I have made no secret about the fact that, since the beginning of November, my method of writing, thinking, reading, have all changed dramatically. It was a sudden shift; or at least, the actual lurch itself was sudden, but I suppose that below the surface, the tectonic plates were ever so slowly rubbing against each other as time went by.
At any rate, the interesting thing is that as time goes by, things slip into the vision of hindsight, and I enjoy analyzing that as much as I enjoy poking at the future and trying to figure out what’s coming next. The hindsight is easier to analyze, of course: “it is easiest to prod the afterbirth and declare that something has been born,” to quote A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Go read that book right now. It has been reissued with a beautiful cover. Have I ever recommended a bad book for you to read? No. Now go.)
One of the things which I came to realize, as I studied the way my previous novel – Where Sea Meets Sky, my Roman novel – failed was that I could contrast it against my current novel – The Nondescript, my carnival novel, of sorts – and was delighted to discover that by comparison, I could see where the one failed and the other succeeded; where the one was miserable and the other enjoyable. Where the one flew through paragraphs and chapters, and the other slogged through words and sentences. Some of them, I can see as being pertinent to me as a human being and a writer. Others are less certain and less grand, and I suspect are only relevant to show the differences between a Roman novel, and a carnival novel.
For example: In my Roman novel, there was only one point of view, really. The whole novel was told from the point of view of Thracius, my main character. Everything was what happened around him. If events happened elsewhere and they needed to be retold, then they were recounted to him by someone else. This is not only how my Rome novel worked, but how the novel before that worked, more or less, and how a lot of my work before that worked.
With The Nondescript, there are lots and lots of point of views. When I finish a scene, I am happy to bounce into someone else’s head and do a scene with them, whatever it may be about. This has been literary adrenaline, in a needle and put into my heart. In fact, the novel stalled out a little ways in when I tried to, without realizing it, shift the novel only into my main character’s head and stay there as the story rolled along. I don’t know that that was the only thing which stalled out the story, but it’s the only change which I cannot explain away. I cut sixteen thousand words to fix the problem. Three days later, I had written nearly twenty thousand words. So it had only taken me three days to regain lost ground and thensome. In those new words, I said “to hell with it,” and I wrote however I wanted again, as I had done prior to that point. That included bouncing between different characters freely and, really, with delight. I changed some other things with that cut, including a big portion of where my story was going and what was going to happen. But, the part I am not convinced on and cannot explain away is, I do wonder if I had left the story alone and just worked harder to reintroduce extra characters and gotten into their heads, then the traveling story might have worked. Then again, it might not have. So much of it was dependent on our main character not knowing what was happening.
So, here is where I make the comparison, then: The novel succeeds with multiple views and the others failed and they lacked multiple views. Now, I want to caution that I don’t think this is a concrete difference which will necessarily make or break anything I write. I think that this particular point may just be the difference between novels past, and novel present, and that the next novel may be an entirely different animal. A quote from Gene Wolfe, replying to Neil Gaiman who said he’d thought he’d finally learned how to write a novel. Gene said: “You never learn how to write a novel; you just learn how to write the novel you’re on.” I think that’s very wise advice.
So there’s that comparison. What else is there? Holding up previous stories and this stories, I see a major, major difference which I think really boosted my writing. It is that my previous novels, such as my Roman novel, began as a concept and a story, with blank characters put in. I can’t give you examples so easily here, because I still am found of my Roman novel’s premise and intend to revisit it at some point, but you can take my word for it. Previous novelistic attempts began with a “what if?” and a story and the characters were vehicles to tell the story. They fleshed out a little, but mostly the novels were all about story.
With The Nondescript, I went into it and have continuedensuring that it is first and foremost about character. “Story,” and the “plot,” are what is happening to the characters, but mostly I am just writing happily about the characters. We are learning how they all interact and who they are and what they want, and so on and so forth. They are fleshed out before the story is, if you see what I mean.
This is a major shift, and I happen to think that it does apply to my writing in general. I have found, with this novel, that if the novel hits a snag of some sort, odds are the well-developed characters – whose viewpoints I am in and out of – are what will get me out of it. Or, more common, they make the snag never happen, because it was a snag based on people who were not the people in the book, if you see what I mean.
