Amy Sterling Casil: The Writing Life For a Workaholic

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Oh gosh. People laugh at my laptop because most of the keys are worn down to nubs and the majority of the letters are invisible. I am a lucky person, because most amy february 2014of the time, I can work at home. I can now literally work anywhere in the world where I have internet access, and I’ve put that to the test several times in the past few months.

I write about 5,000 words a day, every day. Most of these words have been nonfiction over the past ten years. However, in the past year, I’ve been writing at least 1,000 words of fiction a day, every day. Add that up! It amazed me – I am very glad of this.

When my daughter (age21) was young, I used to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write from 5:00 to 7:00 each morning. Then she would wake and our day would start. During this time, I wrote the initial fiction that I published.

In addition to my fiction writing, I also write non-fiction, and I am a professional business planner and fund developer in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. I also teach writing at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo in Southern California, where I’ve taught since 2000.

I still find my best writing hours are in the early morning. This is when I’m fresh and things seem to come most easily. Of course, this is going to vary depending on individual biological clocks and circadian rhythms.

Which brings us to the real McDeal. Yes, we can all put our rears in the chair, and we must. Yes, we can all set a schedule, deadlines, and goals. And we must.

But for what purpose?like-fire-beta

I just finished the first really good book of my life, and I’ve published one novel under my own name and two under pseudonyms, and written three others. I just wrote something that means something to me, and which I hope will mean something to other people.

I spent a good five years assembling a notebook of “The Heroine’s Journey.” I was seeking a story. A story I didn’t see in other books. I didn’t know this story from my study of the Russian novel, nor 19th Century British literature, nor Shakespeare, nor from many – heck – any – other books I’d read. I might, myself, take the “Goddess” test online and come out half Persephone and half Aphrodite to the amusement of my friends who were all 100% Hera or Vesta, but darned if I could find such a story about such a character. Where she didn’t, like, throw herself under a train, or get dragged down to the underworld, or dragged back home by her hair at the end or some such thing.

Many of my competitors, I found, were writing stories about males – and not necessarily “leaders.” A lot of stories involving military conflict involve what I, for lack of a better word, will call “middle management.” Still other stories involve “clever thieves” or disenfranchised orphans or others who are in a lesser position for whatever reason. Which stories involved a main character who is not only in charge, is someone who deserves to be in charge, and furthermore, feels the full and legitimate weight of that responsibility? Or, to put it another way, a while back, I reflected upon George R.R. Martin’s books and thought, “Who the h*** would fight to the death for any of these yahoos?” The only ones who could inspire such behavior, Martin kills off, lickety-split. I could not find such tales.

What freed me to write my own story was a simple, childlike trick. Instead of “inventing” characters out of thin air, why didn’t I just put characters inspired by the people I knew and loved in the story? For me, the story came alive with this trick or technique. It was a joy and excitement to write every day – to find out what happened! If I was unable to write in the morning due to an early class or meeting, I would then write each night after dinner.

What writers need, I think, is a sense of passion or purpose. This isn’t easy to come by. Finding the stories we were meant to tell may take a lifetime.

All I can say is, when the story is right, there is nothing better. Let the phone ring, let dinner burn. Or do takeout.

Sit you down, live it, and write.

By the way, as Broos and Astá fell in love in Like Fire, so too did Amy and Bruce fall in love in real life. If that’s not inspirational motivation to write, I don’t know what is.

Inspired by a lifelong love of nature, endless curiosity, and a belief in wonderful things, Amy Sterling Casil is a 2002 Nebula Award nominee and recipient of other awards and recognition for her short science fiction and fantasy, which has appeared in publications ranging from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Zoetrope. She is the author of 26 nonfiction books, over a hundred short stories, primarily science fiction and fantasy, two fiction and poetry collections, and three novels. She lives in Aliso Viejo, California with her daughter Meredith and a Jack Russell Terrier named Gambit. Amy is the founder of Pacific Human Capital, a founding member and treasurer of Book View Café author cooperative and former treasurer of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and teaches writing and composition at Saddleback College, after receiving her MFA from Chapman University in 1999. She is currently engaged in founding a new publishing company for the 21st century, Chameleon Publishing.

