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bear by san

March 2017



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writing plot octopus

your face looks like something death brought with him in his suitcase

In which Bear confesses to being a lazy writer.

I figured out what I'm doing wrong! Now I can stop doing that, and do better--

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Okay, so, for a while, I've felt as if I'm not improving as a writer. Which is to say, these damned books have gotten too easy to write. I know I'm not working at the limits of my ability, and while I don't think what I'm turning out is any worse, book by book, I no longer feel as if each book is breaking new ground. In other words, while I think Undertow and Dust are pretty good books, I don't think they're better than Carnival and Whiskey & Water

I mean, I don't think I'm coasting, exactly? But I am not pushing myself to do things that scare me anymore, and that can't be good. Because that leads to coasting. And while I suspect I can coast at a professional level these days, that doesn't get you any closer to the Nobel Prize. Or Carnegie Hall, neither.

And I have been at a loss as to what to do about it.

But a complex of things (Sycamore Hill, conversations with arcaediacoffeeem, mcurry, and other people, swapping emails with truepenny and so forth,) just piled up into the epiphany. And it was, of course, an epiphany that I don't really want, because it concerns the part of writing I like least.

I think I've gotten to the part where I'm pretty good at story structure, at just telling a story and making it an actual story. I'm pretty good at characterization, and I'm pretty good at sentence level writing. My rhetoric's not bad, and I can handle a theme in a hopefully emotionally satisfying manner. I'm clever enough to get a laugh once in a while, and turn out a sharp line of prose, and keep up the narrative tension and the rising line.

But you know what? I'm not as good at this as I want to be. And I've been at a loss for what to work on now.

swan_tower just posted something about the million words of crap (or shit, as some of us say), and that struck a chord with me too. I mean, it might be arrogance to say it, but my million words of shit are in the rear view mirror now (and for me, it was more like three million words of shit, but who's counting?)

And yet, I think I am at heart a lazy writer.

I really don't want to do the really hard parts, because they are boring and they suck. I've realized just now that what I need to do is get fussy and meticulous about things. Which is, quite frankly, something I suck at.

I hate repetitive work. I hate the nitpicky, absolute-concentration part of writing, the thing where you go through word by word and think about your rhetoric on a sentence level, and then on a paragraph level, and then as a gestalt. I tend to do that stuff instinctively, and I have a good enough ear for prose that I can pull it off. But the rhetoric could use refining, and I could stand to pay more attention to it when I'm not working really hard at stunt-writing a section, using some clever narrative trick to serve a storytelling purpose. I need to look at things like where my beats fall, and giving the reader time and white space in which to react without slowing the story down.

I mean, I know I do stuff in drafts that's lazy: sometimes I will skip over the plot complications and have to go back and put them in later, I tend to skip over the beats when I'm writing fast, and hit other ones too hard. And I've been working on making my character's motivations and actions more transparent, and now I suspect I've swung too far over into telling things, and I'm not demonstrating enough. I write sloppy sentences at first, and (hopefully) revise them out. (I've done some things here to demonstrate how that works.)

Those are the kind of things that drafts are for, and I do revisions to fix all of them.

Sadly, I think this new thing is going to add another layer of revision, and one that is going to be slower and more painstaking. And honestly, I suck at slow and painstaking. It's not what I do. It's not what I'm interested in. My middle name is "Paint to match."

I like finishing things. I am not a big proponent of endless comma-twiddling; I think it's a great way to destroy a perfectly promising writing career. And yet, here I am realizing that what I need to do, on the last draft, at least, is focus down and think very hard and work very consciously on a bunch of things I tend to now do in tandem with all the other things I do. And there's some character detail stuff that I know I need to start working harder at too, as well, and I don't feel like doing that either.

You know, the thing about this writing thing is that it never actually gets easier.


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I dunno if you are using MS Word on a Windows PC or not, but if you are, you can highlight your text and hit WindowsKey-S, and it will read it to you in a synthetic voice.