(A sidebar: This is the trouble with writers. So much of what they do, and so much of what they talk about is based entirely on what it means inside their own heads. It is a difficult thing to explain to someone else. It’s sort of like trying to use a language of pictures which is entirely dependent on the pictures you have seen and which are specific only to you. A person who uses a language of numbers will not see commonality in your pictorial language. And yet, if you are wise and skilled, you may explain your pictures to them, in numbers. Or a combination of the both. And as you can see, even my metaphor for writers and their talk of writing is nearly incomprehensible.)
Now, what else do I notice? Well, there are a few more things, but not all of them are worth quantifying. Another big thing which occurs to me is: Where my Roman novel was written in an extremely sparse and toneless style, intended to be clear and emotionless because I had somehow gotten it into my head that that was a good way to write, The Nondescript is full of thick paragraphs and wandering text and character voices leaking into the narrative, and my own voice in there too. One of the happiest thing I did with the Nondescript was to insert myself as a narrator. Every now and then, without remorse or hesitation, I stop and I just talk to the reader. I like being able to do that. Again, I suspect that this may be book-specific, but it’s interesting to me, because as with so many of the other changes, it is a matter of polar opposites.
And so it goes. What I Wrote Before, compared to What I Am Writing Now, is a world of different things. When this first happened, I spoke at great length about it. This would have been early November. It was such a strange thing, like the first ray of sunlight through a thick layer of dust that fills up the sky for years at a time. And that was really a fair description. Honestly, 2007 was a miserable year. I was a poor writer who wrote poorly. 2006 was little better. I cannot remember 2005 but the fact that I did not complete and sell an astonishing novel in 2005 probably does not say anything good then, either. I think I was still writing pretty solid short stories in 2005, and I think that many of those were the ones which eventually wound up selling.
So, I was miserable. Why was I miserable? That was part of what led me to all the analysis. That, and the fact that suddenly I was not miserable and it was such a stunning change, I couldn’t help but make notice of it.
Partially unrelated, I had cause to look at some very old short stories and notes which I had done years and years ago, during the first half of my writing career – the first six years that I worked, in other words. And as I looked at these old pages and this old clumsy writing, I spotted something in it which stirred old memories and puzzled me still further: there was a fearlessness to my early stories. They wandered where they would, they talked how they would, and they did what they wanted. They were fearless and full of voice and passion and life. And I remembered that back in the day, I used to do about 10,000 words a day. Now, I like to think that how I write now is a great deal better than how I wrote then, and some days I do convince myself. And while we can all agree that speed isn’t everything, I was unhappy with my speed and the quality of my output. Where was the fun? Why was writing exhausting? What had happened which had turned writing into a drudgery task which I pursued every day, like a smoker who hates the dirty ash and the smell but nevertheless, he lights up anyway? When had writing gone from the high point of my day, to some goddamn thing I had to do or else I would be miserable?
When something turns into that, you should quit. Honest. And yet, I couldn’t quit writing. That was never an option, although perhaps it should have been the wiser one. What it instead led to was me spending a great deal of time trying to figure what went wrong, and what I had to do to get back to where I was. I mean this: I would trade how I write now, for how I wrote then. I wrote with glee and simplistic fearlessness. I was never concerned about the quality of my writing, nor was I concerned about cliches or stylistic problems, or even overuse of adverbs. There were none of these concerns.
As I analyzed and probed deeper, I came to realize several things which had changed, and I gave them further thought.
It was in around the turn of the millennium that I started having a useful and formal presence on the internet. I was part of a writer’s group. I admit, without shame, that we were a group of writers who wrote fanfiction. Some of it was awful. But we were all proud of ourselves, we were proud of our work, and we were all glad of everything we did. It was a fearless group that flew high and wrote higher, and it was terrific. But very little of what we ever talked about was the actual process of writing itself, the actual mechanics and soul of this strange thing which we were all impelled – perhaps a strange word to use, to describe writing, but I can think of no better – to do when there were far wiser things we could do. Why not cook? Climb a mountain. Climbing a mountain, all you have to fear is death and abandonment. Some days, that feels the preferable option to sitting down to a blank page and writing. And yet, here we were writing and rejoicing in it.
