Below is the transcript of a talk I gave at England Run Library on April 12, 2015. You can download the accompanying slides here.
Hello, my name is Elanor Hope Kindred, otherwise known as E. H. Kindred, author of The Seven Wars series, artist, and graphic designer. When I agreed to do this presentation, I’d originally thought I would give you all the usual shpeel about writing, polishing your work, researching publishing options, marketing yourself… but I’ve talked about that a lot in the past few years. My first book came out in 2012, and since then, I’ve given a lot of talks about how I did it, what kind of publishing platform I use, what kind of marketing techniques I employ, but that’s not what I do. I’m not a publisher. I’m not a marketer. I’m a writer. I write things. The rest is secondary, and to be perfectly honest, half the time I can’t be bothered with the marketing stuff.
So, I’m going to talk about writing, in the purest and simplest form. Writing really doesn’t have anything to do with money, or typesetting, or book signings, or giving talks like this. Writing is about you, a page, and some ink– or pixels, if you prefer to write on a computer, which most of us probably do these days. Ernest Hemingway once said, “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And that is the truth. If you don’t feel like your words are part of your life force, then they’re not the words you should be writing. You should write what calls you, not what you think people want to hear.
So what makes a writer, really? It not just someone who puts words on paper. Most people do that multiple times a day– we write grocery lists, and e-mails, and Facebook posts. Being a writer doesn’t always involve putting words on paper at all. Some people write one book, and never write another word. You don’t stop being a writer if you stop writing. So where is that line? What separates a writer from the rest of the population? I would argue that the state of being a writer is a lens through which one sees the world, and that’s true of any kind of artist– and writers are artists, wouldn’t you say? Artists see the world differently than the average joe. They look at everyday life, and they notice things about it. They see something ordinary, and it makes them feel something profound. Often, they don’t really know who they are. Writers are weird people. You may have noticed. F Scott Fitzgerald even said, “Writers aren’t people exactly. They’re lots of people trying to be one person.”
Writers are lots of people. We have a hard time defining ourselves, and sometimes we wear a different identity for each day of the week. Often writers have to write to find out who they are. Flannery O’Connor said once, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write.” That’s probably true for a lot of writers. I took scads English and writing classes in school, and majored in English. In just about every writing class I had, someone would tell me something along the lines, “Don’t be afraid! You have things to say! That’s why you write!” That terrified me, because the ugly truth is that I don’t think I have anything to say. I never go into a writing project feeling like I have something to say. It’s only after I’ve started writing, after I’ve submerged myself in those words for while, I realize there are things that I’ve said worth saying. I didn’t intend to say them, or know what they’d be in advance. Just like this talk I’m giving now. There was a moment when I decided I didn’t want to recycle an old powerpoint and notes about “go get ‘em!” marketing. I sat down at my computer, and typed the words, “I’m not a publisher. I’m not a marketer…” and away I went.
A writer approaches life in a way different than the average person. We fill our time with different things, we look at people differently, we hear conversations differently. We have to do that in order to keep our creative reservoirs full. You should always be reading something. I’m always reading a book, even if I can only read a few pages a day. You have to read. See movies whenever you can. Listen to music. Go to that school play in town. The more you interact with art, the more you’ll find art inside yourself.
So, how does one approach a story? Where do stories really come from? There’s an ancient concept of creativity called the Muse, which is practically forgotten in the modern world. Sure, people reference it now and then when they want to be quirky, and say, “Oh, the muse is smiling today” or “You just need to get in touch with your muse!” But that’s not the Muse. The Muse is wild, like the wind. It doesn’t wait for you to send a letter. It doesn’t come when you call. It cannot be summoned. Like Gandalf said of wizards, the Muse is neither late nor early. It arrives precisely when it means to, and no amount of groveling or flash fiction exercises will make it show up any sooner. To truly court the Muse, you have to live like the Muse– on your own time, with your own mind, and based on your own passions. The story will come when it’s ready, and you have to be ready when it does. For me, it feels less like coming up with an idea, and more like I’m just waiting to catch one when the Muse decides to throw it at me.
