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bear by san

February 2017



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can't sleep books will eat me

i can make it longer if you like the style

Huh. Look at that.

I wrote 202 words so far this morning, while ostensibly Not Writing. And it's all stuff I like, full of the sort of character detail I feel was been missing from the book so far.

I kept telling myself, don't worry, you can go back and put it in later. Just write the damned thing. And it all felt rather thin and hopeless and contrived, rather than something that was naturally growing out of what the characters wanted and needed.

And I think I've figured something out, honestly. Which is one of the things I'm doing wrong, in terms of not respecting my process, and buying into other people's fiats about How Writing Is Done rather than, you know, sticking to what works for me and always has.

I think the problem dates back to 2006, actually, and when I was both working full-time and trying to write Undertow (fondly known around the house as Undertoad, and if you are picturing a frog in a cape with a U on his chest and a secret compartment in his ring he fills/with an Undertoad super energy pill!, I bet you're about my age). As you can imagine, getting that book written in under half a year under those circumstances about killed me. But I did it, and it was done.

Then, later that year, I finished New Amsterdam under unrelenting deadline pressure, and then--fast forward to winter of 2007, when I got to write Dust on an even more unforgiving schedule. (In here, I also managed to finish All the Windwracked Stars and By the Mountain Bound, but both of those were well ahead of schedule, and I did not get stressed out about them.)

Anyway, this year there's been a bunch of short stories, novelettes, and novellas written to tight deadline, some of them coming right down to the wire. Some of those include Seven for a Secret, The Red in the Sky is Our Blood, and The Tricks of London. Also, I've been working on Shadow Unit, which is comprised of six people who like to work right up to deadline... and me. Who is not happy unless everything is squared away four months in advance of when it's needed. I'm sort of notorious with my editors for handing in the option novel the day they accept the last book of the previous contract, actually....

So I've been forcing myself to do unnatural things. Or, I should say, things that are unnatural for my creativity. By nature, for example, I'm a putterer. I sit down with my file, I poke at it, I write 200 words, I wander away and go play Bejeweled for a while until I think up what happens next, I come back and write another 400 words... sometimes, when I am consumed by an inspiration, I write an entire novella in a weekened--or a week. (I wrote "This Tragic Glass" in two days. I wrote "Lucifugous" in a week.)

But that's rare for me. I don't have consistent 2K or 3K days unless I am in the homestretch of a story, and I already know everything that happens and it's just a matter of getting it on paper.

Usually what happens is I write a bit, I come back, I write a bit more, I put it away for a while, I come back and write a little further. This is why I often have multiple projects going at once, or novels with fifty or a hundred pages written sitting there waiting for me to get back to them one of these days.

In other words, my work habits as a writer are everything they (you know Them? The Creativity Police?) tell you not to do.

And since 2006, I've been trying to do it "right." Sit down for four hours a day, or eight, and write straight through. Work on the project that's under deadline--usually a tight one. Write in a linear fashion, get the draft done, push through, and then go back and fix things later. Get myself in situations where editors (rightfully so: editors have deadlines too!) are pressuring me to hand in work before I feel like it's ready.

And as a direct result, I've been miserable. Miserable with my work, often unsatisfied with the quality of it--in the sense of, if I had been able to put that draft away and come back to it six months later to revise, it would be a much richer and more well-developed story, not in the sense of I don't think it's any good. But I think some of it could have been better if I'd had more time to work it over. Because my stories tend to be constructed by, you know, my brain, I find that often they require me to add a lot of linearity, surface narrative, and patency to make them accessible to other people.

Anybody who has read my Criminal Minds posts is probably intimately aware of the fact that my brain processes narrative through the meta first and the text second, and that really does not work out so well for most readers: my revision process is mostly composed of going through painstakingly and making sure that there are deductive links between ideas as well as inductive ones. Yeah, you guys laugh. I know I'm famously obscure. You should ask truepenny or stillnotbored how much sense my stories make before I go through an explain everything in great and painstaking detail that I can't imagine anybody would want to read.

So what I'm discovering is that, for me, "doing it right" is doing it wrong. I need my deadlines at comfortable remove: I can't work with them breathing down my neck. I need to be able to putter and poke at things and get up and wander around and let my brain whirr on the hamster wheel rather than attempting to be disciplined and productive. I need to not ever let myself get to the point where an editor is doing a potty dance for a story, because it freaks me out but bigtime, and once the guilt and stress and OMG I HAVE TO FINISH NAO piles up, my work pace slows to a crawl, I become stressed out and avoidant, and I flame out all over the place while trying to force myself to just work on the important thing, for crying out loud.