I was a fast writer, and I will for the purposes of this discussion tell you that I was proud of it and was spoken well-of for it. I wrote very fast. There were always three or four short stories going at once, and I would finish them in rapid-fire patterns. 10,000 words a day, by my feeble mathematics, comes out to around 70,000 words a week, and I bet I did more than that. Back then, I didn’t count the pages and pages of notes I took, the scenes I wrote for other people, the scenes and stories I wrote and posted freely on message boards with no thought beyond having written a story and given it to someone else.
This is what I missed. Now it’s fair to ask: am I glorifying this, as we all tend to glorify things in our past of which we are most proud? And I will answer, yes, I probably am. But does that matter? It is still just me setting up an ideal on a pedestal and then figuring out what I have to do to achieve it. To say that I have achieved it before, and now I have fallen is only there to egg me to greater heights, something all writers should strive for.
I did not realize that it was fearlessness which I possessed until I was reading, very recently, a book of letters by Isaac Asimov, and he spoke of his inability to tell his good writing from his bad, and his lack of concern about it. Isaac Asimov wrote something like four hundred books, and it is one of those accomplishments that I long to achieve. I have so many stories that what I fear more than not being able to tell them properly is not being able to tell them all. When it comes to soul-yearning desire to be like anyone, it is inevitably Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, John Creasey, whom I admire. I want to have produced hundreds of novels and short stories and just pour works out, unceasingly.
And it is a lack of fear which leads to that. Well, in the case of other authors like Anthony Trollop, it’s also an astonishing work ethic and amount of discipline, but I am very poor at both of those things when there is not love present. I can go absolutely bonkers about writing until I am shaking and unable to stop, and unable to focus on the rest of the world if I am forced to leave my story.
So, it was fear that changed my writing. In November, when I experienced a major shift, it was really and truly a major shift back. I am still a very long way off from the amazing state in which I wrote, when younger, and I wish I had appreciated it more back then. But I am learning, gradually, what I did back then and what I do now.
And more than that, I am trying to learn what happened. What caused the change?
Many things, directly and indirectly, which is how it works with any major change in anyone’s life. For example, one of the key things which I cannot deny has changed between Then and Now is that I have grown older. We are all stuck with that problem. It happens day by day. I forget now who said it, but there is the memorable phrase, “Every hour wounds; the last one kills,” and I suppose it is true enough.
With age comes a slowdown, at least on my part. I don’t think that was caused by age, so much as I aged and gained more knowledge and a longer thought process, and the end result of that was an inability to just write without thought. And writing without thought is the best of all possible things, because it also includes writing without fear, and without second-guessing. I guess that’s eventually what I’m trying to get back to. Instinctively, I know how to tell a story. That comes naturally to me. Language and the mechanics of telling a story, I have learned well enough that they are also unconscious. I do not have to reach for a word. I can tidy up language in the later moments anyway. It is those first frantic moments, those desperate early stages of passion in which you must be able to write without thought, with critical analysis, and without fear. That may not be true of all writers, but it is true of me. I need quantity over quality, because the quantity unlocks my mind and sends me soaring, and from that greater altitude with my blood singing and the wind whistling in my ears, the quality of my writing gains ground immeasurably. It is in the slow and thoughtful moments that I write poorly.
What else happened, aside from the inevitable advancement of age? Well, life. I am married, I have a child, I have concerns which are no longer in any way connected to the lives of my characters. There are bills, there are doctors, there is weather, there are groceries, there is my left ankle which hurts right now and that is because of another concern, which is the big sheet of ice that the car was parked on this morning. And many more. That’s just off the top of my head.
Without careful consideration and active thought, these things have led me astray, I have concluded. They should not dominate your thoughts; they should be presented to your mind, as if it were holding court, and your mind should deal with them and then put them away and return to the business at hand, which is the worlds you are creating inside your head.
