Welcome to the Talkative Writer’s guest post with US speculative fiction writer Robert V. S. Redick.
Robert V.S. Redick is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chathrand Voyage Quartet. The four books received great critical and popular acclaim, with Locus Magazine calling the Quartet “one of the most distinctive and appealing epic fantasies of the last decade”, and Paul di Filippo “a Kidnapped or Treasure Island for contemporary times.” He divides his time between Bogor, Indonesia, and Western Massachusetts. He is currently at work on a new fantasy series. For more information you can visit his website.
Now, here is Robert in his own words …
THE WRITING LIFE: TIPS FROM MY SURVIVAL NOTEBOOK
Old clichés die hard. India and Brazil have space programs, but in certain imaginations their names will never conjure more than soccer clubs and snake charmers. National park rangers hold doctorates, but they’re still dismissed as boy scouts who never grew up. Similar stale and shrivelled chestnuts rattle around in our collective psyche when we think of writers. Allow me a moment to grind two of these into meal.
The first is that writers are lucky scammers. They unspool a few yarns, strike it rich, chat up Oprah, sell the film rights and wallow in public adoration to their dying day (a day which presumably begins with a sturgeon omelet, three shots of mescal and sex with a young admirer).
Although popular, this notion merits only a brief rebuttal. Horse hockey. Mule muffins. Rabbit raisins. Actually, that’s four words more than it deserves.
The second notion asserts just the opposite: that the writing life is a bone crusher. The choice of the desperate. The fast lane to poverty and social marginalization. The home of the wounded or, at the very least, the weird. The guaranteed way to lessen your prospects and atrophy your social skills. Yes (this school of thought concedes), writers can be interesting, but only in the manner of mimes, contortionists, rare mental disorders and Peruvian hairless dogs.
Who contrives such illusions? Alas, in some cases, we do so ourselves. The hotshot writers of the past often did carry a whiff of expensive indolence. And writers in all historical moments have tended to be disproportionately quirky, lonely and broke–and better than most at drawing attention to their suffering.
In economic terms, it’s certainly true that the writing life has become vastly more difficult over the last 30 years or so. There’s less money overall, and a greater fraction of it is going to the blockbuster authors at the top of the food chain. But there’s a lot more to the writing life than obsessing over sales, and this is where the good news starts.
Riches are unlikely, but by the same token, misery is unnecessary. With some basic realism, planning and pluck, far more joy than sorrow can attend the writing life. To be sure, there are dangers: the wood is vast and dark, and the path meandering. You can lose your way. In all likelihood, you will—but not catastrophically, if you prepare.
Below, I lay out a few of the key tactics, tools and outlooks that have kept me writing through the years. And since I was first tempted into the Great Wood by role-playing games, it seems only fitting that I express these tips in gaming terms. Here goes.
THE MISSION: to write creatively throughout life, and to be healthy, happy, challenged, thoughtful and ethical in so doing.
THE ELEMENTARY TRAINING: This is a huge topic, and not precisely related to survival tips, so I’ll abbreviate. Read good stuff. All the time. With passion and attention. With joy at what it accomplishes, and not envy (or not too much envy) that you didn’t write it yourself.
THE HOLY ARTIFACTS:
Sword of Stubbornness. When your first draft turns your stomach; when your best work is rejected for the fiftieth time; when an anonymous reviewer calls your book a clumsy riff on Fire Maidens of Outer Space; when your brilliant concept turns out to be China Mieville’s brilliant concept from the late 1990s; you must, at all costs, turn this frustration into resolve. All of this and worse will face you, so draw the sword and hack a path through the webs. And don’t look back.
Note, however, that the Sword of Stubbornness becomes twice as potent when wielded in conjunction with the next artifact:
Helm of Good Humor. This blessed headgear should be worn at all times. Sleep in it, shower in it. Nothing will keep you sane and stable in the writing life so much as the ability to laugh at the writing world, its insecurities and prejudices and pretenses. The collapse of quality writing as a paying career is, in fact, rather a tragedy, but it is comic as well. Do yourself a huge favor, and laugh. At the gatekeepers of your chosen genre, at the bestseller lists, the “book lovers” who won’t read a book unless they can steal it, your royalty statements, yourself. You’ll live a lot longer if you do.
