Jenny: Write Hard, Die Sooner

In the early 80’s, the Anchorage Daily News adopted the slogan “Write hard, die free” with this logo:









Then an Alaskan designer, William Spear, redesigned the logo which became this ubiquitous pin:









I have one of those somewhere.  I think it’s stuck to a bulletin board.  I loved the way it looked–nothing better than a badass keyboard–but I could never really connect with it.    I can see how this is apropos for a journalist–write the hard stuff and keep us all free–but for fiction writers, it’s an invitation to die crazy and alone and early.  “Write hard”  doesn’t necessarily mean good storytelling.  And for me, it definitely means a mental breakdown.

I’m working on two books now, one that failed back in 2004 (the only one my editor has ever rejected and rightfully so) and one that’s the first in a series that was due three years ago.  Yeah, three years.  I’m having problems.  So I keep flinging myself at both books, and I’m pretty sure I know now how to fix them rationally–I’ve worked out the structure and motivation problems–but I’m having a hell of time getting IN to them, becoming part of them.

It’s always been hard, that melding with the book, getting to the place where the world of the story is more real than the real world, but I think it’s even harder now because I’m so desperate.  My editor, who is beyond great, is not pushing me in the least, she has the patience of a saint, but I’m running out of money–turns out they don’t pay you if you don’t publish anything–and beyond that, I want these books done.   I know how the stories go, why can’t I finish them???

I remember reading a sex advice column once where the writer said, “If something isn’t working, it’s not going to work any better if you do it harder.”  That struck me as very true about sex then, and it strikes me as very true about writing now.  Desperation is not a spur to good fiction.  I think if I can get this self-imposed “Write Hard” crap out of my mind (although it does go nicely with the mind mold) and just let go so the girls in the basement can jumpstart the voices in my head, I’ll be fine.

Never write for a living.  It screws with your head big time.  And definitely don’t Write Hard and Die Free.  Write Free and Die Hard, that’s what I say.


Edited to Add At Krissie’s Request:

49 thoughts on “Jenny: Write Hard, Die Sooner

  1. The girls in the basement really want to live in your cottage so you know they’re eager to help you finish your books.

    This might be simplistic but have you tried just sitting at the computer and surrendering to the process? Take a deep breath and actually say, on the exhale, “I’m letting go.” Breathe in again and on the exhale tell the girls, “it’s in your hands. Go for it.”

    I’ve not tried it with writing but this has worked for me when I’ve had to stop beating my head against the wall on other stuff.

  2. Well, I’ve got no really good writerly advice not being one myself, but it sounds like you are moving into really new territory with your writing and maybe its like moving to a different part of the country or something. It just takes a while to get comfortable there. Consider going to BoucherCon this year – it’s in Cleveland, so not too far – a different writer atmosphere might help.

  3. JulieB says:

    I agree. This is a new summit. I don’t think writing faster is going to help. Hopefully, for the series, PopD will help the girls find the spark. I don’t remember what the theme of the other book is, but as one of your readers and students, I look forward to when that will be back in play. I always come away with a good thought or lesson when you post about writing.

  4. A writer that explains writing in terms of sex. And people are surprised you’re my favourite author? Huh.

    Go back to why these characters talked to you in the first place. What’s so special about them that their stories needed to be told. And why did they come talking to you and not SEP or somebody? You must have something special. Trust in that.

    Thanks to everyone sending me hugs. As I told the Betties, I’m at 65 to 72 on the GAF (DSM) so it’s not great but it’s not awful.

  5. Danged iPad. I wasn’t finished. The thing is, we can get stuck in thinking things have to be the way they’ve always been. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you could experiment with other ways of writing, too, along with playing with reinventing other things.

  6. When I got like this over this past year — and I did, first time in years I went months without writing — I had to ask my own girls in the basement what it was about the book that they loved. It took a while for them to answer; I’d been spoonfeeding them medicine (a little structure issues here, a little motivation issues there) and expecting them to hop up and be well, fast, dammit, and run a marathon and place first, while juggling. But once I focused on what it was they / I loved about the story, the passion came back. Oh, it wasn’t some big honking wave of passion at first; I don’t think the girls trusted me anymore not to bite their heads off or hold guns to their backs… but it ebbed back, bit by bit, until making that final pass through the book is something I want to do more than all of the other stuff that I enjoy.