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13 comments to Amy Sterling Casil: The Writing Life For a Workaholic

  • Wow, you’re productive. I write about 2500 words per day — all of it fiction, but still, I would love to get to 5,000. But that seems beyond my reach. The one time I came close was on a movie novelization with a ridiculous deadline, and the result was some of the worst writing I’ve ever done. Lesson learned: Don’t bite off more than you (I) can chew. Unless they throw a lot of money at you (me).

    Quoth Amy: “All I can say is, when the story is right, there is nothing better . . . Sit you down, live it, and write.”

    Yes, yes, yes. I take a different approach to finding story and character, but that end result is the same. When I find that character, or set of same, who captures my heart, and a story that makes my pulse pound, everything else falls away. That’s the pure moment — the perfect song played on one’s instrument of choice, the golf shot that makes you think, “Wow did I really do that?”, the moment of parenting that goes just as it should. That’s what makes all the work and isolation and business crap worthwhile. It’s precious and wondrous, and it keeps me coming back for more.

  • Writing so early in the morning? Bah! I can’t get it going without a few cups of coffee and a danish. Therefore I generally write in the early afternoon after lunch. Before then, it just feels like mud trying to write something.

    I find listening to music really gets my writing juices going. The right song or soundtrack can make the story inside me come to life and demand to be written.

  • That’s amusing to hear about Amy and Bruce and your two characters. In the novel I’m currently shopping around to agents, I came up with my characters, brunette Janni and blond Brennant, before meeting my friend Brendan (also blond) and his then-girlfriend, Jennie (brunette). Now DH and I are in their wedding party next month. Stranger than fiction… 8O

    I’m with Mark. Purposely getting up early is a hard one for me! But late nights? No problem. At least, until I have to get up the next morning.

  • David, it’s funny you should mention that because there’s a media tie-in book out there that I wrote that does not have my name on it. And I’ve always been glad I made that choice (though people have brought it to me to sign it so somebody knows!) and I wrote that sucker, 70,000 words, over President’s Day weekend in 2002. I was warned ahead of time, “If you take that contract and meet that deadline, it’ll mess up your own writing for a long time.” And that was true – it did happen. I also knew it was horrible, and occasionally like to glance at the Amazon reviews to see just HOW BAD. I have several excuses, all related to how I had to do the project. But ultimately, it’s bad because it’s bad.

    Mark and Laura – I know well that everyone has different times that are good for them, and I especially know a number of writers who are night people. That is so cool your characters are getting married in real life, Laura!

    As to whether Bruce and I … I suppose time will tell …

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you, Amy. This was extremely interesting (and interest-piquing) to read about your pursuit of the sort of story you thought would be meaningful and that you weren’t finding anywhere else. I can relate to an extent, but it looks like you’ve got a lot clearer handle on yours than I do on mine. I’m not currently aspiring to be published, so it’s really easy to ask why I’m putting in the effort to write my books anyway. I love *story*, but it’s more efficient to gobble up story by reading others’ books and takes a lot less time that way. But I feel like there’s something missing when I look at only that approach, some piece of the story that perhaps I have found before, but if so it’s been rare, and I really want it. Still haven’t been able to put my finger on it, though, so I guess I’m going to keep bumbling forward. Hooray for you finding and realizing yours!

  • Night-writer, here. I wake up early, and I wake up immediately, but for some reason the left-brain is in control in the morning – probably from a lifetime of having to be at work by 7 (or earlier). So, at the end of the day, when I’m free of other responsibilities, my right-brain takes over and the creative juices flow. That hard part is making it stop so I can get some sleep before it is time for that left-brain stuff again.
    As for finding characters and worlds I can be passionate about, that’s easy for me. So often, they just walk into my head and start scratching to be let out. For me, the difficult part is finding the story. Usually, when I start writing something, or even just start putting together the idea into some squiggly sense of coherence, I always seem to head toward the exploration of ethical issues or the challenging of one’s self-knowledge or faith. Trying to find the external story to carry my characters’ internal challenges is MY biggest challenge!

