Sunday, 22 May 2016

Books on Writing: Spicer's Picks

Several of my favorite books on writing, such as Stephen King's On Writing and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, have already been discussed on Novel Spaces over the past weeks. My approach to writing differs somewhat from the "craftsman" approach mentioned by Kevin Killiany in "Kevin's Picks: Books on Writing". I like to believe mine is more holistic--embracing both the preeminence of craft and the mysterious, subliminal, sometimes magical nature of writing.

Stephen King puts it well: “At its most basic we are discussing a learned skill (writing), but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style... but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.” Spanish writer Luis Buñuel writes: “Mystery is the basic element of all works of art.” And Jorge Luis Borges views writing as "Nothing more than a guided dream."

I'm not King or Borges, or Buñuel, or Steinbeck who famously said, “I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” But I'm in good company. When Joan Baez claims "...those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page” I feel the hairs raise up on my arm because this has been my lived experience. My very best stories come to me in an intuitive flash and these rare gifts invariably eclipse the ones that I consciously, deliberately and laboriously craft. It makes sense that the books on writing which I choose to read are eclectic rather than craft-heavy. Here are two of my favorites.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers is one writing book that I hardly ever see other writers mention. It's for those who are just starting out and it does an excellent job of dispelling the illusions with which most of us begin. Sellers is a teacher of fiction, poetry and nonfiction writing workshops and she brings a wealth of experience in coaching writers to the table. There are chapters on the state of mind you bring to starting something new, on balance, on tools for getting the work done, on reading, on the influence of parents on your work, on managing anxiety, on daring to suck, on mentors, rejection, workshops, ambition... In short, it covers everything beginning writers need to know about what they're getting themselves into. I'm glad I read it early on. Bonus: There are exercises at the end of each chapter. I admit I did very few of them.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War and Last of the Amazons) is all about breaking through the blocks to creativity, or put another way, about overcoming potentially paralyzing fears and doubts. Pressfield says:

"There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance."

He defines the many forms that resistance takes, shows how to combat it, then discusses the powerful psychic forces that sustain artists on their journey.

I've given away one writing book because I knew I was never going to read it again. That was Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays by Ray Bradbury. There are others languishing on my bookshelf: A Writer's Space by Eric Maisel, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and Letters to a Young Artist, also by Julia Cameron. I have no idea when or if I'll read them. I called a moratorium on buying books on writing, but given all the intriguing suggestions I've seen on the blog this month, my resolve is crumbling fast. Thank you Novelnauts for introducing me to all these resources!

~Liane Spicer

Friday, 22 April 2016

Papyrus, Paper, Pixels...and Life

I had planned to write a sober assessment of the paper versus digital publishing situation, and the ramifications for traditionally published, indie and hybrid authors. I was planning to write about the way Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription programme all but killed my indie sales on the Zon since its launch last year. After reading several depressing essays on the issues in sources such as The Economist (The Future of the Book) and Smashwords (2016 Book Publishing Industry Predictions--a must read for anyone in the indie publishing business), I decided to give it a rest.

Since my first novel was published in 2008 there has been nothing but turmoil and upheaval in the industry. I'm tired to the bone of it all. I've come full circle and I'm back to the basics: my love of reading and my love of writing. Reading has been the mainstay of my life, my escape, my therapy, my delight, my muse, my great teacher. And writing? I no longer fuss about what I 'should' be doing. I do what I want, zipping back and forth between genres, between novel and novella and short story, between editing and formatting my own work and doing the same for other writers.

Late last year I discovered the pleasure of writing in a totally new, fun historical niche (new to me as a writer, not a reader) when a short story turned into a novel which I serialized and which now outsells my twenty-something other indie titles. I'm now reading up on the history because I'm about to start another series set in the same period. Plus, I'm back at school and one year into a graduate programme. The taught courses are behind me (or will be when I turn in the last paper on Friday) and then the real work begins for the vivas and thesis that will absorb much of the next two years. I see a lot of juggling in my immediate future: school-related research and writing, fiction writing and publishing, editing jobs.... I've also been invited by one of my lecturers to tutor her UG courses. I have to make time to enjoy my two awesome grandkids...and to do this every now and then:

Me just chillin' on Maracas Beach, Dec. 2015
So, let the publishing battles rage. Let the players--the giants like Amazon and the ocean of tiny authors trying to eke some cash out of making up stuff--duke it out. Let others sweat and swear and worry. Me? I'll be busy doing...other things.

~Liane Spicer

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Writing or Wasting Time?

Kevin Killiany's column on August 19, "I Was Just Getting To That", touched on a sore issue for me: disrespect for writers' time. Except for the big guns—who I assume command respect based on their impressive royalties and resultant lush lifestyles—nonwriters regard your writing as a kind of sneaky self-indulgence at best, or an affectation at worst. The expression "I'm working on a novel" has somehow become synonymous with pie in the sky or dereliction of duty.

I tend to write late at night because that's when the house is cool and quiet and I can string two thoughts together without any kind of intentional or nonintentional interruption. My mother knocking on the door to ask for the five millionth time if I might have purloined her car keys or reading glasses just for the fun of it, and if not, whether I happened to see them anywhere unusual, falls under "intentional interruption". The man cutting the grass outside my window with what must be the loudest weed whacker on the planet falls under "unintentional interruption". But whether one or the other, these things interrupt the flow of my thoughts and sometimes it's hard to get back in there.

One of the problems with intentional interruptions—and part of the reason there's so much disrespect for writers' time—is that the writing process looks like wasting time or just chilling to others. Writing is hard work, but nonwriters think we're having them on when we say that. Case in point: back in December I achieved what I think is a personal record: I wrote roughly 8,000 words, the first draft of a short story, in one day. I was in the flow and I just kept going until I reached the end. I don't recommend these marathons although they sound impressive, and the reason is that I was completely fried: I spent the day after my marathon in bed, firing up the laptop for short stints to work on the edits for another project. To anyone who saw me in crash mode that day, I was just lying around doing nothing. They have no idea that I crashed because I did four days' writing work in one.

When I taught high school, no one visited or intruded on my work unless there was a real emergency. A call during school hours was rare—like that time my brother whacked off several of his toes while mowing the grass barefooted, or the day he was found alive after being lost at sea for three weeks. Now that I'm a home-based writer, however, everyone thinks I'm accessible all the time. It's really annoying.

The question Kevin raised about whether the writing or your family is more important should not even arise. It's unfair, a straw-man argument that has no correlation. No one ever suggested I should abandon my students back in the day to run errands, do laundry or clean the house. I did what I could manage around my workdays, and what I could not do had to be postponed. The hours the job required were inviolate. Not so a writer's hours.

I don't expect that nonwriters—and especially the families of writers—are going to develop respect for what writers do anytime soon. It's therefore up to us, the writers, to respect our own writing time, to growl, bark and bite when we need to so that we get the point across: writing is a job and trying to do it around the edges of other people's expectations of us and demands on our time won't cut it. Be strong. Be firm. And eschew the guilt.