I don’t outline, not at first anyway. The only time I ever make outlines is when I go back to rewrite books I’ve already written, which (by the way) is something everyone ought to do. When I outline then, it’s mostly so I don’t leave out something important in the fervor of rewriting. My Young Adult Fantasy series that’s in the library, and for sale online– I re-wrote each of those books at least three times, more for some. In the last iteration, when I knew I was writing to polish them for publication, I sat down, read the previous manuscript in its entirety, and outlined what was most important. That’s a useful tactic for rewriting. It helps you boil down all the fluff to what’s really important. When I’m starting a new project, though, I never outline. I just sit down and write, and half the time not even in order.
When you pick up a book, you leaf through it, and all the pages are in order. All the chapters are in the order they’re supposed to be in. There’s a beginning, middle, and an end (usually), but books are never neat like that when you’re in the thick of writing them, and if you try to write the book like it’s already finished, you’ll suffocate. Often my books start as a single scene, and that scene is rarely the beginning. Sometimes, the first scene I write for something new doesn’t even end up in the finished product. It’s not about where you start in a project, it’s the fact you start at all. I don’t write linearly. I don’t start at the beginning, and write through to the end. Some days I feel like writing action. Some days I feel like writing dialogue, some days a little exposition. I just go with it. I never tell myself, “No, no. Today we need to work on this.” If you feel like writing something, write it. Because you won’t feel like writing it later, and if you try to force it later, it won’t be nearly as good as what you could have done if you’d written when you had the fire for it.
That’s how the Muse works, in my experience. The Muse never delivers a finished book. Often, the Muse doesn’t even deliver something that looks like a book. It’s like buying furniture at IKEA. The Muse delivers fragments of some crazy idea, and it’s your job to take the fragments as they come, and then figure out how they fit together. Don’t fight it. Just go with it. Your writing will be a lot healthier and a lot richer if you don’t try to cram it in a box, or organize it into an outline. Not in the beginning stages. In the beginning, just let the words go where they will, let the story be what it wants to be. You might be amazed what will come out if you just let go and don’t try to rein it in with an outline.
There’s lots of resources in the world that claim to teach people how to write. There are tons of books, classes, webinars– all kinds of things– that can teach you techniques for writing, but they can’t teach you to create. I think that’s a mistake a lot of new writers make. They check out all the writing books they can get their hands on, they go to writing groups, they take Creative Writing classes, then they get horribly frustrated when they sit down at their own word processor and can’t seem to write one word. You can study technique all you like, but no one can teach you how to create. You don’t need to be taught how to create. Everyone has creativity that came into this world with them. Your Muse was born the day you were; you don’t need to look to the outside world to find it. You just have to tune out all that noise, all that education, and just be an artist. Let things flow as they will. Don’t worry about whether or not you’ve organized the plot properly, or whether your subject and verbs agree. At the beginning, just create. The editing will come later, and that’s the place to apply the education you have. Don’t teach yourself out of your innate creativity. Write whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever order you want; that’s how you’ll write something worth reading.
Naturally, there comes a point where you have to sit down write all the connecting pieces, and rewrite things into something other people can understand, and that’s when it’s good to have some discipline. Find a pace that’s realistic and reasonable for you. I usually aim to write 1000 words a day, when I’m actively working on a project. I arrived at that number after years of writing, and getting to know myself as a writer. Start small. Try for 300 words. If that feels too easy, bump it up to 500, 700, 1000, 1500. You want something that makes you devote time and effort to the work, but not something that’s going to drive you crazy. For me, 1000 words is a happy medium. Some days I do double or triple that, and those are the days when I can lean back in the chair and go, “Yeah… I’m good.” Other days, I can barely force out 500 words. Those are the days when I have stop and think, “Why isn’t this working?” Usually, it’s because I’m trying to write something I’m not inspired to write at the time. If I shift to a different scene, sometimes it goes a lot better. Sometimes you just have off days– your day job fried you, your cat barfed on your bed while you were gone, your partner forgot to replace the trash bag again, and don’t even get me started on the people in Wal-mart when I just needed to buy shampoo! Life happens. You’re not a failure when you’re stuck dealing with real life. You’re not a failure if you take time off from writing to just live. The real trick is figuring out how to manage life in such a way that you still have energy left for words.