It's far from perfect, but it helps me hear the beats, and helps me see where my tone has shifted.

I can do about 20 pages a day that way, before I start going nuts.
That's a clever idea.
It's truth.

Oh, boy. Does this ever resonate with me.

Biggest single indicator that you are 100 percent right about this is that sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach.

Re: Oh, boy. Does this ever resonate with me.


You know, I hate scutwork.

Just saying.
A key indicator of a midlife crisis is when you look at what you're doing and realize yes, this is probably all you're going to get done and whatever is left will be about the same quality, but not much better.

Then you realize how much is left.
The nice thing about writers is that we cn always hold out hope that the next book will be the big one....
Instinct is great, and you can't make art without it. But you can't make art without craft, either. This is why dancers take class every day of their working lives. There's a Baroque dance treatise which talks about how dance is nothing without a sense of "controlled nonchalance." What you're doing is learning to make it look easy.

You're also making it easier for future generations of scholars. They'll be able to point to this post and say, "No, see, she really did all that on purpose. I'm not making it up. I can has PhD nao kthx."
...heh. I've been wondering for a while what the impact of the intertubes is going to be on book history and literary research. No more buying the handwritten letters from someone's old aunt for impossible prices... *g*
Oof. That sounds overwhelming.

It almost sounds like you're talking about pace and musicality of prose, not as a part of the writing process per se, but as an end to itself. Music theory. Writing theory, whatever.

I know that the hardest bit of writing for me is filling in the spaces between the little visions I have. Building the scene is *hard*, and making sure the reader has enough space to absorb things. There was one part of HP7 that had that problem for me, even though I went back and read it three times, slowly.
Actually, kind of the opposite. Which is to say, I spent a good long time working very hard on my prose skills, and finally got the hang of it somewhere around The Stratford Man. I could do voice before that, but I had to learn how to write pretty.

And I know how to do the rhetoric stuff; I can turn it on and off on demand, really.

What I need to do now is add another tier of revision to what I am already doing, and when the book is done, I need to go over the book with a fucking microscope and make sure that the rhetoric is subtly serving the narrative in all ways at all times, instead of just when I'm using it as a Technique.

This is gonna be boring as shit.
I'm glad I may have somehow contributed a wee bit to that epiphany.

I'm sorry though that it wasn't a more fun sounding epiphany. I guess it's worth a try, just so you can see if that is indeed what you need to be doing to push at the boundries of your current craft envelope. Don't go letting it entirely kill the joy though.

*g* Actually, the joy these days is mostly in people's reactions to the book.

That, and getting the stories just right. I love that.

But then I've always been the sort of writer who loves having written, not the sort who loves writing. And of course, this means more writing, and less having written.

On the other hand, we will endeavor to substitute quality for being done. *g*
I realized a while ago that this is the great value of short fiction for me: I can maintain microscopic focus for the length of a short story without much problem, which makes short fiction an ideal arena for me to practice and hone skills that will then (I hope) become more reflexive when I'm writing at novel-length.

I know that after I learned how to write flash, I went back and revised three thousand words out of a book, just by eliminating unnecessary adjectives and phrases and rearranging sentences to be more concise. And that's just one skill, used as an example.

Sometimes the scut-work pleases me, because there's this subconscious feeling of the story getting tighter and sleeker, like a string coming that last degree into tune. But you're right -- it can be boring as hell, too. Here's to hoping you get more of the former than the latter.
If I was going to be so bold as to give advice to you as a writer it would probably be this: Say less.

I like prose that's leaner and meaner as long as it says what it needs to. Many writers have tended to get more verbose as they age. I recommend trying to avoid that. Go through your books and make sure they say what they need to say, and not more. Feel free to cut whole scenes if they aren't necessary.

I'm sure it's lovely advice, but it's not what I'm talking about.

