Thursday, December 15, 2011

So...Why Pulp? “HOW DO YOU FIND THE TIME TO WRITE?”



“HOW DO YOU FIND THE TIME TO WRITE?”

I get this question fairly frequently. I think that’s because to someone who doesn’t write regularly, the whole creative process seems to be a big mystery. And anyone who knows me personally realizes I have a lot of irons in the fire. Besides being a full-time homemaker, I have a whole bunch of other interests. I’m a gardener, crafter, pet owner, and avid reader. I cook and I love to haunt thrift shops, yard sales, and flea markets. I spend as much time as I can outdoors. I even get some time with family now and then. LOL But I still manage to turn out a lot of writing.

My stock answer is you don’t find the time; you make the time. If it’s important to you to do something, you do it. So you sit down, you look at your life, and you decide what really matters most. If writing is in there somewhere in the top five, you drop something else that is not essential to your health and well being. Maybe miss a couple of TV shows a week? Or skip the news; and catch up with it later. Computer or console games, playing with your phone (texting can fill a lot of time), reading every inspirational or funny email that gets forwarded, watching endless online videos, or putzing around on the social networking sites kill countless hours. Avoid that get-together you’d rather not go to anyway… Just don’t take it out of family time or get in trouble over it at work, because we do have to set priorities. If you still want to keep doing all that stuff, get the writing done first, and save it for reward time later.

Yes, you need reward time, and you need to get out and see people that aren’t coworkers or characters in your head. So please, do other things besides writing, because if you don’t, you’ll get stale. Just make sure you actually made some time for writing in the first place. It’s kind of a balancing act.

One thing I have in my favor is that I don’t have a job to commute to every day. Having to be at work at a certain time and getting enough sleep at prescribed hours cuts down on your writing time severely. My days are more my own now and that helps, though I have sacrificed a lot of financial security for that. There are trade-offs… At this age, my children are adults and don’t need me there on a regular basis, there’s no more dragging them around to this activity or that. When the last one left high school I was getting serious about writing as a career, and so I told myself there would be no more volunteer work at schools or in the community—at least not on a regular basis. That’s time all given back to writing. I can be more flexible in my hours, so if the muse happens to be an early bird today and a night owl tomorrow, that’s fine—within reason, because I still have to walk the dog in the morning and I need to be awake for that.

Whatever happens, I make the best of every opportunity, and yeah, the housework often takes a back seat. Again, it involves prioritizing. The dishes and laundry are most important as they are health issues, but they can also be done in between writing sessions. Cooking is something I still enjoy but I do it a lot less frequently now, because other people can fend for themselves, or even cook for me. The rest of the housework gets accomplished as the spirit moves me. I tell visitors that it’s OK to sign your name in the dust, just please don’t add the date. And no swinging on the cobwebs yelling like Tarzan either!

But really, this is more about the heart of writing than how to do it, because getting to writing is very much a mindset, and you need to find your own working rhythm. You either want to write, and will make that time, or you should move on to something else that you’re more passionate about. And there’s no crime in that! No one said you have to love everything about writing so much that you’re willing to sacrifice other things you enjoy more. Give yourself permission to just write only when you feel like it and don’t be too concerned with making a career from it. It’s not necessary to excel at everything.

Yet, if you are writing with the idea of becoming published, you do have to realize that like anything else, this is skilled work, and it has a learning curve. You won’t be good at it overnight, and even when you are writing well, there is always someone whose story is going to get picked before yours will. To write publishable work requires lots of practice, a sense of dedication, a thick hide for rejection and criticisms, and a big heaping dollop of self discipline. Overall, you have to keep at it, be patient, and willing to learn new tricks.

Case in point: I am now a pulp writer. I didn’t start out as one—oh no, I began writing with the idea of doing children’s books. I was doing all right, judging by the stories I wrote and read to my sons’ elementary school classmates. The teachers enjoyed them; in fact they loved it when I came in to read and I would hold the attention of those eighteen kids long enough that they could sneak out for a break. I had fun with that, but it wasn’t where my heart was, as far as writing was concerned. I was reading some Sci Fi, Horror, and lots of Fantasy at the time, and enjoying it immensely, so decided I wanted to write for adults more than I did for kids. That was the first big change.

That’s what I spent the next twenty one years doing, creating new speculative fiction stories for more mature audiences, and loving every moment of it… except for the publisher rejections. Those are definitely mood killers. I could paper the walls with those cold and clinical form letters with their stamped signatures. Sometimes the turnaround was quick and I knew my carefully packed manuscript only made it out of the slush pile long enough to stick that dream-killing piece of paper into my hand lettered self-addressed and stamped return envelope. Now and then I got a penciled-in response in the margins, meaning someone had actually read part of it, though one note actually said I shouldn’t give up my day job. Very disheartening!

