July 23rd, 2014

5+ Tips to Keep You Writing

James Preston
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So, What’s In It For You? Or, How To Not Quit

I  know what you are thinking, if you have read some of my earlier contributions to this award-winning blog. “Oh, no, he’s going to make me get out a calculator and see if the midpoint of my novel is really a watershed, or make a big nasty chart that shows where all of my characters are in every chapter.”

Nope. Last time I promised the end of deconstructionism and I will hold to that.

As I write this I’m surrounded by smoke and the sounds of slot machines. I’m in a Vegas casino, writing while my friend and my wife gamble. And I am asking a question that we all have asked at one time or another — why am I doing this? Why am I here when I could be playing Texas Hold ‘Em? I love the game and learned poker literally at my father’s knee.

We all face those moments, where the story falls on its face and even you don’t care what happens to the characters. You think, “I have to finish Chapter X tomorrow when I could be at the beach, or I could be watching House Hunters International or reading the new James Lee Burke or Eloisa James.” (And I want to know why those times are so often at 2:00 am when the house is cold and dark and your characters have suddenly quit talking to you.)

I think the hardest thing about writing is . . . writing. Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. It’s more fun to read blogs, go to conventions, and think about good stories. Way more fun.

However, that road does not lead to The End.

For more than half my life I made my living writing training and documentation. I specialized in large systems, neat stuff like the Army’s Tactical Computer System and the Navy’s ASROC Loader Crane. I could tell you all about them except a) you would fall asleep and b) if you didn’t fall asleep I’d have to kill you.

But I can tell you the single most important thing about training adults. It’s the WIIFM — what’s in it for me? To learn something, adults have to see the value in the learning.

So, let’s talk about what’s in it for you. First, a basic assumption: there is value in writing, in telling a story. With that as a given, all we need to do is shine a light on that value.

To keep writing, you have to see the value of what you are doing. Try these rules, guides, or mantras; use them as stepping stones to identify why you write when the path gets muddy.

1. I write because I have things to say. I think about the world around me and relationships and want to speak out.

In my case, if I am pressed, I will admit that I write to talk about violence in society and a moral individual’s response to it and, even more, the difficulty of finding, establishing, and maintaining a loving relationship with another individual. (Yikes! Did I say that? I write thrillers with girls and guns and fast cars.)

2. I want to entertain. Too much of life is unpleasant, or boring and I want to take my readers’ minds off that, if even for a little while. 

See parenthetical comment above.

3. I write because I started the novel, story, poem, whatever and I will finish it, come what may.

In poker, if you don’t bet, you can’t win. In writing, you can’t sell/publish/attract an audience if you don’t finish your manuscript.

4. I write because I have fallen in love with my characters and their stories demand to be told. 

This one’s tricky. I truly care about Heather Rubinsky and Katerina Kohl, two Las Vegas showgirls who showed up in one of my books. I probably hurt their feelings when I had to cut much of their backstory. (And you are the one audience to whom I can say that and who will understand that I think of them as real. When I say things like that on panel discussions, people tend to smile nervously and move away. On the other hand, you get it.)

5. I write because I like it. I like telling stories.

Works for me. I like storytelling.

Did I warn you there would be a quiz? No? Bummer! There’s a quiz. Here it is:

6. I write because… (insert YOUR thoughts here, or down in comments.)

The hardest thing about writing is . . . writing.

As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, “It’s all personal.” You have your own reasons for writing, and your own benefits from doing so.

I believe giving some thought to articulating what you are getting out of all this work, and time spent staring off into space thinking, “What happens next?”, will help keep you going. And after you think about it — or maybe you already have — share your thoughts and help another writer. Please! Fill in Number Six and tell us about it. We’re all in this together.

Think about WIIFM — What’s In It For Me. Articulate that benefit and remember it for those times when your heroine has fallen in love with the hero’s wastrel brother and stamps her pretty little foot when you try to tell her otherwise. “I am doing this because . . . Her story deserves to be told, even if she is a foot-stamping little fllibertigibet. And I am the one to tell it.”

My father taught me many important things. Once when we were in Vegas I complained (I really wasn’t whining, at least not much and anyway he was my Dad and required to listen) that I had lost at blackjack. He said, “James, you’re really not here to win. You’re here to play!”

Let’s be honest — the vast majority of us will not show up in the New York Times Bestseller List. So what? Not all of the books on the list are good, and not all good books are on the list. Figuring out what’s in it for you will help at those times when you wonder what on earth possessed you to think you could write. You can do it.

Trust me.

 

About James

 James R. PrestonJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. There are four books in the series so far: Leave a Good-Looking Corpse, Read ‘Em And Weep, The Road to Hell, and Pennies For Her Eyes. The new Surf City Mystery is called Correction and will be launched later this year. James’ next appearance will be November in Long Beach at Bouchercon, the national mystery convention. His work has been selected for inclusion in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. In Vegas during the completion of this blog he made the final table in one tournament and took first place in another. His father taught him well.

