there is joy

by  Toni McGee Causey

I can tell you up front, I know no secrets about writing. I had sort of hoped that, by this point, I would have found the mysterious code, the secret handshake, the door in the back that opens with just the right combination of knocks and pauses. There may be such things; I don’t know them.

I’ve thought about that a lot this last year. When I knew that I was going to write something else besides a Bobbie Faye novel, I felt a sense of exhilaration, followed almost immediately by a sense of terror. I’d been hostess to that set of characters for almost seven years, at that point. It was a bit like growing up with the same friends, going to the same school, living in the same house in the same small town; at some point, you yearn to see what the rest of the world is like.

That series started off as a script, and then after deciding to adapt it to a novel, I had to work long and hard to break myself of a bunch of script-writing habits and re-learn how to write fiction. The whole ability to show internal thoughts? wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Seriously. That was a trip and a high after years of having to keep everything external and yet somehow physically convey the internal, or use dialog, without getting to dip even a toe into the interiority of a character. (The exception, of course, is voice-over, and I’m not a fan. I think it shows a weak script, most of the time.)

It was time for a change, though, and the problem with suddenly having that freedom is that there were too many options. 

For the first couple of months, I thought I’d develop something funny, since that seemed to be my “niche.” The oddity about that as my niche is that it’s really not what I first loved to write. Everything I’d written in the early script years had been very dark, psychologically. The humor was something I didn’t think I could write. Oh, I was a natural smartass, and I learned early on to curb that online (bit me in the ass a few times, it did)… but conveying humor on paper? I hadn’t really planned on it, and yet, my screenwriting agent at the time felt like I should give it a try. [And that script still gets calls, almost 14 years later. It’s been optioned and re-optioned. I refer it as the script that refuses to die.] 

Funny became my bailiwick. I loved it, it was a joy to get letters from people who were going through really crappy days or months, and learn that I’d helped them through it. There’s just nothing quite like that feeling, when you read those letters. So I thought I’d do that again, just set in a different world.

I brainstormed the world, had the characters, and tried to write. And a frustrating thing happened: it went dark. Not just a little dark. Not like mildly slate gray when you were aiming for the whitewash of dawn. It went very dark. Bleak in places.

The story and I had a talking to–a come to Jesus meeting if you will. It seemed to agree to shape up, to do what it was told, so I would throw out the pages and start over, and try to go back to the lighter side. It curved on me, swerving back. Nothing I did worked.

I got a lot of well meaning advice at the time about sticking with what I was known for, keeping my fans happy, and so on, and every single bit of that is valid. People who have built amazing long-term careers said these things to me, so there was no doubt they were speaking from experience.

And the more I tried to pretzel that story, the more miserable I was. I sort of hated writing there for a while. In fact, we kinda broke up. I didn’t mention it here, but I had started to wonder if I was a writer, you know? I couldn’t get that damned story to work, and I couldn’t leave the idea behind. It had grabbed me by a chokehold and I was squirming away. 

It was back in October and early November when several friends said a few things to me. I would like to think it was provenance, fate. I hope it wasn’t because I was whining incessantly. [I was whining, people.] 

That’s when I had the realization that I hadn’t gotten into writing to do just one thing. I get bored easily. I hadn’t become a writer because I thought I’d be famous. (The Naked Cowboy is famous. These days, you can do the stupidest thing on the planet, and be famous. Thinking you’re going to write a book, one among hundreds of thousands and suddenly be famous? Not likely.) And nobody sane gets into writing for the money. Just look at the flux publishing is in today–nobody really knows what the hell is going to happen two years from now. Two years ago, e-readers were the clunky dim future and nothing worth worrying about. Now? The percentage of ebook sales is rising, fast, and there are all sorts of quakes ripping through the industry. It’s going to change by next month, and definitely by next year, so writing for the money is fairly laughable. The majority of writers either have a job to support them, or are lucky enough that a spouse can handle the bills while they toil away, hoping to create something that will sell.

So, then, why the hell write?

Because I can’t not write.

I quit fighting the story.

If it was going to go dark, then fine, we’d go dark. If it wanted to be told in first person, then dammit, we’d do first person. (Scared the living hell out of me, that one did. I had never written a first person story. Ever. Thought I never would.) If it was going to break my heart a dozen times over how hard the main character’s life was, well, then, fine. 

I would simply tell the story.

And it started working. 

I’m here at a point in the story where today felt like I was carving each word out of my own skin, syllable by bloody syllable, because the scene was painful. People lose things, in this scene, that cannot be recovered. It changes everything for them in this story. And as painful as it was, as scared as I had been to go here, I have to tell you, I sat back at the end of this day, and there was joy.

