Friday, October 12, 2012

So Why Pulp: Writing From Home

Once upon a time, way back in the late 90s, I worked as a volunteer moderator for Prodigy Internet’s Books & Writing Bulletin Board, part of the old Prodigy Online Communities. It happened in the usual way; I got drafted. I posted enough on that bulletin board that the administrator asked me to moderate several forums. Of course I was flattered, and in return I had a compensated internet connection—a big deal in the days of dial-up, when too many family members on one connection made for major downtime. I inherited a forum that was vacated by the Housewife Writers, and renamed it Writing From Home. I also moderated the Writing Workshop and Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing. The idea was to discuss how to successfully squeeze writing time into your home life, and the topics ran the gamut. My ‘Slices Of Life’ column ran for about six years, four on Prodigy and two more on one of the boards our community migrated to. So how to work writing around your home life is near and dear to my heart.

I’ve been a writer since I learned how to make marks on paper that symbolize thoughts. It’s something that comes natural to me. I’ve been writing seriously, with an eye toward getting published, since the late 1980s. Computers in general and the internet in particular, have been a boon to my creativity. There are several community colleges and two state universities near me, so I am sure there are multiple writers’ groups, but I’ve seldom been able to locate them. The ones I did find had sponsored enrollment and the participants were somewhat well established in literary fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, so genre fiction writers are kind of looked down upon. I was a fairly new writer at the time, so I was searching more for tips and camaraderie than heavy critiquing, which is what those groups were all about. Before your stuff gets so picked apart and panned that you become discouraged, you need to learn the ropes, and share the joy of writing with like-minded souls. My peers in those groups were mostly college educated professionals, so I was the proverbial square peg, which sent me looking elsewhere.

Working online with other writers was a great experience for me because the skill level ran the gamut. I learned from those above me, and learned by working with the raw newbies. A lot of what I use in editing today, when I am guiding new writers through rewriting and rephrasing sections, I learned in those days. The biggest lesson for me was understanding what kind of guidance helps and what hinders. The old adage is that to be a writer you have to have incredibly thick skin. Very true; because reviewers and editors alike can be brutal to your fragile ego. I so often bemoaned those hallowed ‘elder days’ when editors actually had time to work with you that I learned to do it myself. So now whether I am writing my own material or reading over and marking up someone else’s masterpiece-to-be, I recall how it felt to be lambasted for not knowing more than a few basic concepts of writing well. I’d rather be a teacher than a curmudgeon any day. The world is full of critics, but there are few who will take the time to analyze and critique, offering up some helpful insight. I don’t take on a lot of editing jobs, but when I do, I make that time. I might be gritting my teeth and grimacing behind the scenes, but when I shoot it back to you, you’re going to get a clear idea of what I believe is right and wrong.

Yeah Nancy, you’re wonderful and all that, but this is supposed to be about working writing around the rest of your life. So what wisdom can you impart upon us about coping with writing as a second career?

I’m glad you asked! Writing has its joys and frustrations, just like any other hobby that turns to a career aspiration. What separates the casual wannabes from the committed aficionados is the kind of dedication you bring to not only learning your craft, but practicing it no matter what sort of chaos is going on in your life. Writers have to write. Authors produce finished, polished, salable work. To bridge the gap between the two, you need to have a workmanlike attitude that gets your butt in that chair, fingers on the keyboard, and mind zeroed in on the goal. And for that, you have to make the time and effort.

Easier said than done some days—heck, most days when there are a gazillion other things clamoring for our time and attention. If you have a day job and a family, then you already have two very big and important responsibilities that demand a tremendous amount of time and energy. It can be hard to get anything done as far as writing, because by the time the day is over, you’re about done in. And you know you have to get up tomorrow, and do it all over again. You’re going to have to be very creative in getting that writing time in; grabbing snatches here and there maybe on breaks, when the kids are eating or doing homework, perhaps skip the news and weather or leave the house for the job earlier and work at your desk. Jot some notes while the commercials are on, or between stirring the soup. Brainstorm on the commute, in the checkout line, or while folding laundry. Bottom line is, the world is not going to suddenly stop for you so that you have time to learn how to write well. You learn as you go, and the more you write, the better you get. You need to rob a few minutes here and there so that when you can get to the keyboard, you’re not wasting time thinking about what to work on, but are ready to rock and roll.

If an idea strikes you, write that sucker down now! Don’t trust your memory, because when your boss chews you out or the cat barfs on the new carpeting, you’re going to forget all about that neat plot twist for chapter nine. Keep copious notes and transcribe them into handy files when you get the chance. When writing time is scarce, fleshing out those skeletal scenes make all the difference in getting something accomplished.