Now, this brings me to another interesting point, and as with all the others, I apply it with confidence only to myself and leave it for you to choose whether or not you take it or leave it. The point is: I have just discussed that for writing to succeed, there must be a lack of conscious thought, an emphasis on speed and instinct. And I have explained that the way life affects you should be consciously thought about and dealt with. To leave the burdens and problems of life to your unconscious self and your instinct causes them to deal with them instead of your stories, and they can become calloused things from the extra work, and then do nobody any good. Life should be dealt with in conscious moments of lucidity and sanity, and then you should be able to quick-release those chains and fly off in the clean blue skies (or perhaps they are green skies?) of your imagination and your worlds, where your characters await and are doing things for you.
So. Fear is the root of all these problems. Because when there is life to deal with, the inevitable reaction is fear. Life is scary stuff. I don’t care what age you are. I think you can get used to it eventually, but it remains scary stuff all the way through to the end. Once you leave the nest, you are flying on your own and there is always the danger of falling and dying, of getting killed by a Hawk, of getting blown to some strange land by a powerful gale. Those are metaphors, mind you, I don’t actually expect to get killed by a Hawk unless God is really, really angry with me. But the metaphor stands.
And with fear comes weakness. With fear comes the moment of hesitation and indecision. We do not reach a fork in the road where the straight way is lost, to quote a famous book, we reach a junction with lots of really interesting paths and are afraid to choose the one over the other, whereas before we would have kept walking without hesitation and been curiously aware that there was another road, out there, somewhere.
If I revert to speaking in metaphors, it is because it’s the only way I know how. A scientist, whose name I have also failed to recall, pointed out that science and math are so much about finding the simplest possible terms to explain things. Sometimes, writing about writing is the same thing. It is taking thoughts in my head which are not in a common denomination that can be understood by all and quantifying them into reasonably coherent thoughts.
In my various time on the internet, I longed to spend more time with writers, because this was something I had always lacked. In real life, or on the internet, I was always a fairly loner sort of person, because there was no one who was thinking like I was starting to think. And though I did not recognize it until hindsight, this was perhaps for the best, because too much circular analysis can lead to the indecision, especially in a moment of weakness. But over time, I found other writers, and I found other writing communities where we talked about the craft itself. And I delighted in it. What finer thing than to come together with a great group of other people who feel the same way as you – bonkers in love, out of your mind about it – about the same thing as you, which is writing, (in case you feared this had turned into an article on plumbing, or birds, or something).
The problem is, this leads to more forks in the road. Suddenly, it is not the straight way being lost, it is the idea that there is not only no straight way, but there is no road, there is only a great empty field and you can go wherever you want, except those ways which are wrong.
I am talking about writing advice. It is dead useful stuff, and I want to put emphasis on that, because it really is. It has done a lot of good for a lot of writers. Again, I point out that this article addresses only me, and I am making no sweeping statements about anyone else and how they choose to do anything else. I have no right to talk about anyone else, either in a personal sense, nor in the sense of their writing.
And I think that, too, is part of the point. I was always fairly casual about writing advice: I offered what I had, based on a lot of years writing. And I debated other writing advice. And I applauded well-spoken and lucid writing advice when offered. And without meaning to, I absorbed a huge amount of it, through osmosis more than anything, until it had changed how I wrote. It was not the only thing that changed how I wrote, another thing which shifted it was a shift in what I was reading, but the two meshed, as they always will. What you absorb and what you read are both caused by the same brain matter up in your head, and it is no coincidence that they are frequently similar in nature.
So when I threw off the misery and drudgery of my writing, in early November, what I came to realize later on was that I was really trying to throw off the work of a number of years spent analyzing and talking about writing and consciously trying to shape my writing into something better and stronger and cooler, when in all actuality, that was the stupidest thing I could be doing. Remember that we are supposed to clap our hands and say that we do! We do believe in fairies! We are not supposed to sit down and have a serious analysis on the genus, species, kingdom, biology, and psychological makeup of the creature which we shall call “fairy,” because that is just a many-worded way of saying “I don’t believe in fairies,” and that’s what kills them.
It becomes a question of reversion, ultimately. The question becomes: having recognized the problem and identified the components, can it be overcome? Can you revert back to the way you wrote when you were younger and less wise and more carefree and entirely fearless? How do you do that? What caused the change to happen in the first place, what can you do to change it, and in what places do you have to compromise in order to make those changes work with your new life, at your older, er, age and with your responsibilities?