And if anything, my problem is underwriting.
Well. The kind of work you're talking about is the kind of thing I generally think almost no novelists do. For a long time, I said that was the real difference between a short story and a novel - that in a short story, the writer was able to go over every single word and make sure it was exactly the right word in exactly the right space. (Not that I thought all short story writers do this, just that they could.) But with novels, I thought, there's just freaking too many words.

But there are some writers who give me the sense of having done this, and to me, they're in an entirely different class from other writers. I may have a ball reading Lois McMaster Bujold's stuff, but I don't hold her books carefully and buy hardcovers new off the shelf without even reading a page before putting down the money.

So if that's where your muse is yanking you, seriously, go for it.

Yesterday, I was talking in my own journal about revising a short story I've written and how much work it needs, and amaebi who is loving, gentle, supportive, and incredibly sensible, worried that I was underestimating my writing, since she didn't think it was that bad. She said something like, "Unless you want to make it lapidary--" I answered in a whole lot of words, but what it came down to was, "Well, yes. Of course that's what I want. I'll never fully succeed, but of course that's what I'm trying for, because why wouldn't I? How couldn't I want that?"

But you know, I'm not sure I believe your picture of doom and gloom. It's true that you seem largely free of the obsessive-compulsive detail-dwelling streak that helps some of us hover over our pacing, putting fraction-of-a-milligram weights on the scales and taking them off again until we achieve the balance we want, only to move on an inch and do it all over again. For me, there's something very soothing about doing that; I realize that you're not like that. But y'know...when you started guitar, I'm betting you had some degree of intuitive musical ear which helped you do a bit, and then didn't get you any further, at which point you had to start laboriously figuring out where to put each finger for a G chord, and then how to switch smoothly from that to an a-sharp, and then dear god you had to get the G back again, you just had it, why do you have to place each finger one at a time again AUGH.

And now, you're at a whole new level of not being as good as you want to be in playing the guitar, where there are lots of chords that you just do, and it's something else that's difficult.

Which is basically several hundred words saying, "I expect this new aspect of writing will be just like every other skill, and will respond to practice accordingly."

But yeah, sounds like it'll suck at the beginning. But - selfishly - I hope you'll do it anyhow.
*g* I have yet to discern any proof that I have any native musical ability whatsoever. But I am stubborn.

But yes. Thankfully, my writing responds to practice a lot faster than my guitar playing!

I just am lazy and do not want to do this because it is hard, and I am the sort of writer who likes having written, not the sort that likes writing. *g*.

Alas, it is the logical next step. So we do it.
Very thought-provoking post...I think I like to coast, as a writer. That doesn't mean I don't want to improve, of course -- but once I hit a certain level, I might rest on my laurels a bit (well, once I finally get published)...it's good to read this. It'll be good to read it again once I get my first contract -- and then again when I start that next book.
Yeah. I mean, I could coast quite comfortably right now, and be the kind of writer who gets nominated for awards every so often.

But that's not what I want. I want to be good at my job.
*pats stressed Bear*
*Offers ice cream with with candied ginger topping or fresh blueberries*

You can do it. And we won't ask you to pretend to sprezzatura, which is for the Italian renaissance nobility. You're allowed to moan about what a PITA it is getting and staying good.

After all, Michelangelo pissed and moaned a lot about how much work he was doing and not getting any damned thing done at all.

You know, it feels like that sometimes.
these damned books have gotten too easy to write

Maybe time to write some other kind of damned books?

Just a very lighthearted suggestion. I know you're just venting, and we all have to vent.
As I was reading Whiskey & Water over my lunch break I found myself thinking, wow, I could never have the patience for the kind of meticulous writing that went into it, and I am a very lazy writer.

I don't mean that to be all "But you're doing fine!!!" or anything. It's just very illustrative, to me, of how there's nowhere you can sit and go "Okay, done learning now. I'm good."
Thank you.


Yeah. Every time you think you have it licked, you unpack another level of suck.

It's kind of heart-rending.
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