I am, like Mr. Bennet in pride and prejudice, a mixture of Odd Parts.
During the late (but not great, mostly just sad, disappointing and destroying the rest of the mystic I saw in the organizations in the field) kerfuffle in the field, someone on our side in politics decided I needed to be destroyed for…. well, not how she put it, but basically being a new class traitor.
You see, she decided I idolized or fetishized the working class, thought of them as cruel but identified with them, and … well a rat’s nest of undigested Marxist propaganda and indoctrination that she was probably not even aware was Marxist, just “smart” because it was part of her education. I could almost untangle it and explain it for you but I don’t care to dive into that nonsense, and also it’s not my responsibility to untangle the King Rat in anyone’s head. If I manage it in mine, it’s good enough.
The thing is that I don’t think in classes. Never really did. Old or new, American or European. Which is weird enough for the US, where humans, of course, do a lot of class signaling, (being human) and it’s worse because there’s really no defined birth class unless it is for the super-poor and the super-rich, and even those are permeable. It is outright bizarre in my country of birth, and drove mom nuts, because not only didn’t I care for class signaling but I didn’t signal right either. I suspect that though i don’t really have any other of the signs of it, that is my glaring sign of “is on the spectrum.” Or perhaps it is simply that I’m not so much a human being as a giant case of ADD in vaguely human shape.
This means that the most important thing about anyone or anything to me is “is it interesting” and whether it’s considered high or low class, work to be idolized or reviled I couldn’t care less. Only “is it interesting” and “Does this person have anything to teach me that I want to learn?”
So, you know, even though dad was white collar and the family bookish which I was informed by a classmate made us high class (we unfortunately couldn’t trade class chips for meat or even pastries, so you know….) I was fascinated — from earliest age — by the workers my family hired. Not the people, but what they did. I used to follow them around and ask questions. “Why are you cutting that?” “Why use that tool?” “What’s the point of the specialized nails?” etc. etc. etc.
And because I was a cute kid and genuinely interested, most of these older, curmudgeonly men thought I was too cute for words and taught me why they did things, or how, or even trade secrets they’d never give away to an adult. Which was incredibly useful when we were a young couple, surviving on one salary as I was trying to break into writing. We parlayed my knowledge — in the form of rebuilding two Victorians while living in them — into resales that allowed us to always live in areas we otherwise would not come close to affording.
But it’s not like I acquired that knowledge because I had this plan (even if at 8 I was going to live in Denver and be a writer. No, really. I didn’t even know where Denver was!) but because the stuff was fascinating, so I wanted to learn it.
And for the record, it wasn’t just manual stuff I found fascinating. In a discussion with my fans this morning, I realized (again. I keep forgetting, somehow) I have more than laywoman’s knowledge of some subjects, like, oh, Elizabethan history. And just a little more than your average adult (but maybe not your average 12 year old boy) about dinosaurs
That’s because these subjects naturally interest me, so I dive into them, head first, for months at a time, when “resting.” And I’ve dragged my long-suffering family to more series of graduate-level lectures on them than I care to mention
Because it’s fun, and again, from the top, I’m an ADD case wrapped in mostly human looking skin. (Well, I’m getting older, and also this case of eczema that I’m taking prednisone for…. well, don’t ask. You don’t want to know.)
Oh, and just to dismiss a bit of strange: I don’t think the working class is cruel. Actually I don’t think they’re anything that people who do any other kind of work aren’t. Sure, some are cruel and ill tempered. Some are living saints. Most are… like the rest of us. I have always strenuously objected to stories that paint manual laborers or whomever the author clearly thinks are “beneath” him or her as “stupid” or “cruel” or whatever. Humans are individuals. A group as vast as a professional avocation has the usual proportion of everything human. To portray them otherwise is lazy. And to assume people who do work that doesn’t require book-learning are stupid is a whole level of ignorance and arrogance that boggles the mind. To begin with, it starts with your assuming everyone is exactly like you.
So, that’s the background for this post. Yep, that was all setup. Deal with it, okay?
