Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Couple of Dirty Secrets

One day Lisabet pointed out something to me. At this time I’d written three Nixie stories. If you string them together, she said, in a certain order they form a continuous narrative. One leads into the other. What about linking them together into an episodic novel? Then you’ll have your first novel. That was a brilliant observation. It had never occurred to me, and once the idea took hold I was hooked on it. I wrote a fourth story, “The Lady and the Unicorn” to link a couple of the other stories together and I loved it. But already I saw the signs of trouble. The problem I’ve created for myself is due to the fact up until now that I’ve been writing my novel backwards.

I have a revelation to make. I have writer’s block. I have it now. I’ve had writer’s block for a few months.

Oh shut up. I hear you.

Anyone who has ever read my stuff here is going “Goddamn, what’s that blabbermouth sound like when he doesn’t have writer’s block?”

I tell you – I have writer’s block. Allow me to step forward and declaim with noble frankness - I have writer’s block.

Now mine is a very particular kind which you never hear about in any of the books. Its very specific. Probably not the worst you can get, but I’ll bet my old Schaeffer snorkel fountain pen that this is a common kind of writer’s block for successful writers, much more than wanna-bes like myself. Think series novelists like Laurel Hamilton and J. K. Rowling, people who work with the same characters over and over for a wide audience of readers who love those characters.

Usually writer’s block evokes the image of the man in front of the keyboard who is mentally flaccid. He wants to write, he just can’t get it up. His imagination lays there like a dog. I don’t really have that problem. I can get it up most of the time, usually in moments of passionate inspiration and the words work fine. But there’s this one thing, where nothing happens. That’s “The Frog and the Scorpion”. Like an Ivory Billed Woodpecker, or the Loch Ness Monster, or ever receiving a paycheck of any kind for a story, it eludes me still.

I’m a short story writer. I’m really not a novelist. I’m not cut out for it, because although I write long and my short stories often explode by themselves into Godzilla proportions, I have the attention span of a five year old. I rarely finish reading novels unless I have a lot of time on my hands or unless it’s a very compelling story. Short story writer’s are not highly regarded in popular fiction. Real men write novels. Not just novels either, but thousand paged monsters of Tolstoyan length churned out regularly by guys like Brian Herbert and others. Those are real writers. Guys like me, pooh. In recent times writers like Alice Munro have revived the format, even as the magazines that published them died out, and pulp writers like me are finding a new home in anthologies like the Coming Together series. But in this one area there’s that feeling of . . . you know . . .

“It’s all right, honey.” She said, rubbing his shoulder. “It happens to every guy sometimes. I don’t think you’re any less of a man. No, really. I don’t. You’re just tired. We’ll try again later. I just like being held.”

ED. Expressive Dysfunction.

Some guys can get it up with any woman except one. I can get it up with any story except one. My Nixie. My darling Nixie, whom I love. She is the only character I’ve written about more than once. She commands the stage of some of my very favorite stories, my best work - and listen oh Friends of The Inner Sanctum, listen well if you’ve been skimming over this until now to get to the end so you can say something nice, because I’m about to say something profound –

Okay- stop skimming and listen – profound stuff coming - Here it is:

A writer has to be his/her own number one fan.

There. I’ve said it. I've said it and that's just the world I was born into. Don't judge me.

That’s a dirty secret of this business. You have to make yourself laugh and cry first. You have to secretly, shamefully believe you’re the goddamnedest writer since William Fucking Shakespeare.

If your own stuff doesn’t make you squirm with pleasure, behind a public veil of appropriate modesty (“Oh hey, glad you liked it. It’s nothing really. Just some goofy junk I scribbled out in court, waiting for my parole officer.”) then you are not writing as well as you should be. Roger Daltrey always said he was The Who’s biggest fan. I understand that. I believe it. I believe that even when John Lennon hated the Beatles and insulted them in public, he still privately believed they were the goddamnedest rock band of all time. We know who we are.

When you don’t have readers, when you don’t have that many stories out in the wind, if you haven’t made any money at the game, you have to have to somehow believe in yourself to keep going. You have to be your biggest fan. Secretly. On the outside “Aw shucks, thanks for reading my stuff.” On the inside, a seething mudpot of vanity. It works for me.

