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by Rick Klaw

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A Writer's Way

"...first we read, then we write."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"I have had people say to me: 'Walt, you write as if it was no effort whatever for you to do so.' That may be how it looks but that's not how it is."
-- Walt Whitman
"Blessings on the barefoot boy!"
-- John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Barefoot Boy"
Geek Confidential During a recent interview to promote Geek Confidential, my disdain for footwear came up. I can't write while wearing shoes. Most of the time I prefer no socks either. Something about freedom or breathing feet or other such nonsense. Really, I have no idea why, but as long as I can remember I've been that way.

Not only are my feet bare, but I also must have a beverage (rarely alcoholic), some action figures within arm's reach, an appropriate soundtrack (Mark Knopfler's The Ragpicker's Dream blares through the headphones as I type), but most importantly there must be chaos. My desk is a tottering mound of books, CDs, and toys. When everything is in its "place," I freeze up. (Amazingly, I can find everything I need, when working.) I compose after dark. When the sun is up, my creativity is gone. My writing "day" usually starts around 11 PM and ends near 3 AM. I can edit during the day, but not write anything new.

It's important for a writer to acknowledge their own idiosyncrasies -- to embrace them if you will -- as soon as possible. Most writers seem to have some sort of little quirks, that they need to do their job. The key is to realize them and use these little quirks to your advantage... or at the very least to not make them a disadvantage.

Fellow essayist, novelist, and all-round-geek Mark Finn basically does the same things as me. Scary. The only basic difference is that he re-arranges the poses on his action figures while composing sentences, and I tend to play with mine when I have no idea where to go next in an essay.

I'm not the only writer who performs better at night. Both Judi Rohrig, short story writer and editor/publisher of Hellnotes, and Plutonium Blonde co-author Lawrence Ganem produce most of their work after dark. Interestingly enough, Rohrig can only edit during daylight. It must wreak havoc on her sleep schedule.

Mark London Williams, author of the young adult science fiction series Danger Boy, can work on one project for only twenty minute increments before he moves on to something else. He constantly jumps from novel to article to e-mail to comic book proposal. Williams even changes his physical locales. Danger Boy on the laptop in the dining room, article on the main PC in the living room, etc...

Live Without a Net I'm not sure if he has a vision problem or it's an ego thing, but Matthew Sturges, late of Clockwork Storybook and contributor to the anthology Live Without a Net, maximizes his screen text so that he can only see one sentence. Like Finn and I, Sturges listens to music. Unlike us, he listens to the same song... over and over again. When writing his novel Midwinter, he played Amanda Ghost's "Silver Lining" incessantly. He conservatively estimates that he heard the song over a thousand times. Of course, he has no idea what the lyrics are or even what the song is about.

Music is used by writers to evoke a mood more than to create inspiration. For me, the music must be something with which I am intimately familiar. I rarely even notice the lyrics. The reasons for picking certain music or artists varies. When I write my more political columns, I tend to listen to The Clash. Their righteous anger is inspiring. When composing a recent analysis of Joe R. Lansdale's writings (for the limited edition of the forthcoming Lansdale collection Mad Dog Summer And Other Stories), I listened to Johnny Cash. Cash and Lansdale are artists with a similar attitude. Ragpicker's Dream was chosen simply because I conceived of this column while taking a shower with the album blasting through the house. The music brings to me back to that mental state (minus the water).

Showers are another important aspect of my creative process. Ninety percent of my ideas come about while in the shower. The beating of the water calms my body and frees my mind. All of my best ideas have come to me there.

Acclaimed short story writer (her story "Little Red" was recently translated into French and "Skin So Green and Fine..." was selected for the Years Best Fantasy and Horror, 13th edition) and workshop teacher Wendy Wheeler suffers from performance anxiety. She can't write with anyone else in the room. Also, Wheeler won't even start a story until she knows the final line/scene.

RevolutionSF fiction editor, reviewer, and short story writer (for Interzone and other venues) Jayme Lynn Blaschke suffers from a similar malaise. He has to know the title of the story before he begins. Blaschke claims he is a captive of his own bizarre quirk. He never changes the title, but rather alters the story to match the title.

Edgar Award winner Joe R. Lansdale's favorite advice to writers about how to write a novel is "Put ass in chair and type." I never imagined he meant three chairs. Lansdale's day starts around 8 AM with answering his email on one computer. After that, he stands up and sits in another chair, which is in-between the computer he uses for email and the one on which he composes. How long Lansdale sits there varies; he is there until the mood strikes him. While he waits, he might look through some books or just stare off into space. When appropriately struck, he gets up and turns on his writing PC and loads up his current project, then sits back down in the middle chair. A short while later (usually not more than five minutes), Lansdale returns to the chair at his writing PC and gets to work. He usually won't stop writing until lunch time.

An overstuffed chair, a legal pad, and a very sharp pencil are essential elements for John W. Campbell award-nominated short story writer Scott Cupp. The pencil must remain sharp so gets up frequently to maintain the its edge. A mechanical pencil will not do.

Many other writers begin their drafts in longhand, but as far as I know, World Fantasy Award winner Jeff Vandermeer is the only one to do rewrites in longhand after composing a first draft on a computer. To him, it's akin to kneading dough. He likes to feel the work in his hands as he breaks it down and rebuilds it.

Anyone who has read Vandermeer must realize this couldn't be his only quirk. He likes to use different types of pens and different textures of paper. When writing his award-winning novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake", Vandermeer used a writer's tablet and pens that bled impressionistically into the paper. Whenever he creates noir stories, Vandermeer uses an old manual typewriter.

Then there is cheese. When I first decided to write this essay, I sent out a survey asking writers I know about their work habits. I certainly got some interesting responses with five of them mentioning cheese. The most entertaining, unique cheese quirk came from Stoker award-winning Tim Lebbon.

"My own peculiar writing condition is actually an anti-habit. I can't write if I've eaten any form of cheese -- soft, hard, crumbly, or that horrible stinking stuff with mould in it that is supposed to be so damned good for you -- within the last 24 hours. That old fable about cheese giving you nightmares doesn't work for me... if it did, maybe I'd get some inspiration! For me it just seems to phlegm up my creative juices, turning my output from a gushing rush of ideas and themes, into a slow, oozing trickle of objectionable metaphor and staid purple prose. Sometimes, even whole milk can clog up my output for several hours!"
Poor Lebbon. Perhaps we should all show up at his next signing with some Lactaid? There is really no reason that he should suffer.

Vandermeer has an impish sense of humor. He loves to play jokes on his friends... and literary jokes are the best of them all. Vandermeer forwarded my surveys to others. He added to my request that the authors mention cheese in their responses. Finally, after much confusion (on my part) Vandermeer 'fessed up.

Perhaps my bare feet aren't that odd. At least, I don't need multiple chairs, a change of locale, or cheese. Suddenly, I feel strangely liberated.

Copyright © 2003 Rick Klaw

As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, essayist and bookstore manager, Rick Klaw has experience with most aspects of the book business. He can advice aspiring writers of two useful quirks to adopt: 1. Read... read... read 2) Ass in chair. The rest is up to you. Catch Rick at ArmadilloCon 25 for the release of his collection of essays, reviews, and other things Klaw Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (Currently available for pre-order from Monkey Brains, Inc).


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