34 comments to 5+ Tips to Keep You Writing

  • This is oh-so-timely, James. I was feeling a little pouty this morning because I’ve been working so hard for weeks for an upcoming deadline. I miss reading, shopping, fun with girlfriends, etc.

    Why do I do this?

    Because I love telling stories of outcast women who find their power and rightful place in community. I have no clue if readers get that from my books, but it’s a theme I write over and over so it must help me to do it!

    Thanks for the question, I never considered it in quite this way.

    Whew – the quiz wasn’t so bad. 🙂

    • jamesr403

      Wow, Deb, thanks for the kind words and what a great reason. My guess — no, I am pretty sure — is that “outcast women” will resonate with other readers of the blog. Thanks for contributing. Oh, and we all feel a little pouty every now and then. Doesn’t mean you get to take a day off and blow the deadline.

  • James, I write because I think I was given a gift and have left it mostly unused for far too long. In the years I have left, I hope to develop it as much as possible. Also, I enjoy writing. ___Susan

    • jamesr403

      Susan, those are great reasons. I know what you mean about time left to us because I really did spend many years not writing fiction seriously. But that’s done and I can’t change it. Like you, I’ll do what I can with what I have.
      Thanks!

  • I write because I enjoy doing it, but I need to focus to write everyday!

    • jamesr403

      Excellent! True on both counts. Between the wars, Churchill built a small cottage at Chartwell, his home. He did it because he liked it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t work.

  • Thanks, James. I love your laundry list and relate to a great deal of it. I’m a boomer. These days that word raises the specter of an ex-hippie, over the hill, senior citizen 🙂
    I can live with that … what I can’t live with is not doing what I have wanted to do since I was born. Tell stories, make people listen to me, laugh or cry … entertain.

    I have always been a compulsive verbal story teller with friends and family. With anyone foolish enough to listen. If I run out of people, I talk to myself … as a kid out loud … later in journals. I took those journals and converted them into a blog. I use that to tell stories.

    When I retired, I thought it was about time I put those stories into the form of a book. A mystery? A romantic comedy? Romantic suspense or women’s fiction? Who the hell cares? I love it beyond distraction and the more I learn, the better I get. And the better I get, the happier I become. Don’t worry for me. I have settled quite well into a pattern of either mystery or women’s fiction … with or without romance … I am a double threat.

    Soooo … I guess I write to make myself happy 🙂

    • jamesr403

      Ah, the joys of boomer hood. I remember running out to a fast food place at lunch, looking at the receipt and asking the kid behind the counter, “What’s this?” “Oh, I gave you the Senior Discount.” I solved that problem by no longer looking at receipts.

      Hmmm. When I read your comment I thought of Stephen King, who, when asked why he wrote such horrific stuff, said, “What makes you think I can do anything else?” Maybe you, like me, write because you simply cannot imagine a life without stories.

  • Sharla Rae

    I love this post. I can sit and stare into space at mundane stuff and imagine stories but like many of us here, I have a nasty voice in my head that says, “you know, you really need go make your bed, or it will be dinner soon, do you know what your cooking tonight. Worse yet: “Look sister, you’ve written yourself into a corner. Can you even write these boring people?”

    Remembering why I write helps me to shut out those voices and keep my fingers on the keyboard. 🙂 Everybody deserves to be happy and writing is one of my happiest places.

    • jamesr403

      Oooh, the voices. I know what you mean. I also have the flip side of that problem, when making the bed or catching up on filing looks like a lot of fun compared to dealing with boring characters or plot holes. Ain’t it fun?
      I’m glad it makes you happy. It does me, too.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Great post, James. And timely for me as well.
    I write because … it makes me happy.

  • jamesr403

    Great, Orly. Thanks for sharing that. I think it’s important to remember that happiness when it seems like shoveling coal would be easier. There is a payoff at the end– your writing makes you happy and my guess is it makes your readers happy, too.

  • jamesr403

    Okay, I have to comment on my own post. As I write this I am sitting in a hotel room on Maui, looking out over the I’o channel at Lanai. I could be at the beach, but I’m here writing to you folks. And you know what’s really sad? I like it. Clearly I need help.

    • No, no you don’t, James. You’re spot on: doing exactly what you want.

    • Or you could do what I do and comment using your phone so you can enjoy the beach AND your fans here at WITS. 🙂

      • jamesr403

        Now you’re talking! That’s a plan for success and a tan and a relaxing afternoon. All kidding aside, the good news about our kind of work is that we can take it with us. The bad news is that we do take it with us everywhere. I’ve lost count of the number of writers who say they get their best ideas in the shower. At least we are a very clean group! Thanks, Jenny!