The first Nixie story I wrote (“Nixie's In Love”) wasn’t that great but it was a lot of fun. I liked Nixie at first sight. The second story (“The Dying Light”) was very hard to write, it took almost a year, but inside I felt I’d written something I didn’t know I could write. It was a major turning point for me because it was better than I thought I could do. Then came “Singing In The Dark” which I didn’t even know was a Nixie story until she showed up in the middle section on her own. Three stories, observed my mentor Lisabet. You’ve got something going on here. Try putting them together. I had to imagine a story that would link the events of “Singing In The Dark” and “The Dying Light”.

Now, if you’re still reading this, here’s the point I’m getting to. It’s a different kind of writing from just making up any old thing that scampers through your head, and it will absolutely constipate your imagination.

When I'm talking about my variation of writer's block, I'm referring to that muse killing story that has to cover specific events, accomplish specific things. It has to start where one story left off, and end where the other begins. It narrows things down. Certain things have to have happened by the end of the story. It narrows things down – a lot. That custom tailored story emerged once as “The Lady and the Unicorn”. Told from Nixie’s point of view, it took four months to make and it was the hardest thing I ever wrote. It is my personal favorite of the Nixiad, and was picked up by ERWA for their October Gallery of erotic horror. The last paragraph of the story still rips me up every time I read it.

I am my number one fan. It sounds pathetic and creepy and feels lonesome to say it out loud but that’s the way it is, Friends of the Inner Sanctum.

You know what?

better be your number one fan too if you're going to stick with this writing thing when the going gets rough.

Here’s another dirty secret of writing. When it comes to fighting writer’s block, the answer is fairly easy. The secret cure for writer’s block, as Lisabet said, is simply to lower your standards. Don’t try so hard to write well. If crap is what you have at the moment, write crap, be happy and find a use for it later. Have fun with your head. If God dealt you an imagination why wouldn’t you use it?

“The Frog and the Scorpion” is an old Aesop story. A frog lives by a river. One day a scorpion says “Carry me on your back across the river to the other side.” The frog says “Hell, no. If I get near you you’ll sting me.” “No, I promise I won’t.” says the scorpion. “After all, if I sting you we’ll drown.” That’s sounds reasonable to the little frog and he gives the scorpion a piggy-back ride across the river. Halfway across the scorpion up and stings him. The dying frog cries out “Why did you do that? Now we’ll both drown!” “I couldn’t help it.” says the Scorpion. “It’s my nature.”

That’s the Nixie story I’m waiting on. I know what my story will be about. It will be the first story in a novel which is written back-assed-wards to front and now all the burden is on the first story. It will be a story of betrayal. I will stab my poor Nixie in the back. I will condemn an innocent country girl to a life of damnation. How to do it? Usually a novelist knows how a story begins but doesn’t know how it ends. Me – I know how the story ends, I don’t know how it begins. Guess I never was much of a conformist.

I’ve had many, many false starts. I’ve bought books. Read books. Tried it this way tried it that way. Cried on Lisabet’s shoulder. The story is in my noodle some where, I just haven’t found it. Stephen King said that story ideas are like fossils. You find them in the ground, already formed and your job is to remove them as completely as possible without shattering them. But what if you’re not looking for any old fossil? What if you’re looking for a missing link fossil that you know should exist but no one has ever seen? Then the search is difficult. Then you get writer’s block.

J. K. Rowling, who enabled a million kids to discover for themselves the pleasure of reading a good book, said that when it came time to write the last Harry Potter book, it was the hardest thing she ever did. I know she wasn’t talking about saying bye-bye to the money either. When it came time to write the last couple of scenes in the book, she locked herself in a hotel room and when it was over she smashed things and cried with grief for her character. I understand that. She was Harry Potter’s number one fan. Somewhere there is a story in my head like that, and when I write it I’ll know when I have it right, because I’ll fall apart and weep over my keyboard and smash things. Until then, Nixie is waiting for me to get it up.

(stage whisper) You can read "The Lady and the Unicorn" and other stories of erotic horror here for free:


  1. Dammit Garce,

    That's the first time this week I've read about writer's block and thought it sounded like a desirable condition.

    Fantastic post, and a brilliant way of describing the condtion.



  2. Hi Garce,

    You know, this sounds very much like the agony a lot of writers seem to go through when they find they've written something they never thought they could write. You've classed yourself as a short story author. Well, damn, it looks like you're that and more. Deal with it. LOL

    Your Nixie stories may be a novel, but perhaps you're not ready for that. Not with her. Move on. Not every story will fit into a cookie cutter mold, and this might be one of yours. Ever thought of a chapter book? Perhaps a series or collection? Those are viable ways to handle Nixie, if it's what you and she feel is right.

