Saturday, February 5, 2011

Of Sausage Making and Writing

Scott D. Parker

Yesterday over at Murderati, J.T. Ellison posed some interesting questions about readers, writers, and the secrets behind the curtain. In short, she wondered if all the transparency about the process of writing devalues the art and mystique of writing. She wonders if all of us readers and writers are just circling the sausage factory to watch how the strange meat gets into that weird, elastic tube. I think that it's a good thing and, for some, the only thing.

Nowadays, we writers are supposed to tweet, interact on Facebook, go on book tours, have signings, give lectures to book clubs, maintain a website (because you know the publisher ain't gonna do it for you), oh, and write books. And stories. Then, of course, you've got the mundane aspects of book creation: galleys, edits, etc.

The entire post is worth reading, but one paragraph stood out:
"Do you see James Patterson tweeting? Hardly. But he can put out 17 new books in a year, because he’s focused on creating. Same with some of the other big dogs I admire – the Stephen Kings and Nora Roberts of the world. I look at them in awe and wonder. HOW do they write so much? HOW are all their ideas so clever and original? WHAT IS THEIR PROCESS LIKE?"
Here's the thing: the authorial examples she uses is the anti-thesis to her argument. King, Patterson, and Roberts came of age as writers in the era before the internet. By the time Facebook became a legitimate method to promote books, they were already brand-names, not even needing the new technology to let readers know of new books.

In 2011, there is a new paradigm of how authors "get out there." A blog is a great way to get oneself noticed. Through countless blog posts, a writer can establish a foothold on this large mountain range that is the business of writing. The blogger--for that is what the newer writer truly is--blogs for the love of the genre or, as in my case, the public self-education of mystery and crime fiction. My blogging consists largely of reviews where I state my opinion, what I learned, and how I might apply it to my writing. Over a few years, the readers showed up and kept coming back. Now, I receive unsolicited copies of ARCs and other books for review. Pretty cool, no?

But what about the person who wants to transition from blogger to writer to published author? Isn't that what we all want? I've started watching "American Idol" this season and am not surprised at how many contestants *think* they are great and are shocked to discover they're not. In the writing realm, I know many, many of us not-yet-published writers have that same, exact question. Are we good enough? Only time and persistence will tell.

For a lot of us, the answer will be no. So what's left? The communal commiseration of the process. The sausage making. The search for that one thing that can get us over the hump and into the realm of publishability. And that's where this love of craftsmanship comes in regarding published authors. I don't know about you, but I love the Behind the Scenes featurettes on DVDs. I enjoy knowing the genesis of a story, how the costumer made certain selections of fabric, and why the director chose to film in black-and-white.

The same is true for published authors. It's the sausage making that is, at times, equally as interesting as the end product. How a writer crafts a story is fascinating and can often offer insights into the process that can be helpful for other writers. But there's the dark side, too, the delusional part of this type of fandom. If James Patterson writes with a pencil on yellow legal pads, then a certain contingent of not-yet-published writers will start the practice. If Stephen King writes on an old, 1990s-era computer, some writers will head on over to eBay and find the very same model, thinking that the final obstacle to overcome.

That isn't the answer. It's an easy short cut that leads nowhere. The answer is from within. The solitary writer, banging out prose on a mission towards publication, constantly doubts, constantly frets, constantly needs encouragement like few other professions in this world. As Ellison wrote yesterday, "Sometimes, a little note on Facebook is all we need to turn a bad writing day into a good one." Sometimes, it's nice to know that one's favorite author outlines just like we do, or writes using the same software as we do. And sometimes, it's just nice to hang out with fellow writers who all share a common knowledge base, and just talk about writing.

At the end of everything, no matter what, it is still a person putting words into a logical sequence and hoping someone else enjoys it. The old paradigm about the famous and non-famous and pants still applies: Nora Roberts puts on her pants one leg at a time. She also puts one word on a "page" before another just like other writers.

Writing is a solitary journey. It's up to us to define what happiness means to us. Is the journey itself enough? For some, happiness (read: publication) may never come. Thus, we settle for the sausage. But, let's not forget: sausage can taste really, really good.

Song of the Week: Philip Glass's Piano Etude II. In these frigid days we're all experiencing, the loneliness, isolation, and cold this piece evokes is strangely warming.


Diana said...

I don't know about Patterson or King, but I do know that Nora Roberts treats her writing like a regular job. After breakfast she goes into her office and starts working, takes a break for lunch, then at dinnertime she stops for the day and does other things.

Most unpublished writers can't do that, because they already have a job that they can't afford to quit. So I guess the secret for those who want to get published is to treat writing like your second job.

I'm not convinced that twitter and facebook are great marketing tools. The number of people you can reach is limited to your friend's list and followers. Whereas a blog is available to anyone with access to the internet.

Jersey Jack said...

Very few of my 60-year-old friends enjoy life the way I do. Why? Because I'm still chasing the dream I had as a kid. I have a reason to get up and work everyday besides earning money.

I love making the sausage.

Scott D. Parker said...

Diana - I'm a technical writer by day and that goes a long way towards me understanding that writing really is a job. I also got that from historians David McCullough and Robert Caro who both "get dressed" for work, even if their office is in their house. When I wrote my first book, I wrote from 10pm-12am every night. Slowly, but surely, I got the thing finished because I treated like a second job.

Jersey Jack - To continue from above, I was able to keep those hours because I loved my second job. I think one of the biggest obstacles for creative folk is knowledge. When I wrote that first book, I didn't it for the fun of it. Now, after years of trying different writing tools, I haven't written my second (YET). I'm starting a process in 2011 that basically comes down to what you said: write for love.

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Dana King said...

I also like watching the "Behind the Scenes" features to DVDs and read writers' blog primarily for insights into writing. Anyone who thinks it removes the mystique of writing takes the analogy too far. Sausage is what it is. No matter how much you read about method and technique and discipline in a writer, at some point the magic of creativity steps up, as inexplicable as knowing the moment when inorganic matter made the leap to life.

I used to tell music students that the the page with notes and instructions printed on it isn't music; it's just the map that points you to where the music is. Reading about writing is like that.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I would like to point out that Patterson no longer writes his own books. He has co-writers for that job nowadays, which is a post in and of itself.

Constant Writer said...

While social media like Facebook and twitter can be really helpful, I think a blog is the best way to share your style of writing and get people's feedback. If you're getting people to actually read what you write, then it makes sense to expand to social media and get some more exposure, even if it's not as solid as having followers/subscribers for your blog.