the story by adding a mystery made me more hopeful my publisher might be interested in the book, despite the fact that medieval romances aren’t exactly a hot commodity these days.

I don’t know if the mystery subplot is why my publisher offered me a contract. (Yay!) But I don’t think it hurt. What about you? Are there cross-genre elements you could add to your next project?

A Score and More and Still Learning

I’ve been writing fiction for over twenty years, and this week I just figured out how I do it.

For years, I’ve bemoaned my inability to plot. Back when I was required to provide my editor with a short synopsis in order to sell another book, I was always able to come up with something. But the plotting I did seldom helped with the writing. Once I started the story, all bets were off. In fact, I learned it was much more productive to ignore what I’d plotted and simply write “into the mist”.

I am a linear writer. I rarely write scenes out of order. I start at the beginning and follow wherever the story leads—the trail of breadcrumbs along the dark, winding pathway through the forest. If I start to feel I’m getting off track, I may go back and rewrite a scene or two. But I usually find it’s better to keep going and fix plot problems at the end.

Although I’ve developed a sense of what seems to work best, I’ve never really understood the actual process. It’s almost like there’s something supernatural happening. A kind of magic. That may sound exciting, but in fact, that unknown magical element has always worried me. If you don’t understand how something works, how can you make certain it keeps happening? The fear the magic will leave me has always been there.

My faith in my writing process has been especially challenged the last few years. I seem to be much less productive than I used to be. Writing a book takes longer and I get stuck more. The magic seems to have grown fickle and elusive. Maybe I’ve worn it out. Maybe I don’t really have what it takes to create stories anymore.

I started a new book two months ago. Initially, I thought I was well on my way. I already had three chapters written from years ago. I tweaked and edited, but overall I was pretty satisfied. Then it came time to write new pages, and I found myself hideously stuck. Over three weeks I wrote three scenes, but none of them led anywhere. My characters stopped talking and froze on the page.

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I liked my hero and heroine and was interested in their story. Why did they refuse to come to life? They didn’t seem to know what to do and how to move the plot forward. They were static and cardboard and miserably one-dimensional.

This went on day after day and I started to panic. Maybe I was too old. Maybe the magic is finite and I’ve used up my allotment. For the first time that I can remember, instead of providing me with an escape from the stresses of my life, writing itself became stressful. Like my characters on the page, I froze. When I tried to brainstorm where the story should go next, nothing happened.

I briefly considered abandoning the book and working on another project. I have a closet full of partial manuscripts. Maybe one of them would reignite my creativity. But if I tried writing something else and the same thing happened, I knew I would really be in trouble. I contribute a fair share of my success as a writer to my innate stubbornness and tenacity. No, by golly, I wasn’t going to give up on this book. I was going to will it into life somehow, some way.

One good thing about getting older is that I’m better at problem-solving. I also have more perspective. I told myself to crank down the panic and try to figure out what I was doing differently this time. What had changed?

And then a simple thought struck me. The way I write is to climb into my characters’ skin and become them. I see the world through their eyes. Based on what I see and feel as them, they come to life and start doing things.

I hadn’t done that this time. On paper, I had two fairly well fleshed-out characters, but instead of getting inside them and letting them live the story, I was trying to push them to the next plot point. I was outside of them, manipulating them. They became shadow puppets. Hollow empty ideas, rather than human characters.

So I went back, climbed into my hero’s skin and started writing. All at once, the blood flowed in his veins and he took a breath and then another. And just like that, I knew what he was feeling and what he was going to do next.

I will undoubtedly get stuck again. For me, it’s part of the process. But now I know a little bit of the secret of how it works. It’s still magic. Unreliable. Tricky. Unfathomable. But I’ve finally learned a few words of the spell, the sorcery that makes it all happen.

Mortality and the Writer

I just finished a book and went through my usual ritual of cleaning my office while mourning a little for the characters who have been such a large part of my life the last year. Now it’s time to start the next book. In the past, my first consideration would be the market: What book could I write now that I would have the best chance of getting published? What book is most likely to attract readers and earn me the most sales?

But I just hit a milestone birthday, and I realize I no longer think like that. All at once, I am keenly aware I have only a finite number of years left to write books. With time ticking away, I’m starting to think of my career as a legacy rather than a business concern. What do I want to be known for as a writer?

