Archive for the 'writing' Category

The Writing Life

Sharon November 16th, 2009

I get requests for advice about writing fairly often in email.  Some of them are people who have written something already, and want to know how to get more attention for it – how to get a manuscript published, or how to get more readership for their blogs.  Others have broader questions about how to become a writer.  I’m never sure how to answer these emails, because I’m  not sure my experience is either typical or easy to mimic.  I didn’t set out to become a writer, it just sort of happened.  But because people ask,  I thought I’d try and describe my experience, and how I came to write the books, so that people can judge for themselves.

In terms of getting published, I tend to analogize it like this:  there was a brief period of decade or so in the 1920s and 30s, when a few young movie stars were actually “discovered” sipping sodas in a soda shop or acting in a community theater.  That is, there was a brief moment in time when it was possible to be going about your life in more or less ordinary way, and have someone pull out a pen and say “do you want to be a movie star and become rich and famous” (not really, but sort of).  This was because the movies were going really mainstream and the industry was changing rapidly and they needed to fill a lot of berths.  But long after that stopped really happening, people wanted to know how they too could get discovered – but what mattered most was the moment, not what you do.

We exist right now in a period that is rather like that in publishing – the industry is in transition, budgets are tight, and they are looking for people who are pretty certain to sell some books.  They don’t want to take risks.  At the same time, the invention of blogs and the expansion of the internet has thrust completely open new media and new ways of connecting.  The two overlapping things mean that there’s a brief period, going back a few years and probably lasting a few more, where it is possible to go out and start a blog, and pick up a following, more or less just by doing your thing, and then have someone say “wanna write a book?”

And that’s honestly what happened to me.  I started blogging in 2005 because I wanted to write about this stuff, and a few people had asked me had I saved something I’d written in comments or on a forum, and could they find it again.  So I thought if I wrote everything on a blog, it would be there.

My expectation was that I’d have four readers, and that maybe my Mom would look at it, since she’s my Mom.  I had no assumptions about readership, and honestly, was doing it for myself, because writing things out helps me figure them out – sometimes I don’t know exactly what I think until I’ve done the exercise of organizing and sketching the idea out, and have figured out where my reasoning has been leading me.  It was useful to me.  I also figured that several people had said they were glad there was at least one woman out there writing about this stuff (to be fair, there were a few already ahead of me), and I figured there had to be three or four other people who would think that was a good thing.

When people ask me what I did to promote my blog, and what services I’ve used, I look at them kind of blankly.  I don’t use digg, or any of that sort of thing –  I don’t know how to use them or even put them on my site.  I have never paid anyone to promote my blog, or done anything at all to promote it, other than occasionally mentioning it on other sites that I participated in.   I have no idea what my technorati rating is, I have never tracked my readership and I have no idea what it is, except by comments, and I’ve honestly not done much to increase it, other than write stuff, and give people permission to pass anything they wanted along. 

This is why I’m not sure my experience is replicable – I didn’t *do* anything to end up where I have, except write, and write a lot. Aaron and I had started to write _A Nation of Farmers_ before I found a publisher, and were just at the point that we were about to shop around our couple of chapters and book proposal, when I got an email from New Society, asking if I would consider turning one of my more widely read essays “Peak Oil is a Women’s Issue” into a book.  I just about fainted when I got the email – I expected to do what all writers are supposed to do, which is paper your walls with rejection slips.  I expected it to be a long arduous process. In fact, I got incredibly lucky, and got an incredibly kind editor who really liked my stuff.  When I mentioned I was already writing another book, Ingrid, my editor was interested in that one too, and we somehow signed two book contracts, even though I’d never even written one. 

And before _Depletion and Abundance_ even came out, I tentatively mentioned to Ingrid that I’d been writing a ton about food storage and preservation for my classes, and would New Society be interested?  Again, a weird miracle happened, and New Society was willing to take a risk on an author with no books, and no record of successful publishing of anything (I’d given my writing away free, but never charged even when places reprinted), and bought a third book.  This is the sort of thing, like being discovered at a soda fountain, that happens once in a blue moon. 

The problem is that once it happens, people think they can replicate it – and some of them probably can.  But there are more blogs now than there were in 2005, on peak oil, on climate change, on everything.  So it is harder and less likely for people.  No merit accrues to me for being in the right place in the right time, and this leaves me completely incapable of offering good advice about doing this the normal way, with hard work and rejection and perseverence.  My only advice is that I wouldn’t recommend that people hope to be in the right place at the right time – that they do it the hard way, because mostly, that’s how it happens.  Sitting around the soda fountain, hoping an agent will come along, doesn’t work so well of the time.

