The Adulterous Life of the Writer

Jay Faulkner resides in Northern Ireland with his wife, Carole, and their two boys, Mackenzie and Nathaniel. He says that while he is a writer, martial artist, sketcher, and dreamer he’s mostly just a husband and father. His work has been published widely, both online and in print anthologies, and was short-listed in the 2010 Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition. He is currently working on his first novel. Jay founded, and edits With Painted Words, a creative writing site with inspiration from monthly image prompts, and The WiFiles, an online speculative fiction magazine, published weekly. He can also be found as a regular co-host and contributor on the Following The Nerd radio show. For more information, check out or follow him on Twitter at @thejayfaulkner.

Clocks slay time … time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life. ~ William Faulkner

Hi there, my name is Jay and I’m a writer. I thought that it would be best to start this guest blog off with a simple introduction and that seemed quite apt. Except that isn’t quite true. You see if I was to tell you what I am – and being honest – ‘writer’ would come some way down the list of things. First and foremost I am a husband, to the beautiful Carole, and father, to my two wonderful boys: Mackenzie and Nathaniel. After that I am a worker, for which I travel about 90 miles a day and put in about 45 hours a week. I teach two martial art classes a week. I’m a regular co-host and contributor on a weekly radio show. I’m part of the Northern Ireland Rare Disease Partnership, where I do social media work and try to raise awareness of issues facing people with rare diseases. Oh yes, and I write.

I occasionally like to sleep as well.

There are the lucky few who are able to put the ‘writer’ tag at the top of the parts that make their sum, so to speak. The ones who have worked hard, and caught a break or two, and now write full-time, for a living. Then there are the others – the ones like me – who are writers after everything else has been taken care off. The ones who grab whatever time they can to sit down in front of the keyboard and knock out the words that have been swimming in their heads whilst everything else is going on.

You see I might put everything else that I do, that I am, before the ‘writer’ part but I can honestly say that I go to sleep thinking about words, plots and characters; I wake up thinking about protagonists, antagonists and even tritagonists … though, admittedly, when it gets that far I have to do something as my mind gets far too crowded! I have notepads in my workbag, in my martial arts bag, in my jacket pockets even. I have electronic notes on my phone, on my email, on my laptop and on my PC. I have notes that never make it out of my head to anywhere else.

Because, even when I don’t have time to write – when I am busy being a husband, a father, an employee, a teacher, an advocate or any of the other things that fill my life – I am thinking about the words that are yet to come.

I used to think that the adage of a writer having to write each and every day, to set a word count and hit it no matter what, was the right thing to do; that without doing so you weren’t a writer. I used to feel frustrated if I couldn’t meet the word counts I had set myself, or wasn’t able to sit down for a solid couple of hours each and every day, and write. I used to feel guilty when I did take those hours, each and every day, because I could hear my children playing outside, or missed a social engagement with my friends. It got to the point where I was making excuses about what I was doing:

“Do you want to come to the cinema tonight, Jay?”

“No thanks, I’ve got a meeting in the morning to prepare for.”

“Did you get a chance to read that report last night, Jay?”

“No, actually, I went to the cinema with some friends.”

I’d actually done some research into men who go to any lengths when having an affair. They lie to everyone around them in order to fill whatever part of them it was that wanted to be with someone else. Eventually they even began to lie to themselves about what was going on, perhaps believing their own untruths.

And, just like a mistress, writing became my own guilty secret. Rendezvous with the laptop at 1am in the morning when everyone else was asleep; the notepad taken out, discreetly, and words fumbled between the tedium of project updates; a text message, or email, sent to myself in the middle of the night, hoping that my wife wouldn’t wake up with the glare of the phone as I sent my other love another furtive ‘quickie’.

To meet the spurious targets I had set myself, in order to satisfy myself that I was still a writer; I entered into an illicit affair with my Muse.