I am so grateful I didn’t listen to the peer pressure of doing the same sort of thing I’d done before. I will go back to lighter stories–I have another one I already know I want to do, eventually. But I am so grateful that my friends–several ‘Rati members included–encouraged me to go with my instincts. I can’t write that to you as someone who sold this thing–I’ve held it back, with the blessings of my agent–because I didn’t want it out there until it could be a whole book. If I do it right, if I pull it off, it will be heartbreaking, but the end will be worth it. So when I tell you that there is joy, it’s a joy of the writing. There is no other reward, here, than that, because everything else is fleeting. 

The first couple of years of being a writer, there is so much pressure to promote. No one really knows what works; it’s all a guess. I’ve tried a lot of stuff, because people said I needed to, and some of it might’ve helped, and a lot of it was completely useless, as far as I could tell. The first couple of years, you spend a lot of time suddenly caught up in the spin cycle of publishing–writing as fast as you can, sending things off, getting the next book started or the next proposal done, proofing copy edits, writing a bit more on the current one, starting up promotional stuff, proofing the galleys, frantically writing more of the next one, trying to squeeze living and family in there, having very little time to breathe, much less enjoy.

None of it matters more than the work.

At the RWA conference last year, I went to an early morning no-holds-barred chat giving by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. (She’s got a gazillion NYT bestsellers under her belt and is gorgeous and nice. You kinda want to smack her for being perfect, except she’s funny and disarming and you end up liking her a lot before you know what happened.) She said a lot of useful things, but at one point late in the hour, she said, “Whatever you do, protect the work. The work is all you have.”

There is a joy in that. I honestly know that I am writing far far better than I did before. Everything about how I write has changed with this book. That part is neither better or worse–just different, I suppose. What’s important is that I didn’t keep thinking, “Well, I should do it this way or I should do that other thing, because that’s what’s expected.” Instead, I said, “What does this story want to say?”

I love what I do. I am so incredibly grateful I get to do it. I may never sell again, and I will be bummed, if that happens, but I’m here to tell you that this part? This writing what is gut-wrenching and honest and letting the story stay true to itself?

Pure joy.

Sometimes, it’s going in the complete unexpected direction that will break you free of the chains, and bring you joy.

And speaking of joy, I could not end this post without giving you the Jane Austen Fight Club. 

What brings you joy, my friends?

(By the way, I’m woefully behind on updating my website, through no fault of my excellent webmistress, Maddee, so if you want to follow me, it’s easier to find me on Twitter or Facebook.)

26 thoughts on “there is joy

  1. Barbie

    This blog of yours reminds me of a quote I absolutely LOVE, by Cyril Connolly: It’s better to write for yourself and have no public than write for the public and have no self."

    You’re an AMAZING writer, Toni. And I don’t get it from the books only. I think, in the end, what makes an author isn’t what they write, but how they write it. It’s not about the genre, or even the content, but how it is expressed. You’re extremely intelligent and have an amazing view of the world and how it works. I can see if through your blogs, through your books. And, no matter what you write, it’ll always show that. I truly admire your strength and your persistence.

    If you wanted to write meds prescription, I’d read them and recommend them!!! πŸ™‚

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  2. billie

    Great post, Toni – I so agree with you about the work, and letting ourselves sink into it. Writing brings me joy, and living with my horses and the little donkeys. Seeing my children grow up with lots of space and time to ponder and explore. Yesterday driving to the Tractor Supply with my husband for stall bedding and getting a milkshake after brought me joy.

    The interesting thing is that simple things bring joy, but often it’s the complexities, like your fear of writing dark, in first person, or my three days of detective work this week when one of the horses had a patch of hives appear, that force us through a tough place, and in doing so, bring us back to the simple joys with a whole new sense of appreciation.

    Thank you for the reminder, written so beautifully!

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  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Loved the clip!
    And a great post. I think it is the hardest thing to do: letting yourself do what you love. Maybe it goes back to our Puritan roots that we’re supposed to suffer in our work and eek out the enjoyable things. When I didn’t get a job I wanted a few months ago, I had a talk with myself and asked what would I really like to do? The newsletter I’m working on is the answer. We’ll see. I’ll have the August issue done probably today and I posted on 4MA for all comers to contact me if they’d like to see a PDF of it so I can get some feedback from real readers.
    What brings me joy is reading. There is this great satisfying "ahhhh" when you come across that book that hits all the notes right for you. I love losing myself in a story, when the words become images and you’re not even aware you are the one cranking the wheel so to speak to keep the story going.

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  4. Fran

    As I understand it, you have to let the story go where it’s going and let the characters be who they are.

    I was talking to Candace Robb yesterday, bemoaning the fact that she’d stopped writing her Owen Archers, and she grinned and said that Owen had been "talking" to her lately, that there was something else he wanted to say. What could she do? She has to write it. Lillian’s beside herself with excitment. She loves Owen.

