The Orbit

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A series of thoughts on writing
by Joe R. Lansdale

1. When I write I seldom know where it is going. I discover this every day. Now and again a story drops full blown into my head and it is just a matter of putting it down as quickly as possible, and in some cases novels are like that. Most of my work comes fast but I still work to make it good, and the next day I start all over by rereading what I wrote the day before.

2. I try and do a reasonable amount each day so I'm a hero every day. Three to five pages is what I work for, but I don't fight it if I get more. I rarely get less. I can't remember when I got less, but it happens. This amount of pages is perfect for me, but may not be for you. But I suggest something reasonable. If I try to write a lot of pages day after day I burn out, and I push the story uncomfortably, and past what my subconscious is working on.

3. I write each day until I feel myself starting to fizzle. When I feel that I usually quit, so that when I finish I can put it away in my head and let my subconscious work. I rarely ever work consciously on something, and it's why I don't collaborate much, because you almost have to do that when you work with someone. I like to write and quit and not think about it anymore, other than in the subconscious way. When I get up the next morning and start out again it is there. On the rare occasion when it's not I take a day off. If it's not there two days in a row, then I know I'm just being lazy and I play a word game or tell myself I will write one sentence or one paragraph, and this usually turns into a day's work.

4. I don't prepare for the next day's work when I finish. I let it go and try not to do that. Once in a while something will come through or I'll see something that will cause me to spring up in the middle of the night and start typing. But mostly if I think too much about it, it's like burning a short wick, but if I forget about it until it's time, the wick is lengthened overnight. I try not to think about success or failure but only that I want to make it good and entertain myself. As I have said before I write for me because I'm the only audience I truly know. I don't write for the reader, but when I finish I hope the reader is a lot like me. Frankly, when I write I try to write like everyone I know is dead. This way I'm not worried about what anyone thinks.

5. Another thing that works well for me is to read a little before I write. It can be fifteen minutes or an hour. This makes words feel comfortable. I try to read something different from what I'm writing, but not necessarily. I try to read off and on throughout the day, and have some days where I take the whole day off to read because I know I need it. I have some weeks where I read more than others, but I always read, and I usually manage three or four books a week—novels, or the equal in short stories, not to mention a variety of odds and ends I might read. Reading is the fuel, and you have to fill up the tank constantly.

6. I have had some writers tell me they don't like to read when they write, but since I write a lot, when would I read? I don't think there's anything wrong with reading while you write. For me it would be wrong not to read while I write, or miss out on reading because it's something I love to do, even if I did not write.

7. You should try to write naturally, I think, and what is natural to one may not feel natural to another. You should try to write in such a way that when your writing is examined it seems as if it is written on air and hard to duplicate. What makes writing work really well isn't the subject matter—though that helps. It's the way the writer puts it down and a good writer can make something normally banal seem interesting.

8. Thinking ahead too much gives you time to worry. Let each new day be just that: a new day. Surprise yourself. Somedays the surprises won't be as good as others, but they should still be worth it. And the days it really surprises you, that's great. When you look at it finished you might be amazed to discover that it's all pretty surprising. You hope.

9. Lastly, anyone who takes these thoughts and suggestions as law-of-the-land should be tarred and feathered. Well, made stand in the corner. These suggestions work for me and have worked for many others and might work for you. And they might not. But to find your method you have to experiment. Some of the way I work is advice I got from a writer who I spoke to years ago, and he doesn't still work that way.

Lots of readers have asked if I would do a writing book, and I think about it. But I also think that writing books haven't done much for me. Two have helped, and only for certain things. One had one piece of advice I have used, and the other had advice that helped me when I was starting out, but would probably be worthless to anyone starting out now. The first helped because it had the idea of writing only one page a day. That became three to five for me. The other had a lot of market advice that applied to the era in which it was written. That helped. Not so much now.

