Kage Baker had only one piece of serious advice to would-be writers: sit down and write.
Oh, she’d make jokes about never stinting on the chair cushions, or orate at length on the benefits of fountain pens over felt-tips; she make the classical jokes about where she got her ideas: A post office in New Jersey. (These days, that statement is usually attributed to Roger Zelazny, but I’m pretty sure Aristotle and Shakespeare made similar remarks.)
It’s a frequent question asked at cons and book signings. Someone comes up, tells the writer how much they adore their work, and – with all their soul yearning in their eyes – asks: “How do you write like that?” If they are a little cooler and less desperate, they ask if the published have any special advice for the novices (Yeah, keep your day job and find a new hobby was Kage’s standard response).
Or they may go for a more sophisticated approach – “Where did you find your agent?” Or “How do you contact someone in the publishing business?” (Check New York. Most of them hang out there was the answer if Kage was feeling grumpy. If she was not, she’d tell them Look in the Writers’ Guide). The totally shameless, clueless or just rock-bottom desperate would inform Kage that they had a great idea but didn’t know how to write: but they would give it to her for a collaboration. That one was the hardest to answer, because the interrogator often really was ignorant or rude or grasping at straws: so Kage was unusually gentle with this inquiry. But all her answers still amounted to No way in hell.
Real writers, published or no, have already learned the only magic trick there is: to be a writer, you must write. Sit down and write. It’s a very physical activity; it takes all your hands and eyes and must be done for hours at a time to have any effect. You will ache when you are done; you will suffer headaches and muscle cramps and hunger pangs. It’s right up there with shoveling for inevitable, necessary labor – to produce a hole you must dig, and to produce a story you must write.
It’s amazing how seldom this occurs to people on their own. I learned it by observing Kage. But she seemed to know it in her blood.
Mind you, Kage had her irrational rituals. There was juju she worked just to get a session started – a game of Freecell, her daily clicks at the Hunger Site, looking through all the magic windows of webcams on her computer. But when she had to, she could skip those. The real trick, the only trick, was just to sit down and write. And how that works can’t be explained, because it works differently for everyone who tries to write. Kage said it was like the Who’s opera Tommy – one of her favourites – in that duplicating what brought enlightenment to one person was not the answer for the next. You ended up deaf, dumb and blind, but no Pinball Wizard.
These days, I’m under a geas to be a writer – Kage laid it on me, with neither mercy nor advice, in the last weeks of her life. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that I might not be able to do it. It is a fact, and a very peculiar thing to me, but Kage – brilliant, inventive, visionary, prolific writer that she was – had no doubt at all that I could pull off a similar trick if I just applied myself. We wrote a lot, both of us and together as well, from adolescence on – but I gladly yielded the race to her. I liked what she wrote better than my own stuff, and then it began to sell …
Still. I got a duty here, y’know? And I find I can’t shrug it off, because my brain insists on playing with the ideas Kage left me. And when those run out, it generates more … Who We Did On Our Summer Vacation will, yes, be published! And there is now a book of Mars stories in the works; and Kage left hints for me to work on. How does Mars Two survive after the bomb in the arethermal plant goes off? What kind of society grows up among the crews digging the new canals? Bees didn’t work; what about birds? Could you build a dam across the Valles Marineris?
I’ve been holding on; I’ve got that part down pat. Now it’s time to sit down. And shut up. And write.