In short, I work like shit under pressure.

Take the pressure off, and I produce like the deadline is tomorrow and I am racing to fill it.

And I think what's happened is I've allowed myself to get caught up in the general habits of writer society, to some degree--the OMG DEADLINE WORK WORK WORK Nanowrimo word-racy thing, when really what I need is more of a death-mosey. Quotas are bad for me, because if I set one, I will kill myself trying to reach it, rather than writing the story I have as it develops for me.

Now, I do not recommend anybody else adopt my work habits. As I've said elsewhere, I'm the poster child for how not to finish a book. Except for me, somehow, it works*, and in fact it works better than focusing down and thinking hard and setting stringent quotas.

Because if I try to do that, my brain starts throwing diva fits about how it can't WORK under these CONDITIONS!, and it's death spiral city. And dude, if I don't protect my creative process, the cat starves.

Which reminds me. Coffee break's over. Back on my head.

*(I think maybe it works so well for me because I get so much real joy out of finishing things. My serotonin reward comes when I type "the end." So I do not twiddle endlessly with commas and sentences once something is finished, because it's finished, and I am glad to see the back of it. No, I also do not have the typical writer problem of having trouble releasing.)


Hi, this post just explained a lot to me.

Particularly the bit where, for you, finishing the "first" draft (given that it's been fiddled with and tweaked and rewritten and, you know, is also the second, third, and fourth drafts) is the natural end of the process. This EXPLAINS why you hate it so much when you have to go back and revise a finished draft. (Which I didn't get, because I'll fiddle with things in first draft, but I'll also happily go back and fiddle with a finished draft until the end of time or someone takes it away from me, whichever comes first.)

I'm with you, though, on the quota thing. Do Not Want.
Well, no. Finishing the first draft is not a finished story. It's just that it bugs at me *until* it's a finished story. Which is to say, when I've finished all the bits that I wanted to make better or that I thought weren't yet pulling their weight.

But once that's done, I'm bored as hell with it and want it to go away.

And the process of endlessly fussing things makes me crazy. (Which is why I only correct mistakes and bad bits in the CE and the galleys, rather than fine-tuning. It's already had four or six or ten drafts by then: I'm not going to make anything better, unless it was broken in the first place. Different =/= better.)

An attendant problem with having handed in several things recently before I was really done with them--like Seven for a Secret, say--is that while it's a perfectly cromulent little novella, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it, I don't have any closure on the damned thing. Because there's still stuff I would have liked to have fine-tuned a bit more before it hit print.

But yeah, for me, once it's launched it's launched, and I hate working on things and like being done with them. I kind of think you like working on things and hate being done with them?

(Which is why you get the galleys, and I don't look at your corrections. Because I would have a control-freak fit over my closure being disrupted, and I know it, and in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter, and it's more important that you get to finish *your* process. It's also why I hate reading my own stuff in print, because I inevitably find more mistakes, and since it's too late to fix them....)
I like being done with things, but I think it takes me longer to admit that, yes, this horse is really dead. And I think I naturally figure things out much later in the process than you do. Which would be why I spent that last day with the cem of Corambis madly racing from hole to hole in the dike with my supply of fingers. . . . oh that metaphor came out all wrong, but you know what I mean. With previous books, that stage of going, "Oh! This links to that, and then the theme comes up like this," was part of the drafting process. Third or fourth draft, usually. I go over things. And go over them again. And again. And again. It's actually easier for me to do the meta and the infrastructure stuff once I have a complete draft, because I can't see the shapes of things until I can actually look at the words on the page. That's probably also why I have that tendency to go off on tangents and introduce more characters and things like that, because I can't tell what the story may or may not need until I'm done writing it.

Writing the wolf-book was weird for me that way, because we really did figure out everything as we went along.
Oh! Yeah. That! Exactly.

And I am the opposite: I can't write stuff until I know what it's there for--and sometimes I write the "what it's there for" part and then go back and have to put in story to support the meta level. (as you know, Bob.) The structure and metatext totally drive the story for me.

I mean, okay, sometimes I can toss something in and figure out what it's for later (like the mammoth), but I find it deeply uncomfortable, and it bugs me until I know why I did it. and I find it really hard to change the actual *story* (the story in my head, which is to say the thematic discussion), so I have to make sure I get that meta level right the first time, or it will never be right.

