The above saying is an old axiom that has been often interpreted as a straight ‘either/or’ choice—you either do something or you don’t. My understanding of it though has always been from the business of a commercial fishing vessel. Somebody gets to fish; somebody else gets to prepare the bait. And if you can’t fish today, well you better make yourself useful elsewhere, because there’s no room aboard for slackers.
So it is with this indie writing life. If you want to be published and remain in the public eye, you’ve got to keep doing something that relates to writing—even when you can’t get near the keyboard, the ideas aren’t biting when you do, and your muse went on an extended vacation. Thinking about my recent shift in work ethic over the last couple of months is what spawned the idea for this week’s column.
If you read my last column, you know I’ve been going through a rough spell recently, with plenty of distractions in my personal life and doctor’s orders to get away from that keyboard and become more active. This new turmoil often makes it hard to actually sit down and write; even when the mood strikes me. I’ve been working out my angst in physical activities, which does help me sleep at night. Unfortunately that doesn’t get too many words on the page, though thank goodness, the ideas have kept coming. Since I also have an out-of–state family member who will be visiting over the next few weeks, and all sorts of activities going on while we prepare for my newest grandchild’s arrival, there’s a temptation to blow off writing for a while longer, and just tidy the house and garden.
Well, I can’t afford to think that way. Right now I am at the point where I have a couple of manuscript due dates coming up fast, so writing must be done, which adds even more pressure. I’ve got to at least strike some sort of balance between the different parts of my life. After slacking off a while to kind of rethink the process, I have regained my focus on writing as a career choice, and not just some hobby I can drop when the mood strikes and things around me become too chaotic.
I consider myself a professional author, and I have made commitments I intend to honor. Whenever I get behind in writing and editing, other people depending on me do too, and that’s just not fair to anyone. So after taking a few weeks to myself to recover my momentum, I had to acknowledge those deadlines looming. I am now hard at work again, having written close to 2,000 words of a 10,000 word limit short story that I plotted in advance, but just started Tuesday. Yay me! More importantly, the workmanlike attitude is back. I sat down the last two days and knocked out some writing (and editing) before I got much else done. It was good work too, though the muse was rusty at first and I had to really push myself to stick with it.
That’s what separates the dreamers from the doers, folks. I’m not making much money penning these tales, but I still want to write them. When you love what you do, the actual act of writing becomes its own reward. Not that I’m in any way averse to a big fat royalty check, or even some small skinny ones…
While I was distracted by the recent bedlam in my life, and uptight that I was having trouble just focusing long enough to get words on a page, there was one thing that remained heartening for me: The ideas never stopped coming. They might have slowed down a bit because my mind was just not as sharply perceptive of who or what might make a good character or plot device, but there were still things that tickled the muse. Believe me, they come from the strangest places, but I have learned over the years not to disregard even the most random thoughts, if they lead to speculating how they could be used in stories. Of the tales I have been weaving into books these last few years, many started as daydreams or prodding from that little inner voice that continually nags me to scribble something down. Invariably, when I start making notes, they become more detailed, and further concepts get suggested about those incidental imaginative fancies. Before you know it, you have another story all but written.
That’s the ‘cut bait’ part of writing. When you can’t find the time and incentive to pound the keys for lost hours, at least sit a few minutes and jot down all the crazy little ideas that popped into your head. If you see something in the newspaper or online that strikes a chord, think about how that can be used in a story. Draw a crude map of your last character’s world while waiting for a phone call, or research a place and time period that interests you instead of playing solitaire or trolling the social networks reading clever but redundant memes and cute cat signs. If you have the energy and brain cells to text someone 15 times an hour, you can make notes. Do it in text shorthand if you prefer—you’re the one who is going to be reading it.
Let me explain about how hilling potatoes gave me a great idea, and maybe you’ll understand what I’m getting at…
This spring I planted potatoes in my garden for the first time in many years. You cut potatoes into pieces leaving an eye or three on each, and bury them in a trench. Once they are a certain height, you have to hill them, which means drawing soil up around both sides of the plants, because they tend to get floppy. Potatoes form at the end of stolons—stringy runners attached to the main stems. Those new potatoes will stay above ground turning green skinned and unpalatable (and mildly poisonous) unless you keep them buried. The deeper the plant stems, the more potatoes you get.
