I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the day I wrote my first short story. My sister (I think) has a book I wrote and illustrated when I was in grade school. I remember doing that project because I was so excited that I could finally use my writing as a class assignment.
I had that feeling several times in grade school. We had a teacher, whose name I still can’t remember (still, because my friend Stuart, whom I’ve known since we were eight, told me her name a few months ago, and yet again, the name has slipped out of my brain), who let us write fiction every Friday. I wasn’t that fond of her—she made us diagram sentences too and she was old-school harsh (she retired that year, at age 65—so she was born just after the turn of the previous century)—but I loved, loved, loved free writing day.
I always wrote fiction when given the chance. I wrote a play in the fourth grade, and had it performed on stage. (Yeah, I went to one of those schools). That was a trip. And my best friend and I spent most of our seventh grade year writing a collaborative Star Trek novel in our green and pink shared notebook. That doesn’t even count the fanfic novel I was writing at home.
That novel was a gothic, and featured my pre-teen crush, and no, I’m not going to say more than that, only that I really, really, really would love to get the only existing copy of that novel out of my sister’s hands. (I sent it to her, in a crazy bid to curry her favor. It didn’t work. I should’ve sent it to my other sister, the one who taught me how to read.)
Seriously. I know that illustrated book was not the first story I ever wrote. Nor was that play performed in isolation. The gothic novel was the first novel I ever finished, not the first one I started.
Whenever I got the chance, I wrote down stories. I have vivid memories of summers spent in beach towels in the yards of various friends—my friends reading, and me madly scrawling something on yellow legal pads.
I wrote because I had to. I also wrote because it was fun.
I got in trouble for telling stories out loud. I told my nephew (who was four years younger than me) a ghost story when I was maybe seven and he was maybe three, and he burst into tears, and I was told (emphatically, by very angry adults) never to do that again. So oral storytelling was out, but written storytelling? Fun, fun, fun, fun.
I took creative writing classes in college, even though I wasn’t an English major. I took those classes so that I had an excuse to write while I was in college. I was already writing and selling nonfiction, and working weird jobs to make money (as one does in college), and I had so little time. But I knew I needed to make writing a priority and what better way to do that than to have an assignment to write.
Except that the dang profs only assigned one or two stories per semester. My buddy Kevin J. Anderson and I strove for one per week. (The profs weren’t that appreciative, let me tell you.)
Writing = fun.
Fiction writing = loads of fun.
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.
Kinda. Because I kept writing the “garbage.” I just didn’t try to publish it, early on anyway. And then I got really angry when a writer-reviewer friend of mine told me my first published novel, a high fantasy called The White Mists of Power, was going to ruin the career I had carefully built up with my short stories.
No one will ever take you seriously again, he said.
I was stunned. And then I got mad. Because, you see, by then, his “serious” writing career was over. He hadn’t written anything in about eight years.
I didn’t call bullshit, not out loud, because I was…I don’t know…too stunned? Still soaking up learning? Trying to figure out if he actually spoke truth?
All I know was that “advice” was the moment I decided that everyone—and I do mean everyone—was full of shit when they told me what I should write. Because I knew the bottom line:
If I didn’t love what I wrote, then I wouldn’t write any more.
Period. End of story.
And writing was something I’d been doing as long as I could remember.
So I gathered up pen names and I forced agents to market books they thought were crap, and whoa! imagine their surprise when those books sold. When I finally realized that agents were harmful rather than helpful, I sold the books to traditional publishers myself, just like I sold the short stories that I wrote. I tried every genre that I loved, and I love most genres.
It’s not easy. I’m still kicking people out of my office, telling them that their opinions don’t matter.
Sometimes, they express those opinions as fact: You won’t sell as many books if you don’t…
Which is the modern equivalent of No one will ever take you seriously again.
And you know, sometimes those facts are correct. I should stay in the same genre (until that genre goes bust, and then what will I do?). I should write in the same series (and wow, would I be bored). I should write novels of 40-50K so that I can release more of them (but what if the story goes longer?). I should write under one name (but what about all of my other established pen names?)
I should, I should, I should.
Jesus, if I wanted to live in an “I-should” world, I’d get a day job. I’d do something with a big salary and set hours, and then I could come home and do what I wanted.
Which is…oh, crap…write fiction.
So never mind.
