Patrick Rothfuss nailed it. Maybe this is why he’s a New York Times bestseller.
He compared writing to working in a garden. If you do it for the joy of doing it, it’s a wonderful thing. You go out in the dirt, you get some sun, and at the end of it all, maybe you get some really good vegetables or fruits.
But the input almost never equals the output. Overall, you’d be better off putting in a few extra hours at work, then buying those fruits or vegetables at a store.
But you can’t think that way. You must write (or garden) for the joy of it.
If your world flip-flops, you’re in trouble. If you have demands of your garden, where it must feed your family for a month, or a season, or a year, and something goes wrong, or it just doesn’t come together, or you have bad seeds, or any other number of things, well, then it wasn’t fun.
Then you’re hungry and tired and you did all that work and all you got were a few tomatoes.
And maybe the year before, you got those tomatoes and it was a bonus. You had fun and you got tomatoes.
But this year, you were planning on those tomatoes, plus more tomatoes, and now they aren’t there, and you’re panicking.
That is, pretty much exactly, what it means when you start to think about being a working writer.
I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago.
There are levels of cancer, I’ve learned. There are mouse trap cancers, where you might get hurt but they rarely do major damage. There are bear trap cancers, which will do a lot of damage to you, but you can still escape most of the time.
And there are avalanche cancers. The ones that roll down the hill and crush you. On rare occasions, someone gets away, but most people just hope to slow the roll a bit. They know the rocks are coming, though.
And the rocks will win.
My friend was a fantasy reader. A big George RR Martin fan. When my friend got cancer, they joked that they were going to call George and ask how the Song of Ice and Fire (which we now all think of as Game of Thrones) ended. They knew they wouldn’t live to see the end of the series.
I don’t think a call was ever made.
My friend was also a fan of Patrick Rothfuss. Driving to chemotherapy, sitting around after treatments, not able to do anything but watch TV if the concentration wasn’t there and read books if the concentration was there, my friend read through the first two parts of the Rothfuss trilogy.
They were hoping that Patrick would get the final novel out before they died, but I pay close enough attention to the series I follow that I knew it would never happen.
I hunted around online for Patrick’s email address. I just wanted to drop him a note, and say, “Hey, I met you at a book festival and you were really nice and my friend is dying of cancer and how does your trilogy end? I swear I won’t read it. I just want my friend to know.”
I didn’t do it.
Not long after I went hunting for that email address, Patrick posted a blog about how behind he was in his correspondence. It was hundreds of emails.
(George RR Martin said he was something like 3000 emails behind a few months ago. So even if my friend sent him an email, it’s likely sitting there, unread.)
I guess it’s just as well that I didn’t email Patrick. I imagine he’d finally be reading the email about now, debating what to say, wondering if he should even answer.
My friend passed away months ago.
I started reading the Martin books right after seeing the first season of Game of Thrones. It was a great show, to be sure.
I dove into the first book, and it took me almost three years to get through it. I read dozens of other books in the meantime, never getting back to that first one.
I finally finished it this year. When I finished I turned to my wife, sitting nearby, and said, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to read these.”
The Martin books are dense. There are probably more than 100 major characters, and when you read interviews with Martin is obvious that even minor characters in the novels, ones who appear in a handful of scenes, are (or can be, or will be) important.
And there may be a 1000 of them.
When my friend got to the last few weeks, when the pain was winning and there was more sleeping than waking, I started thinking about reading the rest of the Martin books, not for me, but for my friend. I would read them, and then go to my friend’s grave and talk about what happened.
The only problem there is, I would probably get the information, or much of it, wrong.
My friend was smart enough to follow the books. To talk about the minor characters, who got maybe a scene or two in the early going, somewhere in book one, who might come back two books from now and finish their character arc.
I would never remember all those people. Like I said, I’m not smart enough.
I haven’t started that second book yet. I’m not sure I want to.
When Robert Jordan came to the end of his life, he and his family picked an author to finish up his Wheel of Time series. He provided copious notes, a partially finished manuscript, and if I remember correctly, he walked his successor through the final plot of what was supposed to be the “last” book.
The last book, as it turned out, had to be three books to tie up all the loose ends Jordan left lying around, like so much plot flotsam.
I didn’t envy the guy who took the job at all. Not even a little bit. I suppose he got to be on the New York Times bestseller list a few times, and that was probably nice. But really, it wasn’t his name bringing in the sales.
It was all those people looking for a scratch for their itch.
And the entire time, he had to know, if he missed even one little detail, the fans would be up in arms. Things that Jordon himself probably would have blown past or declared unimportant, the new guy wasn’t allowed to miss.
And even those people who finally got all their answers, somewhere in their brains, they know that this couldn’t possibly be everything that Jordan intended. Something, somewhere, was changed.
My friend put a message on Facebook a few months before the end, saying not to send emails or Facebook messages anymore, because they probably wouldn’t get read.
A week before that, I offered to start writing a new Blood Calling book, and to send it in chunks. My friend could be the first reader.
My friend loved those books. Compared them to The Hunger Games, which was an extremely generous compliment.