It’s tragically easy to sabotage yourself when it comes to writing. It’s easy to procrastinate, to put off writing until writing is no longer a habit. I went for a stretch where I didn’t write for nearly two years. That was hard to shake out of. It’s easy to feel like you’re not good enough, easy to convince yourself not to waste your time. I think all writers get to that point sometimes, and it’s a real writer who can shake herself or himself out of that.
I don’t like NaNoWriMo– that’s National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar– and I’ll tell you why. NaNoWriMo is too big for the novice, and too restrictive for the pro. Anybody who finishes a novel can tell you that it comes in its own time, and forcing it doesn’t usually help. I once wrote a novel in three weeks. There’s another that I’ve been working on for three years that’s still not finished. There’s nothing wrong with either of those scenarios. Sure, it might be more impressive to be able to say you finished a novel in three weeks, but the time it takes to complete a book doesn’t have any bearing on what’s between those pages. If everything comes pouring out of you in a flood and you finish your book in a matter of weeks, awesome. If the words only come like a drizzle and it takes a few years for them to all trickle out, that’s fine too. NaNoWriMo can be decent motivation for people who don’t have a lot of practice self-motivating, and it’s true every now and then you hear about a gem that came out of it that made it big time in the publishing industry, but from what I’ve seen, that deadline usually only causes unnecessary stress and obsession, makes people feel guilty or like a failure if they fall behind, or it instills false confidence in the people who do make it on time. Whether or not you can finish a book in a month is no indication of whether or not you can write a book, even if you succeed in writing the right number of words by the end of the month. You might churn out 60,000 words in four weeks, but that’s pointless if it’s not something worth reading. You might get down 15,000 beautiful words in that month, and then give up because you missed the deadline and lost your motivation. How many true writers, how many good books, have been discouraged and lost because they missed a deadline and felt like they’d failed something?
NaNoWriMo is the one month of the year when everyone and their brother jumps on the “I’m a writer!” bandwagon. Let’s be honest, a lot of those people aren’t writers. You can enjoy writing, but that doesn’t inherently make you a writer. If you only put pen to paper once a year in November because of some contest, you’re not a writer. That idea offends some people, and I’ve had people get very upset with me when I’ve said that, and it’s true there’s not any one thing that makes someone a writer, but you know when you’re talking to a writer and when you’re not. You know when you’re talking to someone who genuinely sees the world through a creative lens, and when you’re talking to someone who just thinks playing “writer” is fun. That’s not to say you should be a snob to people. I always encourage people who tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo– they might be one of the people who finds success that way, and it’s not for me to tell someone what’s going to work for them. I always encourage the people who come up to my booksigning tables and say they’re aspiring writers, even if they haven’t written a single word yet. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say everyone has the potential to be a writer. It’s up to you whether you use that potential to turn yourself into a writer or not.
There’s something of a poet in all of us. There’s at least one moment in every life when someone looks at something and thinks about it in beautiful words. Bursts of eloquence come at the most unexpected times and unexpected places. A writer is someone who learns to take advantage of that. To net the words as they fly through us. Words are around us all the time. The world is made of them. A writer is a person who can sift through them and bring out the good ones. And often, that happens just by living life and talking to people.