    And Candace (who’s also Emma Campion), said that the next book Emma is writing is in first person. She never wanted to write first person, she finds it to be incredibly difficult. But there you go, the book insists on being first person so she’s gotta suck it up and go with it.

    It’s fascinating to me how frequently the characters take charge of how a book is going to go, despite the author’s best intentions!

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  5. toni mcgee causey

    Barbie, that is a fabulous quote! Thank you for posting that, I hadn’t ever seen that one. I am printing it out, now.

    Thank you, billie! And you’re right, it’s those horrible rough patches that put everything into perspective. I’m not entirely thrilled we have to be wired that way. I’d have just preferred a button or something (grin), but given where I am now, and how much I am enjoying what I’m doing, I wouldn’t trade those dark months of confusion.

    I hope the horse is doing well now? And yay for the joy of the kids. πŸ˜‰

    PK, I think you’ve so nailed it, with the Puritan background. It’s okay to follow a dream. It’s not like any other direction has a definite guarantee, anyway. πŸ˜‰ And YAY on the newsletter — fingers crossed that that goes well.

    Fran, thank you — and yep, I think I’ll end up having the same, er, conversations with Bobbie Faye. I’ve gotten so many fan letters asking for the fourth book, and I’m honored. But I couldn’t write it, not right now. I keep thinking I might put up something short on Kindle, just for the fans of that series, but it’ll have to be after Avery and her world are finished and out of my mental shelf space. It’s sort of overflowing in there.

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  6. Eika

    I embarrass my family and friends with this, but I love reading Highlights Magazine in doctors offices. (it’s usually the best thing offered, anyway; though occasionally, I’ll give in to demands and read National Geographic if it’s available.) I’m also usually being asked about why I’m reading so young when I have a Middle Grade or YA novel in hand. Some YA novels they can’t tell from the cover, though.

    I also love listening to music and talking to myself about daydreams; planning incredible comebacks I didn’t get to use but my characters will; and writing. I like role playing games, and really enjoy card and board games; especially the fun and complicated ones not many people know of (I’m in college. We have a club. There is an actual board game where the players are knights of the round table, and one is secretly a Traitor working on Camelot’s downfall. Try having kids play that!).

    A new love is Tai Chi, which I’m slowly learning. Very slowly.

    And I try to remember all these things eight hours a day, five days a week, summers and vacations, because that’s when I’m working at McDonalds, and that is NOT joy.

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  7. Catherine

    Toni I see in what you have written something I find myself doing. I’m learning to not get in the way of myself with a whole bunch of what i think I should do…or even letting myself be swayed by people that I respect. Often times i see the logic in what someone else proposes, however f it doesn’t click for me it becomes a cul-de-sac rather than a path I tread. Admittedly I drive the people in my life a little nuts ( I like to think of it as part of my ‘charm’). Lately I feel as though all sorts of threads are weaving together to create a more complex interesting life than I’ve previously allowed myself.

    I’m so glad that you have given yourself permission to wander where you will and take joy in allowing yourself that freedom.

    I’ve often thought there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Most of the stuff that makes me actually laugh out loud is pretty dark.

    I find joy in contrasts. I found myself teary listening to the Sex Pistols a little while back. I’ve been listening to the Cure and the The Clash since I was a teenager but had given the pistols a bit of rest…and yet listening to them again brought me more fully back to the angry teenager I was…and I had a moment of gratitude that I wasn’t a teenager.

    Hah, instant joy at me being me right now.

    Thanks for sharing your joy.

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  8. TerriMolina

    Thanks for the great post, Toni. I’ve been feeling like a hack lately because I can’t seem to get anything worthwhile written. I gave up on a new novel because I let my own stubborness on how I wanted the story to move butt heads with the story itself. Now that I know it’s okay to just let the story go off on a tangent…I can get back to it. πŸ˜‰ (after I complete revisions on two other books, that is)

    As for what brings me joy….now that I live in a desert…I love rain and thunderstorms even more! hah

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  9. pari noskin taichert

    Toni,
    What a wonderful post. Thank you. I’m on a parallel track and wonder what you’ll think of my post tomorrow.

    Writing what you want to write, what the story demands you write, is the key to joy in our profession. It keeps our hearts front and center — which, to me — is ultimately why we have readers in the first place.

    It’s also a difficult thing to do because there are so many external pressures and voices urging us to do otherwise — or to be distracted with other things . . .

    And what a fabulous clip. Great fun.

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  10. mary lynn

    Just close your eyes, chant oooooooooooommmmmmmmmmmmm and channel the muse. I guarantee if you write, we will want to buy it.

