F*** IT. ZOMBIES (Or: Why my editor needs an aspirin)

Sometimes doing exactly what you want to do is hard. I write fanciful novels about a magical detective. I love them. They’re silly and meaningful and ridiculous and fun. Also, sometimes, they’re hard. Writing a book, it turns out, is a lot of writing. When the pressure of deadlines and the slog of getting sh* done starts to make what I love feel like a JOB (gasp)… I’ve found that I have three options:

  1. Fortify and do your damn job.
  2. Abandon your dreams and drink heavily.
  3. F* it. Have fun.

A colleague of mine arranged for the author Jacquelyn Mitchard to visit our students last year. Mitchard spoke about her debut The Deep End of The Ocean being selected as Oprah’s first ever Book Club book. She talked about her process and was generally a very intelligent and engaging guest. My favorite moment was her reply to the classic, “What do you do when you get writer’s block?” question. Her response.

I don’t.
I don’t believe in writer’s block.
A plumber doesn’t get plumber’s block.
The President doesn’t get president’s block.
It’s a job. You just do it.

I think that philosophy is awesome. If you’re the kind of artist who waits for inspiration to strike, you will get writer’s block A LOT. You will get it pretty much constantly. Sometimes you just have to do the damn work. Mitchard’s stance on that pairs nicely with a Pablo Picasso quote I like to toss at my writing students from time to time, too:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

So I do the work. I write, and most of the time, I am really grateful that I have the luxury of doing what I love. While all that is true—there still come times when I begin to resent it. I shouldn’t, I know. It’s the work I WANT to be doing. I CHOSE this, but that doesn’t magically make it less hard.

I remind myself that it’s option 1—do the work, or option 2—don’t. Go get a desk job and figure out how to be a grown up. Every once in while, though, I allow myself option 3.

Option 3 generally emerges in a sort of late-night “Hold my beer. Now watch this…” kind of foolish writing haze. The plot has been planned out neatly. My editors have approved my outlines. I have the work laid out in front of me… and the click of the keys gradually slows down. And  then it stops. And I want to set my laptop on fire just to see colors again.

And then, suddenly… BAM. That other part of my brain kicks in—the part that decided I was going to write about a magical detective in the first place, instead of growing up and learning how to use Excel—and that part decides it’s had enough. “F* it,” my brain says. “Zombies. What if there were zombies in this scene? Wouldn’t that be so much cooler than dialogue? No, wait. UNICORNS! Yes! Let’s freakin’ DO this!”And then, suddenly, the keys are clicking again.

The zombies and unicorns don’t always make it to the final draft. Sometimes that part of my brain is an idiot, lets be honest—but every once in a while it does help me find the thing that was missing from the page—the thing that made me start writing in the first place: fun. Those passages are frequently my very favorite parts of my books, and they are definitely my favorite part of writing.

So my advice: do the damn work. Don’t give up on the dream. But remember: it’s okay to have fun, too.



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9 responses to “F*** IT. ZOMBIES (Or: Why my editor needs an aspirin)

  1. Thanks for the advice and the laugh.

  2. Cleo

    Was Jackaby your first book?

  3. Aliah Wilkinson

    Wow! Incredible advice and from an extraordinary writer (wink*).
    Just read Jackaby then went and bought Beastly Bones. Absolutely loved them. Truly brilliant. Thankyou.

  4. Hannah Baum

    What’s one of the scenes in the book that came from this “zombies” approach? 🙂

    • Douglas was a spontaneous addition, as is Lydia Lee in book 3. Their scenes evolved from a decision to embrace the unplanned. Often the “f-it” passages are just silly little jokes or offhand references to particularly obscure mythology—things that I tuck in, occasionally they’re bigger.

  5. Zoe

    First off, I would just like to say how deeply I’ve fallen in love with your books. They sit front and center on my desk and my heart does funny little things when I look at them. I was ecstatic (I’m serious) when I found your blog, its great! But, as an aspiring writer, this particular post is my favorite.
    For a while I was struggling with that “wait for it to come to you…then write” mentality that does more harm than good. I’d like to thank you because this helped. So much. It’s one of the first inspirational things I’ve read that does its job at being inspirational. My story felt like an obligation that I didn’t want to give up- now I have “option 3”. After I read it a garbled but solid plot line appeared on my laptop (don’t worry, and there’s plenty of monsters).
    So, a long overdue thank you.

    • Thanks so much, Zoe! I’m delighted to hear my books have found a home on your desktop, and all the more delighted that I’ve been able to inspire your writing. Now you get to look forward to the day you have no room for my books on your desk, because your own will have taken their place. Get on it! Write those monsters! 🙂

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