So many writing books have charts and arcs and all manner of things that really have nothing to do with the sound of the prose, the voice of a character, attitudes based on their past ... all of which you as a writer should know. I don't chart that past. It becomes too solid then. At some point I know why a character acts a certain way, good or bad. And I know too that whatever character I write about, they have to have both traits. Good and bad. But telling someone that and them doing it is another thing altogether.

Do I write for money? Yes and no. I write because I love to write, but I write with the plan to get paid. I pay bills by writing. I love to do it, but also love to do it for a certain amount of money. But I would write for nothing if I had a story I wanted to write and there wasn't a paying market for it. I would write it and put it away if I had to. Or I would sell it to a lower-paying market. I try not to do that, but I do from time to time.

You should write to be paid and start in the best market possible. Have faith in yourself. If it doesn't place where you like, go down the list. Find a home. Seeing something in print you're proud of spurs more creativity and more checks. You need both in this life. Starving and being paid poorly does not make you an artist.

For me writing is a passion, not an obsession. One is good and fun, the other feels a little like you're stalking yourself. I have to have things in my life other than writing to love the writing. I think if all I had was writing it would consume me. Not the life I want.

I don't do this anymore, but when I first started my wife would pick interesting stories from the newspapers and I would pick a couple that were especially interesting to me and try to figure how they could somehow be related. It helped me think about how you could take seemingly unrelated ideas and make a story out of them. In the long run I found this too artificial, but it helped me learn to construct stories. Now I don't think about it at all or use this method, but I think I learned a lot from it.

Sometimes writing works best when you create a fine opening line that deals with a character. You are forced to understand why a character would act the way you have had them act in that line. It's one line, but it can open up a whole vault of ideas about that character, and the excitement of knowing the character's motivation for murder, singing a song, or whatever, even if you don't use it all in the story, gives you confidence to proceed. Each character does what they do for a reason other than serving the plot. They shouldn't be chess pieces you're pushing around to get to the end of the story. The story has to develop out of who they are and what they would do because of their life experience.

I find that less is more when it comes to writing hours. Three is about it for me, and that way I'm not worn out the next day, and I keep adding to the story because I know I'll have a short time to work. It stays fun most of the time and a lot more satisfying, and I get to feel like a hero every day because I've worked with enthusiasm. Working my ass off for twelve hour a day just gives me dread of doing it. But knowing I only have to show up for about three hours, write three to five pages a day, I often find I write a larger number of pages than that, and I stay excited about the work. I find if the three to five pages come quickly, and I just don't feel up to working longer, I quit, even if it isn't three hours, because I know I've done my quota. Next day I might get ten pages in three hours, and often do because I'm invested in the story. It excites me and satisfies me. It's my method, and it might be helpful to others, and maybe not, but there it is if you want to consider it.

Finished a new novel tonight. The ending popped in my head a few days ago, and because I knew that ending, I wrote toward it starting about forty pages out. Got there and wrote that ending and it didn't work at all. I came up with another, but it only worked slightly better, went to bed, and bingo, popped in my head. I usually just work mornings a little bit, but this book has been obsessive. Anyway, point is, in writing, you have to be flexible. Something may be good in the head but sucks on paper.

Each to his own, but the idea of multiple drafts is not necessarily a good idea. A writer can get lost in all those drafts, and think the more drafts the better the book. I polish as I go, so there's essentially one draft, though by polishing as I go, I'm doing a lot of little daily rewrites. I don't outline or plot, except subconsciously, I just write, correcting each page the day its written, after the juices are done with the creative part. Then I look over yesterday's work the next morning before continuing, touching up here and there. For me, this creates a more polished draft. About halfway through I reread the whole thing to regain momentum, polishing if needed, then I write the rest, and reread it all and polish. So it's one draft and a polish. Now, this may not work for everyone. There is no right way, but this is my way. I can only offer as evidence a forty-six-year career. Other's may feel they need to do a lot of drafts. I don't. I also have found the more I've worked like this, the tighter the work is first time out. I write more loosely with letters, notes, things of that nature, and that is a kind of freedom from thinking about how "right" it is. But stories and books are better polished in progress for me instead of juggling a lot of drafts. I did that in the beginning, and it just depressed me. I let the story come fast every day, but when I'm done, I read over what I've written and make touch-ups.

