Holy Tectonic Plates, Batman — a blast from the past from ATH 10/10/08
So, you’re thinking, as you sit out there in the audience, chewing your gum – yes, I see you, did you bring enough to share with everyone? – and reading my blog so you can avoid getting any writing done, you’re thinking “Once I get published, that’s it. I’ll know exactly what I’m doing, and everything will be perfect forever and ever amen.”
Of course, if you’re already published, you’re probably aware that no elf came by with a magic wand and endowed you with the ability to write effortlessly. (If one did I don’t want to hear it. Lalalalalalalala.)
The truth is not just that it never ends. The truth is that it never stops being weird and painful. I’ve published now – counts on fingers – one, two three, seven, ten (removes shoes) fourteen novels, if you count a couple that are absolutely secret (if I told you they wouldn’t be secret, now, would they? However, the first bright boy or girl to come to my house, do the litter boxes, dust, sweep and cook dinner for the next week gets told the names and author name) and I’ve always been aware that there were things I didn’t do right.
Oh, come on, admit it, those of you who are writers know this. There’s things you can do, and things you can’t. You start out and – if you’re honest with yourself – you see all these huge flaws. You look at published stories and you wonder how the hell they do it. You know your stuff is not just different quantitatively – it’s not just “he does more of this” – but qualitatively. It’s a different beast altogether. You gape in wonder at the grownups stuff and you go “Oh, wow, if only I could write a story like THAT I’d be happy.”
And you read and you study, you learn, you look for hints. And you collect your kicks in the… er… I mean rejections, advice letters and critiques. And you sit up in the cold, dark night and wonder if you’ll ever be a real writer and you know that when you get there, you’ll do everything perfectly and it will be EASY.
(Rubs nose doubtfully) To tell you the absolute truth, maybe there is a point at which you do that. I wouldn’t know. Maybe Heinlein just let the prose pour out. Doesn’t seem like that if you read Grumbles, but who am I to ask? There are others. Terrry Pratchett before his health issues. Maybe stuff just came out. Who knows? (Somehow I can hear him laughing if he ever reads this.) But those are geniuses. People so far above the mortals like us that it doesn’t truly matter what THEIR rules are. We’re still out here slogging through the mud.
Partly through taking art – the process is not that much different – I’ve identified phases to this slogging. First there’s the phase at which you’re so ignorant that you think you’re doing everything wonderfully. Now, unless you start writing or art as a toddler, this phase is usually when you’ve picked up some basic principles. So, you’re not drawing stick figures. And you’re not writing about Spot and his endless marathon. You’re doing creative, usually fatally flawed, stuff, that you’re pleased with, because it’s so much better than you could do untutored. And you have clue zero there’s anything wrong with it.
For most people this is the hobby phase. You’re doing this stuff for fun. You steal every minute you can to do it. You do it to please yourself, which means some bits of it might be QUITE good – intense and dark, or intense and light, full of the sort of things that produce and immediate reaction. These are the bits that interest you. The bits that don’t interest you look kind of like those clay ashtrays all of us made in kindergarten. (Except me. I got kicked out of kindergarten for talking back. BEFORE clay.)
Then you learn a little more. This part is disturbing, because you’re usually not TRYING to learn and it’s not like you think anything you do is wrong, right? You’re just playing with it a lot. (I’d appreciate it if the gentleman in the back stopped giggling) and you’re reading your normal stuff and despite your best intentions you start realizing your stuff is not even, it’s not RIGHT and it might not even be – gasp – any good.
The very first time you come to this fork in the road, you have a choice – it might be the last time you have it, so listen CAREFULLY – if you’re stuck at this point, and your writing is no longer as much fun as it used to be, but you have no idea how to improve it, walk away. Walk away fast. Remember Lot’s wife and do not under any circumstances look back.
Sigh, you’re not going to, are you? Okay, then. The bad news are that if you don’t’ walk away now, you’ve entered a possibly never ending process, one garanteed to drive you mad, if you are not so already. (It’s been my experience if you’re setting out to become a writer being mad doesn’t hurt and might help.)
If you’re lucky, you’re a rational writer and learn intellectually. The sad truth is very few of us are, at least from what I can gather from sodden-drunk sessions at con bars. Most of us learn through our toes, our fingers, our nostrils or somewhere other than our brain. This of course explains the MILES of how to books every pro I know owns, only about half of them ever fully read. (We’re hoping the knowledge makes it into the brain by osmosis.)
