Something that has come up in a couple of the Journey interviews I’ve been doing lately is this idea that many of us feel compelled to write: that many of us do it whether we think we can sell our fiction or not. And someone’s recently posted a comment asking what I mean by that.
In my case, it means I’ve felt a need to try to write stories since I became literate, at about the age of five. It means I can usually only go a few days without writing fiction before becoming first restless, then unhappy. At some point my writerbrain takes over and starts making up RPG scenarios or plotting novels. That, or I begin having elaborately plotted semi-lucid, occasionally bloodcurdling dreams.
It means I’ve never seriously considered not writing.
Since the question’s come up, I thought I’d throw it wider: fellow writers, do you feel, on some level, like you have to? Can you imagine stopping? If you had to stop–I’ve been meaning to ask this for awhile–how would you go about pursuing a happy, fulfilling, writing-free existence?
A long time ago (1994, I think) in an apartment just a few blocks away, I took it into my head to participate in the Three Day Novel contest. It was a great experience: over a long weekend, I wrote something like 65,000 words of dystopian, after-the-eco-apocalypse SF, and duly mailed it in to Arsenal Pulp Press. I didn’t win–nobody won that year–but I was a better writer at the end of the weekend, and I had a finished novel in hand and ready to revise.
The one flaw in my otherwise cunning plan was that I had chosen to write something based on one of my oft-started, utterly frustrating, would-not-gel-for-friggin-love-or-money novella starts. Over multiple failed attempts to make it come together, I’d come to heartily dislike the whole project. But, somehow, I decided the solution was to bust the thing out to novel length. Good plan, right?
As it turns out, no. At the end of three days, I had gone from having an unworkable thirty-page story to revise to having an unworkable 220 page book to fight with.
Oops. It’s trunked now, and good riddance.
In 2004 or thereabouts, I formed a pact to do National Novel Writing Month with a few of my beloveds. The goal this time around was to draft up a literary novel I’d proposed to the Canadian Grant Deities a few months earlier; I’d written that proposal while fully aware that I was hoping to have a contract for Blue Magic by then and I was a little scared of ending up on the hook for two books at once. I know, we should all have such problems, right? But I figured that if I had a draft of the grant novel in hand, I could revise one while drafting the other. (This worst-case-scenario, timingwise, never came about, as it happened.)
This time I picked a novel I was in love with, something I was excited about writing. Much better plan. The biggest concern I had with the whole scheme was that, for several years running, my writerbrain had stopped dead in its tracks each November. This was, actually, another reason for doing it. Losing a whole month out of one’s working year… it’s a lot. I could have usefully allocated the time to research, but I simply didn’t wanna.
For me, Nanowrimo worked out pretty well. I tried to write 2,000 words a day–that put me ahead of the game whenever I needed a day off. I took those days, and still finished a bit early. The month was exhausting, and the book pushed many other commitments to the wayside, but I got the book written as planned. That first draft of The Wintergirls was certainly messy, but my drafts are all messy; that didn’t scare me. The cameraderie and public accountability also worked for me. I posted word counts, was encouraged by blog readers as well as my nearest and dearest, encouraged other… Nanites? Nanners? Nannies? … in their turn, and came out of it with a draft that’s now very polished indeed. This is now my go-to strategy when I’m potentially double-booking myself: get one of the books well underway in November, and hope the rest falls together. I did it again in 2009, and am very pleased with the current state of the resulting book, which I’ve now revised about three times.
Unless other contracts start falling around here like hail, I’m planning to write The Rain Garden this coming November.
What about all of you? Yes? No? Why or why not? Your Nano tales would be very welcome.
This story’s comparatively recent, which means I remember quite a few of the initial sparks for “Five Good Things about Meghan Sheedy” when I wrote it in 2004.
First, I was developing the (loosely) standardized critique style that I now I use for most of my UCLA Extension Writers’ Program classes. I had settled on a ‘rule’ for myself that no matter where a student was at, craftwise, I would find at least five positive things to say about every story submitted for workshop. Five things. It’s arbitrary, I know, but it ensures that everyone gets a comparable amount of encouraging feedback, and that I’ve identified a few good things they can build on. When your students never see you face to face, when you’re just keystrokes on teh Internets, the being positive up front component of critique is even more important than when you’re in the room together.
As teaching discipline, it has worked out well, and I still do it with Creating Universes, Building Worlds, Writing the Fantastic, and most other classes. (Novel Writing II has been a different kettle of fish.)
So… five good things. The fact that it was a fixed number snagged on something in my writerbrain. It occurred to me that there could be aliens with whom something like this was an actual custom. A lot of cultural things are arbitrary in some way or another; the answer to “Why?” is often “That’s just how we do it.”
Another second component of the story was Meghan’s temper. I’d had the opportunity to closely observe someone who was going through some really difficult things, and went through a stage of dealing with it by biting off the heads of everyone within hearing range. I’m more of a conflict avoider, so it was on my mind.
As for how this evolved into a squid story… well. I had been reading a good deal about the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the Sixties, and thinking about proxy wars, and how it might look if two offworld powers started kicking Earth around in some fashion. I thought of setting it in the same universe as the Slow Invasion stories, further on down the timeline, but that Earth has a dense offworlder population that considers our mudball home, and those individuals wouldn’t go anywhere just because a war busted out, and I didn’t want them added into this particular stew. They didn’t quite fit. So, despite the fact that the two universes have similarities (offworlders who are far more advanced than us, exploiting their supremacy) I decided they couldn’t be lumped together.
