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On Authors’ Comfortable Shoes (and the Vein of Gold)

What kinds of stories do you like to tell? How do you like to tell them?

I’m sure any of us out there who’ve tried our hands at writing have encountered the advice to “write what you know,” but the more I read and write, the more I’m convinced that the most important piece of writerly advice a new author could take to heart is to write about things that interest them; write what you like. Most often, this is framed in terms of “write a story that you would enjoy reading.”

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been encountering a lot of new authors/creators in the last six months, many of them “in bulk,” so I’m starting to get an idea of the kinds of stories that they specialize in. For instance, based on what I’ve read of Tad Williams (the Otherland series and most-but-not-yet-all of Shadowmarch), it seems like one of his big themes is the strength of family, and particularly brother-sister relationships; both series also talk a lot about immortality and the desire to obtain same. In NK Jemisin’s books, her main characters are generally outsiders to the culture they’re observing, in one respect or another; her books also center in large part around themes of loss and forgiveness.

The one that really hammered it home for me was Seanan McGuire. I’ve now read several of her books written under both personas: the Newsflesh trilogy and Parasite under the Mira Grant name, and Rosemary and Rue and now Sparrow Hill Road under her own name. Although the books definitely fall into two distinct groups, there are commonalities between them. Newsflesh and Sparrow Hill Road, for instance, both feature the same worldbuilding trick where McGuire creates a typology to help us organize the setting in our minds. In the Newsflesh books, bloggers (the major media outlet in the post-zombie-apocalyptic world) fall into three main categories: Irwins, Newsies, and Fictionals. In Sparrow Hill Road, the narrator doesn’t take much time to start listing off different kinds of ghosts and magic-users: hitchers (almost always killed in a traffic accident), homecomers (who won’t accept that they’re dead), white ladies. This particular style of description shows up in the October Daye books, too, as Toby Daye carefully explains to us the characteristics of all the different fae running around San Francisco.

There are other similarities in McGuire’s style across personas, too. Her narrators are all first-person, almost always the same narrator throughout the book. Her work as a songwriter shows itself in poems and song lyrics sprinkled through the story. Don’t get me wrong: I like all of these things, which is why I’m continuing to read her stuff as it comes out. And the fact that McGuire’s books bear a more obvious family resemblance than some other authors’ has gotten me thinking about what my comfortable authorial shoes might look like.

I’ve recently started working my way through Julia Cameron’s second book on creativity, The Vein of Gold (I’ll probably write another post on her method in the next few weeks; in the meantime, know that the first book is The Artist’s Way and it’s got some really interesting stuff inside). Cameron gets the term “vein of gold” from director Martin Ritt, and uses his words to explain it this way:

All actors have a certain territory, a certain range, that they were born to play. I call that range their “vein of gold.” If you cast an actor within that range, he will always give you a brilliant performance. Of course, you can always cast an actor outside his vein of gold. If you do, the actor can use craft and technique to give you a very fine, a very creditable performance, but never a performance as brilliant as when he is working in his vein of gold.

Of course, since this is a book on developing creativity, there’s an exercise you’re supposed to do at the end of the chapter to determine where your personal vein of gold falls.  I haven’t done the exercises yet, but I’ve got a few guesses. My favorite characters are fence-sitters; thematically speaking, I like reading and writing stories about people with divided loyalties who are forced to choose a side or to stand aside. I like taking my characters to dark places and letting them stew there for a while (one of the books in the series that’s floating around in my mind right now is temporarily designated “the angsty book”). I like ritual and anthropological details: my settings will always have far more depth in their religion and cultural folkways than in the intricacies of how the people dress or what their military formations look like. I like complicating readers’ expectations about “truth” in the world they’re playing in, whether that’s people’s intentions or the setting (George RR Martin is brilliant at this; so is Joss Whedon).

I think all of us writers (and other artsy folk) are drawn to certain kinds of stories, even if some of our tendencies aren’t as evident as McGuire’s. Stephen King writes about authors, and addicts, and how children are better able to comprehend and interact with the supernatural than adults (see ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Black House, and perhaps most of all It). Joss Whedon writes about men creating powerful women who they’re then unable to control (Firefly and Dollhouse most notably, but hardly the only examples). George RR Martin is described by one of my friends as “a man who wants to be a horror writer,” because in my friend’s view his writing’s at its richest when he’s writing something awful.

What about you? What kinds of stories and characters draw you as a reader or a writer? What themes do you find yourself revisiting over and over again?

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  1. Nonbinary Devices: When Playing With Gender Works | Sociologist Novelist

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