For the past month, writers have come to me over and over and over again, saying that they can’t get all the criticism out of their heads. Or worrying that they aren’t marketing enough or writing fast enough or getting enough reviews or making enough money or…or…or…
And the real thing they’re saying, what they really mean is, writing isn’t fun anymore. They don’t like it, this thing that they used to love.
I get it. I really do.
I started to hate writing when I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction because “everyone” expected something of me. My reviews would start with “despite the fact that she edits the premiere literary magazine in the field…” and go downhill from there.
I managed to cure that one for a few years by writing tie-in novels, which were, really, fanfic, and therefore, by definition, couldn’t be “good.”
But that only worked so long, and writing tie-ins meant that yet another voice entered the fray—the licensors, who were the guardians of the media property, who would say that such n so character would never do that, even though he had done it on a show not two weeks before.
So that worked until it didn’t. I quit F&SF, and wrote what I wanted, which was sooooo freeing, and then my then-agent made me cry by calling it garbage. I wish I could say I fired her. I didn’t do that immediately, but I did pull the book and sat on it for years. Sigh.
It took a while to make writing fun again. I had to go back to the reasons why it became fun. I wrote books for me, and marketed them.
That was getting tougher and tougher, not because I had fired my agents (that actually made sales easier) but because the market had tightened. I was selling books, but only in very prescribed markets, which was hard to maintain.
Short fiction allowed me to play, though. And I did. Constantly challenging myself to try this or experiment with that.
And then the Kindle changed everything. And all of my projects returned to the forefront of my brain, along with the write-me! attitude that goes with it.
They returned as my health cratered, so I had less time. But more fun.
Although to this day, I still have to kick people out of my office. But these people aren’t trying to make me into something I don’t want to be. These people are encouraging me. They liked one of the free short stories on Free Fiction Monday, so they want more in that world. (Believe me, I do too). They like this series and want to know where the next book is (in my head at the moment. I promise I’ll set it free as soon as I can). They like that style of novel. Am I going to write more like it? (I sure as hell hope so.)
That, combined with the business side of things, including the Amazon algorithms that reward rapid publication, remind me that the faster I write, the more successful I’ll be.
Which is all any of this is.
I want to write faster. I want to write more. I keep thinking about a short story Annie Reed wrote for the anthology workshop, a story which is upcoming in a special issue of Pulphouse. The story is titled “Paintings of Cats By Mice,” and she mentions in passing an artist who paints with both hands. (Then she told me that she actually saw someone do that.)
The story is brilliant on its face, but that painting with both hands thing sticks in my head. I want to write with both hands, and by that I mean, I want to type one story with one hand while typing another story with the other hand, just so I can get all this material out of my head and onto the page.
I know that’s not what the both-hands artist does. He paints with both hands on one painting, but jeez, I’d love to do it a different way.
And that’s how I know I’m in a frenzy of worry and concern about Getting My Writing Done, which is only one step from Getting My Writing Done Right, which isn’t far from Am I Writing What I Should Be which is only a half step off Is My Writing Good Enough which isn’t far from I Should Probably Quit Because My Writing Sucks.
All of the fun got leached out of the most fun thing in the world.
Then I have to painstakingly rebuild the fun, and usually that means going back to the beginning, which I can’t really remember, that very first story, committed to paper. Those summer afternoons in the hot Wisconsin sun, the ground bumpy and uncomfortable beneath the thin towel, the glass of soda sweating in the humidity, the scratch of a pen as I scrawl a story as fast as I can.
Sometimes those stories were fanfic. Mostly they were scenes or images or ideas, with no real structure.
Always, they were fun.
Writers ask me all the time how they can reclaim the fun. I don’t know really. They have to go back to what made them fall in love with writing as a form of expression and shut out all the noise that gets in the way of that love and write whatever the hell they want, as fast as they want to write it (or as slow) using whatever method they are the most comfortable with.
Sometimes, writers tell me writing was never fun. And I want to ask why they’re doing it then. Because writing should be fun. There’s a lot of not-fun things to do in the world that are much easier than writing.
To those writers, move on. Do something else. Find your joy.
For the rest of us, those who have listened to too many gurus or who feel like we won’t be taken seriously if… or who aren’t selling up to snuff or whatever that horrid voice in their head is browbeating them with… we need to clear out the noise, and find the fun again.
Even if it’s on a project that will never see the light of day.
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“Business Musings: Fun,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Kenishirotie.