About Writers

Your Whole Book Sucks

abbotsford-house

A couple of years ago, staying with friends on the Scottish border, we took the opportunity to visit Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott. As you can see, it’s a pretty impressive place, but Scott could well afford it – he was the most successful writer of his day, his novels enjoying a popularity unheard of until then. Scott can reasonably be considered as the world’s first literary star, ranked during his lifetime as one the three greatest writers in history alongside Goethe and Shakespeare. And who reads Scott today? No one.

‘Which do you think is best?’ I said to my wife as we left. ‘Success during your lifetime and ignored two centuries later or the opposite?’ Obligingly – but not quite convincingly – she said, ‘I’m sure you’ll have both, my dear. Success in your lifetime and in two hundred years.’ Sweet as this reply was, it did nothing to conceal what we both knew: that it’s far more likely I’ll have neither.

As the example of Scott shows, success is a fickle creature. In some ways, that’s a comforting thought – what does it matter if I’m successful or not, since in any case it’s fleeting and overrated and ultimately unsatisfying? Well, yes, but to someone who’s never had it, that rings hollow, like telling developing countries that material wealth is a goal not worth pursuing. As Tennyson wrote of a different topic entirely, ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

So lauded was Scott when alive that perhaps he was convinced that he was an excellent writer. But on the whole, successful writers are not exempt from self-doubt:

I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. John Steinbeck.

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now, they will discover you. Neil Gaiman.

I have spent a good many years—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. Steven King

I’m very deeply inculcated with a sense of failure. Joyce Carol Oates.

The list could go on. But what to do about it? How do you tackle a problem that never goes away? You could join the Insecure Writers’ Support Group which now has many activities but was first set up to ‘act as a form of therapy, letting writers post about situations where they need encouragement, or to offer words of encouragement to others if they have experience.’

Personally, I haven’t joined. Not that it isn’t a fine initiative but ultimately, the encouragement I must find is within myself, and that can only come by continuing to write. On the face of it, that’s paradoxical because writing is what creates the doubt in the first place, so all that’s needed for the doubt to vanish is to stop. But in that case, of course, the doubt has won. No way am I going to let that happen. By continuing to write, I may be keeping it alive, but I’m also telling it to stay in its proper place – in a little cage in a corner of the room, every so often sneering through the bars, ‘That sentence you’ve just written really sucks. In fact, you know what? Your whole book sucks!’ Whereupon I turn to it and say, ‘Thank you. Because do you know what? If you weren’t there, I wouldn’t even try to make it better.’

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound. William Goldman.

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(See photo for title)

OKAY, so what have you been doing with all this quarantine time? At first, I assumed we in the writing life would have more time to live it. But I’m not writing more. You?

I spend my time taking walks with my Lady. Or playing table top games. We also watch some TV together in the evenings. I enjoy time with her.

Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine has named me Editor In Chief, at least for the forthcoming issue & until I can foist that job onto someone else.

Volume 3 of The Rabbit Hole is now in the final editing stage and will soon be ready to promote. That’ll be fun. Victor Acquista and Susan Ranscht have contributed greatly to the story selection of this final volume.

But mainly, I’m adrift in contemplation. Interesting world and it must be absorbed before I can seriously write again.

How has the pandemic affected you?

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What do we write now?

V0042005 The dance of death: the careless and the careful. Coloured a

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in a comment that I had two virus story ideas I didn’t know what to do with. This prompted a reply from Carl Reed to say that he’d withdrawn his poem Pandemic from an upcoming collection, “fearing accusations of tastelessness and/or vulgar opportunism.” I applauded Carl’s decision, adding that if my stories were finished, I certainly wouldn’t release them now.

But such concerns won’t stop many from writing about pandemics. Confinement has already led to a steep rise in submissions to literary agents, and agent John Jarrold, who specialises in science fiction and fantasy, expects apocalypse scenarios to feature prominently. Phoebe Morgan of Harper Collins cautions against it: “I am advising my authors not to add pandemic into contemporary novels. My reasoning: I don’t think anyone wants to remember this when they’re trying to escape. Fiction is fiction.” The concern there appears to be more commercial than ethical, and she may not be right anyway: the film Contagion, for example, has seen a surge in popularity. Either way, a glut of books on the same theme is likely to be counterproductive, and it will be some time before the better ones get to stand out from the dross.

I have no intention of moving my stories further up my list of priorities, but I have been noting a few references about the current situation which may be useful if and when I do tackle them. I’d already done a hefty amount of research into the science, so most of these articles relate instead to human behaviour – which is what in the end matters most in a story. What we’re seeing now is real life examples of such behaviour in action, and I must admit that as a writer, it’s the morally repugnant behaviour that fascinates me most. Stealing face masks, internet scams, deliberately coughing over people, slashing ambulance tyres – on one level I simply shake my head in disbelief and despair, on another I’m intrigued by the psychology behind it.

