Stories abandoned and as yet unwritten have much in common.
Back at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 I mentioned I was working on a novel entitled The Palace Of The Red Desert. Right as I was about to start on it in earnest, I shelved it and pivoted very quickly to working on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (which is VERY close to having its first draft finished, time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin'). The big reason I ditched out on Palace and moved to AONO was because I didn't have a story, but it took some time for me to nail down exactly why I didn't have a story. Turns out, on some reflection, it was because the story was about a sage, and the problem is that most sages are saintly bores. In other words, I didn't really lack for a story. I lacked for a character, without which there is no story.
My books have soundtracks. Faith No More begs to provide one for a book as yet unwritten.
It's a kind of ... synaesthesia?, I guess.
But before I can explain what I mean by that, I need first to make a confession about how perennially late to the party I am.
See, I only just this past month or so finally twigged to the full flowering of the fiery genius that is Faith No More and Mike Patton.
It's important to deliver original things in the way that matter; it's not important to be original everywhere and always.
One of the standard rites of passage for any creator seems to be to have a moment where you realize something you stumbled across on your own isn't in fact unique to you — that other people have been doing it forever, and you're just late to the party.
Given my interest in Zen, am I writing "Buddhist fiction"? I'm dubious.
The other day someone asked me, "Given your interest in Zen Buddhism and some of the subjects of your fiction, does that mean you're writing 'Buddhist fiction'?"
My answer was, "I don't really think so."
On improvising, or why no plan for fiction survives first contact with the writing process.
At some point in writing you can only plan so much before you have to write – it’s a matter of degree. This truth can frustrate some plotters, because you can only define so much before there’s nothing left to do. Your ideas may be totally wrong, your plan may be horrible, your plot awful – but you won’t know until you start writing.
Steven is echoing here something I've circled back to often: no plan for fiction survives first contact with the writing process. It doesn't mean plans are worthless. It only means plans are made in the present moment — typically, one where you haven't actually written a manuscript yet.
Something Steven notes: "I have trouble seeing how “pantsing” can work for complex stories, but perhaps I have something to learn there, no?" — This is worth commenting on separately, because it's indirectly related to how I've plotted several of my longer works.
News on current and future books of mine.
Some major things will be happening at Chez Genji over the next couple of months.
Rewrite, revise, revisit, rethink.
Steve calls it "timey-wimey creativity." I call it something else. The label doesn't really matter; the important thing is that it's the process of iterative discovery with a creative work. You write one draft, and even in the middle of that draft you discover goalposts drifting downfield, so you hurry after them. Sometimes you try to chase them down and drag them back into position, but most of the time you're better off just moving the game to where they are.
The one thing to not do is stay frozen, as it were — to assume the original idea was and has to be the best idea, to try and do justice to some Untainted Primal Vision that might not even have been all that good to begin with.
Most of the way I see this play out is when someone comes up with a great idea for a story — the Big Hook, I guess you could call it. Sometimes it's not even the idea that drives the story; sometimes it's just some Cool Thing in the story, whether or not it belongs there or even suits the story as a whole. (We talked about this problem before.) In short, it's not the idea that is the source of the problem, but the attachment to the idea, the unwillingness to see the story as the artifact of a process, with the emphasis being on the process and not the artifact.
I suspect many people do not initially recognize how their work is a moving target, and has to be one, because they also don't recognize that they themselves are moving targets. Guess what, dude -- YOU YES YOU are the artifact of a process, too! And every artifact you yourself leave behind is part of that general movement! Shocked yet?
But. I also think often of a friend of mine who over the course of something like ten years tried to begin — not even write, just begin — the same novel again and again. He never got it off the ground, let alone finished it, because every time he started to work on it he felt like his sensibilities had changed enough that everything he'd produced no longer fit the bill and had to be scrapped. Where someone else wouldn't even have noticed such a thing, he couldn't help but notice it to the almost total exclusion of everything else.
Obviously that's not healthy either.
When you assume full and total responsibility for everything that happens to you, even the things you think you can't control, you have a change of perspective.
When I began doing my Agile Life, I had a most interesting experience; I had only myself to blame for anything. I was the only responsible one when most anything went wrong.
Something was late? My fault. Something not done well? My fault. Very, very few cases of things that wreren’t due to me. To blame anyone else would have required a Herculean effort of self-delusion that I just don’t have the energy or lack of morals for.
