The Guardian recently published this “top ten” rules of writing fiction, as contributed by successful authors. Right off, I loved it; Elmore Leonard says, “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.” I also appreciated, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Yeah, well, obviously. The list goes on. Much I, as a practitioner of the craft, agree with. But I’m reminded sometimes reading as a writer and reading as a reader are two different things. Does a reader who is not also a writer notice a beautifully (adverb) turned phrase? A well-crafted sentence? J.K. Rowling endlessly (adverb) described how her characters in Harry Potter talked: “She said wildly”; “He said tearfully”; “He said angrily.” I know, because I read them all out loud. Made me crazy. But did that particular writer’s tic prevent us from absorption into the story? No. So how much should a writer spend with the hammer and nails, and how much with the paint and landscaping?
In any case, I miss writing. Of the fictional sort. The columns are nice, especially when the paycheck arrives, but I miss journeying through other lands. So many books on how to write, so many blogs showcasing practitioners of the art – some I can’t even read because a burst of envy surprises me, triggers a bitterness I have nowhere to place because Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, but that should be me! I am special and stupidly hopeful and chronically likable and often prone to booze-flavored socialization! Where are my books? My short story collection? How did I pull off so much writing – three-quarters of a novel! – when the kids were younger (needier!) and I was taking 12 units at CR and working 20 hours a week in the English lab, not to mention surfing far more than I do these days, and yet now I can’t even blog regularly? What is wrong with me?
I love reading. I love writing. In a different way than my children or surfing. The kids I love like I love my arms and legs and lungs. Surfing I love for the sense of home, of tribe, of bliss. Writing I love for the beauty, the triumph, the admittedly egotistical pureness of effort. And I really like all the stuff that gets in between me and the words longing to spill forth – the stuff I can’t control, anyway. A rewarding job, the family, my volunteer efforts. But my own mental weaknesses – the habitual web browsing, the endless excuses, the impulse to get up and make a sandwich instead – that’s the stuff I would prefer to leave behind.
Back in the dark days between Eye cutbacks and Ocean Conservancy hire, I scrambled hard for work. One opportunity for money-making arrived in the form of a freelance editing job. I asked around regarding what to charge and promptly underbid. I then lucked into the OC gig, all while still spending 20 hours per week on air at KSLG, with another five hours commuting. A smarter person would’ve explained the changed circumstances and begged off the freelance job. I, however, felt obligated. Sadly, I’d greatly underestimated the amount of time editing this manuscript would take. One month stretched to two, to six, to seven, until finally, eight months later, I Fed Ex’ed off the 98-page document, full of “show, don’t tell,” “cut here” and “more dialogue” advice. I believe my editing skills above average, but given the length of time I took to deliver, I can’t blame the guy for not paying – I am the one who did not hold to the initial bargain and was willing to concede payment as a result. Still, I’d hoped he’d be pleased enough with what I finally provided to at least respond with a token of appreciation. So much time spent on someone else’s work, so little on my own.
What does it take to trigger a change in habit? To what extent can we blame circumstance before rising above it, prevailing in spite of it? Someone tell me.