    I know you know all of that. I haven’t written nearly as many books as you have. [If you count screenplays, I’m not that far behind, but they are such a bastardized form, their own masochistic torture, it’s a wonder I came out of that world knowing how to string two coherent thoughts together at all.]

    But, if we were sitting over diet cokes and some rehab-approved junk food (oh, who am I kidding, brownies), I’d ask you what do you love about the books?

  7. Excellent question. I’m not sure.

    One thing I noticed on the old book, though, was the collage. Hmmm. Maybe that’s an Argh post. I need one anyway.

  8. I know exactly what you mean. I just finished the last revision on the last book of a trilogy that I’ve been working on for five years. And so was faced with coming up with something for my agent to sell. I had a trilogy idea from ten years ago that I love, and a stand-alone idea that I also really love. I flopped around (pretty literally) for weeks because I wasn’t quite sure about either of them, but I really really have to sell a new project, and would my readers like these new ideas and why was I bothering because I’d never have another idea as good and as fun as my current books. My career was over. I had no backup career. I was starting to get a bit white-knuckled–just couldn’t decide.

    Then a phrase came into my head, vaguely related to books I’d read as a kid, and some other stuff floated in, and then a new project came to me. One that I think will sell and be fun to write and will please my readers.

    And that’s the excitement that was lacking before. I still love those two earlier ideas and might work on them someday. But today, this new idea is what has ignited, and suddenly I feel like a writer again and am remembering all the fun, exciting things about creating worlds and characters. My first two ideas were interesting writing challenges that I’m sure would be thrilling structurally and stylistically. But this new idea is thrilling in the story I get to tell.

    Can you find what was thrilling about your earlier projects? Or should you set them aside and see if another idea floats into your world? Writing is a bit like marriage–it takes work, but it shouldn’t feel like unending hard work. And it should be fun and exciting and new sometimes.

  9. One thing that helps me is staying in the moment. Writing everyday, sometimes as little as 200 words. It reminds me of the story, keeps it in the forefront as STORY, not theory. It can be dangerous to keep showing up and writing lousy words (eg the second time I did NANOWRIMO) but I’ve also written some of my favorite books that way. Just writing the number of words per day on a calendar and watching them pile up. And if it’s only a page or two it’s easy enough to scrap before you go off in a bad direction.
    We most definitely need a badge that says “WRITE FREE AND DIE HARD.” Damn, those are words to live by.
    We (and by we I mean you) need to design a logo with that. One more thing to keep you from writing.

  10. Done. It’s up in the post. Normally Lani would come in and clean it up, but this one’s just for fun, not part of the site, so I think I can get away with it.

  11. Jenny,
    I was thinking that, too. If you’ve been struggling for three years with this one book and even longer with the other one… do you really want to make yourself try to finish either one?

    Is there no new project you’d like to try? Maybe something that doesn’t come with all that baggage? Anything that sounds fun?

    Because it sounds like torture to me, to try to make myself finish something that has been so hard for so long.

  12. Okay. so, I just came here from Krissie’s post where I admitted to sometimes being a Ms. Fix It. a problem. yummy. Rubbing my hands together with glee.

    I’m not a published author, but I write a manuscript or two a year and have done so for years. Whenever I’ve decided to rewrite something from the past I’ve been stuck. It finally hit me that my mindset was different back then. What I felt passionate about in the story, when writing it five or six years ago, had changed in me. It always had to do with the heroine. I’d grown. She’d stayed the same. She was as stale as week old bread, and probably a bit moldy.

    When I realized this I concentrated on changing some of the internal motivations of the heroine and before I realized it I was back in there writing a better story for today.

  13. I have no writing advice because I’m only finishing my first book. I did, however, just make a promise to myself to sit and write for one hour a day–actually Monday to Friday, because my weekends are crazy. I suck at word count promises, hence no NaNoWriMo, but I figured I could sit and not just blog. So, I’m on Day Three of that, and I haven’t failed yet! One day at a time.