Reading those words reminded me of something Brad Warner said in one of his books: When you assume full and total responsibility for everything that happens to you, even the things you think you can't control, you have a change of perspective. You find that it becomes impossible to blame others for your problems, and so you become all the more focused on responding intelligently and wisely to your circumstances — the only real control any of us actually have — instead of trying to "control" them by way of abreaction. (For more on this, see the chapter "Bad Hair Day" in Warner's Sit Down And Shut Up, in particular pp. 218-219.)
On the themes I keep coming back to in my work, and how I try to not let that trap me.
The night before, Steven Savage and I got to talking about themes in our respective works. He is preparing to work on a project called A Bridge To The Quiet Planet — it promises it to be quite a corker, from everything he's told me about it so far — and was quite conscious of the specific themes he wanted the material to address. Or, rather, the themes suggested by the material that he wanted to make sure the story addresses properly.
One thing we both noted is how discovery of theme is an iterative process. First you come up with a story that has some grab to it, something you're itching to write. First draft is just about getting it down. Second time around, you look at what you have and bring the story you're telling in line with the themes it seems to be suggesting. Third time, you paint it to match and polish it. The point being that there's as much discovery of theme as there is conscious and explicit conjuring of it.
What to do when a story component is just an albatross. Or a boulder.
I found a huge, huge problem in working on my new novel is that I’d have these great ideas that I’d never get rid of or change as I’d become dedicated to them – meanwhile the story, characters, and setting had evolved beyond them. I had all these Big Rocks I just wasn’t willing to get rid of, yet all my other great ideas kept running into them. The solution was to ditch them. If you have an idea that squashes all your other ideas, this dense ball that distorts the story like a weight on a rubber sheet, that idea is the problem no matter how great it is.
The way I've put this to myself is, "Love your ideas but don't marry them." The way others have put this is, "Kill your darlings."
How I decided to try taking the plunge back into screenwriting.
Prepare yourselves. With this post, I'm going to do one of two things:
1) Synthesize two previously incompatible strains of thought in my psychic economy of creativity, or
2) Make a fool of myself.
Stock "literary" characters can be just as one-dimensional as stock SF characters.
Supposedly, the advantage to having literary novelists take up stories once dismissed as the stuff of genre fiction is that readers can get exciting plots to go with the mainstays of literary work: nuanced characters and the kind of aestheticized writing conventionally referred to as beautiful. The latter is a dubious improvement. Beautifully written is a phrase often applied to any fiction that involves a lot of poetic landscape description. ...
... [T]he basic temperament of all the characters in Station Eleven [involves] a propensity toward melancholic, vaguely paralyzed reveries that invokes the type of personality you’d expect to find in someone who writes literary fiction. These people are, when you get right down to it, all pretty much the same person. So much for the promise that literary writers will bring something more than stock figures to their science-fiction scenarios; [Emily St. John] Mandel’s rueful musers are just a different kind of stock figure.
Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself. (Mandel insisted that she didn’t consider Station Eleven to be science fiction.)
Maybe that's the problem. The more you get hung up on what the thing is supposed to be called instead of what it is about and how it is about it, the easier it is to write SF-that-isn't-really-SF-for-people-who-wouldn't-be-caught-dead-reading-it.
The other point made, about the way many of the characters in this kind of work behave like navel-gazers imported from a kitchen-sink story, reminds me of another point made about much work that is self-consciously literary — that it's often about characters who are either themselves writers, or who see things in ways that only another writer would see.
It always seemed harder to me, and maybe more rewarding, to see things the way someone who is not a writer would see things, and find a way to make that vision rewarding and lovely and insightful. Swapping one kind of cliché for another isn't progress.
For something I hope is not too clichéd, check out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.
On taming my inner fussbudget.
I'm still in that last stretch for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, and at the rate I'm going, I will have wrapped up the first draft of that opus by the end of June. Those damn goalposts have grown legs and started skittering downfield. I hate it when that happens.
Some of this slowness have been the aforediscussed time dilation business, some of it has been — and I was loathe to admit this at first but here goes — simple exhaustion. The last few months have been really harrowing for me personally, for reasons I don't want to go on about in public, and there's some other low-level anxiety-grade stuff (again, not for public consumption) that could theoretically explode into something more full-blown at any point.