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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

You learn how to write *this* novel.

(as I write this, there are 1111 people reading this journal through their flists. nice number, but it seems like about a thousand more than it really deserves, but I'll endeavor to give good value.)

So, the title of this post is another bit of received wisdom, another oft-quoted catchphrase, another Writer Koan.

But what does it mean?

I first heard it as attributed to Gene Wolfe by way of Neil Gaiman: "You never learn how to write novels. You learn how to write this novel." I have no idea if that attribution is correct.

But the advice is sound.

Undertow is my fifteenth novel. Of those, seven are sold, four in print, four on submittal (two of those written with truepenny: do we each get to claim a whole book for those, or is it half a book apiece? Collaborations are more fun than writing a book by yourself, but not, I must say, appreciably less work.), one waiting its turn to go out in the world (it's fifth in a series), and three are awaiting revision and submittal.

Before I finished the first novel I finished, there were several false starts (No More Than a Star, a bad vampire police procedural kindly trunked, though the best characters--Don, Jewels, Geoff, Daniel--got swiped for the Promethean Age universe; Belladonna, a really, really juvenile spy novel; Seabird, a plot coupon quest fantasy. Word to the wise: some of those early ideas are salvageable in an adult career [The Promethean Age and the Edda of Burdens setting are ideas I've had since college; Jenny dates back to 1994 or so]. The rest are not: pick out what's cool, and let go of the trunk novels. You will do better with new ideas.)

The first finished book was All the Windwracked Stars. And as skzbrust said to me then, when you finish a draft, it doesn't matter if it sucks. You have done something that 99% of the people who set out to write a novel will never do.

What matters is not if it's good; what matters is that it's done. Because chances are, the first one won't be any good.

But if you finish one, you can finish two. And the second one is likely to suck less than the first. (There you go; more received wisdom. Two for the prica.)

But didn't I just say that you don't learn how to write novels, just this novel?

...well, I said it was a koan.

So anyway, when I finished that novel, I was thirty years old. I had started it in mumble-ninety-four. And gotten about fifty pages in, and gotten stuck. You know, like you do. But it was as if finishing it, pushing through that dreaded 35-K wall (most incomplete novels end at around 150 pages. Why? Because that's where it turns into work.) had uncorked something in my head.

I knew how to write a book! And at the time, I thought it was a pretty good book. (It's not; it's a pretty terrible book. But I can rebuild it, make it better, faster, stronger... watch this space.)

And I was unemployed.

So I wrote another book.

And the funny thing was, this one wasn't any easier. It was, in point of fact, both harder and differently hard. It required whole new skill sets, in development as I wrote it, and finding new ways to do things, and it taught me some more mature ways to handle problems I'd either ducked or kicked leaves over in the first book.

And, fortified by earlier success, I finished that one too. It made me cry. Both in frustration and catharsis. It was the very best book I would write at the time, and I was sure it was brilliant.

...it's not. But I can rebuild that one too. It's The Sea thy Mistress, which is entirely devoid of sailing in any form. I would have called it On the Waterfront, but that was taken.

Anyway, that book gave me the idea for a third book, a prequel and a sequel to the first two.
So I wrote it. And at the time I didn't like that one very much--first book I wrote that I wasn't on fire with. I kind of hated it, though I wrote the whole thing in a month. It was in my head, and I just sat down in the morning and put it on the page until my hands hurt too much to go on. That was By the Mountain Bound.

Looking back, it's the least ambitious but also the most successful of the three. That one, just needs its sentence-level fixed, mostly. Because I write better than that now. So that can be patched up too.

The fourth book was Hammered. Which about drove me into a nervous breakdown. And I would do a lot of things about it differently now. (See Carnival, when it comes out, for a more mature handling of some of the same technical challenges. I'm not scared of exposition any more, for one thing. Although it still has a (&*^%(&^ dream sequence.)

...and Hammered I am stuck with for the rest of my life. Which is okay; it's not by any means a bad book, and it's ridiculous to hold 30-year-old me to 35-year-old me's standards of craftsmanship. Not that that stops me: I am in many ways my own worst critic, and one of the reasons I'm taking this week off is to get my head on straight about Undertow, because of course I'm holding myself to an impossible standard on that one, too.

I am the disapproving adult that I can never be good enough to please. It's kind of a daunting thing to learn about one's self.

You would think, as you got older, you would eventually run out of unpleasant things about yourself to labor under the denial of, but that stuff does all the way to the bottom.

Books are broken. It's the way they are. That's not an excuse. But, on the other hand, it's a pretty good reason to cut one's self a little slack, and remember that you can only give the best effort that is in you to give. At the time I wrote it, Stars was the best book I had it in me to write. I sweated every word and every plot decision.

And it taught me skills that I used in Sea, which taught me skills that I used in Bound, which taught me skills that I used in Hammered, which taught me skills that--

...you get the idea.

So now, I have to learn how to write Undertow. Which will be flawed, perhaps badly.

And then, whatever I learn writing this book, I will have to use in Dust and the revision of All the Windwracked Stars, and whatever I learn there will go into Patience & Fortitude.

--novels, novels, novels, all the way down.

Because if I'm not falling off, I'm not riding hard enough. And if I'm not using all the muscles, I'm not really dancing.

Which is why you are always learning to write the current novel. What you learned writing the last one is the foundation for this one; but you have to build another tier, lay another course of stone. And this is why writing is hard, and why it never gets any easier. Because the more you know, the more you are trying to do all at once.

A juggler on a unicycle balancing on top of a pole on a beach ball makes a heck of a more spectacular wipeout than a guy blowing a cartwheel.


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Thank you. I think that is the most encouraging thing I've ever read about the subject. I'm not sure why, but it really is.