    It’s interesting to me that you remember liking the collage. I haven’t followed your blog for long (a year maybe) but I am always so impressed by your art-the collages, the crocheted hats (they’re not knit, right?), even the cakes! I actually think of you as an artist who writes. Yes, writing is an art, but I think you’re a gifted multi-dimensional artist. I would love to read more of your books, but holy cow, I think you could sell almost anything you create! I know you think it’s exploitation to offer your goods (that sounds a bit dirty), okay, wares to your readers/fans, but maybe you could consider that they’re worthy of being shared?

    I know it won’t pay the bills, but maybe you need to stretch your other creative muscles for a bit to find out if you miss the writing. And that was my long way of saying you’re awesome, and I want you to be happy.

    Write free, die hard!

  14. Julia says:

    Writing free, for me, requires almost NO life chaos. Purchasing real estate is enough to ruin my buzz for months. Yesterday I had to get something notarized, copied and Fedexed and I practically got the vapors. So, no writing advice here, just acknowledgement that life’s hard enough, writing has to be a little fun. I’ll wait forever for your next great book. No need to hurry on my account!

  15. For the past couple of years I’ve been writing academic papers, not fiction (not that I ever did write much fiction). So it’s not exactly the same, but I’ve definitely been in that place where you practically dread sitting down at the keyboard because the work is so fucked up. (can we use profanity at reFab? feel free to edit) It’s like dragging a dog into the vet’s office with their feet splayed out in front of them– I guess you don’t have to do that with your dogs, since they’re small, but I’ve done it with our large dogs several times. I digress. Anyway, I can’t believe I’m thinking of giving either of you writing advice, but if you’re determined to finish them, you just have to sit down and gut it out. That’s all. I just went through this three weeks ago with a paper on H.D. for a modern poetry class. It was horrible. But you know what? the paper turned out pretty well, in spite of how horrible the process was. You can do this.

  16. Sharon Bates says:

    I agree with an earlier person on this post. If you have struggled for several years on the 2 books and can’t seem to finish, maybe you should try something else. You know what I would be interested in seeing and reading is a book about the remodeling of the new home. This could be complete with drawings, photos, plans, collages and, of course, thoughts and writings by YOU. We all know that you are multi-talented and your artistic and writing abilities would make this a fun and interesting book. The same time you are “re-habbing” the home, you are “re-habbing yourself. Let the reader see those lists of paint colors for the kitchen and wallpaper options for the bedroom!I know how time consuming and mind consuming a home remodel can be but I would love to read YOUR thoughts and see YOUR creative ideas in print on the subject as you deal with all the decisions, people and items that it takes to build a home. I would like to hear not only your thoughts on this proposal but other readers as well!

  17. JulieB says:

    I’ve found that too. Sometimes, when I’ve stopped for various reasons, (life, work, I’ve had to learn some aspect of writing that wasn’t working), I’ve gone back and realized my character was no longer the person she was when I started the story. 😉

  18. JulieB says:

    I think that’s why the “Write hard, die free” motto worked for the newspaper, but not necessarily for fiction. I could do that when I was a journalist. I had the information I needed, I just needed to sift, sort, process and write. I got pretty fast and worked on deadline. Switching to fiction made me very impatient with myself – and it literally took years to get past – because I couldn’t create the stories I wanted at the pace I expected. I could see things weren’t right, but I had a lot to learn, and a lot more to let go in terms of control before I could re-access my creative side.

  19. Cielkaye says:

    Jenny, not sure if I am just being dumb here, but is it just these two books that you can’t get past, or do you find yourself unable to write books at all at the moment? Dumb again, but if it is the former, is it possible to just write something fresh and let your gorgeous new home be your muse?

  20. Write Free Die Hard – I like that. It is a good thing I don’t write for a living. Because sometimes I lose track of a story for a long time and don’t write anything for days. I’m trying to commit myself right now to starting a new post-a-week-on-my-website novel & the story just isn’t completely gelling.
    And, of course, Krissie mentions her sister’s name, Taffy – and a whole new story starts in my head.
    Big sigh.