You have to talk to people. That’s the hardest part for me. I’m the biggest introvert you’ve probably ever met. Phone calls are the devil, and just going up the street to Giant because I’m out of milk is like having to psyche myself up to swim the English Channel. But you have to watch people. You have to talk to people. People are strange, funny, tragic, beautiful creatures, and the only way you can ever write about them is if you study them, all of them, indiscriminately. Sometimes I just stand at my office window and watch people moving on the sidewalk, or in the parking lot. Sometimes I stand in line at the grocery store, and watch the other people waiting. Why do they move the way they do? Why is that woman missing an earring? Why is that kid’s shoelace broken? Why does that old man wear a college ring where a wedding band should be? Where did that girl learn to say “cattywampus,” when her father just said “catty-corner”? How did my cashier get that little scar over her eye? People are full of stories. The littlest detail can lead to a vast story most people never see. That’s the lens of being a writer. You have to watch, you have to listen, you have to see things about the world and the people in it that most people don’t think are important. Often, the things people don’t normally see are the most compelling.
The most important thing about other people, though, is that they read. In a way, you must collect words from the world around you, then give them back to world after you’ve pieced them together into art. It’s pretty pointless to pour weeks and years of effort into something, and then never let any eyes but yours see it.
I was a bespectacled third grader when I first started writing. Eight years old, I wrote short stories. I kept them in box under my bed. As I got a little older– ten, eleven– I graduated to writing novellas. I also kept them hidden under my bed. One time, my mom was cleaning and pulled the box out. I don’t think she realized what it was– she probably assumed it was schoolwork– but in that moment, I was swept with such terror. I remember wishing I had a way to make myself just drop dead right then. Child-me couldn’t bear the thought of someone’s eyes on those words.
Why is that? All writers are kind of like that, aren’t they? Maybe not to the dramatic extent children are, but we get all antsy when people read our words. That’s because we are our words. Those words are a piece of you, and someone else is getting a look at a piece of your soul. That’s scary. It’s especially scary if you have social anxiety like me. I live my entire life feeling like I’ve just come out of the cafeteria lunch line, clutching my tray, surveying the room, feeling like no one is going to want me to sit with them. Imagine how frightening it is to hand someone a manuscript I’ve labored over, which contains so much of me, and wait. What if they don’t like it? What if it sucks? What if they think I’m some kind of freak for even thinking of the stuff in this book?
It’s scary to put yourself out there, but you have to do it. I have six books in print, and it’s still scary. I wrote the first draft of my first novel when I was fifteen, and for a few weeks after it was done, I just sat on it. I couldn’t bring myself to show it to anyone. Then I realized how sad that was, what a waste it would be. So, I let people start reading. Today, I mostly don’t think about people reading my work. It’s part of being a writer, and sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes people have good things to say about my work, and that’s always a nice ego boost and sense of validation. Sometimes people have bad things to say about it. That’s ok, and also part of being a writer. You have to learn to take the praise and the criticism. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s unavoidable. You can’t reach your potential as a writer unless you share your work, and you can’t share your work without getting feedback. A book is a conversation between a writer and reader. If you don’t allow space for the reader to respond, then it’s not a conversation, and the book isn’t doing its job. You want the reader to respond, you want to make them feel things– even if those things are negative. If your words can make someone else think and feel something, then you’re on the right track as a writer.
One can’t be a true writer without a reader. Writing is often a solitary profession, but writers need people. We get material from people, we get feedback from people, and most importantly, we get read by people. In exchange, we share our artist’s lens with non-writers. We enable people to see the world through the lens of a writer for a brief time. Reading the words of another person is the closest our world can get to a Vulcan mind-meld, and it’s that kind of connection between minds that can bring about growth, change, and a better world.
The world needs artists, needs writers, because we see things through that creative lens. Artists provide a much-needed perspective on things. Often you can’t solve a problem without getting a different perspective, and that’s something that you as a writer can provide to the world. Never underestimate what you can do with your unique perspective, and the words you put on paper.