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  11. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, thank you, and Rob, great list.

    Eika, oh, I love board games. That Round Table one sounds like a kick. Tai Chi is something I’ve always mean to try, but then that would mean actually searching out and driving somewhere for a class, and that’s kinda where I stop. If I move really slowly in my own home, does it count? <I kid.>

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  12. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, Catherine, I loved the cul-de-sac comparison — that is so apt. I can (far far too easily, I think) see someone else’s point of view and logic and give them the benefit of the doubt for good intent and it is both a useful trait (helps with empathizing and creating characters) and a frustrating one (I wonder if I’d have been here a lot sooner in my life if I hadn’t gotten derailed by other events?) (probably not).

    Love the joy of listening to something you listened to in high school and being grateful you aren’t that teenager any more. I came of age at *the* suckiest time, music-wise. Barry Manilow was the big huge star, and all of the milkdud music (you know, not anything to remember, no punch, no edge). Grunge started up about the time I was having kids and lots of other edgier sounds. My husband’s generation (only 3 years difference–might as well have been eons) had great rock bands. I think my music gene was not only stunted at that point, but smashed to smithereens. (I never had time to experiment later, once I had kids. We listened to Sesame Street.) (Of course, if Elmo had been on then, I’d have shot the TV.)

    I digress. Again. πŸ˜‰

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  13. toni mcgee causey

    Well, Terri, I happen to know firsthand you are a fantastic writer — so get busy and get those rewrites done. πŸ˜‰

    I know what you mean about the rain and thunderstorms. They can be annoying, but I miss them when I’m gone. I miss how green everything is here. It’s hard to explain how lush the green is.

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  14. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, thank you — and I am very much looking forward to your post tomorrow! There’ve been several times you’ve nailed exactly how I’ve felt. We’re doing the mind meld thing that Alex and Allison have been doing, post-wise. πŸ˜‰

    Love the "being alive." Amen to that.

    Mary Lynn — LOL. Well, thank you, ma’am. I appreciate that.

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  15. Catherine

    Toni as a teenager I badly needed the punk era to um soften the effect of being in amateur theatre with my parents.(although this wasn’t the source of my rage) I also remember hearing Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell cassette in breaks from rehearsal for a ‘ Gilbert and Sullivan show The Gondeliers’.

    Aww to Bazza Manilow. Yes he was not a singer overflowing with testosterone, yet I bet you at a party most people know all the words to Copacabana.

    My youngest when watching Sesame Street would parrot Zoe. A muppet with a ridiculously high energy level.So my daughter would dance around madly emitting a pitched EEEEeeeeEEEEeeeEEE ala Zoe sound till worn out. Just as well Australia has tight gun laws.

    Joined you in digressing.

    Also I forgot to mention before that I would love to read a book where you took a darker path.

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  16. Catherine

    Crap just re-read what I wrote and it looks a bit dicey on who would be taking the shot…So I’m clarifying that the TV would take the hit.

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  17. PK the Bookeemonster

    Update on the Premeditated newsletter — somewhat related to what brings us joy and in this case, following your bliss so to speak. August issue is as done as I can get it and is being viewed by some 4MA members and whoever wants a look at it and who will give me feedback. Still trying to figure out what to read next after finishing THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin a couple days ago. I’m telling myself I’m not slumping, I’m just being choosy.

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  18. Jill James

    I find joy when I’m writing "in the zone". That one where you look up from the computer to find pages and pages of writing on your screen and don’t know how it got there, then you read it and it is so good you think the gremlins must have stolen your story. LOL Wish I could write like that all the time, but I guess if I did I wouldn’t appreciate it as much, would I? πŸ™‚

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  19. Brandee

    Bring on the darkness, Toni. I can’t wait to read it. I still remember our talks back in October, and I hope you know I support your new direction wholeheartedly. I do love Bobbie Faye and her world, but there is so much more to you than just one character and her world. I can’t wait for your other readers to see that too.

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  20. Debbie

    When I first began writing I thought I was losing my mind. I wasn’t doing the work, I was simply following the characters around and writing down what they said,, did…. Finally I read L.M. Montgomery and her character Anne wrote a book. Anne said the characters would insist on saying and doing things and she’d have to change her story. Her friend said why don’t you just tell them what to say and do and Anne said, ‘I can’t’. I imagine L.M. Montgomery was writing about her own creative experience. Now I see that that is quite common for authors. I agree with Alex Sokoloff. Give yourself an outline but I also strongly feel that you need to gived the characters over to the story; give them their voice, otherwise they will strike and the story will stop. Is there anybody who has been able to override their characters and continue writing…well…withease? Lets face it – out there somewhere is a planet of stories and the characters line up in a cue to be released into our minds. It’s their story, not ours, to tell.

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