I am proud of my epic historical fantasy, but I’m not ready to return to the world of early Roman Britain. And then there is the fantasy series I dabbled with for three years. I would like to finish it, but my instincts tell me I still don’t have a vision of the story arc that I need to do justice to that tale. My Regency romances have sold the best, but I think as a writer my hallmark has been my dark age and medieval stories. The book I just finished is set in medieval times, and I really love the medieval world. And I have a proposal that’s been whispering to me ever since my trip to Wales last year.

So, I decided to heed that whisper and start writing it. I feel especially good about writing a book that connects to the last one. If there is one mistake I made throughout my career, it was bouncing around in different eras and worlds. This time I’m going to keep going in the same one. I want to finish a solid “series”.

That decision may seem pretty obvious. But in the past, I would probably have switched to a romance sub-genre that is popular now, like the Regency or Victorian eras. Or I would have tried to come up with a mystery since they seem to be selling well, even though I have no solid ideas in my head. In other words, I would have “written to the market”, instead of following my heart.

But I’ve decided it’s too late in my life not to follow my heart. When I first got published in my early 30’s, I was surrounded by authors who saw writing as a career and believed that part of being a professional was to write books that advanced your career. For several years I fought the urge to write what would sell and was indulged by my editor, who allowed me to make a lot of questionable career decisions. Then my career fell apart and I spent the next ten years chasing the elusive dream of recapturing what had been a promising career.

The last few years I’ve finally given up the dream. Not in a bitter, resentful way, but a calm resignation. And I’m in good company. I know few authors who are where they would have hoped to be when they started out, at least if it was ten or more years ago. But we keep writing because it feeds our souls. Because it is who we are.

The gift of age is knowledge and insight. The downside is the lack of time to use that knowledge. For all of you young writers out there, do what you must, but remember that writing time, like every aspect of our lives, is precious. Use it wisely.

Covers Matter…A Lot

All day long at my job at the library I watch people pick out books. Step one: the cover or the author’s name (if they’ve read them previously or heard something about them) catches their eye. Step two: they pick up the book and read the cover blurb to find out what the book is about.

The cover blurb process is for another blog or even a workshop, but I have a few observations about book covers. With the exception of literary fiction, which always seems to have very bland covers, covers can absolutely make or break a book. And I’m observing people choosing print books, where they can pick up the book and examine it closely. When you’re talking about the thumbnail-sized e-book cover, the science/art of book covers becomes even more crucial.

The first thing a good cover does is catch the eye. It shouldn’t have too many elements because that makes it look cluttered. Colors are important, as some colors are more striking/appealing than others. Also, certain colors subconsciously signal certain moods, and having the mood match the mood of the book is essential.

We have several shelves of paperbacks that are organized by narrower genre classifications than our general fiction collection. A lot of the time I’ll order a book that could fit into any number of these genres. For example, we have thriller-type books shelved in suspense, in romance, in mystery, in adventure and in general fiction. So, how do I decide?

If I’m familiar with the author and what they usually write, that makes it easy. Otherwise I start with the blurb: Is the focus on the romance? Is there a lot of action? Is there a clear puzzle/mystery at the core? Is the focus on nail-biting suspense, but not necessarily a lot of action? Is the book about an apocalyptic battle/struggle to save the world, or a more sedate courtroom drama?

When I can’t decide for sure where a book belongs, or it could fit into two or more categories, I often go by the cover. Is it dark and moody? Probably fits better in suspense. Does it show a couple? It will probably check out better in romance. Does it show a hot, half-naked, tattooed man on the cover? We’ll call it paranormal romance and put it on the romance rack. Does it show a hot, half-naked, tattooed woman on the cover? That signals urban fantasy, so I'll put it in the sci fi/fantasy section.

Colors are almost as important as the cover content. You don’t want dark/muddy colors on a romance, unless it’s a edgy romantic suspense. You don’t want pastels on an action-oriented book, a western or even a legal thriller. For mysteries, the covers should clearly signal whether they are cozies (with lighter, brighter colors like green, yellow and pastel blue), while darker stories use dark blues, blacks, grays and maybe a touch of red.

I said earlier that the cover shouldn’t be cluttered, and one of the most common mistakes I see is that the author will try to have the cover accurately reflect the plot, and hence include a lot of elements. They want to show it’s a romance and a time travel and so they show the couple and the elements that make the setting in the past clear. Or they show too many characters and images. Sometimes it works, but usually not. Simpler and subtler is almost always better.