There’s nothing new here. Albert Camus explored these issues in The Plague, published in 1947, in which the disease itself acts as a metaphor for the pestilence of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Camus describes a wide range of behaviour, from the selfish to the stoically resistant. While the book is concerned with moral choices, he avoids excessive condemnation or praise: the selfish aren’t decried as despicable, nor is Dr. Rieux, the book’s main protagonist, extolled as heroic. While one behaviour is to be preferred, and eventually prevails, both are understandable reactions to the absurdity of the human condition which the plague merely throws into sharp relief.

One reason I undertook a pandemic story was my annoyance at The Walking Dead. Yes, it was packed with suspense (though even that was wearing thin by episode 972), but I found its depiction of human behaviour shallow and Manichean. With its unrelenting message that man is a wolf to man, it was some way off the subtlety displayed by the likes of Camus. But then I guess that consideration of political and ethical choices doesn’t have viewers gripping the edge of the seat quite as well as a horde of zombies. It’s those very choices, though, which I’d like one day to explore.

To end on a more practical note, Kevin Brennan wonders how you deal with this pandemic in any book purportedly set in the present. With the normal world upended, how do you handle that if your novel takes place this year or next? My current WIP is set in 2018, so I’m not facing that issue – but perhaps some of you are? It remains to be seen if the world will durably change when we emerge from this, and if so, how. Right now, what a novel set in ‘the present’ will look like is anybody’s guess.

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Social Media Distancing

– by Sara M. Zerig

As you’ve heard, the world is on lockdown for something called COVID-19. As a result, some of us have more time on our hands to contemplate the unprecedented (in our lifetimes, anyway) social distancing orders. Others, like first responders and the medical and grocer communities, have less time for this. But never fear, everyone has time for social media.

Early in the melee, a friend of mine posted a brief but thoughtful article to her Facebook page about how this could be our worst hour or our finest, and how we conduct ourselves will be the determining factor. The piece went on to list suggestions on how to do this. I “liked” the article because I thought it was a beautiful sentiment.

Later that day, I scrolled through a battlefield of comments on my friend’s post. Why don’t we do all these things during flu season? … Please educate yourself on the differences between Corona and the flu … Fact check, please! [link] … Yes, fact check! [link] [link] [link] You get the idea. Suffice it to say, the point of the article my friend had posted was lost.

I get it. We all have our opinions, and we have the right to express them. Some of us have unpopular opinions and at times become overly passionate about them. Do NOT get me started on bicyclists who fail to follow the rules of the road among cars. It isn’t pretty. Social media allows for an easy and engaging way to spark spirited debates, and the internet provides debaters a wealth of sources to support each side. I usually find it entertaining. Lately, though, not so much.

It seems every time I log on, someone is telling me how I should think or feel about all things Corona, and shame is the theme. Shame on you, if you are gullible enough to believe social distancing is the appropriate response; shame on you, if you are so arrogant that you don’t. Shame on you, if you are so ungrateful that you are are daunted by having to homeschool your children – you get to be with them, while essential employees don’t. Shame on you, if you aren’t on a ventilator and have the gall to fear for the economy. And for that matter, shame on you if you don’t fear for the economy, you elitist snob. We’re not all independently wealthy, you know.

I don’t know why I find this so different from political posts. Those are also aimed at dividing people through ridicule of different perspectives. Maybe it’s because political debates have been the norm as long as I can remember, while social distancing is uncomfortably new. Or maybe my friend’s early post landed too well with me. Turning on each other at a time like this feels like an embarrassment to the human race. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift: I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.

Good news! I can practice social-media-distancing and spend that energy on more creative activities. And I’m gonna do it. Just as soon as I post this blog. Shakespeare is said to have likely written King Lear from quarantine (don’t challenge me – I will find three questionable sources for every one you send me saying he didn’t). No, I am not suggesting that my romance-in-fantasy-settings books equate to Shakespeare, but I can provide an escape for people who enjoy that genre. This seems like a more positive way to spend my time than scrolling through COVID posts.

This is not a blog telling you to quit social media and create. It’s just a thought. An idea. An update on what’s going on over here, from one quarantined writer to others who have my virtual support and online respect. As my twelve-year-old daughter says too frequently: You do you, boo. Imma do me.

Friendly wave from at least six feet away,

Sara

Sara M. Zerig is author of the contemporary fantasy-romance AoX Series. “Unearthed” now available in eBook format on Amazon for Kindle (and Kindle app), Apple iBooks, and Barnes & Noble for Nook (and Nook app).
View more posts: https://saramzerig.wordpress.com/

Photo by Thought Catalog, http://www.upslash.com

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