In that, I am afraid I have led you a number of pages without anything that I can offer you as a really solid answer. And truthfully, there may not be a solid answer. Another saying is “You can’t go home again,” and that really is pretty true in a mental sense. Physically, you can go home, but you are not tens years old and carefree when you go back, merely because you have returned your older physical body to a place where you spent time as a younger person.
So mostly, you have to adapt in a way that appears to be reversion. I have no idea how that is accomplished, except by further thought. And I am unsure if that will accomplish anything, since further thought may be exactly the problem and contribute further to my own demise. Perhaps it’s like opening up a big hole in the side of your boat, in order to try and figure out what’s making you sink. Then again, maybe it’s exactly like that, and you wind up fixing the problem you couldn’t find, and then repairing your own hole. You see? Another puzzling metaphor.
There are other changes I haven’t talked about yet, because I am not entirely sure how to quantify them into words, or even what to do about them. When I wrote 10,000 fearless words a day, I was writing short stories. Serial short stories, to be exact, still my favorite medium. The time I started to slow and grow miserable was almost exactly the same time I started writing novels, and writing stories that I wanted to be impressive enough to sell. There are changes like that, and I suspect they could lead to quite a lot more discussion, but I haven’t the capacity to talk about them right now.
As ever, I am a writer in a state of flux. What else should a writer ever be in? A stable writer is one without a pulse. But you can at least be a consistent writer, as the greats like Isaac Asimov have shown, and whose method of working I am forever longing after and chasing desperately. My writing tone and style, my writing quality, those are my own and I think nothing of them. When I read a brilliant book, I do not think “I want to write like him,” I think instead, “I wish I had told that story.” But that’s as far as that goes. However, when it comes to authors I’ve mentioned, like Andre Norton, what I think is “I want to write as much and as widely as they did,” and it comes with an urgent and desperate longing, followed by a miserable period of depression at my own writing speed. Quality is never worried about, only speed. If I am to truly recognize the value of myself – which is different than a fear of ego, ego being something I am terrified of – then I can recognize that, without thinking about it, I will produce quality writing no matter what, and I can turn my attention to other things, like finding a way to produce writing that makes me really, really happy, and finding a way to do that at a speed which suits me well.
It heartens me to know that I am getting ever closer. I have produced eight thousand words a day for several days in a row, just last week, and I was trembling and flying high. It was impossible to sleep that night. And the next morning, when I sat down to write again, out came another eight thousand words without effort or hesitation. Later in the evening, I sat down and added a couple thousand without concern, as easily as I might write an e-mail. It was like having the camera of one’s mind, one’s muse, suddenly pull back and you could see everything, in the sense that suddenly everything was small and managable. When you are producing eight thousand words a day with the greatest of ease, then suddenly it’s the easiest and most mundane of tasks to just sit down and do a couple of thousand words really quickly. And that’s one of the heartening and wonderful feelings.
Similarly, I come to writing this week after a couple of days break, and am having trouble getting several thousand words down. The fallout from last week’s euphoric writing is that I am still, on my bad days, producing around four thousand words. That’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s never enough, it’s not fast enough, it’s not enough enough, you see. It has to be more, ever more. And again, I can constrast my work last week with my work this week and try to figure out what I did right then, and what I do wrong now.
I grow ever closer. I have several ideas. Probably, they are the basis for another long, long article such as this. But I will spare you all the anxiety of thinking that you are only halfway through reading this thing, dear reader. Instead, I have produced eight thousand words of varying material so far today – this article included among those words, and I hope that counts for something – and now, I shall go off and accomplish some more fiction. Fearlessly? No. But perhaps by degrees, I am getting closer.
That is the goal, to end with another quote. “To strive, to seek, to fight, and never to yield.” Or, in the words of Don Quixote, “To run where the brave dare not go.” Perhaps, in light of my discussion here today, Don Quixote is the figure a writer should look to, moreso than his creator Cervantes. Perhaps I should be tilting wildly at windmills rather than pondering the importance of words.