The Joy of Writing, How to Lose It and How to Get It Back

First of all, I’d like to share a couple of promotions, because who doesn’t love free or cheap books?

The first of those promotion is the Mirth & Mischief sale at Double-Cross Lit, where you can get fifteen e-books, including one of mine, in two genres, thriller and humor, all for 99 cents.

I also have a book in the Out of this World Romance giveaway at StoryOrigins, where you can get 32 different science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romance e-books for free, if you sign up for the author’s newsletter (Don’t worry, you can unsubscribe later). So if you like a bit of romance with your SFF and/or if you’ve always wanted to try my In Love and War space opera romance series, check it out!

And now the commercial break is over, let’s get to the meat of this post. Regular readers of this blog may know that I’m a big fan of Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her Business Musings series of writing and business advice. Indeed, it was Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith who persuaded me to give self-publishing a try, because if those two respected figures in the SFF genre said it was okay to self-publish, then it probably was.

Two weeks ago (yes, I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but then stuff happened and other topics demanded to be written about), Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted an entry in her Business Musings series about the fun of writing, how easy it is to lose it and how to recover it.

This post resonated with me, because my experiences have been similar. I’ve also been making up and telling stories for as long as I can remember and eventually started writing them down. Unlike Kris Rusch, I didn’t start writing seriously, until I was in my teens, but there are certainly earlier story attempts buried somewhere in my parents’ attic. And of course, I loved it when we were actually allowed to write stories in school, which happened all too rarely, because in 1980s West Germany writing assignments even in elementary school usually meant “Read this (usually totally boring) story and write a retelling” (My attempts to improve on the inevitably dull stories to make them better were not appreciated) or at best “Write about an exciting experience you had” (But not too exciting, because appearances of aliens, unicorns, dragons etc… were not appreciated either – realism was the order of the day).

Any kind of fiction writing vanished from the syllabi of German classes altogether around sixth or seventh grade, but I continued making up and writing stories, though I wasn’t quite clear about which medium to use to tell my stories at first and so my early attempts include the screenplays plus some drawings for two animated movies (I had seen a documentary about stop motion animation and wanted to try that, not knowing what a huge workload it is) as well as an opera libretto complete with music. I can still hum some tunes from that one. Eventually, I started writing science fiction and switched to English, because all the science fiction I read except Perry Rhodan was in English, too.

In university, I took every creative writing class I could, including the poetry classes, and even was on the staff of the English language literature magazine of the university. I learned a lot, even though my plot-heavy SFF or crime fiction stories didn’t really fit into a literary culture that valued poetically written vignettes about doomed love stories between exchange students (those were so common, I nicknamed the genre “tragic Erasmus romance”), couples having breakfast, while the cracks of their relationships were exposed, women baking cookies and reminiscing about their grandmothers or – this is one was so awful I remember it twenty years later – a fly musing about art history, while observing a couple’s troubled relationship breaking up. I pointed out that regular domestic flies live maybe a month, that their brains don’t even remotely work like ours and that I really couldn’t imagine one of them musing about art history, but my objections were shot down. Quite a few of my stories have their origin in something I wrote for a university creative writing class, though only two stories of mine were ever published in the university literature magazine – all other publications I had there were poems.

But what really resonated with me about Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s post were her early experiences with the world of SFF writing. Here is a quote:

I wanted to be published, though, so I went to Clarion to learn how to become a published fiction writer. I learned a few things, but mostly how to critique stories. I also learned that much of what I loved was “garbage” and I “shouldn’t waste my time at it.”

So I wrote a lot of it in secret. Those romances—fuggetaboutit. That space opera—keep it in a drawer.

I learned that the things I loved the most were old, and hackneyed, and Not Worth My Time.

Not just from Clarion, but from the entire sf culture around me. I had gotten into sf because I loved Star Trek and Star Wars, and I thought that was science fiction. Whoops, I was wrong. But sf did have a lot of short fiction markets, and I loved writing short stories with plots, not the slice-of-life vignettes that passed for short stories in the mainstream markets in the 1980s. Besides, those slice-of-life stories had to be “muscular” (meaning “masculine” of a certain macho, emotionless type), and I didn’t do “muscular.” At least, not with men as the main character. If I wrote “muscular,” the main character was female, and really, who wanted to read that?

(Kris raises a cautious hand. Me. I want to read that.)

Getting into the world of professional fiction writing, even thirty years ago, was all about the don’ts and never about the do. And slowly the fun leached from my writing.

Unlike Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I never went to Clarion. I probably could have scraped the money for the workshop itself together, but since Clarion only happens in the US (and for a while in Australia), I’d have to spend a lot of money on plane tickets, car rentals, etc… in addition to the workshop fees and that just wasn’t happening. But nonetheless, her experiences remind me very much of mine, once I got on the internet and found the online SFF community.

Up to then, I’d been reading and writing SFF mostly in isolation. I had a decent collection of SFF non-fiction (that’s probably why I feel so strongly that the Best Related Work category at the Hugos is for genre-related non-fiction), including a copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which I used as a guide to find more books and authors to read, and I also grabbed whatever SFF magazine I came across, usually media mags like Starlog, SFX, Cinefantastique or Famous Monsters of Filmland, usually backissues, because new issues were horrenduously expensive. Fom these sources, I compiled lists of authors, books and movies to check out. But mostly, my method of finding books and authors to read was browsing the limited foreign language shelves at the bookstore and buying whatever looked interesting. That method served me well, too, because I found a lot of books and authors I enjoyed.