Ultimately, you should rely on the experts. Which is the art department of your publisher, or your cover artist, if you are indie-publishing. And most important, remember that your vision of the book cover may be all wrong. I loved the cover of my first book designed by my current small publisher. It had all the elements I thought should be in my story: handsome, bare-chested barbarian type hero with a modern skyline in the background, perfectly capturing the time travel/fantasy romance plot.

But the book sold dismally, and I’m sure a lot of it was because of the cover. It didn’t reduce down well to a thumbnail, and it was too dark, much darker than mood of the story. And the bare-chested guy who I thought captured the look of the dark-age Irish prince didn’t seem to do anything for readers. He looked more scary than hot, and that’s the opposite of his persona in the book. There were other things wrong with the book and they way it was marketed, but I’m still pretty certain the cover was in large share to blame for the poor sales.

The final thing is the cover should not look amateurish. Which is to say that the art isn’t interesting, or of good quality and/or the elements don’t flow well together. I meet a lot of indie-published authors who want me to add their book to the library's collection. (And we’re talking free here, not books I’m spending library funds on.) If the cover looks amateurish, I’m probably going to say no right away. Because even if I put that book on the new book shelf, which gets a lot of traffic, no one’s going to pick it up. It might be a great novel, but it’s never going to have a chance with a bad cover.

There are lots of blogs and articles on the internet regarding the "science" of book covers. It’s probably worth your time to do some research. Maybe a lot of research. After all, this is your baby, and if nobody notices it, your baby is never going to get the love it deserves.

The Thrill of the Unexpected

Recently, I was preparing for a trip and was in the mood for a mystery. With nothing new out from my favorite authors, I searched on-line. I ended up downloading two books, one set in North Wales, one of my favorite places in the world, and the other in Belfast.

Both of these books are the first in a series, but I’m not sure I’ll buy the next ones. As I read them, the writer part of me kept analyzing.  I could easily tick off the various character/plot conventions: Beleaguered and frustrated hero, a police detective in both cases. Check. Personal quirks to make them unique. Check. Traumatic past histories to make them sympathetic. Check. Female sidekick (also a detective) to add a feminine viewpoint. Check. Complex mystery plot with a devious and diabolical killer. Check. An attempt to create atmosphere and a feeling of place and time (one was set a few years in the past). Check.

Everything was there for me to love these books. But I didn’t. I never quite engaged with the main characters. Nor could I turn off the writer/analytical part of my brain and lose myself in the story. They weren't bad books, but they were great ones either.

When I got home I found a book from one of my favorite mystery writers (Ann Cleeves) waiting for me on the library hold shelf. It's the first book in a series that has been out in the UK for years. This time, instead of being simply an entertaining way to spend my time, the book gripped me from the beginning.  I stayed up way too late the first night I started reading, and then couldn't wait to get back to it at work on my breaks and my lunch hour.

So what's the difference between this book and the other two moderately entertaining ones? There's a number of things I could focus on, including the quality of the writing. But one aspect I immediately noticed is the difference between the expected and the unexpected. This book starts very slow. Although there's a death--a suicide--early on, neither the real mystery nor the police detective character are introduced until over halfway through the book. The whole first half is backstory and slow build-up and is told from the different perspectives of the main characters.

It's a very subtle and compelling way to craft a mystery. And totally unexpected. The characters are also atypical. They definitely aren't types, nor do they fit standard mystery characterizations. Not even the police detective. There is no checking off boxes with this book. There are subtle, tiny revelations and intriguing details on nearly every page, and the freshness and surprise in way the story unfolds makes it feels like life and makes the characters startlingly real.

This author didn't craft this story based on familiar mystery tropes or character prototypes. She ignored all that and came up with something original, something unexpected.

Ann Cleeves is obviously a brilliant writer. But I think there is a lesson here for us more ordinary genre novelists. Too often we lean on the rules and techniques we've been taught and don't even consider doing the unexpected. We may try to make our plots twisty and suspenseful, but most of the time we settle for the expected in everything else.

That's not everything it takes to write a great book, but maybe the idea of doing the unexpected will help all of us write a less ordinary one.

“Cataloging” Your Book

It’s been over twenty years since I started ordering fiction for the public library where I work. We divide adult fiction into four basic collections: mystery, western, sci-fi/fantasy and fiction (which encompasses everything that doesn’t fit into the first three). In the past, cataloging, or deciding where to shelve a book, was pretty simple. Occasionally there were questions about whether a book was suspense, which we shelve in fiction, or a mystery. Traditionally a mystery is a book that features a private detective or amateur sleuth, or a police procedural, but gradually we started adding crime fiction to the mystery section. Then the thriller category exploded, and some of our patrons thought John Grisham and James Patterson books should be mysteries. (We resisted and kept them in Fiction.)