And then I caught myself on. I realised that it wasn’t something real, something tangible, I had with my Muse anymore but, instead, furtive moments in the dead of the night where neither of us were ever truly satisfied. I wasn’t living up to Her expectations at all: I wasn’t going the distance for her, in terms of time or words.

… yeah, I know, it happens to everyone and She was quite understanding about it really but one’s masculine ego does take a bashing the first time, in the middle of the night with the sheets wrapped around you, you can’t finish what you started.*

Something had to give and, finally, it did.

My ego.

I realised that I don’t have to write one thousand words a day, each and every day. I realised that I don’t have to try to ‘fit in’ my writing amongst everything else and try to keep up the pretence that I am a writer above everything else. As long as I write, to the best of my ability, each and every time that I can, then that is all that truly matters because, after all, a satisfying fifteen minutes is better than a wasted hour.

So, at the end of the day I am a husband, a father, a worker, a teacher and many other things too. Amongst them all – the parts of my sum – I am a writer. My family accepts that, and supports it, as do I.

My Muse is still happy to tease me, to call me at all hours of the night and day but, ultimately, knows that I will always be Hers, no matter how much time I get to spend with Her; She no longer watches the clock.

As long as I continue to write for Her, of course.

And I will.

– Jay

*I was talking about a short story, you filthy minded people! ;)

First Readers

A First Reader is a person you go to first—before you send the story off to an editor, before you even know what it is you have on your hands.  This is a person you trust almost as much as yourself.  In a pinch, you might even trust him or her more than yourself.

A First Reader inhabits the inner circle of your creative space; he or she is separate enough from you to have a fresh perspective and honest enough to actually give it.  He or she knows your ticks, tricks, and hang-ups.  You have a history together—a history that is not all cheese puffs and roses—and you are still speaking to each other despite or even because of that history.

I have two First Readers—my wife who is a professor of religious studies at Wofford College and John Jeter who is a novelist, memoirist, and co-owner of a music venue in Greenville, SC.  Both of my First Readers have an uncanny ability to look at a tangled ball of prose and see the threads of meaning, to stare chaos in the eye and she what that chaos aspires to be some day.  Both are damn good editors, great writers, and even better friends.

John and I met a few years ago when I interviewed him about his then newly published novel, The Plunder Room.  Instead of a straight ahead interview, John and I sat at The Handlebar and talked about writing and writers, music and the music business, and indulged in our mutual fondness for moderately inappropriate humor.  I left with four and a half hours of tape for an 800-word column and a new friend.

The other morning, John and I found ourselves at our respective computers at the same time.  John was still buzzing from having just turned in the “final final draft” of his memoir Rockin’ a Hard Place and I was struggling with writing about First Readers.  So, I did what I do in a pinch—what journalists do when they have a topic and a deadline—I asked someone else some questions about the topic.

This is the first time John and I have talked about reading each others work.  It’s usually just something we do—something that starts with “Help!” in the subject line or “Hey, you got a minute to read something?”  But there’s more to it than that.

Why read someone else’s work?

John Jeter:  Because he asked. No, really. Like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World, I don’t often read what someone else asks me to read, but when I do, it’s usually because I either like the person who asks me (and I really like to help those folks I happen to like a lot) or I find that his subject or piece is compelling—preferably both. Generally, I find that the person who asks genuinely wants what I may have to say and seeks a perspective that he perhaps hadn’t considered during or after his writing.

What is your editorial approach when reading a friend’s writing?

John Jeter:  The first thing I do is try my hardest to keep from ripping the entire thing apart without first reading it all the way through, and then I try to keep from rewriting it the way I would have written it because, of course, I would have written it much better, though the story wasn’t mine to begin with and I may, in fact, have limited knowledge about the subject matter, even though the writer who asked me to read his piece suspected that perhaps I did.

In any event, I actually do read the piece all the way through first and try to take mental notes on the places where I stop or the places where I flinch or the places that I would just cut out all together. I also keep a sharp eye for the “babies,” those flashy bits (or stretches) of precious prose that scream out: “Look at what a brilliant writer I am!”

