Livin’ La Vida Writer…

The dictionary defines the word ‘writer’ thus: ‘a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.’ That’s great, except that such a definition fails to capture the reality behind the noun, which is this: Writers are a breed apart…

Our own specie, if you will.

I began writing as a teenager; the genesis of my ‘writer’ days over-lapped the peak of my ‘artist’ days. (I made decent money in my teens by painting portraits, and making drawings for local advertising companies.) By the time I hit my twenties, I was completely hooked on the written word; my small-press debut novel was released in 2004, when I was twenty-six.

That novel did well enough to merit a follow-up release in 2005, and another in 2006.

It was around 2005 that I first began to falter. I was working as a kitchen designer, a job that requires insanely long hours and causes a fair amount of stress. I was also stuck on a chemical hamster-wheel: Alcohol to ‘come down’ in the evenings so that I could write, and coffee to perk back up the next day… followed by more alcohol, and then even more coffee… Sleep? Nah, I didn’t have time for that!

I survived my exhausting lifestyle only because I was young. If I tried that mess now, I’d end up with a heart attack. Or maybe in rehab. Or perhaps both. In any case, it would be sixteen years before I returned to the literary scene, driven more by compulsion than choice. See, the truth is this…

Writers ain’t happy unless they’re writing! Period.

It’s a balancing act. Being a writer is a lifestyle, and thus requires major life alterations in order to ideally suit the writer’s needs. So, my dear reader, I would like to share some tips that I’ve learned over the last twenty-plus years. Just a few thoughts on how to maintain a sustainable existence as an author without crashing and burning…

Tip #1: Choose your day job carefully.

The brutal reality is that most writers will not make a living with their writing. We’d all like to think that we’ll become J.K. Rowling someday, but there are simply too many of us for the reading public to make rich. Seriously, you can only expect readers to ‘pony up’ but so much, you know?

A good day job for a writer is this: A job that stays as close to forty hours a week as possible, pays reasonably well (to avoid the necessity of a second job), and above all else does not cause excessive stress! Some occupations require being on the phone even during ‘off hours’, or working odd/excessive hours. This is bad. Even if one has to spend a few years training (or studying) to acquire the ideal job, it’s worth the effort. (Notice that there are very few ER nurses or restaurant managers that moonlight as writers…)

Once the right occupation has been procured, the job will also serve as a welcome counter-balance. Writing is exhilarating, but it can also be mentally exhausting (especially when it’s combined with editing and marketing). I love my day job for that reason; it lets me re-charge my creative batteries by focusing on something else that I really enjoy doing.

Tip #2: Choose your spouse carefully.

Some people are already married when they decide to try their hand at writing. If that’s the case, you just gotta work with whatcha got. (I’m old-fashioned in my thinking when it comes to marriage: A deal’s a deal. You give your word, you keep it. If you said ‘I do’, then… well, do!)

I suspect that’s not most of us, though. Writing is like smoking, or drinking; most of us started pretty young.

A writer’s spouse should be about as easy-going as it’s possible for a person to be; a needy ‘prima donna’ is the last thing a writer needs! Mind you, there’s no excuse for completely ignoring one’s mate… but the reality is that writers are simply not as available as most people. An ideal spouse should be relaxed, fairly self-contained, and have a decent circle of friends to provide company when his/her partner is glued to the laptop.

Tip #3: Network with other writers.

I have two pet sugar gliders. Without each others’ company, they will become upset, depressed, and neurotic. Writers ain’t so different. We’re nutty enough without adding unnecessary isolation to the mix!

‘Nuff said…

Tip #4: Mind your chemicals.

Writing and booze go together like peanut butter and jelly, but that can get you into trouble. Getting sloppy won’t improve your work at all. It’ll also cause friction with other writers, and annoy your spouse. Worse, being constantly hung over will jeopardize your day job… you know, the one that feeds you while you bang away at the keyboard.