  • Oh – and Amy? You’re three for three! Great post (again)! Still want you to stick around.

  • Razziecat

    “Finding the stories we were meant to tell may take a lifetime.”

    Oh my. Yes, I’m finding this to be true. The characters that inspire me the most have been living in my head for roughly 30 years. It’s only in the last seven that they took on so much life that I couldn’t ignore them. If you had asked me 20-30 years ago which of my characters would do this, I would not have picked these (yes, there’s a lot of people living in my head ;) ), but here we are!

  • I would like to stay around … LOL. I am very lucky to have my BVC mates, but I haven’t had a writing community for a long time. Years ago when we were starting out, I was part of a small, tight-knit writing group of friends we called “The Gang of Four.” It was Ron Collins, Brian Plante, Lisa Silverthorne and me. I value the friendship and camaraderie we had so much. I recently, after all this time, asked Ron if he’d read Like Fire for me, and his feedback was priceless.

    Hepzebah, here’s the thing – the book came alive for me when I decided to base the characters on people I knew. It wasn’t just the main characters, it’s basically everyone. For example, I have a friend Dario Ciriello who is a very charming, urbane, handsome guy (he has Panverse Publishing). I made him one of the captains of the “Black Guard” in the book. His partner I based on this madman who was my ad salesman years ago at the 5-College newsmagazine in Claremont. I have no idea what became of that young (now, no longer young) man – but I’ll always remember when I hired him, he was like, “Let’s talk about my commission at Denny’s.” So we went to our local college hangout Dennys, where he recreated the scene from Easy Rider where the guy just wants plain toast and the waitress isn’t getting it. I hadn’t seen that movie and was so shocked when he was giving the Denny’s waitress a hard time – in his case, he wanted a real grilled cheese sandwich. “Is it real cheese — or is it process cheese FOOD?” She had no idea. This kid was such a natural salesman that he was making $5,000 a month off selling ads to every business in a 20 mile radius.

    For me, putting real people I knew in a fantasy story just made it pop. I’ve never had so much fun writing in my life. I cannot wait to do book 2, 3 etc.

  • Also, I think it’s important to seek out friends and help-mates with good energy. I wouldn’t have this book (and future books) without Bruce. I have the ego of a snail and it’s so easy to just fall into “Oh, this sucks – I’m the worst” whenever problems or challenges arise in the work. Bruce read each chapter as I wrote it. I started sending him only the Broos chapters. I didn’t really know him well when I started out. I just put him in as a whim. I thought, he’s got a mysterious past, he’s very controlled, etc. I was jokingly calling him “Dark Man.” Then it was like boom! There was in-the-book banter and back-and-forth, usually about 3:1 Broos has the upper hand over Asta.

    Bruce read the first couple such chapters and said, “I’m at Starbucks. Am I supposed to knife or mace all the customers if someone bumps me in line?”

    “Of course not,” I said. “You should wait outside and get them as they leave.”

    Having him there, reading it – plus I did NaNoWriMo – it all came together.

    This is us for real. It’s quite true. I have the sense that Mr. Pettigrew had a big night last night. Let’s hope he disposed properly of the bones.