As soon as I’ve made those notes mentally, I then go back and try to give a lot of thought to the writer’s original intention and voice, and then try to guide him back to those things. In other words: The distance between the head (and/or heart) and the fingers is often as far apart as the Sun is from Pluto, which isn’t even a planet anymore. My job, then, is to figure out a way to close the gap. As an outside observer invited in, I can often see what the writer’s brain is doing and what his fingers did, and, again, with a more-objective perspective, I can determine where the artistic spaceship went adrift and try to act as Ground Control to get the damn thing pointed in the direction the pilot originally wanted to fly.

That said, once I read the piece, get a feel for voice and intent, and decide once and for all what the writer’s real message, theme and structure are, I work to show that a little nudge here, a little push there, a little extra boost here and there might make a difference in the power and quality of the project.

Is it easier or harder to read something written by someone you know?

John Jeter:  I prefer to read something by someone I know. I also prefer to read something by someone who knows me and knows me really well. If I wind up being too heavy-handed with a piece and have this sense that the entire thing should be rewritten top to bottom, I prefer to be working with someone I can say that to honestly. And if I do actually want to entirely rejigger the piece, but my friend would rather keep it the way it is—despite how bad I think it might be—I would rather that he has the freedom to tell me he appreciates my edits, etc., but doesn’t happen to agree with any of them. Honest friendship makes for honest editing. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

Would you rather get edits from a friend or an editor you don’t know?

John Jeter:  I tend to think of editors as friends, so I’m not sure that an editor who buys or wants to work on a project of mine isn’t already a friend, if that makes any sense.

Here’s where that comes from: I came up in newspapers. Writing one or two or even three stories a day on deadline required some fast thinking and quick writing, and then just turning all those words over to a city editor, who then turned them all over to a copy editor. These were all colleagues, people I respected, trusted and appreciated. Most of them were terribly smart, often a lot smarter and, usually, more accomplished, talented or experienced than I was. I worked to make them friends, too, as much as they were colleagues. That way, I could assure myself that they treated me and my output with discretion and some amount of generosity, because nobody wants to truly piss off a friend. Most editors, especially the best ones, the ones who also want to be a friend of the writer, prefer to be constructive, not paragraph-shredders.

All in all, what are the pros and cons of having a “first reader”? 

John Jeter:  My wife has almost always been my first reader; that is, outside the newspaper business and in my life as a professional writer. The pros are that she’s generous and honest, never mind that she’s immensely capable, talented and damned good at editing. The cons are that she’s right just about all the time, and that can be either humbling or humiliating, depending on my mood.

I prefer to have a first reader I know rather than one I don’t. I recently had a “first reader” that was given to me by an editor, a first reader I didn’t and still don’t know and have never met. I didn’t have any idea of the reader’s credibility, but since my editor was the one who decided on that person, well, I felt okay about the judgment(s) that went into my work. At the same time, I knew I could also simply disregard that person’s comments. But that kind of speaks to my point: If you’re sleeping with your first reader and she happens to be right all the time, you kind of understand that credibility’s already a given.

Lastly, what do you look for in a “first reader”?

John Jeter:  Great looks, a nice body . . . Actually, in some seriousness, I prefer a first reader who’s like the writer I would someday like to be: a reader/editor with a generosity of spirit whose purpose isn’t so much to serve the writer’s ego as it is to serve the story. Once the story is served, the writer’s ego gets served, too. The process usually doesn’t work so well when both parties – reader and writer – go at it the other way around. So my first reader needs to care about the story as much as she cares about me, but with the generosity of spirit that communicates this one truth: I care about you enough to make you want to produce the very best story you can, and if I (we) can do that, why, you’ll wind up feeling pretty good, too. That’s a good first reader.