    As for author's loving their work, or being their biggest fan. I can't even go there. I have so much I need to work on before I can be happy with the stuff I put out. Maybe that's why I'm not a big name. I don't love my own stuff, why should anyone else.

    I have written things I read now and wonder where it came from and truly enjoyed the read. I have written things I am proud of, things I wish my mother was alive to read. Still, I make mistakes that annoy me. I fumble with plot lines or characters who argue with me. I love my gift, yet there are times I really struggle.

    Great post and good luck with your Nixie


  3. Another great, and very interesting post. Love what you said about being your own No.1 fan. I'd never thought about it before, but what you say makes a lot of sense--even tho a writing teacher once told me that if something you write makes you cry buckets or scream with hysterical laughter it needs to be cut. Oh, really? I'll let you in on a secret, I keep all that good stuff in and let my lovely editor decide what stays and what goes.

    Oddly enough, the one book I wrote that made me cry so hard it's a miracle I didn't short-circuit the keyboard, has been my absolute worst seller. But that's okay, there's a lot of me and my family in that story, so much in fact I even named one of the characters after my mom.


  4. Hey Garce,

    Don't be too hard on yourself about that short story vs. full length novel thing. IMHO, the short story is a much more difficult art form to master.

    It's not a matter of, "Damn, I'm disappointed. That story is only twenty pages long." It's more like,"Wow. I managed to tell that story and it only took me twenty pages."

    As a reader, I think the ideal full length novel is simply a collection of short stories about the same characters.


  5. Hi Garce,
    Great article, you raised many valid points. I entirely agree with you, you have to be your own Number 1 fan. Let's face it, if you don't like your own stories why expect someone else to like them? I love all my novels.

  6. Hi Ash!

    Aw shucks. Thanks for reading my stuff. It's nothing really . . . just some thoughtless junk I scribbled out at the last minute while running over a frozen lake pursued by bears.


  7. Hey Jude!

    Well, Nixie's in my blood, which I suppose is what vampires do. I want to see it through. I want to find out what her story is too. I feel like if I can;t do this, I'm not ready to write a conventional novel. This might be my best chance to learn how its done.

    Loving and not loving your stuff is as you say, sometimes you amaze yourself, but you should never be content.


  8. Hi Christiane!

    I read books that say similar things to what your writing teacher said, sometimes referred to as "killing your darlings". Its a really hard decision to make, what to cut and keep. In the end its a matter of what contributes to a story, and sometimes even that isn't true. Its very hard to know what to keep, so sometimes its better to leave it to the editor.

    I'm overhauling a story right now called "Miss Julias Cake Club". The love scene I wrote was dear to my heart, my favorite part of the story, but now I need to throw it out and rewrite it. That's hard, but I can see the point. It's very hard to know what people will like of your stuff and what they won;t. I don;t have enough stuff out there yet to find out.


  9. Hi Glen

    I know what you mean, the short story is a different form. It requires a different discipline. I think that's another reason I like it. A really good short story is a thing of beauty.


  10. Hi Margaret!

    If we're not our number one fans, who will cheer for us?


  11. Hello, Garce,

    Coming on scene a bit late here, with the real world getting in the way...

    First of all, I don't think stringing together the Nixie stories into a book was my idea. It kind of emerged in our discussions about the stories.

    Second, I strongly agree with Glenn. Short stories are far more difficult to do well. So stop whining! ;^) (although this is the funniest post you've written to date, I think.)

    Third - about the specificity of your block regarding "The Frog and the Scorpion": I agree that when you have to write something that not only expresses your passion, but also fits together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, ensuring narrative consistency, that overloads the imagination. I'm facing something like that in miniature in the story that I'm currently trying to finish. The story begins "I'm not a stalker." So I know that by the end, the character in fact needs to be acting like a stalker, even though I've written "away" from that original thought. I have to pull him back into the concept of the beginning in order to make the story work.

    However, I don't have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration, because the deadline is next week and I also have a forty page proposal to write in the next few days... So I'm going to finish it however I can and hope that it is good enough.

    Wonderful post, Garce.


  12. Let's hear about all things dysfunctional.

  13. I could swear I posted here yesterday, but when I went to look for the comment, it was gone! Oh well...

    Trying to write to strict guidelines like the ones you had for that one Nixie story can be intimidating, but even so, there's still room to play. You've simply gone from an infinite number of possible story ideas to say, maybe a thousand? It's just a matter of being willing to crank through the worst of those limited options for a while until you find the right one, I think.

    It's good to know you're putting those stories together. The finished product will be something spectacular, I'm sure!


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