A.M. Tuomala

Myths and Morphemes

Tag: writing process

Cost/Benefit Analyses

The first thing you need in order to be a writer is a reason to write.

I have two writing careers: as a technical writer for a clinical trials nonprofit, and as an author of fiction. The first job pays my bills, grants me healthcare, and gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment. (It also sees me working a good deal more than forty hours per week, juggling tight deadlines and unexpected audits and a constant flow of new projects.) Even when I’m having a bad day, I know that my coworkers are counting on me, and I can knock out up to six thousand words in a day without feeling overwhelmed.

The benefits of being an author are harder to define. A few critics have praised my books, but that’s never really translated to sales.1 I’m clearly not doing it for the money. I’m not even really doing it for the praise, because while the kind words from Publishers Weekly and Booklist have put a spring in my step, they’ve been islands in a sea of enforced silence. (Most writers will tell you not to read your reviews. This is good advice. Reviews are for readers, not for writers.) There was a time in my life when I did it because I couldn’t not write — because stories were the only way I could organize my frantic thoughts — but depression put a heavy period on that era.

Now, as I’m casting about for my next story, I have to search for the motivation to write again. What can move me, if not wealth or fame or gnawing anxiety? What reason do I have to go on?

Sometimes, the answer is, Because I have something to say. I have always believed that a work of fiction makes a claim; for dreamers, idealists, and visionaries, a story is the shining thread that links together the world as it is and the world as it could be. It would be a fine thing, to write a story that helps others see themselves more clearly or that gives them the courage to change the world.

But sometimes, the answer is simply, For my pleasure. Because I still love building worlds and filling them with people, and I still love the challenge of arranging images and sounds in the right order.

On the hardest days, the answer is, Because I don’t know who I am if I’m not a storyteller. And on days like that, I look for a thread that will lead me back to the story again.

 


1. As an independent author, I’ve only made a couple hundred dollars (and that, in trickles over several years) on every book I’ve ever sold. I can write about a thousand words an hour, and my novels together are about 245,000 words — then there’s the time (significant) devoted to editing and revising. My back-of-the-napkin math puts me at a little less than fifty cents an hour (before taxes), paid out over seven years. I probably spent at least that much on coffee during the writing and editing process, meaning I might actually have come out in the red overall.

Prescriptivism, Enemy of the First Draft

I’m trying to start my next book, and I keep getting hung up on semicolons.

A writer whose work I admire once said — I’m paraphrasing here — that in almost every case, replacing semicolons with full stops will make for better writing. In this particular case, I know that the writer who said it was making an offhand comment, not trying to lay down her fundamental philosophy of writing. As a former English teacher, I also know that semicolons have a handful of legitimate uses and can actually improve a piece of writing when used effectively.  As a former scholar of the eighteenth century, I know that this prescription is of relatively recent vintage. In short, I know that this is not one of the Immutable Laws of Writing Handed Down from On High.

But all the same, that comment has stuck in my mind, and every time I sit down to write, I hear it. When I try to string sentences together, I remind myself that I am No Longer Allowed to use semicolons (or em-dashes, that other breathless punctuation mark of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). After a taxing hour of stops and starts, I reread my handful of sentences, and they sound hideous to my ears. The pacing is wrong. Too choppy. No ebbs and flows, no crescendos and decrescendos, no gentle gliding from one idea to the next. If there’s a trick to writing lyrical sentences without semicolons, I never learned it.

I surface from my word processor, heartsick and practically vibrating with self-loathing. A quiet part of me asks, Didn’t I used to be good at writing?

 

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