I started the first draft of this Process Blog Tour post by waffling over whether I have enough real writer points to legitimately respond. But screw that. Cut cut cut. Then I delayed posting this because I felt superstitious — like if I posted it I’d never write fiction again. Dumb, hmm? But Caitlin Sweet tagged me because she’s interested in what I have to say, so let’s just do this. Protesting too much is boring. Delay is boring.
What am I working on?
Final revisions on a historical horror story set in 19th century Bavaria. Horror isn’t my thing at all, but I wanted to submit something to a particular anthology so I waded in. When I first started drafting, I got myself quite freaked out while conjuring the horrific elements (I have an overactive imagination). It’s okay now, though.
I was surprised to discover that horror seems to require huge amounts of sensory information, and I loved writing that. It was an excuse to get a little lyrical, where otherwise my writing tends to be quite straightforward.
On the novel side of things, two potential projects are battling for supremacy. One is an alternate-present fantasy and the other is near-future non-genre. Both have their pros and cons. I just need to decide which project will make me happiest — which pinata contains the most candy.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
God, what a loaded question. First of all, I reject genres as anything other than marketing categories. Some people only read within certain marketing categories and that’s great if it works for them. I read the best (as I define it) across all categories. That goes for all media.
So I’ll redefine the question to: What characteristics does my work have that I think might be somewhat unusual?
I’m not interested in writing about characters like myself. To date I’ve mostly pursued male characters. Out of the three stories finished this earlier this year, one MC is a mentally disabled Viennese janitor, one is a potty-mouthed Australian winemaker, and one is an Enlightenment-era French slut. All men.
Maybe that’s because I’m mostly interested in characters who are absolutely convinced by the actions they’re taking and it’s easier to imagine men moving through the world with that kind of conviction. Women tend to be more ambivalent unless they’re pretty extreme outliers. But I’m not interested in extreme outliers.
However, the new historical horror has a lesbian MC. She’s backed into a corner physically, financially, and emotionally, so I hope she’s moving with conviction. I had trouble getting her there, and I’m afraid she might not be sympathetic enough.
Why do I write what I do?
Better to ask why I write at all. Because it would be better if I didn’t. All writers know that the opportunity cost for what they do is huge and the chance of it ever paying off financially is little to none.
I write because I’ve always wanted to — always — and getting the psychological permission to do it was one fuck of a battle that only started turning when I approached 40.
I write because it’s taken over 300,000 words to figure out how to write something I’m proud of. I’ve got great taste, and I can tell when something’s shit even if I’ve shat it out myself. So after learning how to please myself it would be a damn stupid waste to stop now.
I write because it’s mentally beneficial and controls my anxiety. Which is a way of saying that I really NEED to.
I write because finishing something and having people you respect like it, understand it, maybe even love it, is the best feeling in the world.
I write because many of the people I love and respect are writers, and I always felt like an outsider when I visited their playground. That wasn’t a good feeling. It also wasn’t a good way to achieve the recommended levels of mental health and self-love.
I write because I love fiction and can’t live without it, but I don’t love it unconditionally. I have high and exact expectations that are rarely met. So if I want to read something that pushes all my buttons, I have to try to write it myself.
How does my writing process work?
I’ve tried the “quantity not quality” thing and it doesn’t work for me (it was a great way to learn though). It just makes a mess too awful to face cleaning up. Not very many people can write quickly and produce something worth reading. I think the quantity not quality orthodoxy is responsible for a lot of crap.
Some people can write a story in a weekend. That’s not me. For the previous two stories, seems like I’ve gotten a 5000 word draft in a month by working at least eight hours a week. Then finishing it takes huge amounts of revision — 30-40 hours. Maybe 100 hours per story total. I haven’t actually calculated it.
I start a drafting session by grooming the last 1000 words or so to make sure I’m not headed off on a tangent. That means by the time I have a complete first draft it’s already been revised at least three times, except for the end. Which means the ending sucks. Then I rewrite several times before asking Alyx to weigh in on it. She’s wonderful at critique not only because she’s a terrific writer and experienced critiquer, but she also teaches writing so is very smooth at communicating her opinions and fixes. Rewrite again and get another crit from a friend. Then rewrite again and again. Maybe 5-10 revisions?
