Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Superstitions and Rituals

by Cat Woods

Two days ago, our own RS Mellette issued a challenge to writers everywhere. "Come forth, my fellow scribes. Come forth from your burrows and burgs. Unite together in a common cause and claim a world-renowned good luck phrase to be heard throughout the generations."

Sad, isn't it, that writing is such a solitary experience we have no universal truths of our own?

Sadder still, when you consider everything that does. Friday the Thirteenth equals bad luck, while a bee flying through an open door guarantees a visitor will appear soon. Black cats and ladders, broken mirrors and broken legs? Even classical music has its own Curse of the Ninth.

RS—and the upcoming Halloween holiday—got me thinking about writing superstitions and rituals. Where do they come from, and why do we use them? Do they really work, or are they nothing more than placebos for our artistically thirsty souls? In a nutshell, superstition is the act of attributing an outcome to a completely unrelated event. The more frequently a coincidence "succeeds," the more likely it will become a part of everyday practices and rituals.

After careful research—and an unofficial poll of authors, agented writers, experienced scribes and newly minted ones—I realized writing does not have a universal superstition or a must-do ritual because every writer is as unique as every story ever told. Writing is highly personalized, and as such, we bring our own personalities to the process.

Consider the following: 37 of the 45 writers polled admitted to having some sort of quirk.

  • Manuscripts must end on an even numbered page. Period. If not, the story is doomed to failure.
  • Chapters cannot have thirteen pages in them, nor can books end with a mere thirteen chapters.
  • No characters can have the same initials as anyone the writer knows in person or bad fortune will befall said real life person.
  • Each manuscript has its own "writing spot." If a new manuscript is typed in a previously used spot, the ghosts of the old characters will affect the personalities of the new characters.
  • One writer refuses to eat anything sweet whenever the antagonist is on the page for fear s/he will be tainted with the sweetness.
  • Conversely another sucks on lemon drops while penning the villain's scenes.
  • Back in her querying days, one writer used to wiggle her "jazz fingers" as the email took off through cyberspace. You know, their own personal cheering section...
  • Another aspiring writer swears off coffee until a certain number of responses returns to her inbox so as not to use up her "good stuff" quota on her caffeine addiction.
  • More than one writer claims that successful writing is all in the pen. Certain writers adhere to the use of certain utensils, some going as far as refilling their pens with ink.
  • One scribe uses a single pencil per manuscript. If the manuscript is short, she breaks the pencil in half at the end so it can't be used for a second story. If the manuscript is long, she literally writes her pencil down to the nub.
  • One writer—back in the snail mail days—signed every query letter with the same ballpoint pen. Incidentally, she used this pen to sign her agent contract. She hopes, of course, that the good karma associated with it will someday lead her to a publishing contract, which she will sign with the very old and tired Bic.
  • Whimsical attire. Anything from smoking jackets to fuzzy slippers, and robes to hand-knit gloves, clothe writers world-wide while penning their words. One writer admitted to wearing a splash of green every day during the writing of her rough drafts—EVERY DAY—because green means "go" and she swears the color nudges her muse in the right direction.
  • Pipes, whiskey, chocolate, Baileys and chai tea. Vices run rampant in the writing world. Some with the purpose of calming nerves, while others to simply keep idle fingers not so idle when the words cease to flow.
  • One writer swears by a single coffee mug. The only time she drinks from it is when she's writing a rough draft. The only time she spikes it is when she completes her first read-through.
  • Totems or mythical muses can grace the shelves and minds of writers everywhere. These little critters are said to ignite creativity and provide good juju. These are especially prolific during the frenzy of National Novel Writing Month.
  • Writing every day is another common theme. However, one writer takes this to the extreme. He literally writes every single day. Even if it is only one word. One month he wrote 32 whole words. He does this so he is continuously making progress on his novels. Before starting this practice, he said his projects rarely made it to completion. Now, they always do.
  • Some scribes wear their MC's personalities to achieve better characterization, and have been known to prance around in outfits better suited to a television set than an office.
  • More than one writer rearranges the letters of favorite authors' names to create pen names. Obviously it worked once...

As you can see, the methods to our superstitious madness are as varied as the writers we meet.

So, dear scribes, what rituals or superstitions do you have regarding the writing or publishing process? Do they seem to work or do you simply enjoy the mystique that accompanies such whimsies?


Jemi Fraser said...

LOVE this Cat! The Chai tea obsession would be me too, but I think I need to find a cool ritual as well. These are so much fun!!

Cat Woods said...

I'm a chai drinker myself! I always knew writers were a quirky bunch, but I never had any idea we went to such extremes.

The only one on this list I can claim is having a totem each year for NaNo.

This year's is a giant stuffed e-coli.

Christopher Hudson said...

Well, I probably have the requisite number of rituals and superstitions to be a writer, but, alas, they flat don't work.

RSMellette said...

I will, every now and then, sip on Tuaca while I work - but it's not a ritual.

Sophie Perinot said...

I'll admit I started reading the list and stopped right after "Chapters cannot have 13 pages."

The thing is I DON'T have any superstitions that I am aware of (can't say about my subconcious) and I still don't get as much writing done as I'd like. So I don't want to pick up anyone else's, lol.

Matt Sinclair said...

Can't say I have superstitions about writing. I used to use a particular type of pen in a specific brand of notebook, but then I had to start paying for things myself and realized it didn't matter. I have been known to write with music playing and a beer close at hand; sometimes a scotch. But often I'm more quiet and sober than a hermit.

LD Masterson said...

I have to chew gum while I write. The more intense the scene, the harder I chew. More gentle scenes, I blow bubbles.

catwoods said...

Christopher~ I hear ya on them not working. But I think if it eases our psyche, that's all we can ask for.

Sophie~ I don't have any superstitions either, but I do enjoy my totems for NaNo. More out of sheer silliness with my writing buddies than anything else.

RS and Matt~ seems like a bit of easy drinking (whether liquor or tea) to take the edge off is common. But then again, I've seen my fair share of television imbibers to know that writers don't have the corner on that one.

LD~ I love your gum chewing ritual. It would fit in nicely with my list!

Thanks so much for sharing, all. I love seeing how different we approach our writing--even with the little things!


RSMellette said...

I forgot about TV. Often I'll have CNN on. When I start, the volume is normal. By the time I'm into it, you can't hear a word they are saying.

catwoods said...

Interesting, RS. Wonder if the noise stimulates your creativity, but as your writing unfolds, your own creativity becomes the motivator and you no longer have a need for outside stimuli...?

The psychology of writing is extremely fascinating to me.

RSMellette said...

I think a larger part of it is the "boy did you miss it" fear. We all worry about missing out on some big event - from the cool party in school to the big sports/news event in adult world. So with CNN on, I can relax that part of my psychy and get to work.

I think.

Maya said...

Adorable list!

Ilima Loomis said...

I love this! I don't have any superstitions now, but after reading this list, I'm considering taking up whiskey and chocolate.