Art And Craft — Can This Marriage Be Saved



As I’ve said before, right now there is a novel dictating itself to me, hampered and slowed only by the time I take away to do research.


Why research if the novel is dictating itself?


Well, because for me at least, it doesn’t work effortlessly. Actually, I don’t think it works for anyone. The character of my novel is not a writer. He knows his story, but he doesn’t know how to tell it. Or if you prefer – I prefer too, if it keeps the men in white coats from knocking at my door – my subconscious has latched onto this story, this voice, these large movements of events and characters, these principles that guide the characters. But my subconscious hasn’t spent the last twenty years carefully analyzing the techniques writers use to get a story across.


I’ll grant you my subconscious is along for the ride when I’m reading – of course – and it is what gives me the indication of what thrills me and what speaks deeply to me (which is very important. I’ll why explain later). But it doesn’t go “oh. Look how she avoids going THERE and fully explaining what happened as he died, to keep it sad and not gross.” Or “Ah, that sentence is enough to tell us he’s noticing the woman. More would be a plot-slowing infodump.”


My conscious knows that. My conscious knows more things too. It knows that I can’t write a book in which the characters consciously and in very different circumstances try to recreate the American revolution and finish the revolution in one book. Look, beyond the initial impetus, there were wars for independence over years, and the system of government wasn’t really stable for a long time (some would say till the Civil War but I’m so not getting into that argument, particularly since I have very definite – and if you know my politics – predictable ideas on centralized government and it’s a pointless argument and one that in fact that was mirrored at the founding of the nation. I can do it better with fiction.) And the American revolution was taking place in thirteen small (population wise) colonies, which had no real experience of self-rule in terms of nations, even in a limited sense for the last few thousands of years. While my book takes place in all of Earth, administratively united but culturally and even politically fractured.


Realistically? This revolution will take centuries to work itself through the system. It will go well in some places and very badly (as in buckets of blood) in others. It will end in freedom in some places, economic freedom in others, and in insanity in not a few. Other places will devolve into dictatorship, even while the stragglers are still freeing themselves.


How do you write that? Well, you do it only in portions. The struggle of people we don’t know anything about is as interesting, of course, but as humans we care most about ours and our friends’ struggles. So it starts there. Pick – to begin with – an interesting place and an interesting character – preferably one who can’t help fight the current regime, because otherwise he’s going to be dead. Then have him free as much of that area as he can reach. Then let the dominos fall. Take one of his associates from quite a different area. Push….


My subconscious however, thinks in terms of “and then they killed the bad guy and the whole world rejoiced.” My subconscious has watched too much Star Trek and fails to understand that whole worlds are too complex a thing.


So I’m sitting here, studying strategy and approaches, and it is merrily dictating along. And I’m slowing it down enough to let me study.


This is btw where the legal pads come in. I can’t write in them, long term, because my mind goes much much faster than my hand in handwriting. OTOH I can write in them for three pages or so to get a voice that’s not flowing right or to find just the right words to open a book or a chapter. And I DO write, draw and sometimes doodle on them while trying to get the PLOT right. I do also make notes along the lines of “Make sure there is a similar incident to x” while reading for research.


Anyway, art and craft intertwine for me. Art is the rush of excitement and interest when an idea first appears. I can’t explain it. It’s a little like falling in love.


Sometimes the idea isn’t even clear in my mind. I don’t know who the main character is, or what he wants. I have clue zero where she lives. I don’t know if it is even human. BUT I get a feeling for the character, a sense of what he/she/it is trying to do or overcome. It’s like… glimpsing someone across a crowded room and catching the movement of the head, the sweep of the hair and thinking “wow.” Then you start crossing the room to meet the person or start allowing the idea to shape.


Does it change sometimes, and do you lose interest after a while. Sure. Sometimes the person isn’t for you. Same with ideas. One of the things that seem to be universal is that not everyone can stay with an idea no matter how good. I used to write down all my ideas when I first started writing. After about a year, with some experience, I realized about half weren’t for me. Oh, they were my ideas, I’d just never write them. And if I wrote them, I’d never make them good because they didn’t make me that excited.


This is like teenagers who fall in love with everyone. It is only when they start considering people in terms of marriage or at least long term relationships, that they realize a lot of those people simply aren’t compatible. Or they don’t like those people enough.


Take me for instance – in my ten years as a professional I turned down exactly one assignment, even though I wasn’t doing anything else at the time. Yes, it was write for hire. Yes, I’ve done very few of those. But if that book had been something I could do, I’d have taken it. You see, I had a refrigerator to replace.


But the book took place in DC corridors of power. It was all about lobbyists and ambassadors and what not.


So, Sarah, you say, you do books set in Tudor courts. Why couldn’t you research the power machinations in DC? Because they don’t interest me that way. They interest me passionately in terms of “what are they doing to us?” and “How fast are the founders spinning in their graves?” but not in terms of writing. I hate books set in that type of place with that type of plot. I don’t read them. Forcing myself to write one would be torture. And it would show.


There are other books I can read but not write. I’m not saying which because they’ll attack me and try to make me write one. (NO, I’m not crazy. I’m just a little unwell. Or I’ll be after writing a fashion mystery, say.)


Anyway, so a year or so of writing practice rendered half of my list moot.