This probably explains why I approach writing — definitely a laptop profession, currently being performed by a writer in sweats sitting on a lazyboy, as she does the blogs, preparatory to cleaning the house, having finished a very overdue short at dark o’ last night — from the work point of view, often empathizing with people like Mike Rowe, as he talks about ‘dirty jobs’ or doing the unpleasant part of your work.
Yeah, I do know I’m not literally out there, shoveling sh*t. Though to be fair, some of the secret work for hire I did– Never mind. it was another time, and the kids needed shoes, school books, college tuition and at one crucial time cardiologists.
Anyway, those instances aside — when I wrote something I really didn’t want to, under time pressure because young I was, needed the money I did — or times when I’m sick or exhausted and things are due, you could look at my work, squint and say “she never worked a day in her life.”
And it wouldn’t be wrong. Or not exactly. Because though my work might at times look like an insane amount of heavy lifting in invention, world building and research, or just the drudgery of getting the thing down, I picked well. I do what I like, and I enjoy it immensely. When I’m flying on a story — like late last night — and the pieces are falling into place, and everything is shaping up shiny and ship shape, it’s the best thing in the world. It’s like falling in love.
But here’s the thing: as much as I love m job, as much as I enjoy not just my work but the way others enjoy my work (cookies for the writer, cookies for the reader) I still have to do the work.
If I sit down and spin an entire short story out of clear blue nothing in a few hours, and it works, it might look to you like I’m just doing it easily and it just works out of sheer luck, right?
But … it’s not– Probably that’s not it. Beyond the world building (if I’m doing anything beyond the basic contemporary, and even that takes world building) I’m setting up the scaffolding, and building the structure of the story, while I also put on the filler on the bones, and prettify.
That I usually do it all in one pass for shorts (Novels might take up to three. Though some only took one. And no, I’m not going to tell you which. Heck, one of them took 36 hours uninterrupted, and no, I am not going to tell you which that was.) doesn’t mean I’m not doing all the jobs at once, or that it’s not hard. It’s not hard for me, because I have thirty some years of writing short stories. It used to take me ten passes or so to even show it to beta readers, because I hadn’t — yet — done the work.
On the way to building the thing bottom up, all in one go, from structure to prettifying, go go go, with maybe just a few typos, there is a whole lot of practice. Like, you know, the years I wrote a short story a week, while raising two children, remodeling a Victorian and working on the novels of which I finished a minimum of 4 a year. But also the years I read a lot of theory, or read a lot in my field, then sat down with a notebook and diagrammed the story until I understood the structure and what made it work.
So, the question is: are people still doing that kind of work when they’re new writers? I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’d have done that kind of work except that — for a whole lot of reasons having nothing to do with craft (but I didn’t know that) — I didn’t break in for 13 years. So part of my desperation to learn, particularly learning to do things like short stories, which are not natural to me, was because I just wanted to be published. Writing is communication. I wanted to communicate. I wanted my invention to find an audience. So, yeah, I worked like crazy.
Would I have now, when I could just publish? I tell you again: I don’t know.
I suspect so, just because I like to know how things work. And because I’m … ADD which means I would keep experimenting, running into trouble, and then having to figure out how to make it work and be saleable, because I hate wasted work. (That said, the completely unpublishable 8 novels I wrote first, and the “will be re-written” novel I wrote after that (and which is really 3 novels in an unconvincing suit) while they will never be sold (Stares at sons: I will HAUNT your *sses, and I’m not even joking. Even if it’s not possible. I’ll find a way. I think I destroyed all the copies, but you know…) were not wasted effort. Most of what I know about writing novels, and the reason I was still writing (if very slowly and rarely finishing stuff) at a time when I apparently packed boxes of drawing pencils, dresses and wall pictures then labeled it “shoes” (yes, last year or two years ago) is because I had done that work. Those novels were my apprenticeship. They’ll never pay by being published and sold, but they pay every day in “made every mistake, won’t do THAT again.”
Which brings us to: DO THE WORK, DON’T PAPER IT OVER.
What do I mean by papering it over?
Well, every story, but particularly every novel because longer, involves two important lines of “work.” One is to make it interesting enough to the author that it gets finished. The other is making it interesting enough to the reader, so it sells.
