1. First, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m too used to doing these for academic conferences—my first inclination was to list off my degrees and research topics. Let it suffice to say that I’m a recovering academic. I spent most of the Aughts as a student, intermingling various jobs on and off the various campuses I attended. I started college as an English major, started graduate school as a composer, and ended up with a terminal degree in musicology and comparative studies.
Along with teaching gigs, I’ve logged a lot of hours as a stay-at-home dad. My kids are four and (almost) seven. They keep me busy.
I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words for “games” with various levels of writing intensity, most particularly a few novels’ worth of material for a shared world called Imperial Secrets. It lived in the early days of e-mail, with only some of the content making it out of the old Yahoo lists onto the broader web. There are vestiges of it out there. That’s where I really cut my teeth with extended characterization, writing dialogue, and sustaining plots…even if it was all “recreational.” I’ve also written heaps of academic papers, which are better writing practice than you might think if the writer is paying attention.
Right now, I’m working on finishing my National Novel Writing Month project, Ghosts of the Old City, as well as keeping up Walking Ledges (http://walkingledges.com), which mingles writing about writing with writing about my experiences as a post-academic.
2. When did you become interested in writing?
I have vivid memories of being in third grade looking at the blue screen on the Tandy my brother and I shared, typing out the beginnings of novels in Word Perfect. I read constantly as a kid. Tolkien was my gateway to mass market fantasy fiction. I wanted to copy it. Sometimes I did that as a writer, sometimes I did it as a gamer. Even though I started many stories (and finished a few of them) throughout my childhood, I didn’t really think about “being a writer” until around the time I was 16.
When I started college, I wanted to be a writer. Then I took a long artistic and academic detour through music. Sometimes, when I was working on my dissertation, I’d daydream about writing the stories I was actually interested in writing. It was the first thing I picked back up when I finished my PhD.
3. What are your writing habits?
With the exception of National Novel Writing Month, when I was able to twist the contours of my life to make a bar graph go up, I’ve never been especially good at steady, smooth progress. I tend to keep plinking away at a project bit by bit—I sneak in a paragraph or two at a time. When I can, I claim a day or two for the project and work for much longer stretches (though that still caps out at six or seven hours in a go). Editing is more variable. Figuring out what’s broken and managing sentence or paragraph level fixes is fast work for me. (I credit my time with student papers for some of that.) Fixing large-scale problems is almost always slower, in part because I’m no better than most at killing my darlings, in part because I generally try and work my fixes out completely in my head rather than in intermediate, less-broken-but-not-fixed drafts.
The most important thing for me is to keep my stories active in my head space. It’s not always easy with the competing demands on my time, but I make sure that even when I’m not at my keyboard, I’m thinking about what ought to happen when I’ll next be there.
5. What is the best writing advice anyone has ever given to you?
I don’t have anything especially pithy that’s been handed to me directly, but I like other writers’ quotes about brevity, from Elmore Leonard’s “I try to leave out the parts that people skip” to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” In good writing, every word pulls its weight. The same is true at the structural level. Most of my best writing lessons boil down to that.
6. What would you like to say to any aspiring writer?
Pay attention to words. Everywhere. Read when you can, listen to the way people talk. Read your own work out loud. Whether poets, prosodists, or journalists, writers live with words. Do that as consistently as you can.
The other thing—one you’ve discussed eloquently here on your blog—is that it is not easy, and that’s okay. Sometimes you’re going to feel like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down. You’ll get stuck. You’ll have one stupid sentence that just refuses to work, and it will be the most important sentence in your scene. You will sit down to work and you’ll have nothing. You have to work at it anyway. Just keep swimming. There are other people out there working on the same things, and it is okay to interact with them. Don’t buy into the Romantic claptrap of the lone genius. You might write alone, but all of my favorite writers talk shop and socialize with each other. Find your community.
7. A lot of writers complain about perfectionism as being one of the most dangerous traps. Would you agree that books are never finished; we just have to let go?
It’s hard for me to answer this question without thinking about composers. There are some composers—Igor Stravinsky comes to mind immediately—who constantly revise their scores. Stravinsky’s scores weren’t really “finished” until he died. With music, you can do that. When you put the new version of the score in front of performers, you get a little closer to the piece in your head. With books, that’s much harder, even if ebooks can be updated comparatively easily.
I have never been that kind of perfectionist, and composing probably has something to do with it. Certainly, in producing “finished” scores and manuscripts, there are always errors that slip through. Ninety-nine percent right is good enough for me. I’d rather move on to the next project than experience the dramatically diminishing returns on time spent trying to push closer to 100%.
8. Quantity or quality?
You can’t have quality before you have quantity. An excellent, half-finished book is not a book. A crummy, finished book is. I believe in the power of revision. It’s tempting to say that’s where the real work happens, but anybody who has stared at a blank page or screen knows how much work can go into filling it. When you get things right the first time, it’s awesome. It’s just not always the case. Sometimes you have to build bridges to inspiration with sheafs of ill-favored pages. (Those are bridges you can burn later.)
9. Talent, luck, or perseverance?
Pick two of the three. Perseverance is the one that’s most under your own control.
10. What do you think is the most important aspect of writing?
Doing the work. You can dress it up with whatever aphorisms you like, but writing eventually comes down to doing the work. Again, stay away from Romantic fantasies about the mad ecstasy of creation or Bohemian fantasies of sitting wistfully in cafes. It can be maddening. It can be ecstatic. You’ll probably drink a lot of caffeinated beverages. But you do those things in the service of the work.
J.D.J. Plocher has spent a few more years collecting degrees than he probably ought to have. Being good at school turns out to be a rather insubstantial foundation for a career (particularly given the Academy’s increasing reliance on contingent faculty and consumer-oriented models of education). He currently pursues making good art and attempts to make his living with words. Making good art is much more fun than collecting degrees, anyway. Meanwhile, he works as a substitute teacher in Central Texas. He blogs at http://walkingledges.com about writing, reading, and life as a post-academic.