I’m not saying reading how to books doesn’t help. It does, or at least some of them do. (After years of trial and error I’ve developed “signs to look for” for what might help and what should be thrown from a height, preferably an airplane. If enough people ask, I might share that.) As does reading authors who are good at what you wish to do and re-reading it to study how they do it. Then you pulp it all and ingest it. (Not literally – metamucil is cheaper.) And you HOPE. At this point, at least for me, the worst I can do is to start looking at my own writing for signs of improvement. “Am I better at plotting now?”
Of course because this is the most stupid thing I can do, it is exactly what I do. And this is one of most horrendous “phases” of the writing process. You look at everything you ever wrote and you think it’s dreck and some of you – you know who you are. AMANDA, put the matches down RIGHT NOW. I’m not kidding, missy – will take all of your stuff out in the yard and burn it at this stage. This is stupid, counterproductive, vaguely masochistic and deranged. Congratulations, you’re probably a writer. No other species known to man or beast has that few self-preservation instincts.
At some point, if you’re like most of us, and you probably are – possibly after someone has called the fire department – you realize that you’re never going to be any good, but oh, holy f*ck, you have to keep writing. It’s not that you enjoy it, exactly. It’s more that it’s like a broken tooth to which your tongue returns over and over and over again. Like playing with scabs.
Like any other mental illness, this thing we call writing hauls you back, body and soul, and MAKES you do it. (Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. The devil made me do it.) And you slog through grey despair for a while. It can be hours, days, months, years.
And then things… shift. And in the way of the writing life – yes, I DID promise you a rose garden. The roses are carnivorous, the stems are covered in thorns and they secrete a poisonous substance. Look, I told you to run while you could, didn’t I? – it feels… worse.
I refer to this sensation as “being lost in someone else’s underwear” but it is also akin to wearing too tight clothes, or scratchy ones. You know your writing has changed, but you don’t think it’s gotten better, as such. It’s just gotten different. In some undefinable way it keeps escaping your control, doing things you never expected it to. And it feels like going insane. It’s like part of you is playing silly buggers with the rest of you. It’s like playing poker with yourself and you are cheating and you try to call yourself out and…
This is the time at which it is a very good idea to avoid all sharp objects, rope objects, gun objects and for the love of heaven water objects. Stay with me. It will only get worse. And you’ll like it. Because you’re one of the few, the truly screwed up, the writers. Wear it proudly. (Heaven knows, might be the only thing you wear. Clothing stores don’t take monopoly money. I’ve tried.)
And then you wake up one morning, and you read something you wrote while your mind seemed to be physically divided and you go “Holly tectonic plates, Batman! Something HAS shifted. I can now do x” (Whatever has been tormenting you.)
At this point half in jest and all seriously I MUST warn all beginner or not so beginner writers reading this that what you should do when everything is wrong is write. Write a lot. When I was only a small larval writer – on my way to being a small to medium larval writer. Yes, rather proud of myself, I am – wiser heads than mine (Hello Kris and Dean) though this might be damning with faint praise told me to “trust the process” and that in this field you “learn by doing.” The more you do, the more you learn. The first was of course a null program. I don’t trust anything. Born that way. I could be one of Heinlein’s True Witnesses. The second… Well, I gave it a spin and found they were right. (Hot d*mn.)
Does this mean that from then on you won’t struggle with this issue again? Uh… not EXACTLY. It means, you’ve climbed the mountain and now that path you came up? Yeah, it looks smooth and easy, but you can also see a bit further up through the clouds, and you realize it goes up and up an up. (Put down the rope object now! And the leather object! Oh, wait. That one wasn’t for… never mind. [blushes and closes door.])
Take me – PLEASE? Lord knows I don’t particularly want me most of the time – I came into this field with ONE clear gift (Just remember, pace Fernando Pessoa – and others – the gods sell all that they give. It was a gift, yes, but not exactly a blessing) I can create characters effortlessly. In other words, there are voices in my head, they come with personalities and histories. I don’t have to do anything for it. They’re not based on anyone I know (though I’ve been known to steal incidents, anecdotes and jokes from all of you. Sorry. It’s a writer thing.) They just… pour out.