And both of them can be papered over by an author who just won’t do the work. It will even sell, at least for a while. (Though after a while, sane, healthy readers roll their eyes and wander off.)
How do you paper over the fact that — to be blunt — you can’t tell a plot from a hole in the ground, and couldn’t find a tension line to follow if you had two hands, an *ss finding GPS and a seeing eye dog?
Ah, there are many ways, and they’re fatal, though some of them will keep you selling at least at some level.
You lean hard into things that really interest everyone, is one way to do it: sex and violence. If you’re really good at writing those, you’ll sell at some level, even if you have no plot, your characters are unconvincing, and the whole thing is a hot mess. Heck, some people might never realize you don’t have a plot and the world building is self contradictory.
For those of you out there rubbing your hands and going “Sounds like a plan.” Yeah, sure. Except most of you (most people) DON’T and can’t write sex and violence THAT well. If you do and it won’t bore you do do that for the rest of your career — salutes — go for it, have fun.
But mot people don’t. And then when the books lose the initial shock and start selling less and less, they amp the sex and violence (poorly done) which then means it spirals down more. Which means….. and the poor author at that point doesn’t know she’s not putting in a plot, or that the worldbuilding makes no sense, because she’s fooled herself along with everyone else, so she’s sitting there going “Why has everyone turned against me?”
I’ve seen it happen again and again again. Don’t let it happen to you. Do the work. Do enough work that you put in plot without even thinking and that inconsistent world building will bother you even if you know no one else will see the duct tape, and you lay awake in the night till you figure out how to fix it, then drag out of bed to make it right, before you send it out/put it up.
And then, well, if you still want all that sex and violence in go for it. But then it’s intentional, not wallpaper hiding the cracked wall because the house has no foundation.
There are other types of things that aren’t even sex and violence, which means the author is wallpapering for her eyes only, but the books normally don’t sell. A lot of this wall papering is “I support the current thing.” The author is caught up in the issue du jour and convinced it’s just as fascinating for most people.
To be fair, it might even sell/get push with trad pub. Or would have, back in the day. Now they’re all a bit strapped. But– It’s why you get waves of books and if you read a lot of used books you’ll find yourself reading the “Reagan will kill us all” books, or the “Global cooling is going to totally freeze the world in ten years” books, or the (from the nineties) “we’ll all have to wear masks with filters outside because pollution will be so bad” books.
Sometimes the books are still worth reading. One of my favorite space opera series bought heavily into the global warming destroys civilization. But it it gets harder to read on, partly because you can tell the author just has this, undigested, in his brain. So a lot of it falls into the world building like water on shellac. It makes no sense whatsoever. Like, what is underwater (global sea rise!) and what isn’t wouldn’t make sense to anyone who’s seen a map. How it would destroy civilization and wouldn’t totally ignores local culture, or even levels of population density.
It’s because it’s not real. It’s just wall paper, either for him or to slide past the publisher. It’s just there to keep someone’s interest without being real structure, or making sense. At least the books work without it, so I just off and skip a few pages. BUT that’s because he’s a good author anyway. And did the work for decades.
For the lot of the younger people, all that Global Dooooooom REEEE is just wallpapering over the cracks. And there is nothing under it. Because they didn’t do the work.
So, this is my message to you, from someone who’s done both mental world building and more construction work than any woman should do in a lifetime (the best was when the boys were of an age to help, at least I had a crew) DO THE WORK.
No matter how much some aspect of your book fascinates you, or how you think it will sell to your prospective audience, study practice and think hard enough that you can also make everything else in the book work.
Because then your stories will stand the test of time, and will probably sell more. Also people will curse you less and not say things like “What actual sense does that thing make that you just stuck in, your radish’s rear uncle?” And by people, of course, I mean me.
I happen to know it’s the ambition of most of humanity to avoid having me call them weird, made up profanity, so do keep up.
And do the work. You might be working with your mental hands, not your physical ones, but ain’t nothing wrong with getting your hands dirty and a bit calloused, even.
GO AND DO THE WORK.