Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Habit will sustain you

First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice.
— Octavia Butler

My oh my was there a kerfuffle over the recent bit of writerly advice from Pulitzer Prize winning author Stephen Hunter, published by BuzzFeed! I would find it hard not to laugh at the whole thing if it wasn't disturbing on a number of levels. As Foz Meadows points out, at the piece's core there is a solid message: good writing habits are more important than talent and inspiration. But man did that core get dented, dinged, and tarnished by the spacejunk around it.

For starters, this humdinger of an opener:

In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan. [So far so good, but wait for it ...]

What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

Early in my writing career, I would sometimes feel miffed by the success of other writers. And sure, even at this point in my career it's hard not to wish for a small piece of the action some bestselling authors enjoy. But I am a GROWNUP. I get that there is no algorithm for writerly success. It's talent, luck, timing, and fairy dust, and it can rarely be predicted. And guess what else? Anyone's book sales equal good news for me: PEOPLE ARE STILL READING BOOKS YAY. And if it's in my genre? All the better. As co-blogger Laurie Green once said to me: A rising tide floats all boats.

There is no need for me to further smack down this piece, as Foz has done that already. I'll leave you with a few of her choicest words, and you can decide whether to read the rest for yourself.

Presented without Hunter’s caveats and curlicues, the core recommendation – make regular writing part of your routine, because you can’t ever publish a book you don’t finish – is a reasonable one. That Hunter has managed to turn such simple advice into a purple, self-congratulatory screed about the failings of other, lesser beings is, if nothing else, a cautionary example of hubris in action.

The piece is also riddled with insecurity and what I agree with Foz seems to be signs of a clinically depressed outlook. Almost as sad as that is there are actually a few nuggets of good advice mixed in with the other bits that I'd only give to someone I wished to discourage. But probably saddest of all is the fact this guy is 71 years old and it sounds like he's lived a rather miserable life. Some things ain't worth a Pulitzer.

So I leave you instead with the quote on the same topic, at the top of this post, by Octavia Butler, who did not win a Pulitzer, but WAS a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. And here is a little bit about HER, whom I'd much rather talk about...

When I've told other women that I write sci-fi, several of them have asked whether I've read Butler. Sadly, because many of the top female writers of sci-fi are largely, mmmm, shall we say de-emphasized, I had never even heard of her. (And get this: She died the year my daughter was born, not five minutes from my house.)

I finally got around to reading one of her books this month, and here's a short review. KINDRED is the story of a young black woman who is somehow psychically linked to a white male ancestor of hers in the antebellum South. She travels back to his time at points when his life is in danger (he's rather accident-prone). It's a harrowing tale with high stakes and very complicated motives and emotions. The novel is written in first person, and I've never read a book that gave me such powerful glimpses into the psyche of a slave in the South—not to mention the many stark non-choices they faced in their brutal lives. I understand her other works are more traditionally sci-fi, and explore very similar themes. The story does feature a romantic relationship, but this is NOT a romance. I do recommend it highly, but don't read it when you're feeling down. Because this is a romance forum—SPOILER ALERT—I will tell you that neither the heroine nor her husband dies, and their relationship is a sustaining force in the story.

As for Hunter's piece, pfthpfthpfh I say. Butler's quote is much more succinct and kindly meant.


  1. It sounds like he hasn't moved on from being that prize-winning critic. No fellow-author encouragement from him, by jingo! That would tarnish the image. To me, his piece sounded like a declaration of war on other writers. What have they ever done to reality, not his head?! Habit is the most important thing, says he. Hmmm...lost the plot, methinks.

    Thanks for your well-considered post and for the heads-up about Octavia Butler, Sharon. Her Xenogenesis Trilogy sounds very appealing.

    1. Lost the plot, indeed! Perhaps he'd just like everyone to be as frightened and unhappy as he is. Sigh.

      You're welcome, and glad you enjoyed it! I am looking forward to reading more Butler myself.

  2. I sometimes wonder if articles like Stephen Hunter's pathetic put-down are actually designed to attract attention - on the basis of any publicity is better than none. You'd think he wouldn't need to do that, wouldn't you? The Octavia Butler book sounds fascinating - but I don't think I have the intestinal fortitude to read it right now.

    1. That occurred to me too, Greta - I think it's definitely a possibility. Doesn't make me think any better of him, though, as there will be writers who take his words to heart.

      KINDRED was both gripping and fascinating, but I agree, it's good to know what you're getting into. Approximately the first half is easy enough to stomach, but things get significantly darker as the story progresses. There was one particular part of the story that blew me away - I'll try to avoid major spoilers. The MC is asked for advice by a slave woman at one point. If she tells the woman to do what SHE would do in the situation, the MC might never be born. But the other course is not something the MC could ever in good conscience urge her to take. So what the heck can she do? Butler's got mad skilz.

  3. I think it's very sad when another author feels inclined to put down--or view as the "enemy"--his or her peers. This is such a lonely business as it is, and without the support and friendship of fellow writers, it wouldn't be a pleasant endeavor. (Yes, sometimes it's not pleasant even WITH the fellow voyagers.)

    But for Hunter to outright state he hates other writers because they are competition and may be more successful? That's ludicrous. Books are not a product where you buy a model and use it for a few years before it wears out, and then you buy a newer model. Most avid readers buy scores of books every year. Authors aren't in competition with one another, they offer a product that is only enhanced by the success of their peers' work. Now how many products--or producers--can make THAT claim?

    I'd like to take credit for that "floats all boats" comment Sharon, but I actually borrowed that from one of those sterling peers that makes the writing universe a better one--Pauline Baird Jones.

    1. Agreed, much of what he said was utter nonsense, and Foz does a good job of shooting it all down. I can't imagine going through life feeling that way about fellow artists.

      I think you'd mentioned that it was Pauline you'd first heard that from. That made me curious to look it up and see where it originally came from. Was once the New England chamber of commerce motto, and got used in a speech by JFK.

  4. I LOVE Octavia Butler, a unique voice in SF that was lost much too soon. She stood out from the thousands for all the right reasons, though it would have seemed she had two strikes against her from the start as a woman of color writing in SF. As for Stephen Hunter, let him live in his bitter world without notice from me.

  5. Envy eats away the soul...
    The problem with most writing advice is it doesn't work for everyone. That thing of you must write every day? Doesn't work for me unless I count blog posts and tweets. Some days I will write thousands of words. Others I won't write anything. Fitting writing into real life can make setting a time and word count difficult. I don't necessarily wait for inspiration to strike (which is apparently the 'wrong' way to write) but if I have to sit and force myself to write? Doesn't work (unless it's edits. That's different). Writers need to find the system that works for them personally, and if that means 15 minutes a day on their lunch break or commute, or the wee small hours of the morning when everyone is still asleep (what I did when my monsters were little and not yet at school), or their odd day off - if it works, it's a-okay. I did have a big issue with finishing things, but once I got myself into the habit of having to finish a first draft before I could move on and using a few NaNoWriMos, I can now cut myself some slack. I know I can finish things, but if it takes a few weeks or even a couple of years, that's fine. It works for me, and I'm not going to tell anyone their system is wrong because it's different.
    Octavia Butler - read her as a teen but didn't much like the fact that the humans were forced to interbreed with the aliens, and especially the brother/sister relationship in one. It disturbed me but did appeal to my fascination for genetics.

    1. Yep, MOST of us have pretty complicated lives. We write when we can! I have much more admiration for the authors with young kids and jobs who squeeze it in than I do for a person who's cut everything else out of their life.


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