In Praise of Editors

I love editors. I love them in theory and practice. In general and particular. Right now, every single editor I work with is awesome. And every single one of them would’ve eaten that previous sentence for lunch.

In fact, I wouldn’t dare file a story to any of them with “awesome” in it, except as a joke (or if I were really, really tired). Besides, the editors I work with know me well enough to know that “awesome” isn’t a word I’d use. That kind of familiarity is … well, it’s awesome!

Sure, there have been editors I didn’t get along with for various reasons.

Sometimes an editor wants something very specific, but doesn’t articulate exactly what it is that he or she wants. Freelance writer and designer Will Hindmarch calls this the “bring me a rock” scenario. It goes something like this:

Editor: “Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “Here’s a rock. I found it just for you!”

Editor: “I want a different rock.”

Writer: “Here’s another rock. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Editor: “Not that rock. Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “???”

Sometimes editor states very clearly what he or she wants and I don’t really listen.

Editor: “Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “Here’s that fish you wanted! Isn’t it neat?”

The latter example is all my fault. I can own that. And I also own a drawer (actually, a digital file folder) full of fish that have yet to find a place to swim. Want one? I’m giving them away free of charge.

I know the rules, the dos and don’ts of the writer/editor relationship. I’ve written about those rules and taught them in classes. I’ve even followed them (most of the time) since my first newspaper job over twenty years ago.

I’ve also broken just about every one of the rules and tried my darndest to learn from my mistakes.

Some of us, however, are slower learners than others. Being life-long learners, sometimes, has more to do with how slowly we learn than with the infinite scope of our curiosity.

The best thing about the editors I work with (other than their patience) is that every last one of them calls me on my BS and, for the most part, doesn’t hold that very same BS against me.

And that is so, so awesome.

I admit it: sometimes I blow deadlines or turn stories in so close to the print run that the editors involved have no time even to copy edit them. Sometimes I forget to update my editors or I drop completely off the grid. Sometimes I need to be re-angled multiple times. Sometimes my stories are, shall we say, structurally unsound, organizationally baffling, epically confounding. And I get wordy, especially when I’m tired. If I have too little to do, I procrastinate. I pitch stories impulsively. Heck, I even space out on sending in the invoices. And, let’s just face it: my comma usage is definitely not awesome.

I don’t do these things all the time, but for most editors once is enough. I should know better. I should do better. I should be a better writing professional.

That’s what an editor does. Pushes us to be better writers. Demands our best and deserves to get it.

Writers need editors. And I don’t just mean aspiring and new writers. Every writer. Each and every one of us needs editors.

Editors pull us out of our own heads, gives us fresh perspectives on our work while it’s still growing. Editors help us see with fresh eyes. They inspire us, have faith in us. They lend us their skill and the benefit of their experience. They teach us to be better writers … if we listen, if we keep our eyes and ears and egos open to what they have to offer.

How could we not love someone whose job it is to help make what we’ve written better?

Do I have an idealized view of editors? Maybe. Do I have an idealized view of the editors I work with? Not at all. They are human, every last one of them. They are imperfect. They get cranky. Annoyed. That’s all part of the give and take, the human interaction, the creative process.

Editors are awesome. And we writers should treat them as such. We should open up a document file or pull out a pen and some paper this very moment and write them some of the cleanest, smoothest, most on-topic copy we’ve ever written. Flesh it out. Develop it. Dig deep and push past clichés.

When we have something worthy, we should send it in early, receive edits as though they were birthday gifts, revise as though possessed by a higher being, and file glorious final drafts.

I’m not being sarcastic, here. I’m not kidding. These people play a vital role in what we do as writers. We should treat them as accordingly.