To compensate, I came into this field, first with a complete lack of understanding of DESCRIPTION which took me a good… ten years to master and not just throw in massive lumps over the landscape. (No, sir, we are not interested in what we thought of our last book. Do you REALLY want to stay after class to clean chalk erasers? Right. [clears throat])
However, my bette noir, what has bedeviled me from the very beginning is… plot. How to make it credible – and of course, being blessed with a highly unusual mind doesn’t help. What seems logical to me often makes people go “uh?” (I said unusual. I’m sticking to unusual. At least until unusual takes a shower.) BEYOND that, there were other issues, mostly how to keep the plot moving. (I never had much issue with torturing my characters. Not sure what that means about me except that at the best of times, I have enough free-floating anger around to blast a small third world country into oblivion.)
I’ve struggled with plot. It’s been my mystic trial. Odin’s tree, where I hang suspended, blind and without a clue.
Does this mean I didn’t get better? Or I didn’t try?
Oh, neither. I started getting published when my plots were on the ragged edge of existing. (Don’t believe me? Go find Ill Met By Moonlight. You will.) My bookshelf, JUST the one facing me, has Twenty master Plots, plot, Plots Unlimited, how to plot your thriller, Beginnings, middles and ends, Poisons and antidotes (um… wait, that’s for when the others fail.) And a dozen others. I’ve diagramed my favorite books. I’ve thrown my least favorite books against the wall (Um, wait there. That’s just for fun.) I worried about it till my hair went white (again, that’s my story. Unless I’m talking to Robert, in which case it’s his fault since it happened when he was born. Really, white hair at 28? SERIOUSLY? Isn’t it bad enough I’m a writer? Why must I be further punished?)
And then, and then, you ask. I can see you on the edge of your seats. Did the clouds above part? Did choirs of heaven descend upon me and sing? No. (And this is probably fortunate. I have two angels as characters right now and trust me, while their descending upon me might have… er… certain… um… upsides [sir, if you don’t stop giggling, you’ll have to leave.] mostly it would be terrifying.) I’ve just endured a series of incremental “thunks” where I do not so much climb another step, as the step drops away and beneath me, leaving me for a while like the road roader suspended mid air. And then another step appears in front of me.
I’m going into this, because while I was writing both Heart and Soul and Gentleman Takes A Chance – which for reasons known only to my psychiatrist (if I had one. I mean, seriously, do you think I’d take THIS near anyone with power to have me committed?) insisted on coming out together, like some sort of literary siamese twins – I was going through the most painful of these phases. Lost in someone’s underwear. And it was weird underwear. It had six legs. (No, I truly don’t want to KNOW.) None of it made sense. I wandered in the dark without clue, and when I lit the light of clue the shape it showed made no sense. It was so like going insane, and my head felt so “divided” that I couldn’t finish the books without isolating myself completely in a hotel room for a few days and MAKING me do it. (Try holding your nose to the grindstone. JUST try it. It’s your nose and your hand, and you flinch back, instinctively.)
If I could, if I thought there was half a chance in hades I wouldn’t come back to writing, I would have given back the advances and walked away. But I know myself too well. Giving up writing is easy. I’ve done it DOZENS of times. Once it lasted two weeks. So I stuck to it, and I sent these books out still cringing. And then I started the next.
Choirs of angels? No. But all of a sudden I realized what I had been doing wrong. I’m not going to say all of a sudden my plots are the fastest thing this side of the Pecos River. (Zoom, there goes one!) I don’t know if they are. But all of a sudden, blindly, though I’m plotting the same way I always do (about thirty pages per novel, chapter by chapter) the pieces are clicking together RIGHT and the gears are moving as if oiled. And those two books I sent out cringing? Probably best I’ve written. So far. (Dipped, Stripped and Dead and DarkShip Thieves are turning out magnitudes better. Again.)
Only there is something wrong. Something is shifting underfoot. I don’t know what it is. Is it plot? Is it voice? – which lately has started worrying me? – something is moving. I’ll look at what I wrote and I don’t want to change it but it feels odd. Like being lost in someone’s underwear. And it’s weird underwear. I think it’s got tentacle-receptacles. (Sir, please, I thought I asked you to stop giggling?)
Holy Tectonic Plates, Batman! Here we go again. (Looks lovingly towards the poison and antidotes book, sighs and goes to hold nose against grindstone.)