  • You already nailed mine: I write because there are stories in my head, and nobody will sit by my bonfire long enough to listen to them, so I write them down.

    A little bit, I write because I’d love fame. I’m working on not wanting that one.

    I write because I was born precisely 9 months after Chandler died, and someone has to be him now that he’s not doing it.

    I write because in my books I get to make things work out the way I want, mostly, except for when it doesn’t make a good character arc.

    I write because I have opinions about how the world works and how it should work and why there’s a gap between them.

    I write because when I read Chandler or Francis or Stout or, yes, oh yes indeed, James R. Preston, I think hey, this guy is smart, articulate, funny, and I want to be just a little bit more like him.

    After finishing a friend’s 600-page historical fiction epic (and epic it is indeed) I’m back to your 3rd book, and loving it as I did the first two.

    Glad to see you here again, good sir.

  • jamesr403

    Whoa, Joel, thanks for the very kinds words, and for your contribution. That is an impressive list, obviously you have given a great deal of thought to the “why” question. I think the WITS readers will get a lot out of your list.

  • jamesr403

    Lost the last sentence of my Reply to Joel Canfield (Someday Box blog). It was to be “I know I got a lot out of the list.”

  • Thanks so much, James, for this timely post. I really needed it.

    • jamesr403

      You are welcome, Judy. We all need to take time to think about the benefits we get out of all this work. I’m glad I was able to help.

  • I write because I want to know what happens next.
    … because I have an active imagination and very few outlets to express that imagination.
    … because I like the process of a first draft, reading the first draft, and then going through as many drafts as necessary to make a story great.
    … because it is mine, and no matter whether I publish or not, it’s something that can never be taken away from me.
    … because no matter how many stories have already been written, the story in my head hasn’t.

    • jamesr403

      Katie, those are all first-rate! I especially like the last one and it’s true; nobody else has told the story quite like you. Thanks!

  • thebookdoctorisin

    Such a great post, James, not to mention a great question!

    I know I write because I love telling a good story, because I believe in writing characters who simply ARE who they are with regard to race, sexual orientation, etc. without the storyline having anything to do with those characteristics, and because I love delving into how families are created with people we choose and how secrets from our past can haunt us or help us when it’s time for them to be unveiled.

    Becoming a bestselling author one day would be a dream, but if, after I’m published, I can touch some people with my novel and the emotions it may bring up for them, I will be happy I didn’t squelch that part of me that has always felt called to be a writer. It may be difficult at times—and it definitely is—but when you feel deep down that you can’t not write, that’s when you know you must fulfill that calling and go forth with your heart.

    • jamesr403

      Stacey, thanks for the articulation of something I feel — I can’t not write. I think touching even a few people with a story is reward enough for me. Not that I would turn down a multi-book deal from St. Martins . . . And thanks for a great web page with loads of information. I continue to learn about our craft and industry from it.

  • I write because these stories in my mind need an outlet. I don’t have characters talk to me so much as I’m a witness to certain events in their lives, and not writing about those events seems wrong. I don’t always know where a story is going, but I write it to enjoy the ride and the way it unfolds with the characters. I used to write just to be published, but now I write because I want to share my work with others in whatever medium available to me. I write for my mental health, hah; it cuts down on my insomnia. If I’m actively writing the ideas out, my mind doesn’t stew on them so much when I’m trying to sleep.

    • jamesr403

      Tony, that’s interesting. Your characters don’t tell you their stories as much as they show them to you. My guess is you are a very descriptive, visual writer, and that’s a great strength. I know what you mean about insomnia; two days ago, with the alarm set for 5:00 am, I finally finished packing and flopped into bed. (You see this coming, right?) all at once I thought. “Oh, that’s what she would say when he . . . ” So of course I had to get up and make the note. I’ll wager everybody reading WITS is nodding and saying, “Been there, done that.”

  • I love this post! It’s funny, I wrote a note on my phone a few months ago answering this exact question! Here’s an abbreviated version:

    To understand the world around me. To understand myself. To remember.

    • jamesr403

      Wow, Dana, thanks, not only for the kind words but for another reason to keep writing. Writing teaches us; we learn from the act itself. Writing is thinking (I learned that from my wife who taught 8th grade English for 38 years). You have added yet another valuable point to our discussion. Attention Fae Rowan: there’s a blog topic in there!

  • Brianna Soloski

    Great post. I’m in this business because I have a passion for writing and books and telling stories. It’s fun and I’d do it for free (fortunately, I don’t have to anymore).

    • jamesr403

      Hi, Brianna — First, sorry it took me a while to get to your comment. Blame the vacation. I agree completely. And I think that is an important realization, that we would tell stories no matter what. It helps keep us going when the only response is the “universal dial tone.” Thanks!

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