Everything has variations due to circumstances, but this is my common method. I also try to write three to five pages a day. That way I'm a hero everyday and those pages are easily polished, as they are few. If I write ten or twenty in a day, I don't try and stop it. I let whatever comes out come out. My only law is I write every morning for about three hours to write three to five pages. When traveling, I may have to write in small bursts while on a plane, in a hotel, or what have you. I finished one book sitting on the floor with my laptop on a waiting-section chair in the airport. I had a long layover, and I was ready to finish it. It was coming hot.

What changed my writing life for me was consistency, expecting small amounts in a reasonable time, and eliminating that multiple-draft idea, which can be helpful to some, but can be misleading to others who feel they are writing better because they have a lot of drafts, or working a tremendous number of hours. Writing is best fed by life and the library, not just the library.

I also like to quit daily when I feel like I still have a bit of story left in me, and then I don't think about the story until I get up the next morning, at least not purposely. By stopping when I think I have a little bit more to tell, my subconscious builds up anticipation. I don't talk about the book outside of something like, "Yeah, it's a crime book in the early sixties with a used car salesman."

Sometimes, if I feel really fiery, but the main story is mostly through, and there are only fumes, I switch to another story. I may have nothing in mind, so I'll write the first thing that comes to mind. It may be nothing, but I've been surprised more than once when it led to another story. I have also found that there are some stories I write as my main story, but the other is there when I get my three to five pages, and I can jump over to it, writing whatever amount comes out. It might be an equal number of pages or less. This all generally happens, that story and the other, in the three hours. I rarely work more than that, though now and again I have come back in the afternoon, or before bed, or I might wake up and go upstairs and work. I find those times are rare, and they may be dedicated to a completely different story than my morning story. Again, rare, but never fight what's working, and what works for me mostly is three hours, three to five near-finished pages.

Don't talk out your energy and originality. When the story can be talked about, give it to the screen or paper, not to someone who doesn't want to hear about it anyway. Nothing bores me worse than someone trying to tell me the story or the book they're writing in detail. Put it on the page.

Write simply, which doesn't mean the words should be laid out like turds in a row. They need sparkle and they need poetry, and if you need a run-on sentence to give your story the feeling it needs, fuck the grammar police, but know what rules you're breaking, and why, even if you only sense why.

Writing isn't about pretty manners, but it isn't about trying to show you don't have pretty manners either. It's about the characters in the story, the dialogue, and a feeling of a subliminal story existing under the story. That there is more in the forest than the trees.

Write like everyone you know is dead. To hell with everyone else's opinion when you write. Write for yourself. I don't have a perfect reader in mind. That works for some, but it makes me write for them which means I might not be writing for me. I have no idea what anyone else will like. I only know what I like, so I write for me. It's a wonderfully selfish moment. When I'm done, and the book or story is out there, then I hope a lot of folks like it. But face it, you can't be universally admired, so don't try to be.

Write clearly and visually, and avoid tags for the word said. Use said. A rare nod to he whispered or yelled is acceptable, but best avoided. Avoid She replied, She remarked, He responded, He said convincingly. She said with excitement. If you have to explain how they speak, you haven't written the scene right. Or turn it into a character-reveal at the same time. Set the scene and show how they talk, and if you explain it, do it cleverly so that it reveals character. He talked like had just eaten a puppy and had enjoyed every bite. That actually tells how he spoke, but it gives you an idea of how the narrator thinks, and what he or she thinks of who they are talking to. It's more than, and in my view, better than He said with confidence. Which really doesn't have the impact. It just says he was confident, the other shows you he's confident.