Because we’ve had a lot of heat, humidity, and rain, and I often had my mother here and she can’t sit outdoors through that stuff, I could not get out to the garden like I wanted to. So I got behind on hilling potatoes. The weeds however did not take any inclement weather days off, and now my potato rows are buried in a forest of green leaves and greedy roots sucking away moisture and nutrients the crop needs to grow well. The soil became packed from all that pounding water, and even after hand pulling the tall, rank, unwanted growth, I was making very little progress in hilling. My regular garden hoe is an artist’s tool; thin stainless steel only six inches long and quite shallow. It’s great for cultivating around plants, but it really was slow at hilling, because it didn’t move much soil. The rake worked better, but it has teeth, so it was inefficient at hilling once the soil dried out. I decided I needed something bigger and beefier for working out there.
I needed the Mjolnir of hoes. So I bought the biggest, broadest, nastiest looking one I could find. It is technically a mason’s hoe for mixing concrete, and weighs twice as much as the standard garden issue. It’s also 4 inches longer and deeper, with a 12 gauge steel head, and a thick fiberglass handle. It’s a formidable tool that looks impressive, and it works like a charm, so it was worth every penny I paid, even though it was never intended to be used in a garden.
Wow, what a difference! With that big hoe I was getting as much done in 45 minutes as it had taken me an entire afternoon to do before. And while I was out there pulling weeds, dropping rocks in a bucket, and scooping lots of soil around the plants, my mind started to wander. I began thinking about how this tool was never meant for gardening, and how it seems so intimidating compared to my other garden implements. That lead to thoughts about how garden tools like pitchforks and mattocks could be used for defense. I remember reading about peasants equipped with long handled billhooks that were used to prune trees (Google them) fighting off all but the most sophisticated attackers. Those were precarious times, when trouble came unexpectedly out of the wild lands around the isolated little villages and farm cots. Looking up at the forest that edges my property, I imagined raiders streaming down the wooded hill, and me caught in the open with nothing but a big bladed hoe in my hands and a strong will to survive.
Suddenly I was a peasant in a field, working for a new liege lord, who had displaced my former sovereign. The dreary life of a farming serf doesn’t vary too much no matter who is actually in charge. On that bottom end of the food chain, the work is hard, the rewards few, the dangers many, and yet everyone needs to eat. I had to get this field done, and I had a new tool to help me—a hoe made from a pounded out bit of metal blade that had once been a weapon in the coup; a sword turned plowshare because it was too broken to bother reforging. There were better weapons aplenty for the lord’s soldiers, and one does not arm peasants—who might still be loyal to their former liege—with anything not dually useful for agriculture. Since I had sworn fealty to this present lord, I was given a new hoe, along with a plot of land to till for my own use and to raise a tithe for my parish.
What was overlooked however was that this particular hoe was remade from a formerly enchanted weapon, and I soon found out that it can warn me of danger. So when the barbarians attacked our land, as barbarians are wont to do, the blade of that hoe sang to me a song of warfare and bloodshed, as the sword it was remade from had to its former owner. As clumsy and untrained as I am, in my hands that hoe becomes a deadly weapon again. That day in the field, a simple peasant learned to defend herself through the guidance of an enchanter long since dead.
So out in my potato patch, a story was born. No, I haven’t written it yet, but I will. I did remember it when I came in for the night all sweaty, dirty, and exhausted; and I made sure I took the time write it down before I ate or showered, while the idea was fresh in my mind. That was definitely a ‘cut bait’ day, because other than those notes, I did no real writing.
The bottom line here is some actual fiction came out of that random thought stream. That shows my mind is still tuned into the idea of writing. Even when I can’t fish actively in the waters of creativity, I can chum them with little flights into that pulpy netherworld where interesting action tales are born.
You can do that too. Get past the idea that you can only create real stories at the keyboard or with pen and paper in hand. Let your mind wander around a bit. Maybe even go fishing. Fishing for stories worked for Hemingway after all, and he didn’t berate himself for taking time away from the typewriter to go live life to the fullest. You shouldn’t either.
I bet Ernie had plenty of ‘cut bait’ days.