I Talked to Kids on Wednesday and They Can Get ON My Lawn

I spent last Wednesday telling high school students what it’s like to be a writer and an editor.

I don’t know how much my audience got out of it, but I walked out liking my job more than when I went in. I did not expect that, but I’ll take it.

The students asked some good questions, too. Here are a few of them, with slightly expanded answers.

What made you decide to be a writer and not a professional clarinetist or figure skater?

I actually did consider majoring in clarinet performance, back when I was in high school. (I never considered skating professionally; the only realistic option available was Disney on Ice, which wasn’t realistic for me for a lot of reasons.)

Long story short, writing was easier. Being a professional clarinetist requires a level of obsession with the instrument that I just didn’t have. Practicing 8 hours a day was going to kill my love of playing, not improve it.

Also, the vast majority of professional instrumental musicians have day jobs, which meant I’d probably end up writing for a living anyway.

I like to write fan fiction, but sometimes I get stuck. What do you do when you get writer’s block?

First: YES WRITE FAN FICTION YES. It’s a great way to learn fiction writing. It lets you deal with concepts like conflict and character motivation without having to deal also with worldbuilding. It holds you accountable for writing realistic characters and plots, because people already know how/what “should” fit in this world.

Second: KEEP YOUR FAN FICTION. Five years from now, it’s going to be embarrassing to read. Twenty years from now, it’ll still be embarrassing, but you’ll be proud of yourself for having come so far.

Finally: My favorite way to deal with writer’s block is to be horrible to my characters in some way. I ask, “What does this person really want right now?”, and then I do something that not only prevents them getting it, but that kicks them right in their biggest personal weakness.

Check out the opening of Nantais, for example. Hayek’s depression manifests as taking responsibility for things he doesn’t control and then despairing when he can’t control them. So the very first thing I did? Put him in a ship that he didn’t break, that he can’t fix, and that will kill everyone on board if he can’t.

(Hayek’s other major weakness is that he can’t deal with interpersonal conflict, which is turning the draft of Nahara into an emotional meat grinder for him. Yeah, I’m mean.)

There are other tricks, too, like writing the scene from a different character’s perspective or just skipping ahead and coming back. But I like putting more pressure on characters. It always teaches me more about them, whether or not it actually fixes the plot.

What do you like least about your job?

Publishing is emphatically not a merit-based business. Sometimes, excellent literature sells a billion copies and gets the accolades it deserves (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for instance).

More often, though, the books on the bestseller lists aren’t The Best Books Out Now; they’re The Books With the Biggest Marketing Budgets Out Now.  What sells books is money, followed by buzz, which is easiest to generate with money.

That said, if I wanted the advantages of a multimillion-dollar marketing budget that badly, I’d move to New York and start working for one of the Big Five. So even though I don’t like the fact that publishing isn’t a meritocracy, it’s easier to deal with that because I chose the path I’m on.

And ultimately, nobody becomes a writer because they want the money. (Well….almost no one.) We write because we can’t imagine ourselves doing anything else. We need the experience of writing more than we want to be rewarded for it.

Sure, rewards are great. But if I knew I was going to die in total obscurity, I’d still be writing. That’s the kind of passion I just didn’t have for the clarinet – which is why I’m a competent instrumentalist, but not a professional musician.

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