I thought it might be fun, providing these bits of happiness in bite-sized pieces, every few days, while the sand ran out of the hourglass. I started writing, wanting to get a jump on the story so I could share it with my friend.
I never got an answer. I don’t know if it was lack of interest, or if the message never got to my friend, or if they didn’t want to start another story that would never be finished in their lifetime.
I once heard a joke that if Robert Rodriguez had been writing and directing the Harry Potter movies, the last two books would have been adaptations of the movies.
Seeing as how only one person (that being the actor who played him) knew whether Snape was good or bad up until the final book was released, you’ve got to wonder if the book and the movie might have ended differently.
Then there’s the curious case of the V, the original TV miniseries. The creator wanted to do a new series each year, updating the world on what happened to the various characters, one year after another.
Only he got kicked off the project. The second series, labeled The Final Battle, was not the final battle. They made a TV series out of it. That got cancelled, so there was no ending. I had read that the comics gave a final resolution to the series, but I guess that’s faulty memory. A quick check on Wikipedia says that the last issue was the second part of a flashback story. (Though another article says that the visitors decided to leave in an earlier comic. This might be the ending I’m thinking of.)
Later, the creator of the show wrote and released a novel that gave a “true” ending, ignoring everything else he didn’t write. So you could pick your ending. The show. The comics. The miniseries. The novel.
George RR Martin is 65, and it’s taking him longer and longer to finish each novel in his series. He used to post his progress, but that led to too much hope and letdown in his fans.
In a few months, the fourth season of Game of Thrones will air. A season comes out once every year, and the show’s creators have said they’ll probably have to wrap it up by season seven.
Martin told them the end of the story, more or less. Every once in a while he makes noises about finding ways to slow down the series, to have a season come out every two years instead of every one, but the show is filled with children who are all aging at a rapid clip onscreen.
TV is relentless. You can write a sequel novel 20 years after the original and everyone can be the same age.
TV simply can’t work that way.
The fifth Thrones book came out in 2011. Six years from then is 2017. Six years from then is 2023.
Martin will be 75.
If he makes it.
Martin has said there are no notes, there is no backup plan if he passes away with the books unfinished.
A theory: Martin is waiting to die, knowing that even if he finishes the books, they will never live up to the hype they’ve garnered up to this point.
People will get their ending on the show, and that, he has probably concluded, is good enough. The pressure is off.
And if he dies, his publisher probably won’t come after him for his advance. Instead, they’ll take whatever pages are in existence, publish them as-is, and get someone to novelize the last season or two of the show.
Assuming there’s a call for it in a decade.
Maybe. Who knew that so many people wanted to know how V was really supposed to end that the creator would be able to novelize the “true” ending?
I’ve barely written anything this year.
One short story. That’s it. And the fate of that story is unknown.
It’s the garden metaphor again.
When I was writing screenplays just to write them, it was fun for a while.
Then I started making money, and writing them without the money component felt… wrong.
Actually, it wasn’t even the money component. I was happy to write something that, when I was done, was going to be produced. A screenplay that hasn’t been shot is just paper and words. No one wants to read it, even if you put it in book format.
I’ve done some treatment writing since I abandoned screenplays, and yet, every time I put something together, I just can’t get excited enough to type fade in.
I know I’m going to lose days. Weeks. Probably months to the writing process.
And when it’s all done, and I’ve pressed print, and given to someone, it’s going to sit there. Just so much paper.
Short stories? Novels?
I can write the short stories, but creating just to create, I feel the time slipping away. The truth is, I don’t really know the markets for short stories. I read them sometimes, but in collections, and mostly just from authors I know and like. Harlan Ellison. Neil Gaiman. Stephen King.
If you don’t know the markets, it’s hard to sell to the markets. Two years ago, you could sell short stories on the Kindle.
Today? Eh. Not so much. Not unless you’re writing about women and dinosaurs. I am very much not kidding.
And barely poked at my novels, because…
Because of time. I had none. I had two major deaths and a family medical crisis and a full time job that brought in actual constant money, which I needed.
I could barely write because I was sad. And stressed. And those tiny little pockets of time I would find to write dried up like worms in the sun after a rainstorm.
It’s not a writer’s block. It’s a sad block.
I look at the time it takes to write a novel, and I think I want to spend more time with my family, and friends, because the novel will be there tomorrow, but they might not be.
And you might recall the old saying that no one, on their deathbed, says they wished that they spent more time at work.
And that’s it, really.
When I look at my books, I know what they bring in. I know some of them sell well, and some sell poorly, and I know the time that I put into them.
That time was fun. But this last year, as I actually did the thing in the poem and raged against the dying of the light, and also parts of the medical community, I knew the handful of cash I could gain from the hundreds of hours spent at the keyboard wasn’t enough to justify the typing time.
That’s why I blogged about things pointless and stupid. They were easy, they rarely required focus, and when I was done, well, who was going to argue with me about the plot of The Vampire Diaries?
I’ve been wanting to get back to it, saying I’ll get back to it, for a while now.
I think I will.
I realized today that last month was probably the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel like I had a crisis in the works every single moment. My family was safe. I was safe.
And if I can keep that feeling, can actually let my brain uncurl and stretch and feel like making the garden is fun again, well, we’ll see what comes out.