Revise, revise, revise. There is no other way.
My most unusual tool is an 11 x 14 inch sketchpad, which I use to doodle scene mechanics, story, and plot. If I’m spinning my wheels, the sketchpad will usually put me on track again. Scribbling has always helped me think.
Our condo is too small for me to have a desk. My laptop lives in a drawer. But our condo building has a library with wifi, which is nice. Our kitchen table works too. Often Alyx and I will write in a coffee shop. The current spot is Jimmy’s on Gerrard, which has two upper floors with big tables.
I can draft on an iPad with a regular Mac bluetooth keyboard, which is great to haul around to the coffee shop. This setup is no good for revision because cutting and pasting and flying around a document with efficiency is impossible on an iPad.
Research and inspiration
I read a lot of non-fiction. Good, clear non-fiction primes my brain for the kind of writing I want to achieve. I actually think that Alan Bennett’s essay collections Writing Home and Untold Stories are magical in this way. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Guesting today on the site is D.B. Jackson, also known as David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
I come from a family of readers, and so, perhaps not too surprisingly, I also come from a family of writers. But the thing is, neither my father nor my mother was a writer; on the other hand all four of us kids have written professionally in some capacity, which is pretty remarkable. The common denominator for all of us was books. My parents’ house was filled with them; every shelf overflowed with paperbacks and hardcovers, novels and biographies. When I reached a certain age — maybe I was eight — my father set up my own set of bookshelves in my room, fixing brackets to the wall so that I could adjust the shelves as I needed. He had done the same thing for my three older siblings before me. It was a rite of passage in our house.
My parents instilled in all of us a reverence for the written word. They didn’t spoil us; they limited gifts of candy or toys to our birthdays and Christmas. But they were always willing to buy us books. Always. And the truth is, I’m much the same way with my kids.
I didn’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction early on, though eventually, with the help of a camp counsellor, I stumbled upon my first novel in the genre that would dominate my adult life. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But the first reading influences I remember were pretty standard kid fare. There were a series of books that I absolutely loved titled _____ Do the Strangest Things. Birds Do the Strangest Things, Fish Do the Strangest Things, Insects Do the Strangest Things, etc. They were essentially the written, kid-friendly equivalent of a David Attenborough nature special. I couldn’t get enough of them. I read every one of them, and then read them again. And again.
Though I remain a dedicated nature enthusiast, I don’t write natural history, and so it would be easy to assume that these books had little influence on my writing career. But I believe they had a much greater impact on me than one might imagine. They fed a deeply rooted intellectual curiosity and taught me — as my parents hoped they would — that books held answers, not only to all the questions swirling around in my young brain, but also to those questions I hadn’t yet thought to ask. I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to say that these books, and others like them, started me down the path to academia, which, in turn, steered me toward my writing career.
The other books that I remember gobbling up in my youth were the Hardy Boys mysteries written under the name Franklin W. Dixon. These were the Grosset and Dunlap re-imaginings of the series published initially in 1959 and popular through the 1960s and 1970s (which is when I was reading them). They weren’t great literature, they weren’t terribly challenging as kids’ reading went. But they were enormously fun. If Birds Do the Strangest Things, satisfied my burgeoning curiosity, these books fed my craving for adventure, danger, thrills — all the things my comfortable suburban childhood lacked.
And so, by the time I went off to sleep away camp for the summer as an eleven year-old, I was primed for a new kind of book that would be both engaging and exciting enough to allow me to move on from the Hardy Boys, which I was already starting to outgrow. Enter The Hobbit.
I didn’t actually encounter the book that summer. Instead, I tried out for a dramatized version of Tolkien’s novel. I had already discovered early in the summer that I had a flair for drama (no one who knows me now will be at all surprised) and when the opportunity came to audition for this newest production, I took full advantage. Yes, I was cast as Bilbo Baggins. It helped that I was short for my age . . .
I fell in love with the story, and more I was fascinated by the world revealed to me by the script. Elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons — what was not to love. It had never occurred to me that there were books like this waiting to be read; I certainly never dreamed that there were similar books written for adults that would allow me to pursue my new-found fascination with magical stories well past my childhood. But when the summer was over, I found the novel version of The Hobbit and devoured it. Then I read The Lord of the Rings, and after that Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea Trilogy. By then, I was hooked on fantasy, and I have been ever since.