But that was only the beginning. Charlene Harrison started the True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse series, and we cataloged the books as mystery because that’s the genre she’d been writing in previously. But they weren’t mysteries, really. They had vampires in them. And where do you catalog vampire books? Anne Rice’s vampire books were in fiction. But other authors, like Laurell Hamilton, wrote vampire books that had a lot of supernatural elements and those books seemed to fit better in sci-fi/fantasy. And then Jim Butcher started a fantasy series featuring a detective, and where do you put those?

Dystopian fiction has traditionally been cataloged as fiction, probably because classic dystopian novels like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale are considered literature, which meant they’re shelved in fiction. But if a dystopian novel has zombies, does it really belong in fiction? Wouldn’t it check out better in sci fi/fantasy?

In the end, that’s what usually drives my decision: Where will the book check out best? Where will the readers searching for that kind of book most likely look for it? That’s why the question of what genre your book fits into is so important to you as a writer. Readers have to find your book. If the people who would love your story don’t find it in the area of the library—or more importantly, the section of the bookstore, digital or otherwise—they usually browse in, they’re never going to discover your book.

You can’t control where your book is shelved in libraries or bookstores, but you do have some control over how it is marketed. And that process starts even before you the sell the book to a publisher. It may even affect how you write the book, as in which genre rules you decide to follow or which ones you decide to break. When you make a pitch to an editor or agent, you should be telling them things about your book that help them categorize it so they can see how it fits into their company’s marketing plan.

If you’re indie-publishing your book, you have total control over the cover, the blurb and the category/genre it’s listed in. Which means you really can fine-tune where it’s going to be “shelved”, in either a digital bookstore or physical building. So think a lot about where your book fits in the market. What are some popular books that are like yours? What categories are they listed in on-line? What do their covers look like? How are they described, both in blurbs and by readers?

It can be overwhelming, but ultimately this is your baby. You want to make sure your book ends up in the right place so people can find it and fall in love.

Reading On the Screen

On my last trip, I did something unthinkable. I didn’t take any books. Print books, that is. I did have a number of ebooks on my tablet, including two that I acquired especially to read on this trip. One I borrowed from the library’s ebook catalog; the other I purchased.

My conversion to ebooks has been gradual. Except in cases when it’s the only way I can obtain a book I’m interested in, I seldom read ebooks except when traveling. Then the convenience is hard to beat. A slim, lightweight tablet versus pounds of books. The ability to enlarge the print when the lighting is poor, and to read without using those horrible glaring lights they have on airplanes. By syncing my tablet with my phone, I can continue to read on it during the twenty minutes of takeoff and immediately after when laptops and tablets must be stowed away.

Another advantage to ebooks is obvious. It cost me $13.99 to buy an ebook copy of the literary bestseller I took on the trip. If I’d sprung for print it would have cost me seven dollars more. And unless I wanted to take a chance that I could find a copy in an airport bookstore, I would have had order the book a few days ahead of my trip so it could be shipped to me.

On the downside, you are dependent on electricity to charge your device, while print is always there. Which why it’s good to have a back-up print book for emergencies, like when you leave your charging cord in the hotel and don’t have time to shop for a new one right away.

And there are other disadvantages. Reading an ebook is more tiring, since even though the print on the screen appears crisp and sharp, in fact your brain is smoothing out the uneven edges of the pixelated letters to make them appear that way. Also, for reading at night, the bright light of the device decreases the production of melatonin in the brain, so reading an ebook before bed is more likely to cause insomnia.

And even though the device shows you on every page what percentage of the book you’ve already read, going back to re-read a few pages in an ebook is much more cumbersome and tedious than flipping through the pages in a print book. If you’re reading a complex story with lots of characters, that can be frustrating. It’s like everything you’ve already read falls off into a void and disappears, and the only part of the book that is real is the page in front of you.

As a writer, I find this aspect of ebooks troubling. Many of my books are no longer available in print, unless you can find a yellowed copy in a used bookstore. Which means from now on, almost everyone who reads my books will be doing so in the digital format. It makes my stories that I spent hours and hours of my life creating seem like any other consumer product—a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee—to be consumed and then forgotten. My story, my words, are just ephemera.