Writing and Racial Identity Versus the Spinrave

This is writer Nisi Shawl’s last post for Booklifenow, and I hope you’ll join me in thanking her for her great posts, this one included. Nisi is the co-author of Writing the Other, with Cynthia Ward, who will be contributing a last post later this week. I’m very grateful to both of them for such thoughtful and useful words. – Jeff

A subscriber to the Carl Brandon Society list serve asked for specific criticisms of the Spinrave recently published in Asimov’s SF Magazine. That is work. Just reading it is an effort, let alone trying to translate into something resembling sense. Hence my response below to the request for “specific criticism”:

“Okay, I would take the time to analyze the article if someone paid me for it. My rate is $50/hour.

“As a sort of free sample, I’ll say I agree essentially with (another poster to the list serve): consider the source. The source being Norman Spinrad, who not only doesn’t know anything about the subject upon which he bloviates for page upon page, but who seems to be inordinately proud of his ignorance. Norman is like this. My short response: tldr.

“I will also add that his positioning of Mike Resnick, a very good writer, as an African writer, is so insanely disorienting as to induce vomiting. And comparing him to Octavia E. Butler, who never, as far as I am aware, ever claimed to be an African writer, is an action on a par with opening a chest full of tokens and rummaging around blindfolded in it, and pulling one out at random to toss onto the hearth of rhetoric.”

The subscriber requesting explication declined my help. He thought my fee was too high—though another poster advised me to double it—and made do with the numerous other posts available on the subject.

Among them we find N.K. Jemisin, who deals with one specific point. It takes her 500 words, not counting her contributions to the post’s comment threads. Imagine if she had attempted to render the entire Spinrave comprehensible. How many short stories and/or novels of hers would we be doing without while she whacked her way through his thorny densenesses?

My offer stands.

Ante Spinrave, I expected to devote the whole of this final guest post for Booklife to analyzing a panel I recently pulled off at Radcon, an SF convention held in Eastern Washington. The panel was titled “Writing and Racial Identity.” Besides myself the participants were Eileen Gunn, Alma Alexander, and Bobbie Benton-Hull. Here’s the description I gave programming:

“What does your race have to do with what you write? Depending on your race, are certain topics forbidden to you? Obligatory? None of the above? If your race matters, how do you know what it is? By what people see when they look at you, or by what you know of your genetic background? By your cultural upbringing? By what you write?”

We had a grandly civil hour-long discussion about how our racial identities did and did not contribute to what we wrote, did and did not determine what we wrote, about how we dealt with others’ expectations of us as writers based on what they knew and/or assumed about our racial identities, how we constructed those identities for ourselves with our writing and in other ways. I loved that we spoke as equals, according each other and the subject all due and appropriate respect.

Because it is a complex subject, one that deserves careful thought.

One white panelist related a classroom encounter with Faulkner in which her instructor held up this famous white male’s avoidance of a black female character’s interior life as an ideal to emulate; to write some things she has written, the panelist has had to unlearn what she’d been taught. Another spoke movingly of the ethnic and religious distinctions that formed the core of her upbringing in Central Europe. I wondered aloud if my difficulty placing stories with white protagonists was due to editors wanting “more black for their buck;” that felt risky to me, since one of the field’s top editors sat in the audience’s front row, not five feet from my face.

Our fourth panelist had been raised as an American Indian and spent her life knowing absolutely that this was who and what she was. Then she discovered through genetic testing that her biological heritage is a mix European and Sub-Saharan African. No American Indian. She still struggled with integrating this knowledge at the time of the panel, framing her thoughts on her identity as a question, referencing a female character in the movie “Dances with Wolves.”

It was all most interesting to me. Way more interesting than the Spinrave. In my description and in my moderation I had aimed to show that race is an issue that affects writers of all backgrounds, all races, that racial identity is labile, is inflected by more than one sort of information, and in turn has complex and complicating effects on what we say, how we say it, who we say it to….We touched on each of these subjects with a sure touch, though in some instances only a brief one. There’s so much to talk about.

There are so many smart people to include in the discussion. I want to hold this panel again someday soon. Maybe at WisCon? The panel will give its participants and our audience much to think about. And they will think, and do research, and speak carefully. And it will make sense.