There were times I would pout and hang up my keyboard for a few months, frustrated that I was doing the best work I knew how to do, but still couldn’t break through that final barrier between hobby writer and published author. Then I’d read something that was supposed to be the latest and greatest offering by the best new author of the decade, and knew I could write rings around that person. That would fire up my inner competitor again. There were other days I’d just chuck the papers in a drawer, stick the floppy disk (remember those?) in a box, and go on to something more rewarding. But always at some point the muse would start whispering sweet nothings in my ear, and eventually I’d be back at the PC or laptop, pounding out the characters and scenes in my head. And now I have files full of that stuff to draw from. Twenty one years is a long time to wait for something positive to happen. You have to love what you’re doing to hang on to a dream that long.

My break finally came in April of 2010, when Tommy Hancock of Pro Se Press accepted a couple of those forsaken tales to publish in Fantasy & Fear Magazine. That was all the incentive I needed—to actually hold that magazine in my hand, see my name on the page, and know someone, somewhere, was actually reading what I wrote. An incredibly empowering feeling, but it also brought responsibilities too. I now had series of stories to write, and I was expected to contribute often. No more putting things off until tomorrow because I felt like looking up free crochet patterns and recipes online, or typing long heartfelt emails to all my friends. Now I had to write every day, and I learned to make the time work for me.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I wasn’t much of a pulp reader over the years; the majority of my experience was with Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I always admired Howard’s ability to keep the pace frantic and the action breathless, but didn’t realize at the time that was one of the basic tenets of pulp. I just thought it was his style. And yeah, I had a passing familiarity with Tarzan, Doc Savage, and The Lone Ranger, but mostly through Saturday afternoon TV movies. I enjoyed old westerns, and have always loved the Ray Harryhausen animated mythic adventures, Japanese monster flicks, and of course Indiana Jones. But it really never struck me how pervasive and beloved pulp is, how entwined it has become in our culture, until I was on the inside of making it. Pulp is amazing and enduring stuff, and those of us who love it, can’t get enough of it.

Writing pulp is quite a bit different than writing for mainstream publication. I learned quickly that you have to keep that pace up or the story drags and you lose readers. So I had to look at my older work with a far more critical eye. A lot of stories got more than a quick once-over; they got rewritten with the present audience in mind. Things that I had started but not finished, or rough ideas that were no more than notes, became far different works than what I originally planned. When Tommy and I started talking books, and I casually mentioned I had this 800 and some-odd page monstrosity I had been shopping around for years, I began to realize that there are no sacred cows when it comes to writing. After writing pulp stories for months, a read through showed me that my book was ponderous, wordy, repetitious, and dull as dishwater in places. There was also enough material in there for at least three stories of average pulp novel size. So that too had to be cut back and chopped up, and a good portion of it is being rewritten. The things you do for the opportunity to be published and read…

The initial 1/3 or so of that seminal book became my first published novel, Fortune’s Pawn. It took me roughly three and a half months to go from beginning to end of that lopped off section and rewrite it for a more ‘pulpy’ approach. It took a lot of soul searching too, because the original book was my baby, a labor of love over four years in the making back in the early 2000s when I was still struggling to get published somewhere. I would write in the afternoons on our living room PC and late at night into the wee hours of the morning, with my laptop on my knees in bed. But I remembered while I was rewriting what became Fortune’s Pawn that I had also changed the focus of the original book quite a bit as I went along. The core story is still the same, the characters I started with remain, the setting never varied. But the way I told the story, the pacing, and some of the events got juggled or altered to reflect the tastes of my current potential audience.

I initially wrote the book for myself, but I rewrote it for my readers, and in the end it is still a compromise between what I wanted it to be then, and how it needs to be now. It’s a tightrope walk between mainstream fantasy and pulp, and that seems to be my sweet spot in all this. By all accounts, the book sold fairly well. More importantly, I like it and enjoyed redoing it. Along the way, I learned to be flexible, and work with the people who want to publish me. A valuable lesson, no matter how long you have been writing.

So I guess the bottom line here is, if you want to write, you’ll make time for it. If you want to write well, you’ll learn how by writing often and knowing your audience. If you talk to other writers, you’ll get a lot of ideas about what works, and what doesn’t. Borrow them shamelessly because no one really minds. At the end of the day though, what matters is that you got something on the page, even if it is just some scribbled notes with descriptions, and arrows pointing at something on a hand-drawn map.

Writing is a mindset. It’s something you have to do, and something you want to do. You need to be just as creative about making the effort to write as you do when you do sit at the keyboard or with pen and paper in hand and the ideas begin to flow. Just keep at it, no matter how little time you have to actually write, because eventually something will click, and your life will change overnight from hobbyist to serious author. No, you likely won’t get wealthy, but your life will be richer for the effort, and that’s a very important thing. And if like me, when that time comes and you have countless files full of ideas jotted down and stories started, you’ll be a lot better off than sitting in front of a blinking cursor wondering what words to put on the page and playing another round of solitaire while you wait for inspiration to come wallop you over the head.

Don’t be afraid of changing how you do things. Embrace it; make it your own. That’s how dreams come true you know. I’m living proof of that. Before you know it, people will be asking you how you do that thing you do, too.

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