My other advice on that front is this – write a lot, and expect to do it for free for a while.  I probably wrote 10,000 pages of blogged material over four years before I got asked to blog for money, and at least 5,000 pages before I got asked to write a book.  There are simply so many people who want to write that building space for yourself requires the luxury (and it is a luxury and damned difficult) of making time to work for free for a while.    The reason people started to remember my name was that I wrote a lot, and said yes to everyone who asked if they could repost or forward or publish in their magazine or newsletter. 

 I also tried as much as I could to say things other people weren’t saying – which is hard, but worth the effort. It seems obvious, but most people want to write about mostly things other people already write about.  You can do that – there are a lot of sports bloggers, say.  But if you stand out in some way – quality, sense of humor, a different perspective, you are a lot more likely to get noticed.

 Try and find a niche that isn’t taken, or at least too crowded when you start your blog or other site – I was noticeable because I was female, and fairly young by the standard of a middle aged community, and was writing about family and kids along with all the other stuff.  Now there are a lot of ecologically aware mothers writing, and it would be harder to stand out.  But now I find that people are asking me to speak a lot because I talk about religious life in relationship to climate change and peak oil – one woman I met said, “Oh, I read something you wrote, you are that Jewish Climate Mother Person.” Pleased to meet you.

My own theory (and I’ve done absolutely no surveying of my readers to find out if this is true) is that one of the reasons I’ve done fairly well is that while I found a niche or two, and this was important, I also covered material fairly widely – while also fitting some unfilled niches.  Now I know people who love to delve deeply into a single aspect of life, and that can be fascinating too, but I get bored.  I figure eventually an all-chicken blog will wear out people’s interest in chickens – not that you can’t go a long way on chickens, but I think it can be helpful to ask “what else do people who like chickens like to read and talk about?”  It can be worth covering the spectrum, if you can pull it off, while also differentiating yourself – complicated, I know, but true.

 Honestly, for covering a range of things, you need ego – you need to be able to say to yourself “just because I’m not an expert, doesn’t mean I can’t learn enough to tell other people something they didn’t know.”  In this, I recognize that I’m extremely arrogant – so I’m willing to write about whether we’re going to go into space, and the EROEI of nuclear power, at the same time that I write about knitting mittens, milking goats and gardening.  In a world of specialists, sometimes being a generalist is more unusal – but it does require you to both push your intellectual limits and also to give yourself permission to stay three piano lessons ahead of the people you are writing for ;-) .  As we all know, sometimes I don’t even succeed at that ;-)

But all of this will be bad advice if you don’t write well. Now not everyone’s standard of writing is the same – there are people who hate me because I’m wordy or whatever.  There are people who love writers I find totally unbearable.  But you have to write in a way that at least some people find endearing.  And this is a harder proposition.  When people ask me how to become a better writer, that’s an easier question for me to answer.

The mechanisms for improving your writing are to do a lot of work.  First of all, you have to read a lot – and a lot of good writing. It helps if you start when you are very small, and it also helps if you read a lot of different genres and styles and periods of writing – don’t get fixated on modern stuff, or say “I don’t like poetry or science writing.”  The best way to become a writer is to be the kind of person who reads the cereal box if that’s the only thing around, but who mostly makes sure that they have a book *all the time* that is not a cereal box. 

I also recommend that you *not* only read in your field – there’s a tendency when you specialize to specialize your reading too – after all, there’s so much to learn, so much to gain. But some of the best things you’ll ever learn come in places you’d never expect them – that explanation in a novel that suddenly makes things fall into place, that random quotation in a different context that is perfect to your thought, that new idea that makes  you see everything differently.  So don’t just read one kind of thing – and don’t disdain fields that seem alien to you – you might not have imagined yourself ever reading military history or icelandic poetry, but there’s a lot to learn there, maybe more than you think.  The best writers I know read widely, quote widely and are influenced by a lot more things than most of us know.

The other requirement is that you write a lot – but not in your room by yourself – or at least, you can’t learn to write all by yourself all the time.  You need to get your ass kicked a lot by people who will tell you what is wrong with your thinking and articulation.  And again, my experience here is pretty unusual.   I went to graduate school in English literature for some years, and would turn in lengthy papers that had to be produced fairly quickly (often much more quickly than the *had* to be done, since I was a terrible procrastinator), and get back a lot of commentary.  Often the paper then had to be rewritten.  Do this 30 or 40 times over the years, with 30 or 40 10-50 page papers and you get better – or just sick of doing things over.  I also had to learn to *teach* writing – and while they say that those who can’t do, teach, well, it is easier to teach writing if you sort of know how ;-)

For those who don’t have this, and who are not already natural writers you need a system in which you write a lot and get a lot of peer review (and criticism from people who are not your peers, but know a lot more than you do).  My second schooling in this was on the internet – I found the really good internet groups on peak oil, climate change and simple living, and I hung out there – on Running on Empty 2 and 3, Energy Bulletin, Real Climate,  at Homesteading Today, and at a host of other sites, and I read people’s ideas, and thought about them, and asked questions, or argued.