    Mr. Pettigrew

    Although Bruce does not drink, he offers to buy me a drink in the Kingfish bar at the Hilton Capitol Center in Baton Rouge. Kingfish is for Huey P. Long who built the Capitol, the tallest in the United States. I remember Huey P. Long’s name. I remember his cry, “Every man a king!”
    I had not known how bloody and tragic was the death of Huey P. Long, nor could I have imagined that so many years later, any man’s presence would linger so long in any place, not a ghost but a living presence. The hotel driver speaks as if the Kingfish was just down the street at the Capitol, and quickly recounts all of his achievements.
    Over the city hangs a gauzy veil of old Southern ways and green moss; along the long walk beside the great river are hundreds of light poles and filigreed benches. Earlier in the day beside the river, I’d seen a homeless man sleeping long into the morning, zipped in layers of hoodies and wrapped in old jeans.
    Bruce’s hand is warm in mine as we sit in a massive red velvet chair that could seat five average people. The bartender, slim and elegant, with a fine brown flavor-saver and flashing brown eyes, comes to our corner.
    “Mr. Pettigrew would like to buy you two a drink,” he says. Looking back to the bar, he indicates an elderly gentleman in a gray serge suit sipping whisky – Pettigrew.
    Bruce and I smile. Bruce says, “Tell Mr. Pettigrew we’ll have his next round.”
    Bruce gets club soda and I have Jameson’s on Pettigrew’s dime. Wordlessly, Bruce and I think, “Oh, the lonely Southern gentleman.” We know there is some story there and are already imagining, although we’ve just come to this place and do not know it well.
    Soon, Pettigrew rises from the bar and comes over. We stand to greet him. He’s about 70, I think, and has the soft Louisiana accent, like slow honey.
    “I thought you would like to know why I bought you a drink,” he says after shaking Bruce’s hand.
    Without waiting for us to answer, he continues, looking past us through the French doors. “I saw you two walking down the street holding hands. You looked so happy.”
    Then he smiles at us. Bruce’s hand tightens on mine.
    “You never see people in our age range looking so happy,” he says. He turns to me and nods politely.
    “Oh not you, ma’am,” he says. Then he looks toward Bruce. “But you – you’re in my age range.”
    Bruce’s dimple deepens but I feel his displeasure at being shoved roughly past AARP refrigerator magnets into the twilight years in a single phrase.
    We exchange a few more words and Pettigrew returns to his seat at the bar. The barstools are pink leather, punctuated with huge brass brads.
    “I think that comment was more about Pettigrew than you,” I tell Bruce. I mean it, but he’s still smarting. Pettigrew was truly old; Bruce and I grow younger every day.
    Then a crowd of ten to twelve women, all heights, hair colors and sizes, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to late fifties, rushes into the bar from the lobby. They’re loud and happy brightly-made up birds, twittering with joy.
    They envelop Pettigrew and make over him, touching his shoulder, kissing his cheek, patting his hand.
    He is in his element, beaming. His harem has arrived.
    “So much for the lonely old guy,” I say as we finish our drinks and stand to leave, for Pettigrew has refused our offer of another drink and he’s quite busy.
    We cross the grand lobby with its ancient furnishings and marble floors. “I think he’s not a person at all,” Bruce says. “I think he’s a troll.”
    “He lives under the bridge,” I say, meaning the I-10 bridge across the great river.
    “He’s going to eat some of those women,” Bruce says.
    “He could be a brownie or a redcap,” I say as we get in the elevator. “They eat people.”
    “He’s hundreds of years old,” says Bruce.
    “There’ll be nothing left but their shoes and teeth in the morning,” I say.
    And by that time we are laughing so hard that the woman approaching us down the hall glares and thinks we are quite drunk.
    And so we are – but not on liquor. We have entered a world where the Kingfish is still alive, and our hearts are full with old Southern blood and love.
    In the morning I walk along the Mississippi, but not near the bridge. The homeless man was quite wise to wrap himself so tight. There are some things you’d just rather not see.

  • Wow! Small world. Ron Collins is a friend – we even co-authored a short story that was published in Altair #5!

  • Aw Lyn – Ron is my BEST writing friend and has been so since 1995 or so!

  • If anyone is in the Southern California area, I’ll be at ConDor in San Diego this weekend along with my good friends Sherwood Smith and Nancy Holder – I am giving a talk tomorrow evening at 5:00 p.m. on the Future of Publishing and it’s an all-new updated presentation from the one I did last November at LosCon that was very well-attended and received. I’ll also be doing other program items, including one on the future in a “post-scarcity world” at 2:00 PM on Saturday with Vernor Vinge.