  21. Is there a story that’s getting in your way that you’d rather be telling? This post is somewhat ironically timed and phrased for me, because I commented to a previous post earlier in the day, hit Submit, and thought, really, who are you to be telling a bestselling author that she needs to have more fun writing? Maybe it’s not fun. But I’m sitting next to my best friend’s 8 year old son, while she sleeps on the other side of us, and she’s busy doing one of the two things in your metaphor (hint, writing and sleeping aren’t all that compatible) and that’s giving me a lot of mmm, fervency, I gusss, in my willingness to tell other people what to do lately. So is there a story that you’d rather be telling? Maybe you should write that one instead and not care if its marketable or what your audience wants or whatever it is thats pushing you to write things that don’t interest you. Maybe you need to find a way to set yourself free. If you only had six months left, would you be writing one of those two stories or would you be writing something entirely different? (You actually probably wouldn’t be writing at all, but maybe it’s some gorgeously humane illness that just hits like a bolt of lightning on the last day of the six months instead of the horror show of cancer.) Excuse the typos, typing on an ipad is hard.

  22. I have a different problem at the moment. At least I think it’s a different problem – but maybe I’m fooling myself.

    It’s TIME. Y’all know I’ve got a pacel of kids, a full time job and an annoying husband. (Some of you might use a stronger word here, but I’m allowing myself to downplay that for the sake of my point.)(Not that my point is relevent to the discussion… but I won’t let that stop me.)

    But I used to be able to write despite all that other crap. I’d force myself to focus, either in the early morning or during down time at work. Now I’m thinking – shit I don’t know what I’m thinking. Am I avoiding the writing? I think about it all the time, and Lani gave me some great advice but how come I’m not acting on it?

    I used to have a perday word count that I worked toward. It at least kept me typing. But now? I don’t know. Obviously I don’t have any advice for Jenny, because my usual strategies aren’t working. But I am taking some days off work to write in the next couple of weeks. It’s so much easier to write when it’s quiet.

  23. Which would be excellent advice if doing my own thing was not financially unfeasible for me and a lot of other people.
    On the other hand, my career is awesome and I’m the luckiest writer on the face of the planet, so it’s time to cowboy up.

  24. It takes me about a year and a half to write a book from scratch if all goes well. Squalor on the River has a mortgage, so nope.

  25. Atomic Betty says:

    I don’t have any answers. I’m trying to drag myself back in to writing regularly. I’ve been getting a bit more consistent, so my next step is to play my soundtrack again while I try to get momentum going again. Maybe mix it up a little again. Maybe, I’d you have a soundtrack, listening to that or putting your collages up where you can contemplate them while you write? Anyway, good luck!

  26. Micki says:

    As a reader, let me tell you, don’t worry about pleasing your readers (-:. Please yourself, and the good stuff will follow. Sometimes we readers can tell when you’re faking it (-:. And don’t forget, you can always get new readers (and probably will). Finding a fun, passionate story is more of a rarity.

  27. Micki says:

    Could it be a standards problem? It *is* a new genre . . . if it’s better than your first romance novels, then you are doing pretty darn well. (Because the early ones I read were very good.) Even Agatha Christie had a curve . . . .

    Toni’s advice about remembering why you loved these books also sounds very good.

    You’ve got great elements: weddings, prodigal child returning home (non-repental mode), hot cops.

    Oh, and also it sounds like you are juggling three books in your head, which sounds like you are actually laying the groundwork for four and a half years of work, not one and a half. You may find that book two and three write themselves pretty fast, comparatively speaking.

    LOL, winter break, and now I’m fixing all the problems in the world. In my HEAD! I should go find Mitt Romney’s blog and give him some advice.

  28. Briana says:

    I want to chime in because I love your books and I love hearing about your process…But I really don’t have much to add.

    I do like the idea of re-connecting to the fun and joy in the stories is a good idea. Now that you’ve sorted out the structure issues, can you re-collage or modify or just immerse yourself in that world and the characters, without the pressure of getting X number of words down, but just for fun? And then see if the words come after that?