And the good thing about the internet is that people will tell you what they think.  You need a much thicker skin here than in academia - I think people who start complaining that other people aren’t nice to them won’t be able to get that kind of an education.  But I think it is more useful than all the warm fuzzy writer’s workshops in the world, where people will praise your good intentions, and deliver limited constructive criticism along with undeserved praise (this isn’t to say there aren’t good writing workshops, but they are hard to find).  On the internet, if you listen to the right people, you won’t get anything you don’t deserve.

And what I got was a great education in the material – if I made a mistake about a scientific concept, or expressed myself poorly, I’d have to pay the price.  People kindly corrected, and well, they did it unkindly too.  They mostly kindly answered my questions – and I began to track who knew what they were talking about and how thoughtful they were.  So when I did have a question I was too embarassed to ask on the internet, or didn’t understand a concept, or needed help getting started for someone, I could email.  And often I got directed to things I hadn’t seen and people I hadn’t known existed.  There are a lot of really knowledgeable people out there in each community who generously share that knowledge.

I’m not really sure how to explain, though, the most important stuff about going through internet bootcamp, which is how to sort out the stuff thats nuts, or pointless.  That, at least for me, is mostly about instinct (and I’m sure I’m wrong plenty).  That is, it is perfectly possible to get really bad advice, or caught up with people who are so invested in one theory that they can’t offer you a balanced perspective, and knowing when you’ve run into them is hard.  Its like the old comment about pornography “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”  Honing your bullshit detector is an important part of the process.

I didn’t consciously set out to do a course of study before I began promulgating my own thoughts, but that’s pretty much what I did.  I started reading forums on homesteading, women’s issue, parenting and environmental issues back in the late 1990s, and reading peak oil material going back to around 2002 (I knew about peak oil before that, because of a college professor of mine, but hadn’t looked on the net).  I read for a while before I posted, and asked questions before I spouted answers (mostly), and I’m sure I made a major ass of myself a number of times.  But it was several years later before I felt sure enough about my material to really go ahead and write about it – I didn’t start blogging until 2005.

That’s about the sum of my writing advice – read a lot, write a lot, and get a lot of feedback, preferrably honest feedback.  The only other thing that I think helps me with the writing is something I doubt could be replicated – and that may be totally unique to me.  I was past 30 before I realized that there was something unusual about the way I see writing – quite literally.

As far as I can tell, I have a mild form of synesthesia, in which written language appears to me as color and texture.  People talk about books that are dark or use other language of color and form to describe books – I actually experience them that way.  I would dislike a book or a writer because I thought their language was too grey and too “gritty” or because I disliked the pattern of their language – but it wasn’t a metaphor.  But I honestly didn’t realize that this wasn’t normal – I figured everyone saw it this way.  And it was until my 20s that I realized that if I like “soft blue, deeply textured” writing, or writing in a specific kind of texture and pattern, that if I reproduced it, if I made my own words feel like the colors and patterns I liked, that other people might find them likeable too.  I figured this out in college – that my goal wasn’t to imitate the heavy, darkened and convoluted academic writing that I often encountered, it was to write brighter, more pleasingly textured words with the same heavier ideas made clearer.  It was a revelation, and it made writing immeasurably easier for me. 

It is hard to explain to somebody who doesn’t see the world this way – I think of it as a gift – I can decide that I want my writing to sound “purplish” today and do that  - and the mood and the ideas that go with it follow, in some degree – it is circular – the words make the color, but the color makes the words right.   That’s as close as I can come to describing something deeply internal.   I don’t think you need this to write – other people who are far better writers than I don’t have it.  But I think writing does need to become intuitive in some way – this is mine.  Other people experience it differently -

A lot of developing an intuitive, automatic grasp of something is just repetition.  You know this because the first time you picked up a brick and mortar, a pair of knitting needles, a cleaver it felt weird.  You watched someone else do it, with smoothness and ease, and wondered in frustration at yourself why you were working so slowly and painfully. 

And in a long time or a short time, you became competent, and then good – able to use your tools the way other people you admired use theirs.  They become an extension of your hands, and you can’t even recapture that sense of awkwardness and slowness, or figure out why you made so many mistakes.  That’s all that writing is – I still have plenty of days when I write 5 drafts and delete them all, or think everything I did sucked.  But the keyboard and the words have, through long, long experience, lots of reading, lots of practice become extension of my hand and eye. 

I don’t know any way to get to be a writer other than reading and writing. I don’t know any other way to be a good writer than narrowing the odds, so that you swing and miss your first 10,000 times in a place where it doesn’t do any harm to your reputation, so that when you need to hit the sweet spot more than occasionally, you’ve lowered the odds.  And I know nothing about becoming famous at all ;-) .