But I think it bears repeating that I’m not an author because of Tolkien. I wrote my first “book” when I was six; writing stories was always my favorite school activity. My early experiences with fantasy didn’t set me on the road to a career as a fantasy author; the sheer act of reading had taken care of that long before. The environment created by my parents and their exuberant love of all things book were the most formative forces in my childhood.
It would be pretty easy to imagine my own kids rebelling against my love of reading, which my wife shares. “Dad’s an author? Great. Hand me the remote.” But early on they discovered the same thing I did: Books are treasure boxes; they just beg to be opened. Their favorites have been the Magic Tree House and the Magic School Bus, Harry Potter and most recently the Hunger Games books. To be honest, I don’t care what titles they’re drawn to — as long as they’re reading, I’m happy. Sounds like something my Mom and Dad would have said.
Cat Rambo and I met doing Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings at a bunch of conventions through the zero years, mostly Pacific Northwest events like Orycon and Norwescon. I’ve thus heard her read fantasy, horror and science fiction, and one of the things I admire most about her, besides her multi-genre range, is her ability to tell a story quickly that will cut right through all defenses and into the hearts of her audience.
Cat has a new collection of SF stories out… really, it’s more properly two collections. It’s called Near + Far and here’s the NEAR half of the cover:
Today on Off My Lawn, Cat’s tackling the difference between writer’s block and waiting for your Muse to come.
Ah, writer’s block. Writers in films certainly seem to suffer from it, whether it’s Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction or Billy Crystal in Throw Momma From the Train.
They can’t get started, the words don’t come. The muse is out to lunch, and has left no forwarding address.
I’ve got mixed feelings about such portrayals, because they make me feel guilty. Sure, I acknowledge there are valid sources of writer’s block: illness, mental trauma, general life upheaval. But the truth of the matter has always been that even when I’m languishing at the keyboard playing Bejeweled Blitz in an attempt to get my creative juices stirring, I still know: I could be writing, and should be.
Yes, writing that comes easily, breathlessly, spilling onto the page as though you were channeling Calliope herself, is sometimes wonderful. And the writing that comes with difficulty, as though you were scraping the words out of the top of your skull with a melon spoon, may not be great. But there are always words to write, even if they’re “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again.
Part of the my philosophy of writing grows out of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bone. For Goldberg, writing is the most important thing. It is the act of having written that matters, not what you’ve produced. And I agree, because the day after I’ve forced to write, it’s easier to do so, while the day I spent conquering the world in Civ 3 made me, if anything, less fit to write.
The blank page is scary. It’s a large and unguessable territory. It’s easier if you go in with a plan of action, a list of sights and scenes and senses you want to hit. But sometimes you have to trust yourself just to write and see what comes out. Because the brain gets bored with saying “I don’t know what to write” over and over again. It starts tossing out wild and entertaining notions, comes up with odd and unscripted moments. That’s often when you’re best in touch with that unknown side of you, that side that will never face you directly but will manifest best and most brightly in your writing. Learn to trust that hidden side to supply you with details you can excavate in rewriting. Learn to collaborate with yourself.
I don’t have the time or patience for writer’s block. Writing is what I do and unless I do it every day, I’m not happy with myself. Sure, some words are crap. But some are good, and the more I write, the better they are.
When I was at Hopkins, one of my teachers was Stephen Dixon, who had something like 14 or 15 books at the time. Whenever you talked to him in the hall, you knew what was going on in his head: “We could both be writing.” It was sobering how devoted to producing the text he was – in those pre-computer days, he just typed his manuscripts over and over, refining them with each pass, until he was done. Think of how much easier we have it now.
So yeah. Writer’s block? Maybe. I don’t want to offend anyone with categorical denunciations. Let’s just say sometimes it might be real – but sometimes it’s an excuse. And I just don’t have a lot of patience with that, anymore.
Near + Far is full of stories. I could have had twice as many in it. They’re stories that could have stayed in my head, much more perfect, elegant and beautifully realized than their actuality. Or I could do what I did: write them and get them out of the way, making room for more to come.