One of the biggest problems with being a writer as opposed to being a woodworker, artist, singer, knitter, or bowler, is it isn’t a highly visual art until it’s in a finished format. Words on a screen aren’t terribly impressive to the average person, and computers have become associated with leisure time activities in most households. When you don’t have something tactile to show off for all the time you spend staring at that screen, people tend to take your writing time for granted. If you’re working on a typewriter, you like to scribble stories longhand with a pad or pencil first, or you print up all that you wrote that day, you could wave it around as proof you’ve been hard at work. Certainly once you have a bunch of books and magazines published with your name on them, that’s pretty impressive too. But by the time you reach the point where your vanity shelves are filling up, most people around you will have gotten the message that this is your work time. Until then, you’re going to have to remind everyone regularly that writing is hard work too and you need to be able to concentrate.

This is the voice of experience speaking here, because three books and who knows how many published short stories into a career, I still have to reinforce that when I sit at a computer and type, I need as much peace and quiet as I can get. I cannot jump up every five minutes to come over an look at whatever it is you need my opinion on. I can’t stop and cook a big meal every night. I don’t have time for game apps, chain emails, petitions, or long phone chats on a regular basis. And please DON’T take over my PC whenever I get up to race to the bathroom, thinking you have time to check your email and play Solitaire. I am not the only person in this household who can run laundry, relocate creepy spiders, and I don’t have psychic powers that can instantly locate missing keys. The computer is my work station, and I write my stories there. My commute might only be from one room to the next, but when I sit down, I’m on the clock too. So I’m telling you that you also need to put your foot down right away and make sure the folks around you understand you’re busy and should not be disturbed unless it’s very important.

Strive to have some space of your own. It’s not easy, but you do have to stake out some kind of territory, even if it’s just an old tray table in front of a rickety chair in the hall closet. As you write more often, you will frequently get into the ‘zone’ where you can tune out all but the most blood curdling screams and explosions. There are going to be times when you need to be alone somewhere without toy cars running over your toes or the constant nagging of a well-meaning but incredibly irritable significant other providing an ongoing litany of your or someone else’s faults. Even the, “What are you writing now?” query gets old fast when your thought train keeps derailing. If you can’t find a quiet spot, splurge on a pair of really good headphones and some compatible music. Or go to the library. Do something—don’t just sit and stew, throwing up your hands in defeat. You may not get a lot done, but even 400 words three times a week is over 62,000 or a modest book in a year. Better that than nothing at all.

If you live alone, boy, you have it made. When you get home from the day job, and/or all your chores are done, you can just sit and write as long as you like. Sure, if you want to live like a hermit! Most of us have outside interests, friends, extended family, and now and then we’d like to get out, or even just sit and veg in front of the TV a while. Not everyone has a job with regular hours. It takes discipline to be a writer, and even more so when you are completely alone. The temptation is to reward yourself with long naps, or to focus on stuff that is just plain distracting. The one good thing about being alone is there’s no one else to answer to, so if you decide to let the dishes soak or the laundry wait until tomorrow, who cares? The bad thing is, there’s no one that will pitch in and do things for you. Unless you can get meal delivery, you’re going to have to scrounge for yourself.

A lot of us, mid-list writers and below, are on the pudgy side for that reason. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to cook something nutritious for every meal, so we wind up rummaging once hunger becomes such an issue it drives out the voices in our heads. And then there’s the lack of sleep thing (says the woman tooth-picking her eyes open while typing at 1AM after a full day). Which leads to the caffeine guzzling (or in my case, the infamous ammo box filled with dark chocolate). We find all kinds of little tricks to keep the words coming.

Bottom line for most of us blending writing with our home lives is you have to learn to function in a less than ideal situation. The two most important traits are self-discipline and perseverance. Self-discipline gets you in that chair working on something no matter what else is going on. Perseverance keeps you there, no matter how frustrating it gets. Those characteristics are what separate the amateurs from the pros. A pro knows when to no, because I’m writing on a deadline today so I can’t possibly help you with your yard sale or drop everything to go catch a movie. Just because I’m sick with the flu, doesn’t mean I get every day off until I feel better.

Writing is work, it’s a job, it’s a career, even when you do it from home, in your pajamas with the dog curled up under your desk. Teach the people around you to respect your work time and space, and you’ll have far less problems with the ones who care enough to listen. The ones who don’t will have to go find someone else to bother.

Life is short. Get some words on the page now. You’ll be glad you did, no matter where you sat or what you wore when you wrote it. If you’re going to write from home, you’ve got to actually write. The rest is just creative rearranging of your life. Part of that is prioritizing what you want to do and balancing it with what needs to be done. Make sure you know the difference between them. It’s vitally important.

Heck, I am probably the world’s most disorganized person. So if I can do it, anybody can.

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