I will take your advice to heart.
You know, that came out wrong. I think what I'm trying to say is that it's so good to 'hear' that someone has taken the difficulties and made it a cycle of learning, that one thing follows the other. I've encountered this in my personal life--not writing--and have determined through a painful series of stops and starts that every failure I have had has been an opportunity. I know that sounds hokey, but every time that I've royally fucked up, or even the times I've zigged instead of zagged, there's always been a takeaway.

Mind you, I haven't always been able to see the lesson, or maybe I chose to ignore it, or even simply decided that the lesson had no merit. But it always comes back to that.

So even things that are 'failures' have their own merit, if you will. I think that was a hard thing to learn, especially at my age.

So it's good to hear that same rationale being applied to something as wonderous as your ability to make what you see in your mind come alive on paper.

I don't know if that makes any more sense... I kind of doubt that it does.
Nicely said. Jennifer Crusie said, somewhere, a friend told her that "If the book isn't a challenge, you aren't writing the right book."

I think it's natural that, as we learn and grow, our personal standards also go up.

And maybe that's how I'll comfort myself in my last couple of novel attempts going floppity-flop on me. (After nine novels, I'd like to think I have a pretty good handle on things... but then again... I've also had more false starts in the last rolling year than any time since I took up the writing flag "seriously".)

I can't think of anything useful to say. You've put it well enough above.

Thank :D
I remember the last highly elaborate piece of period costuming I did. I was painfully aware of the extent to which it really suck. I could, even now, give you a list of where I fucked up.

It's pretty damn spectacular looking, too. But I knew where all the mistakes, cheats, and such were. I knew how many times I'd ripped out a seam trying to get different Part As to match various Part Bs. I really cannot look at it without seeing all the horrors it hides within its folds.

I think most creative work is going to be this way. The farther you go, the more you keep feeling like you're barely fit to tie your own shoes. Because as you get better, you realize just how many different ways there are to do it wrong--because you have done, are doing, have just stopped yourself from doing, or are about to do, most of them. The outsider won't see most of it, and the big honkin' screw-up you can't see past will appear, to a more objective observer, as a minute flaw at best. But you know all about it, even to the names of its great-aunts' pets, because you've wrestled with it all night, like Jacob with the angel.
Personally, I find your writing-craft posts invaluable: they make more sense to me, and describe a process that's closer to my own experience than any of the models I've found in those how-to-write books. I'm especially glad that you don't pretend it's easy. The creativity may be playful but making creations into books (via coherency) is hard.

That said, there is no chance that I'll ever let that first completed novel see the light of print. No never no more. Second one? Maybe.

I find that people who do not write books have.... weird assumptions about how easy they are to write, and why writers do things.

Often, we fail because it's hard.

And also because you cannot please everybody.

And also because there is only so much room in four hundred pages.
It's so nice to be validated, once again. No wonder I keep reading your blog. ;)

More seriously, it really is nice to know that bigger authors than I struggle with the same things I do. Thanks.
And nice to provide the validation, too.
"Because if I'm not falling off, I'm not riding hard enough. And if I'm not using all the muscles, I'm not really dancing."

Now and again, you read through the world-at-large and find something that stops you short. It screams ARTISTIC TRUTH whether it's drawing stares in central square or just chilling against the back wall of the closet. These two lines are one of those statements. They need to be quoted by big, important people and propagated through the collective writing community. They're beautiful... and so, so right.

I think this entire entry is most definitely worthy of the 1,111 people reading it. :) Thanks for taking the time to reassure those of us struggling with novel #1-3 that our problems with the process aren't just ours but a part of the natural experience.

You can thank buymeaclue and jmeadows, respectively. *g*
And as skzbrust said to me then, when you finish a draft, it doesn't matter if it sucks. You have done something that 99% of the people who set out to write a novel will never do.

Absolutely. And if you never keep writing, you will never know if you can learn from your mistakes, either. Keep moving forward--it's like being a shark, sort of.
I believe the quote's accurate. Old, though, dating back to their interview in Locus round the time of the last Chicago Worldcon.
Another thing I think is interesting is that that particular kind of failure is the indication that one is trying.

There are writers who don't stretch. And you know what?

They probably succeed more often. Because it's easy to replicate a trick you've learned.
Larry Niven often says that a collaboration isn't 50% of the work of a solo book; more like 80% each (160% for a two author collab, and presumably more for the Niven/Pournelle/Barnes books). It's probably one of Niven's Laws.
My sainted Nan once told me "Never mind 'perfect'. Never give up on trying for 'better'."

I have presently fought bravely through to the end of three differently bad novels of my own. I hold it as an accomplishment they are each differently bad, with lots of new mistakes and few repeated ones.
You learn how to write *this* novel

Thanks for this. It's so true - and I find it strangely encouraging, as I slog through the rewrites of this novel...

Re: I never sleep if I can help it

*g* If somebody offered me money for them, I might. *g* Until then, I will give them away!

And thank you.
thank you :)
Love this icon!
and it's ridiculous to hold 30-year-old me to 35-year-old me's standards of craftsmanship.

Thank you. I really needed to hear that. There's an agent who asked for revisions on a novel of mine months ago. Every time I look at the book, I cringe, because I'm about 500 times better now than I was then.

Two things I take from this: (1) I can and probably should take the time to clean and tighten where I can. (2) I definitely shouldn't flail and beat myself for plot and characterization choices I wouldn't make today.

Thank you thank you thank you.
You *won't* be able to bring it up to your current standard. Not even a white-paper rewrite seems to be able to do that. (this is why one must work on new things.)

Revise it and send it back anyway. They look even shittier once they're in print.

Suck it up.

It's the job.

/toughlove. *g*
Thank you.

Add another to that count.
You're welcome. And nice to meet you.

I should warn you, this blog is mostly me thrashing about getting the words on the page. *g*
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