Shield of Self-Esteem. Vital and self-explanatory. Bear in mind, however, that this artifact carries a hidden curse: if it is never lowered by an inch–if it stands forever between the writer and insightful feedback–it may transform into the dreaded Mirror of Myopia, and prevent the writer from learning and growing. In extreme cases, the cursed Mirror becomes too heavy to hold upright, topples backwards, and traps the writer beneath its heavy, air-tight carapace: in this form it is known as the Shell of Solipsism, and the death it brings is miserable indeed.
THE BASIC ADVENTURE GEAR:
You don’t cross a wilderness in flip-flops. You don’t climb a ridge into thunderheads without a rain coat. By the same token (unless you’re literally going hungry), you shouldn’t deny yourself the fundamental gear of a serious writer. For most of us this is nothing too fancy: a workhorse laptop, one of solid build rather than flash and “features.” A quality external keyboard. A supportive chair. A typing surface in an ergonomic position, even if (as in my case at the moment) that’s just a piece of plywood across your lap. A tiny notebook you’re never, ever without.
On the greater wish list, of course, must go a quiet space in which to deploy these armaments. Silence is a scarce and precious thing, and one I mourn the loss of: the second half of the Chathrand Voyage Quartet was written a stone’s throw from a plastics factory. It is howling even now, that factory, and so I make my own silence. Most days I write with earplugs; on the worst days, with industrial earmuffs. Hell yes, it looks stupid. Fortunately writing’s not a fashion show.
THE MAGIC EXILIR: Caffeine. Clever servant, insufferable master. The maxim “less is more” emphatically applies. A little coffee (or yerba maté, my favorite) can coax your mind into high gear, just when you need it. Too much will leave you fidgeting and twitching as though electrodes lined your chair.
Be careful with this bottled djinn: it can grant your wishes, or leave you stranded far from them, on a bleak island, watching your last chocolate-covered espresso bean melt in the sun.
THREE ESSENTIAL POWERS:
Secret Identity. “I am a writer.” Those are four marvelous words to tell yourself, often and earnestly—provided you never do so with excessive pride, or any shame whatsoever. But perhaps the greatest kindness you can do your writing (and yourself) is to have a second, satisfying way to end that sentence. “I am a firefighter…farmer…lab technician…physics teacher…translator.” Ideally, this second identity should be more than your “day job”; it should be another source of satisfaction, another hat you’re happy to wear. The world needs farmers and firefighters. It’s a fool’s hubris to set writing above and apart.
Secret identities can ease the pressure, too. When you demand money from your stories, over and over, year after year, what have you done but lock them in a sweatshop? This may be what the market wants: the same garment, the same story, endlessly repeated. Shoes by Payless, fiction by Cecil the Cyborg. But is that really why you started to write?
Fighting trim (physical). We write with our bodies, not just our heads. Pain distracts. Abused wrists fail in the middle of 18-hour writing marathons. Burned retinas aren’t observant. Malnourished flesh can’t hold a position long enough for us to net those elusive dreams in words. So be good to your body, period. Unless you think you can do without it.
Fighting trim (emotional/mental). A sore neck will remind you that we write with our bodies, but what will remind you that we write with our hearts? No one but yourself—or if you’re very lucky, a life partner or a mom. This is the last, and most important, of all my survival tips: DO NOT BECOME A TROGLODYTE. No kind of writing success—absolutely none—is worth sacrificing the basic human fulfillments—love, friends, movement, health, laughter, encounters with beauty, engagement with the real. If you must pass through an underworld to finish your book, pass through and emerge. Do not dwell there.
Ibsen famously declares that to live is to “battle with trolls, in the vaults of heart and mind,” while to write is “to sit in judgement over oneself.” Both assertions are melodramatic (who’d remember them, otherwise?), but the second certainly hides a few grains of truth. Sitting in judgement, beating oneself with the gavel of censure and condemnation: that is pure idiocy, in a world eager to do it for you. But in the vaults (or the Great Wood) of the writing life, sound judgement is essential.
Good luck, stranger. Stay on the path.