Over-drinking is an easy trap to fall into, because most writers – published or unpublished – are so adept at their craft that they can still type and compose stories even while completely shit-hammered. I call it ‘The Hemingway Syndrome’… but remember, Andy Rooney was still talking trash about Obnoxious Ernest well into the 1990’s. Nobody wants to be remembered like that.

If you can’t bring yourself to quit drinking, at least keep it down to a dull roar. Light beer has hardly any alcohol at all, and so do many fruity wines. Sipping on those instead of chugging hard liquor is definitely a good idea! Take it from someone who learned the hard way.

Tip #5: Mind your marketing.

It’s tempting to put all of one’s focus into writing, to the detriment of making sure that people have the opportunity to actually read what you’re writing. A story unread is just a stack of paper, or a random digital file.

Even if it means having less new material, marketing is worth the effort. It’s better to have five books out there that people actually read, than fifteen that are nothing more than Amazon listings.

Tip#6: Take time off.

This one I struggle with, because I’m a workaholic. I try to spend one afternoon a week with friends, and Sundays are reserved for the twin bedrocks of any stable life: God and family. There’s no point in being brilliant if it causes one to completely tank. ‘It’s better to burn out than fade away’ may sound romantic, but it’s also the reason that there will never be another Nirvana album.

Pace yourself!

Tip #7: LISTEN!!!

This is the most important point of all. Listen when your spouse complains, rather than waiting to be served divorce papers. Listen to your beta readers, rather than waiting to discover the same criticisms inserted into damning Amazon reviews. Listen to the advice of marketing personnel, rather than spinning your wheels generating no interest at all. Listen to your body, when it tells you you’ve had enough to drink.

So there… that’s all I got. If I happen to stumble across any more wisdom (or, which is more likely, borrow some from somebody else), I’ll pass it along. Cheers!

Regarding Fiction…

‘Foolish boy. Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.’

– G’mork (from the film The Neverending Story)

The psychology of fiction fascinates me…

Why do humans so love stories? Why do we revel in made-up narratives that – at least visibly – have zero impact upon our actual existence? Why do we so often dwell on fantasies instead of our waking lives?

The answer, I think, is quite simple: We love stories for the same reason we love Nitrus Oxide. ‘Goofy Gas’ takes the pain out of dental surgery, and Fiction takes the pain out of living. Only humans, out of all Creation, possess the ability to maintain a non-existent world buried within the consciousness; only humans possess the ability to flee inward instead of outward. (Side note: That probably explains why I’ve never met a writer – including myself – who wasn’t somehow cracked in the grape. We actually live in a place that was meant simply to be a temporary refuge. ‘Course, if we didn’t do that then there wouldn’t be any books for everyone else to read…)

Life is messy. It doesn’t often make sense, and its ever-varying, mad-cap scenarios seldom resolve themselves into an ending wrapped tidily with a little bow; stories, on the other hand, do. They have to… ‘cuz if you’re dumb enough to submit a manuscript that makes no sense and has an unresolved ending, you’ll get that lovely email that all writers dread: Thank you for considering SuchandSuch Publishing for your book. However, this is not the story that we are seeking at this time. We wish you the best of luck with your manuscript…

But what if our stories really did mimic real life? Can you imagine a fantasy novel? ‘Otis Graybeard waved his arms, chanting a spell… but nothing happened, and his friends threw stuff at him and called him a dumb-ass. The end.’ How about a science fiction novel? ‘Zulian Supernova climbed into his homemade rocket, bound for Venus. Then it exploded in his backyard, blowing Zulian to smithereens and taking out half the neighborhood. The end.’

What if the most popular literary genre – romance – was starkly realistic? ‘Sally was madly in love with Lorenzo St. Germaine, who was brutally handsome and filthy rich… but Lorenzo wouldn’t give her the time of day, so Sally married the garbage man instead. The end.’

Even soldiers in a war zone get pulled away from the front lines once in a while, so they can re-charge their batteries with ‘Rest and Relaxation’. The human mind cannot tolerate constant, inescapable stress.

The military has R&R…

The rest of us have stories.