Although from another perspective, exactly the opposite is true. My print books will eventually crumble to dust, while my ebooks could potentially live on and on forever in the digital realm.

But this potential advantage is canceled out by another aspect of ebooks. According to studies, they don’t have quite the same impact and influence that print books do. This is because print is tactile, which helps our brains create a stronger memory of what we’ve read. The physical act of turning pages, the sensation of the number of pages held in your left hand versus those in your right, the location of the words on the page—all those things help your brain store the information you’ve read more effectively. My digital stories will last longer, but they have less meaning to the people who read them.

And finally, the ease of producing ebooks means that my stories are no longer competing for readers’ attention with thousands of other books, but with literally millions. My story and vision is drowned in an endless sea of ebooks.

Ebooks are like so many things in this rapidly-changing, breathlessly expanding technological world. All these innovations have made the exchange of information easier and faster, but now the sheer volume of what we’re exposed to threatens to render the actual content meaningless.

I leave you with a quote from Jim Morrison’s Lords and New Creatures: “We have metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on the hillside to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.” He was referring to people living through TV and film instead of experiencing life. Now we live through the reality of our handheld devices.

Why Bother

At a recent get-together with several writer friends, we got to discussing some of the gloomier aspects of the business: the sheer number of books available, the pain of rejection letters, the struggle to find ways to promote that actually work. The one individual in the group who is still trying to get published traditionally finally threw up her hands and said, “Why do we do it? Why should we even bother writing when everything seems be against us?”

It’s a good question, and one that I—and most writers I know—have struggled with at various times. We joke that we could make more money per hour working in a fast food restaurant. Shake our heads in disbelief at the writers who somehow crank out a half dozen books a year, while we agonize to produce one. Stifle our envy of those who are lucky enough to write the right book at the right time and end up with a bestseller. We long for the good old days, before all the major publishers became corporate entities with little interest in books in themselves, who today only see publishing as a way to make money.

Everywhere you look there are reasons to become discouraged and give up writing. Some of us do. I’ve had several friends who’ve quit writing because of their disgust with the industry. Having had their hearts broken by the system, they are still licking their wounds rather than writing. I understand their pain and their desire to be free of it. I wonder sometimes if I was starting out now, if I would have the resolve to persevere and keep fighting for years for that first contract offer.

And yet, I know I would keep writing. Because I was hooked from that first moment, somewhere in chapter three of my first book, when my characters came to life and shared their story with me while I frantically tried to write it down. There is a writer’s high, just as there is that thrilling state for athletes when they enter the zone, and everything is magic.

There’s a perfectly logical explanation for that mystical state of bliss. Scientists have studied the brains of people as they exercise and clearly tracked the release of endorphins in the brain, those incredibly addictive chemicals that give us a feeling of well-being and even euphoria. I don’t know that they’ve ever studied writers for the same phenomenon, but as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to. I have no doubt that writing fiction does something to my brain, flooding it with feel-good chemicals. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve had weeks and even months go by when writing was more of a slow plod rather than an enticing high. But having experienced writing nirvana, I always know it’s out there. And the tantalizing memory of that lovely altered state keeps me going.

There is another reason why I bother writing. Because writing is an excellent form of escape. Writing soothes me when I’m frustrated and irritated. I may not be able to control the people in my life, but I can (mostly) control my fictional characters. Writing also takes me away from things that stress me. The intense focus of the process distracts me from my problems and helps me put them in perspective. And finally, writing is antidote to the boring and bland. I get to experience the extreme highs of life all over again. Along with my characters, I fall in love for the first time, reach thrilling goals, conquer my fears and experience the satisfaction of great accomplishment. I get to travel to exotic locations and time travel to other eras. I actually get to be other people, and forget about my own reality.

I first discovered this enchanted aspect of fiction when I learned to read. I’m still in thrall to delights of a good book. Books have gotten me through a lot of tough times in my life. I firmly believe that as long as I am able escape into fictional worlds, I can survive almost anything.

Writing is a trickier means of escape than reading, and not always dependable. But when it works it is even more satisfying, resulting in the double pleasure of not only escaping stress, conflict and depression, but creating your own wonderful alternative reality at the same time.

Deep down, that is why a lot of us bother to write. Because we’re getting something in the process that is far more meaningful than publishing success. We’re finding happiness and fulfillment.