Stay away from exclamation marks. The scene should tell you. You are allowed them, of course, but sparingly. Say you do use the word yelled, again a rare choice. Most of the time the scene will explain it.

I got caught up recently in semi-colons, and I like to think they fit the tone of the narrator, a kind of formal speech, but on the other hand, they may just have been semi-colons. I usually rewrite if I start to use a semi-colon, turn it into two sentences, or often a comma will do in place of a semi-colon.

Don't join writers in being members of clubs like Splatterpunk, Noir, Cyberpunk, etc. Be your own club. As soon as those things can be identified, they are pretty much over with, and if you are a member of such a club, you begin to write for the title of the club or members of the club, not yourself. Also, it becomes mechanical, then you start to write in a way that bores the reader, and you. Write what you want. Let the badger loose.

A note. You are allowed to say hi and hang out with those who like to be members of clubs. But, as soon as you join a club, you have most likely limited your possibilities as a writer. No matter how much you love something, if you cling to it long enough, you break its bones or smother it. Pet it, move on. You might come back and pet it again, but you don't have to make it your constant companion.

If you start something, and it doesn't quite jell, and next morning it's still hiding, write something else. But generally the reason your mind moves to something else is because what you're working on is getting hard. So learn to finish what you start. Abandon if it's a failure, but if it's just hard, keep on until finished.

All rules are suggestions, and all are made to be broken. Except these. To be a writer you must read, and read a lot, and read out of your comfort zone. Don't just read horror, science fiction, what have you. And write regularly. Best of luck.

Dreading work is far worse than working. Once you get started it has a life of it's own. I start quickly after waking up. When I begin writing there's an energy to it. I rarely miss a day. When I do take a day off, which is rare, I try and know the difference between taking a day off and goofing off.

What I've found, is one of the greatest joy's in life is the writing itself. Even if I feel I have nothing, that the well is dry, sitting down and trying to write one or two sentences will generally stoke the juices, and before I know it, I have three to five pages and a greater feeling of accomplishment and contentment than not working. It then becomes a habit. You don't wait for the muse, you wake it up. Say, look, you've got one good sentence, right? And then it happens. The one sentence, and then the next, and the next....

Another way to get started on a story: Write yourself a letter telling of true things that happened to you, then insert something that is untrue, but fits within the context of the letter, and then gradually add more untrue elements, along with true ones from present or past, until you start to have a story. It may, in fact, work as a letter-story, or you can begin to let the letter fall away and just leave the story. It's worked for me a few times back when I was learning how to write and tell a story. The first time I did this, I was actually writing a letter to someone and began to think how something might have gone another way, and so I thought, Yeah, I'll write that, and then the story blossomed out of what would have been common correspondence.

Another writing tip that has worked for me, is to think of some point in my life that was important, or at least interesting to me, and think what might have happened had it got a slightly different direction. This was how Hap and Leonard were created in Savage Season, and the series has a lot of these moments, along with some exact ones from my life. You take the truth, the could-have been moments, the possibilities, the mistakes or potential mistakes, shake them up with storytelling lies, and serve.

A story stays important for me if I don't talk about it. I try not to tap the volcano too soon. I like to let it build, then let the lava flow on the page, not out of my mouth. For me, I can burn out my story that way. What works for you, works for you, but containing until finished, then letting the pages tell the story is best for me, and probably a lot of others. Besides, most people really don't want to be grabbed by the sleeve and told your ideas. But they may want to read them.

