There Is No Try

Kage Baker didn’t like to give writing advice.

She enjoyed teaching, especially lecturing to large classes; there is an element of distance to a lecture class, which eased her native discomfort in close social contact. She enjoyed  conversations, too, but only conversations with people she knew and trusted.

In fact, you couldn’t stop Kage from discoursing on  a subject that interested her, if she felt safe in the available social context. She could barely wait to tell a new joke she’d heard, or a fascinating factoid. She’d run right over other speakers to be the first one to make a revelation. When one of our our bizarre adventures would come to an end and leave us panting on the edge of a cliff  – she never said Oh, God, don’t tell anyone! No, what Kage always said was Let me tell it!

People who somehow got to know her – Faire friends, some folks at conventions, select family members – knew that she was an hysterically funny raconteuse.   She’d tell campfire stories and hold people spell-bound. People-watching with her was a nonstop commentary on the crowds passing by; and dangerous, too. Because she’d eventually have you snorting and hiccoughing at her speculations on the passing crowd, and then everyone would be looking at you like you were an escaped lunatic.

The Internet allowed her to expand her number of friends tremendously. It was more comfortable for Kage to talk to people long-distance over the Net. There were many people who learned how warm and fascinating her conversation could be only through the medium of email.  She was a good correspondent – she thought that literacy was going to survive the 21st century mostly through the medium of electronic letter writing: all the people who – like her- found live conversation trying would keep the skill alive.

It was like passing notes – for which she had a passion; we were in the same office a lot, and we passed notes like the schoolgirls we had been.  It combined the charm of real-time communication with the comfort of distance. And your ear never went numb from the phone handset.

Kage barely had time to discover Skyping, and it rather horrified her. I might have been able to persuade her to try it, but it would have taken a while. She carefully had me disable the cameras on our last couple of computers.

So Kage did enjoy conversational chat in her own way, as well as pontificating in a friendly environment. But she still hated to give writing advice.

Like any writer, she frequently encountered folks who wanted to tell her their story ideas. If they were people she knew and trusted, she’d at least listen. But if they were strangers, she would actually stop them in mid-spiel (and that was an act of profound social courage for Kage) and tell them urgently, “Don’t say anymore! For your safety and mine, do NOT tell me your plot ideas. People get sued for things like that.”  I think she quite frightened a few nascent writers, insinuating that some shadow organization was listening to everything they said. All she really wanted to do, though, was avoid  someone claiming she’d stolen their ideas.

One or twice, when approached by editors for “on-order” contributions, she wouldn’t even reply to them without verifying they were really editors.  Editors, luckily, are unfazed by just about any weirdity displayed by writers …

Sometimes, conventions have their guest writers vet stories by ticket-buying participants. There are actual Writers Conferences and Workshops, of course; these others are sort of mini-workshops, and apparently very popular with folks trying to break into writing. They were agony for Kage – she did say YES once or twice, because it was the polite thing to do, but she absolutely hated it. We ran our brains in tandem for those occasions, because she couldn’t do it except as a gestalt. We even scripted her comments for the face-to-face workshops.

Had Kage ever attended Clarion, it would have ended in a massacre. Probably with an axe.

Kage said there was really only one piece of writing advice she could convey, anyway. Anything else was just English 101, corrected grammar and spelling and developing good research habits. “All of which,” she would remark darkly, “they should have learned in high school anyway!” And she did put in that one special direction into every story she critiqued, into every conversation with a friend who had a great idea for a story but didn’t know how to use it.

WRITE. That was it. Just WRITE. Writers WRITE, and the only way to do it is to sit down and make marks into words. Do it over and over and over, 100,000 times, until your fingers smoke and smoulder and your brain bleeds out your ears like oil and the hot white flame of PLOT rises above the keyboard.

All the rest is triviality.

Harlan Ellison legendarily had a repeating student in one of his writing classes. The guy kept coming back, and he was astonishingly terrible, and finally Harlan asked him why he kept undergoing this torment. And the man said, “I’m a writer. I need to write. Please don’t make me stop.” And Harlan Ellison recognized the desperate fire in that man, and let him stay. He had, after all, learned that one vital trick to being a writer. He WROTE.

Now, writing well – which is what the hopeful are actually asking – that’s a different matter. Kage hated to give advice on it because she didn’t believe it could be taught. And getting published is at least half luck anyway, so there wasn’t any sacred, secret knowledge to impart there.

Every day, every free moment. Make more free moments and WRITE in those. Make it your first and foremost devotion. Food, drink, rest, bills, jobs, lovers, family, natural disasters and flights of angels and aliens arriving at the White House … be damned to them all. You. Just. WRITE.

Because nothing else matters.

Except the work.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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3 Responses to There Is No Try

  1. djhamouris says:

    Andy Warhol would have agreed. ❤


  2. Kara says:

    YES, so much to this. Just write!

    Although I’d add also to be sure to keep your booze of choice around to help you through the editing process of cutting out some of your beautiful, precious, darling words when you realize you are over the limit.


    • Kate says:

      Kara – yes, the old “Murder your darlings” axiom. Which is sometimes a problem, but only sometimes. Usually, by the time Kage finished a novel or even a long story, she was so tired of it that there was element of punitive justice to the editing. But she was also adamant about what she felt belonged there. No outside editing was followed without a lot of thought, and she was willing to argue quite a lot. She listened to her editors, but did not obey them automatically.

      I’ve only had to deal with the process on my own twice so far – and was lucky in my editor. It’s not so hard with good people.


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