I watched a lot of my fledgelings go through the same process and I can tell you it seems to be universal. There are some characters and settings you can’t write, or at least can’t finish because you don’t care enough.


In the same way there are characters each of you finds irresistible. Mine seems to be the Fallen Caryatid type of character as per Heinlein’s quote: This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods…and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.


But she’s more than just good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage…and victory.


Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn’t give up…she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her…she’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit.


They can be male or female, but they tend to have at least a little of this in them. (Yes, even Athena.) This is not volational. It’s simply the type of character that makes me interested and passionate.


My son, Robert, seems to go for… well… weird. He’s written intelligent cats who drink tea. He’s written intelligent pterodactyls. When dealing with human characters he pits them up against … zombie dinosaurs or intelligent vampire shopping carts. Weird is his muse and what makes his heart sing. (Yes, I do live in fear of the Weird-in-Law I’ll inevitably land.)


My friend Kate Paulk, otoh, goes for evil sobs. I’m not going to say they’re lovable evil sobs, or even redeemable (though some are) but that she makes you interested in them even as you’re thinking you need to take a shower.


And I think Amanda Green invented strong women. Or if not at least she makes it sound like she did. And look you, they’re real strong women, not the shrews screaming their way through plots that most of Hollywood thinks mean “strong.” They’re strong despite their vulnerabilities and they take honor as seriously as any man.


Dave Freer … well, Dave writes outliers who steal your heart and misfits that make the whole work for the non-outliers. And he writes good people. Good but not sappy. (Yes, there is a difference.) You can be good without being nice. And he layers them. And uh… I’m just going to stop there because I shouldn’t be required to analyze the work of someone that far out of my league. It’s cruel and unusual and I’ll decide I am a hack who shouldn’t even be writing, if I try.


I could take one of their character types on, I could – but it would just end up as another fallen caryatid.


The same goes for every element of story, from setting – I tend to the Mediterranean type setting. Look, it’s what I was surrounded with growing up. If I say “Wall” in my mind it’s a stone wall, a little cracked, with plants growing in the cracks. It was a shock to me to see Elis Peters mysteries on TV because they had so much wood where I expected stone. Other people’s preference varies. My futures tend to have gritty sides of town and people who live by manual labor, because I like cities, and I like the working class part of cities, not just the scenic for tourist parts.


So, when a story starts circling, first I determine if I love it enough to stay with it till the end. And then… And then I start trying to figure out accommodations and ways we can live together. “No, I’m not writing a hard science fiction story about the moon landings. I’d have to study it for three years to get good enough to fool the experts. So… we’ll set it in an alternate world. There will be… humans on the moon. And…”


Sometimes in the middle of that, as in A Few Good Men, a character emerges from the swamp of my fervid mind, and is definite and strong enough to feel like “someone else” and to start dictating. And in this case, Lucius is very definite that he knows his story and why am I dawdling. Then the trick is to write just enough to keep him going, but not enough to overrun what I know I need to research, fix and plot.


And that is what I’m doing this week. (Which explains the lame but rather long post.)


And don’t send the men in white coats. I’m too busy writing. Besides, Lucius is one bad dude, and I can TOO send him to deal with them. See if I can’t. Then he’ll leave me alone long enough to figure out the secondary inciting incident in the story……


*If It’s Wednesday, this must be crossposted at According to Hoyt*



  1. That’s some good food for thought Sarah. And I know how you feel. Writing a story about a dwarven stonemason has me about to build a diorama of a stone house just to figure out how this works. It’s research by doing I guess, but hopefully it should work.

    1. You know what’s sad? I never get to do research into “Five star restaurant meals” Or “What does a designer clothes shopping experience feel like” or… “A life of idleness”

    1. Oh noes. Next you’ll be writing sparkly vampires and we’ll ALL be doomed! Doomed I tell you!

      (Okay. It was a rough day at work, and I’ve gone completely around the twist)

  2. It’s not that I go for evil SOBs. They find me. After that, well… I’d swear my head has a hotline to Evil Bastard Central.

    There are reasons I don’t try too hard to find out what the heck my subconscious is doing. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t like it. Or possibly, like it entirely too much.

    1. I have EXACTLY two gay vampires. In… a hundred and twenty stories. And six vampire stories. You worry me, you do. What is this fixation with gay blood er… suckers? Talk to me, Mike…

  3. I know what you mean about having to turn down assignments that aren’t a fit.

    I was once offered the villain role in a musical but I simply couldn’t find any way to emphasise with the character, so declined the part. The next year they offered me Jud Fry from Oklahoma and strangely enough, though he is a murdering psychopath with a monumental inferiority complex; him I could play!

    1. Jud Fry is also strangely sympathetic. He’s got no understanding of how people work, and he’s desperately in love with Laurie. Although I will admit that one of the best musical “villain” roles out there is Javert from Les Mis.

      1. He got a great song in Lonely Room. Hammerstein had to really torture those final notes to stop that ending from being pure triumphalism.

        I don’t really think he was in love with Laurie though. Sure he wanted her, but I think she was more of a symbol of the upper class settler that he was envious of. Mixed in with his loneliness(being the only “hand” on a small farm would be very lonely) it created in Jud (as we saw) a vicious sort of longing.

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