I know a lot of folks feel they have to suffer to write, and that is their choice, but for me, making it fun is what it's all about. Even serious subjects can be fun to explore, and as a writer, if I explore them with excitement and energy, I think I'm more likely to engage myself. I then hope there will be others who will share my excitement. So far, there have been. A key for me is not working long hours or working now and again, but to have a general time set aside. When I was younger and working other jobs, back in my twenties, I had an exact time to start and finish before I went to work, or after. If you can steal thirty minutes to an hour a day, and you stick to it, you can get there. Writing about three hours a day in the morning, I find I do my best work. But if something unexpected comes up, or I'm traveling, I can change that. While in China, traveling all over for three weeks or so, I wrote a novella, an article, and worked on a script. I did that during breaks between travel, on planes, the airport, and so on. I used to not write anywhere except home, and I prefer that. But I realized that I was beginning to travel so much, that if I didn't learn to adapt and write elsewhere, I was going to miss out on a lot of work, as well as income, which is what I need to keep doing it. I'm a professional. I find the best bet for me is to write every day. I write short hours, so even on my birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc., I can generally sneak it in without disrupting any family gatherings. And writing is a gift I give myself. Do I ever take off? Yes, now and again, but its either because I can't avoid it, or I just feel its time for a break. But, you have to recognize the difference between taking off, and screwing off.

A bit of writing advice. I suggest these things from time to time as they help me. They don't work for you, you don't like them, don't do them. But, if you keep working to write the perfect story or book, at some point perfection will begin to smell like failure. You have to let go of the dream and write the book, even if it is wounded. That doesn't mean all of the dream will be gone, but it means the novel or story you imagine you can write may not be the novel or story you actually can write. By giving yourself permission not to be perfect, you may come closer to that than if it's your designated mission. Perfection can become the purpose more than the story. Writing is how you feel, and no matter what the story (and I haven't always done this, I admit) you should try and have your feelings, something you care about, at least on some level, emptied into the prose. In one way, we all fail to write the story we meant to write, but sometimes the story we didn't mean to write is better. And a written story you care about is better than a story you care about and can't write.

PART TWO ON GETTING IT PERFECT. Previously I wrote about it not being perfect, but on day to day, you should write to finish, I believe. Again, my view. Write well as you go, polish as you go, but what I mean by perfection, is thinking about it can actually freeze you. Write the story and know you are doing your best, polishing as you write, but knowing too that the goal you have in your head will vary from what you get on paper. It may actually turn out to be better than expected. The point is, tell the story. Think of what you write as you write. Don't get ahead of yourself about what's to come. That, as I said, can freeze you. You don't have three or four hundred pages to write to finish, you have the days work.

As a writer, you should be able to write about any characters, be they female, black, brown, gay, or straight. There is a purity test these days for everything. If you write about characters unlike you some call it cultural appropriation. If someone wears dreads, then it's called cultural appropriation, instead of cultural integration. If you're limited to writing only about characters like yourself you are creating more cultural segregation. Does this mean males should only write about males? We can get it wrong, but hey, we can try. Women writers shouldn't only write about women, black writers about black people, and so on. We have come to a point of blind purity. Let's make sure we give everyone the opportunity, have a level playing field, but let's not limit creativity. Let's make it fair, but let's not establish a form of creative segregation. I waited for thirty years to write a novel about the black experience in the West. I wasn't appropriating anything. I was writing a story I cared about, and felt was a neglected part of literature, in my case with a little "l." If a black writer should do the same, then more power to them, and they may do better than I did. And love the idea of black writers writing about the black experience in the West. And they have and I hope will continue to do so. But was it wrong for me to write about it in Paradise Sky? I have often tried to represent the under-represented. We establish purity rules, then we'll have them for all groups. If I only write about the white experience, then I'm ignoring other experiences, or my interpretations of them. I might be wrong, but I'm trying. You shouldn't be restricted to one type of story or language, and if the story is uncomfortable, then it is. I write about growing up in the South, and it could be wonderful, or uncomfortable, and a lot of that discomfort was seeing racism at work. It has become a big part of my themes when writing. Should it not? Should I turn a blind eye to it for fear of cultural appropriation? I don't think so. We learn about one another by trying to step into one another's shoes. They may not always fit as well as we would like, but we ought to try walking in them.

The Orbit

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