The rest is just words. The way the story is shaped--there's only one way that can work out for me.


And yet somehow we can write stuff together.
sometimes I write the "what it's there for" part and then go back and have to put in story to support the meta level.

I'm trying to envision what this would look like - would it be something along the lines of:

Scene X

Where Character A discovers that Character Z isn't who he thought she was, and where Clues E and H are discovered?
That's plot, not theme. *g*

To elaborate, what you are describing is an outline, not at all the meta level of the story. The meta level of the story is what I call the shape, or the thematic argument--basically, the stuff behind the stuff on the page.

The stuff Jim Macdonald claims doesn't exist.

As for what it looks like in its raw form? People having arguments and making decisions that nobody but me can follow the logic of. One of the most frequent critiques of my work is that character motivations are opaque.

Me, I think they're patent as hell, and I spend hours of work making them more patent. But I am not the reader, and as noted elsewhere, I have A Rare Brain Type.

Edited at 2008-11-12 06:20 pm (UTC)
Damn...now I wish I had an example to look at!

Or...wait - no. I thought I almost had it, I think I almost had it, but then I lost it again.

I wouldn't worry about it. It's at its heart a neurological thing, and it's not something that's likely to make sense to people for whom it's not instinctive. *g*

It's the reason why I can't watch most TV shows, except the ones I love. Because most people look at The Man from UNCLE and think, "It's a campy show about spies," and I think, "It's a Utopian critique of corporate capitalism as expressed through the metaphor of a campy show about spies."

Which is not something most of the world needs to care about.
If I'm understanding you correctly, you are writing according to symbol and metaphor...? If so, the opaqueness is not necessarily always a lack of linear explanation, but may be in mismatching symbol sets or metaphors between you and the reader. Then the linear exposition simply helps those of us who also think similarly, but have differing symbol sets, figure out just what yours are. :)
Symbol sets (and leitmotifs, which freaking possess me) are a tool, not the thing itself.

Possibly the best thing I can do is quote Ursula Le Guin, who said "Novels are a means of talking about in words what cannot be talked about in words."

Edited at 2008-11-12 06:38 pm (UTC)
I just had a "Eureka!" moment.

I am finally able to articulate the theme--the essential thesis on which I'm holding forth--for The First Hour of Night.

I mean, I've known what it is for ages and ages now, but it finally crystallized into an actual concrete sentence that I can hang the story on.

Thanks for quoting Le Guin. It struck me with nigh-physical force.

Edited at 2008-11-12 08:11 pm (UTC)
"Novels are a means of talking about in words what cannot be talked about in words."


(Which, for me, sometimes manifests on a growly level of "If I could tell you in a sentence what this novel is Really About, I wouldn't be writing the novel!" when family asks me what what I'm writing is Really About.)
(Which, for me, sometimes manifests on a growly level of "If I could tell you in a sentence what this novel is Really About, I wouldn't be writing the novel!" when family asks me what what I'm writing is Really About.)


OH yes. I expect I'll be having that conversation more than once in the upcoming weeks as the extended family descends.
Can't say for sure about Blood and Iron, but on the whole, I think the most inscrutable in the Worldwire books were the aliens and even there I saw hints and splurges of motivation. But, hey, what do I know? I prod computer networks until they talk to me and most people go "huh" when I try to describe how I troubleshoot ("listen, it will tell you where it is feeling poorly, then you fix the symptoms until you see the actual problem, then you fix that").
And how we do that is, honestly, looking more and more mysterious all the time. *g*

I mean, I didn't know why Nera had to be in Mélusine until I was in the middle of the, god, probably the seventh draft of The Mirador. And then it was obvious, and if I hadn't had it, I'd ve been completely fucked. Which, yes, scares the living bejeezus out of me, but it's not uncomfortable.

I build from the bottom up; you build from the top down. And it's the grooviest of miracles that sometimes we can meet in the middle.

<3 <3 <3
Hee. It's like me needing to know the social underpinnings of a society before I can write it. Or the way a widget works. I have to have a machine I can understand, maybe.

It is really neat, how totally different the processes are.
And how they're still similar enough that we understand each other.

Yeah. Understanding the stuff in a story is something I work towards, not something I start out with.

Edited at 2008-11-12 06:32 pm (UTC)
And of course you knew why it was in there. You just hadn't figured out how to make your neocortex understand why, because your neocortex is limited by language and this linear processing model. *g*
Yes. Drat that bottleneck in the neocortex. *g*