Special Guest Friday: Stuart Jaffe


Today we’d like to welcome Stuart Jaffe to our special guest spot. Stuart is a prolific writer of short stories, with work appearing in Weird Tales, Strange Pleasures #3 and many more print and online magazines and anthologies. With his lovely wife Glory, he hosts The Eclectic Review, a weekly podcast in which they discuss science, art, writing, books, movies, tv, and whatever else falls in their laps. Take it away, Stuart!

Before I begin, I want to thank Misty for her friendship and for inviting me to write this guest spot at Magical Words, and to thank David for his inspiration and friendship. If you want to learn more about me and my writing, check out The Stuart Jaffe Website. Aside from being a writer, I am also the co-host of The Eclectic Review podcast. Show #165 has a review of Misty’s Mad Kestrel. So take a listen, and if you haven’t done so yet, go buy the book. It’s loads of fun. Now to the blog:

There are numerous rules to help us become better and more successful writers. On con panels, I often quote the six rules of writing — read, read, read, write, write, write. Here at Magical Words, I’ve noticed much usage of the indispensable rule BIC — Butt In Chair. Most of these types of rules center on the 99.99% correct concept that if you wish to be a writer, you have to sit down and, you know, write.

This past year, however, I discovered the odd merits of that .01% — not writing. That’s right. You read correctly. Not writing.

See, I ended up taking a teaching job to help some people out at the last moment. It was supposed to be a few months long. It lasted the entire school year. Initially, I just altered my writing schedule, getting up at five, and continued as usual. As the job progressed, though, I discovered why nobody wanted the position. Horrible management coupled with daily stress turned me into another person — an exhausted, on-edge grouch who lacked the mental capacity to write, let alone write well.

I tried. I tried every technique I could think of. The last was when I decided to write long-hand and ended with a page that literally trailed off as if I had died mid-sentence.

A while back, I read an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, in which he stated that he never writes between novels. Instead, he observes people and collects stories. Then, when all the disparate pieces gel together, he writes it all down. Well, I didn’t know about all that, but I knew that this horrid job would end eventually and that I would be able to return to writing. I also knew that I had to try something, so I decided to stop writing.

And something odd happened.

I sold a story I forgot was even out there and was asked to write two more for some upcoming anthologies. Knowing I had no brain power to form sentences, I discovered I still had the juice to dream stories. I put together the pieces in my head, jotted a few notes, and simply enjoyed the pleasures of imagining stories without worrying about each little turn of phrase.

I also re-examined my writing (I could still read, after all) and spotted problem areas that I had failed to notice before. They were so glaring but it took not writing to get my brain to notice. Many writers recommend that when you finish a story or novel, you should put it away for a few weeks or months before revising it. The time off from that work will give you a fresh perspective. Same idea here except at a greater magnitude — I wasn’t seeing a particular story with a fresh perspective, I was seeing my abilities as a writer with a fresh perspective.

Now the nightmare job is over and I’m back at the keyboard. I feel renewed, jazzed, and overflowing with enthusiasm to write. BIC? No problem!

Here’s the most important point, though, one I cannot stress enough — before you use this blog entry as an excuse not to write, remember, I am a published author. I know a few things about writing (not as much as I’d like to know, but a few). I do not recommend this for those of you just starting out. You need to write, write, write and then write some more. We all do. But for those who have been at it for awhile, it can help sometimes to take a step back — see that forest instead of those trees.


4 comments to Special Guest Friday: Stuart Jaffe

  • Welcome, Stuart. Nice to see you here, my friend. Great post. I have a few responses. The first is, I’m really happy to hear that you’re done with that teaching nightmare, and are back at it, writing stories and getting to do the work you love. Second, and this is for the rest of you, Stuart is one of the nicest guys on the planet. Great sense of humor, wonderful friend, terrific disposition. When he says that he was an “on-edge grouch” you have to take that with a grain of salt. I spent time with him in the midst of his nightmare semester, and you never would have known that he was suffering. His “on-edge grouch” is like a good mood day for the rest of us…. 😉

    Finally, the don’t write advice is spot on. I’ve used this analogy before: writing is a bit like exercising. The longer you do it, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Your prose gets leaner, more muscular. That’s all good. And there are days when you wake up and the last thing you want to do is go work out or go on that run. But you do it anyway, because you know that once you do, you’ll feel better. Writing is the same way: those are the BIC days. But there are other days when your body just isn’t up for the workout, when exercising will actually make you feel worse. And there are days when it’s not just a matter of “I don’t feel like writing,” but rather, “trying to write today or this week, or for the next couple of weeks, or whatever, is going to be counterproductive.”

    I agree that this is something that more experienced writers can allow themselves that beginners should probably avoid. Because part of making the decision to take time away from writing is knowing your own creative process well enough to understand whether you need to push yourself to put butt in chair or take that step back.

    Thanks for the contribution to MW, Stuart.

  • Emily Leverett

    This is a great post, thanks Stuart!

    I have to admit, as an inbetween writer (I’ve published very little, but I have written a lot) I feel like I need to do the whole BIC thing, and write write write…

    But… what Stuart described (and look, there’s a successful writer who does it!) is how tend to write. I tend to think a lot, think some more, and then, one day, sit down and write for hours, or write for a whole weekend, or neglect the papers piling up that I need to grade and write even more! This may be something I need to stop doing, or at least go the other direction for a while, but it is how I wrote my dissertation, which isn’t the same as a novel, of course, (it was shorter, for one thing!).

    I’ll sit and play with the stories in my head for a while: an hour, a week, a month, and then BAM! it will be there and I can write it down. I’m going to try the other side with a new project–I’ll try to write for an hour or more every day. (Hey, that’s what office hours are for! Students NEVER come!)

    Thanks again for the different perspective!

  • Great article. I’m not published yet, but I certainly get what you’re talking about. I have my Thinking About The Story stretches where I just need to stop and delve into my imagination. I’m still amazed at how I stumble across key things I missed earlier that should have seemed so obvious.

  • Thanks all for your comments. Sorry it’s been all day before I could reply, but I’ve been out of town and just flew home today.

    Anyway, David — thanks for all the kind words. I like the exercise analogy and plan to use it!

    Emily and CE — Glad you liked the article. Both of your comments made me think of the play/film Amadeus. At one point in it, Mozart says he’s written several pieces while sick — none of which had been written down. He says that the creative part is done in his head and the rest is just “scribbling.” I’ve always loved that bit. I find the more I have created in my head, the faster the scribbling goes. I’ve also discovered that when it comes to the scribbling part, I tend to create/re-create as I’m going, so the whole process becomes rather circular. The key is to know when to stop keeping it in your head and get BIC, because I have had the bad side of all this waiting happen — I’ve thought through a story sooooo much that it becomes stale and boring. Then the scribbling part is no good, too.