    I know that you’re stressed about this and I know that you’ve been feeling poorly for a while, so you feel like you haven’t accomplished *anything* but you were actually taking care of yourself, which is hard work. Now that it’s settled more, maybe a break before finishing these books is OK? (not a long one, just a little one)

    I’m having a similar –but not really at all– problem in that I’m trying to write but it’s an icky topic and I’m trying to do it without getting completely involved and enmeshed. I don’t want to wallow through the muck. But it’s hard to write it when I can’t make myself live there. Argh. 😉

  29. That sucks, Jenny. I hope you tear your way out of where you are, or your way into where you need to be, soon. You’re a great writer. It’s there. It’s just sulking.

    Hmm. Bribe it?

  30. I haven’t written any decent fiction in years — 20 of them, to be exact. But I write quickly and smoothly as a non-fic/tech writer. Perhaps this is my fiction problem. Great. Well, it’s not like my life has been challenging lately or anything. I’m sure I can fit this in, too. :/

  31. Being a multi-published author, being under contract to produce, there is not only a reader expectation, but an agent and an editor expectation and those must bring all kinds of pressure. Talk about performance anxiety. Pity there wasn’t a little blue pill that could fix it. ; )

  32. RedwoodKim says:

    It sure seems like there’s a lot of noise and anxiety happening in your head right now, which would kill any creative tendency I have ever had. Maybe some sort of retreat? A week or two in a cabin away from the laundry and the phone calls, just you and a keyboard, just to get yourself centered? Or even just changing the place where you go to write? I can hyperventilate on these types of things pretty quickly if I can’t get somewhere quiet to breathe and THINK.
    (I love your books, and will love these, too, when they come out. Now I’ve done the fixit thing and the encouraging thing.)

  33. Hi,
    I offer this to you, sadly, as the truth. It is never easy. It never will be. There’s no little helpful writing elf who will come guard your door and send everyone else away to give you all the time you need to write. (I can’t remember who used to talk about the writing elf who wouldn’t show up and guard the door. Maybe Susan Wiggs.)

    Anyway, it’s harsh, but true. No one gives it to you. You make it a priority or you don’t, whether it’s never, ever, ever watching TV or losing sleep or anything else you can think of.

    It’s really hard. It takes a lot of time. We write despite the husband, the job, the kids, the house, the errands, the carpool, everything. (Sorry.)

    Here’s a kick-ass column I found on the net about writing:

  34. Maybe the stars are presently aligned that way but after years of looking forward to being able to write, I hit a snag. I have two unfinished manuscripts on my hard drive and just started a third one last month. So I don’t have any advice about what’s going to work. But one of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish what I started because otherwise, I’ll always carry it around like extra baggage which will weigh me down (UFOs are like that for me…)

    So I’m not chiming in with the “start something new”-Choir although for some people, it might be just what they need. But I have the impression that you might rather need some encouragement to finish the projects you’ve already begun. It’s been a long uphill climb – but maybe you’re quite close to the summit? So keep going. Slowly but steadily. I will, too. (Not that I expect that to be much of an incentive for you ;o))

  35. Whining? Seemed to me it was more venting. Which is basically opening yourself to assistance from the universe by letting your frustration out.

    You say tomato, I say tomahto.

    Also, Krissie’s Creativity and Focus CDs work wonders for me. Have you tried either?

  36. That stuff’s bad for your brain. For reals. Maybe that’s the problem – overstimulating the hypomanic hyperstimulated. Says my sleep therapist to me last week. Argh.

  37. Ah yes, love Chuck. My two worlds colliding now, Teresa.

    Incidentally, my husband Stephen has a guest post for his book release week blog tour up at Chuck’s, as of yesterday, if anybody wants to read something uncharacteristically rah-rah. In addition to Chuck’s faboo writing.

  38. Kim Cz says:

    Maybe you need a new collage? You can either take the old one apart and redo it or make a whole new one, it might give you a new perspective on the whole damn thing.

    One of my many goals for this year is to write or work on my writing project everyday. I have hard time staying close to my characters if I leave them alone too long. That is in no way meant as advice, just me babbling about my own little issues.

    Good luck! I am confident that you will work it all out. 🙂

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