But once I got on the internet and found the online SFF community, I realised that I had been reading the wrong books all those years. I eagerly sought out the books that were recommended as the ones to read and found that I disliked approximately ninety percent of them. As for writing, the stories I wanted to tell were old-fashioned, hackneyed, scientifically illiterate and not worth bothering with. Mind you, this was the turn of the millennium, the time of singularity fiction, New British Space Opera, the New Weird, mundane science fiction and the early stirrings of grimdark fantasy, which didn’t even have a name yet or at least not the name by which it would eventually become known. And none of those genres and trends were even remotely what I wrote or liked to read. I did write a parody of the New Weird type stories overburdened with tortured metaphors that were popular around the time. It will probably never see publication, at the time because the joke was too on target (I was pretty sure editors wouldn’t appreciate me making fun of then highly regarded stories and authors) and now because its time has passed.

I did send out a submissions to magazines, quite a few of which don’t exist anymore, but I self-rejected stories more often than I sent them out (“It’s old-fashioned and besides, their submission guidelines say that they don’t want stories about X”). The reactions I got – form rejections or a complete black hole – weren’t encouraging either. Besides, in those days submissions were still mostly by snail mail, which was very expensive, when you lived outside the US and had to bother with international reply coupons (oh, how I hated the damned things), too.

Eventually, I concluded that I simply had a horrible taste in SFF and was obviously too stupid to write it, especially when scientific articles completely failed to inspire story ideas in me, even though this was supposedly how all the “real SF authors wrote”. In short, the atmosphere in the SFF community in the early 2000s completely destroyed my joy in both writing and reading the genre.

I turned to other genres, read and wrote mysteries and crime fiction (which unfortunately have a tiny short fiction market in the English speaking world), rediscovered romance after a brief and unsatisfying brush with the genre during the bodiceripper days and eventually found a few obscure magazines, most of them long defunct, that actually liked my old-fashioned and hackneyed stories like the first few Silencer adventures (including Flying Bombs which had been rejected by a then fairly high profile SFF anthology, even though it perfectly fit what they were looking for).

I eventually came back to reading SFF via urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which reignited my love for the genre. I also found science fiction romance and though much of it didn’t get the worldbuilding versus romance balance right, the books that did were so worth it. But even though I was reading SFF again, I wasn’t writing it, because I still had that voice in my had that told me that I’d never be a real SFF writer, because my taste in SFF was horrible and besides I was too stupid to get inspiration from science articles.

So I tried my hand at romance, which was a big market and welcoming community. But SFF elements kept creeping in (not too mention that my writing is too gritty for the tame US romance market) and so my attempt at a regency romance turned into a curious regency steampunk hybrid complete with airships and even chemical weapons. I should probably revise and publish that one some day, since it had potential. Meanwhile, my attempt at a contemporary romance not only contained all sorts of no-nos such as swearing and people having sex, while one of them was theoretically in a relationship with someone else, but also had the characters have long, geeky conversations about Doctor Who and Star Wars. Even the title was (and is) unpublishable, since you cannot use the f-word in a book title (it was supposed to be called “Fuckbuddies”). Still, I wanted to write a contemporary romance that actually felt contemporary and was about people I recognised and that’s what I did. I’m not sure if that thing is salvagable at all, though I’m still glad I wrote it, because it taught a lot about writing emotional scenes and also about describing life with warts and everything.

When self-publishing suddenly became a viable alternative, it also brought the joy of writing back, because suddenly every story idea was potentially viable and no longer subject to “But is there a market for this?” considerations. Who cares if there is no established market for this story, I’ll simply make my own. But nonetheless, I didn’t get back to writing science fiction, even though it was my first and best love, because I still had that voice in my head that told me, “You can’t do that in science fiction.” Until I chanced to read the Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green, where Green basically threw everything (vampires, werewolves, flying castles, superpowers, a whole planet of homicidal toys, 80-page scenes of political debates at court, etc…) and the kitchen sink, too, in, just because he felt like it. And I thought, “If he can do it, then why the hell can’t I?” So I started writing exactly the sort of space opera I really wanted to write and so Shattered Empire (to which I should really get back some time) and In Love and War were born.

Unfortunately, within the space of a few years, the whole climate of indie publishing changed from “We can write whatever we want, hear us roar” to a “Write to market and strictly adhere to the genre tropes readers demand” ethos that is much more restrictive than traditional publishing ever was. And so we get entire categories in the Kindle store that are dominated by cookie cutter books, because that’s what the market supposedly wants. It’s a depressing development, especially considering that “freedom to tell the stories we want” was one of the main reasons writers went indie in the first place.

Would I sell more, if I stuck to one genre, one series and wrote the sort of thing that the “market” a.k.a. American Kindle Unlimited subscribers apparently wants? Probably. But I don’t particularly want to write about manly space marines killing evil insectoid aliens in space or young men who get sucked into videogames, where they become the biggest Gary Stu ever and all the women want to have sex with them. Even if I try to write that sort of story – A Mess of Arms and Legs and Limbs was my attempt at a “pew, pew, let’s kill all the aliens” story – it usually turns out quite different from what the market supposedly wants.

Therefore, Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s post about the joy of writing is important for both indies and traditionally published authors. Because sadly, it’s all too easy to lose the joy of writing and forget why it was fun in the first place.

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