Later, as I wrote more squid stories, especially the ones about Ruthless, it became apparent to me that “Meghan Sheedy” probably takes place late in the Proxy War–the U.S. is the last country of any significance to fall to the Fiends, who work their way from the Mexican border to Canada. (We fold like the paper kitten we are, maybe five minutes after they get here. Ten if they stop for coffee.) Since this story takes place in Seattle and Seattle’s near the border, the geography makes that much apparent. But those were decisions I made later; in the meantime, I was imagining the Seattle I know, the familiar skyline pocked with Dust craters while ordinary twenty-first century peeps tried to cope with bombing and the destruction of their way of life, with occupation and collaborators and the danger of constant surveillance by both sides.
Jay Lake ran with my earlier post about internet content that addresses the concerns–both artistic and commercial–of mid-career writers. My note, in turn, started with a germ from Jessica Reisman. What we’re really discussing is how writers talk to each other in these public forums, and what we say to beginners.
You can see what Jay and various respondents said here. Among other things, he points out that there are simply a lot more aspiring writers to talk to.
Me, making the pass..
And Jessica Reisman, kicking it all off.
On a completely unrelated note, if you ever want the Casino security peeps to get really really interested in you, pause in their awning with your great big zoom and photograph what you find there.
This is, essentially, a post about where I get my ideas.
In the months when I was gearing up to attend Clarion West in 1995, I spent most of my writing time on short mysteries, because I was hoarding my SF ideas. As a result, I got to Seattle with a healthy little clutch of index cards jammed with scribblings. One had notes on an image I’d had, of teenaged human girls caught in the midst of a fashion fad: they were wearing the four-armed coats made for members of a race of aliens, half a million of whom had come to live on Earth as refugees. I imagined one of those aliens, also female, watching them through a window, and trying to make sense of the behavior.
I wrote the story at Clarion. In various incarnations it was called “Voice of Reason,” and “Sotto Voce.” It was long and imperfect and dear to my heart; I think it was the first time it really occurred to me that even a nice fictional character might lie, might promise to do one thing and then go in an entirely different direction. It also had some thorny, autobiographical stuff. I’d never attempted that before either.
I never got “Sotto Voce” into anything approaching submission readiness–having gone to Clarion to experiment, I came home with a number of unviable mutants–but a passing reference in that story to a second alien race, the Nandieve, spawned “The Dark Hour.” Its main character is a young human pilot, Oriole. Like those girls with their four-armed winter coats, he’s embraced otherness; he sees the Nandi as a wiser, more sophisticated and more powerful culture than the one he was born into. When his ship gets hijacked, he ends up on the Nandi homeworld, which affords him a closer look at their best and worst qualities. Basically a rose-colored glasses go smush type of thing.
The story was initially published in Tesseracts 8, which was edited by John Clute and Candas Jane Dorsey. It came out in 2006 and I’d have sworn it was the first of the stories set in this universe to see print. (The Internet Speculative Fiction DB says otherwise.) It was definitely one of the earliest of the batch in terms of when I actually wrote them. Here’s a snip:
Days after she rescued Brother, a black ball of feathers flailing in wet leaves, Momma was killed by a white riot cop. Her son divorced his species, changing his name to Oriole and taking the crow as his only family. An orphanage run by Momma’s church took them in, and he lived there in silence for two years. He didn’t say a word to another human, black or white, until Contact, the day that emissaries of seven alien races came to Earth, transmitting messages of friendship from their fragile, exquisite spaceships.
The nuns found him outside that night, face tilted to the stars, mumbling alien words. His voice was hoarse from lack of use–like Brother, he croaked.
“Yah Kurar. Sky’s calling,” he said, as Sister Beverly carried him to bed.
I took to calling this series “The Slow Invasion” because in this universe, Earth’s economy gets bound up, to humankind’s detriment, in the trade of bigger and more advanced cultures. Eventually, we’re no longer self-sufficient. There were four of them published, and a few false starts–“Sotto Voce,” of course, and at least one fragment I workshopped at Turkey City but never finished. Each was written as a stand-alone, and they aren’t as tightly interlaced as the squid stories. They’re unified by that idea of a well-established intergalactic community, with its treaties and alliances and a well-established economy, and how Earth might fare if we enter it as a latecomer.
“Ruby, in the Storm,” started with an image not unlike the one that led to “Sotto Voce.” This time, it was a human watching an alien, again through a window. The frame this time was a recurring visual from my childhood: a heavy, windless Alberta snowfall, a blizzard of irregular, pea-sized clusters of snowflakes, falling in impenetrable curtains. In these storms, the flakes stream down so slowly it seems possible they might hover, or even reverse direction. Air just below freezing, sound deadened by the sheer density of the gently falling precipitation… the world is hidden in a glow of amber from the street lights as the snow piles and piles and piles.
The inspiration for “A Slow Day at the Gallery,” meanwhile, came from a CBC Radio story I heard, about a B.C. First Nations tribe that was having to jump through hoops to get a museum in Europe to repatriate a stolen totem pole.
I wrote “The Spear Carrier” just after I’d joined a choir. I was in the process of learning the names of all sorts of exciting new people who’d just come into my life. Something about that experience got me to thinking about coming-of-age rites and naming and reinvention and, well, nametags. I’d discovered that I remember names better if I see them written down or, better yet, if I write them down myself. That led to my creating another offworld race, one with peculiar dueling laws and a complex naming ritual that ends with the celebrant getting a piece of ornate name-related jewelry that is their legal ID and their badge of adulthood.
I’ve been mostly wrapped up with novels in recent years, and a good deal of my short fiction energy lately has elsewhere. The squid stories fed off the Slow Invasion energy: I couldn’t quite imagine the Nandi and the Yeti and the rest getting involved in that particular civil war. (I sometimes think of the squid stories as the Fast invasion.) But I like these stories, and I’ve always had the idea that I’ll return to this universe again.