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If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: The Creative Process

A few months ago, Husband came home from work with a book in hand: “I saw this at the store and thought of you.” The book was Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey; it’s basically the distillation of as many different sources as Currey could find, laying out the creative process for “novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… who describe how they… get done the work they love to do.”

I suspect that I’m not the only creative type who enjoys hearing about how other people get their creativity flowing, so I was intrigued by this book, but also intimidated. I’m still a little new to this full-time creative life, after all, and also acknowledge my own tendencies to compare myself to others — so when I hear that Stephen King writes 2000 words every day and says that “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season” (from his book On Writing), I get anxious. The first draft of my current project took almost two years; the second draft is shaping up to encompass another year and a half, if I’m lucky. Hearing about wildly productive and successful authors like King (whose books I faithfully read and generally love) makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

Turns out what I may have needed is some perspective.

It took me a while to read Currey’s book, over the course of many, many 5-minutes-before-bed stints. There were moments in my perusal when I felt my old comparison anxiety popping back up, like when I read about how Faulkner “often [completed] three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount” — but for every section about wildly prolific authors, there was a passage like the one about John Updike, who said that “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” Joyce Carol Oates said that “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Ayn Rand got through writer’s block (which she called “the squirms”) by playing solitaire without getting up from her desk; Goethe waited for inspiration, saying that “It is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”

One thing the book makes abundantly clear is that no two creatives have exactly the same process, and that there’s no “right” way to make art. I found it useful to keep this fact in mind last week, when I was trying to decide whether to go back over a chapter that I knew needed more work or to press on to the next one. As someone whose Lawful Good alignment runs deep, I spent a day or two obsessing over which was the “right” way to do it, before finally making my peace with the fact that there was, in fact, no rule to follow here. In the end, I decided to spend a day laying the groundwork for the new chapter and then as long as it took (as it turned out, about 1 week’s/20 hours’ work) to go over the old one and set it right before I lost track of the threads of plot and character motivation that’d come together at the end of a difficult pass through. It involved three days of really frustrating work on the rougher parts before I got to the “easy bit,” but I was left feeling that the chapter was better and also pleased with myself for managing to get it done in a single fairly condensed time frame. And as Husband keeps reminding me, in the end, I’m not Stephen King or William Faulkner, and my book will take as long as it takes.

In the spirit of writerly disclosures, here are a few things that seem to be part of my “best practices,” as they’ve emerged over almost a year of full-time writing:

  • My best work tends to happen in the morning and early afternoon, between about 10 AM-2 PM (a little earlier if the cat cooperates by settling down and not making a pest of himself)
  • I can usually work between 2.5-3 hours at a stretch; if I’m writing new material and the words are coming easily, I may do two sessions of that length in a day with lunch in between.
  • I’m best off working on my manuscript every day, even if just for a half hour, to keep it fresh at the top of my mind
  • To avoid the temptations of social media while I’m working, the deal I make with myself is that I won’t check Facebook or Twitter until I’ve met my minimum writing goals for the day (typically 1500 words and/or about 400 words an hour)
  • I keep track of both words written and hours worked for the week; this allows me to avoid feeling bad about myself in a week that has more planning and less prose production, and also gives me the satisfying feeling of watching the words and the hours pile up.
  • If I’m feeling blocked, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t thought through some element of the plot or character motivation clearly enough. Going for a walk, and/or sitting down with a notebook (away from the temptations of social media) are my best ways of solving that problem

There are still days when I want to throw the whole thing out the window; but for the most part, I continue to feel deeply fortunate that I get to live this life. And I found this book a useful reality check that whatever works for you, however long it takes you to produce your masterpieces, as long as you’re working and someday your work makes it out into the world, what you’re doing is the right way.

In-Jokes and Crossovers In Fiction: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

Quick poll, dear readers: what’s your opinion of crossovers?

I ask because I’m still working my way through the Outlander series (only the most recent one left to race through, and then I’ll have to wait like everybody else for Gabaldon to write the last book), and the book I read most recently didn’t draw me in as deeply as its predecessors. After some reflection, I’ve concluded that the main reason for this is because, unlike the other books, this one felt as though it expected readers to be fluent in a whole different set of characters.

Essentially, the Outlander universe consists of two related series. The Outlander books, the first of which I reviewed here, center on Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their family’s adventures in the 18th and 20th centuries. A comparatively minor character from this series, Lord John Grey, is also the hero of his own set of books, described in the reviews I’ve read as crime/mystery novels. Since I’m not a mystery fan, I’ve not made an effort to hunt those books down, and through the first six books of the Outlander series (of which Lord John appears in five), I didn’t feel their absence. But when I encountered Lord John’s first viewpoint section in Book 7, An Echo in the Bone, I suddenly felt out of the loop. There were winking references to events I didn’t remember; Lord John had conversations with people I was clearly meant to recognize; again and again, I noticed things going over my head. And it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Of course, Gabaldon is hardly the only author to craft a set of interlaced stories. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books, there are several places where the readers are presented with Mysterious Characters who feel like they ought to be significant. These characters, Sanderson’s committed fan community will gladly explain, have detailed backstories which fit them into the larger cosmology that links Sanderson’s otherwise-unconnected series, but within the pages of Mistborn, their identities are left unexplained. And there are others, large and small. George RR Martin threads moments from his Dunk and Egg stories into the background of the Song of Ice and Fire novels; Robin Hobb has a number of ostensibly unrelated series that take place in different corners of the same world. During the four years Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were airing simultaneously, the two shows had so many instances of interlaced plot that there are whole episode guides devoted to iterating proper viewing order.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Easter eggs as much as the next person. My favorite show as a pre-teen, Space Cases (may it rest in peace), reliably included in-jokes for its especially-nerdy viewers, including everything from throwaway lines about “Minbar chess,” or a character’s declaring that the best response to encountering new life is “Fascinating” to directions like this:

Okay, now, Alpha Epsilon is to port, and Centauri is to starboard… triangulating to the Narn homeworld…

If you’re coming from the Delta Quadrant, turn left at the Bajoran wormhole, then take the Vogon Hyperspace Bypass to Exit 42.

These references  are fun for those who catch them, but to those who don’t, they slide right past without feeling like they should be important. This is the level of cross-reference I strive for in my own writing: if I’m writing a short story that draws on the world of my novel, I might put in a throwaway line or two aimed at my “constant readers,” but I’d also want the story to stand on its own legs, without leaving casual readers standing on the outside.

I certainly get the appeal of crossovers, both as an author and an insider fan. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series includes everything from throwaway lines about King’s made-up Maine cities to the reappearance of characters from earlier books; as a longtime and committed King fan, I found it a lot of fun. I regularly and enthusiastically recommend this series, and I’d still say it has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen – but I do admit that its target audience is King fans. Readers who don’t know the rest of his canon could still enjoy the books, but I suspect they’d be just as jarred by the in-jokes and sly cross-references in Roland of Gilead’s story as I was with the ones in An Echo in the Bone. If you haven’t read The Stand, It, ‘Salem’s Lot and a handful of others, you could read all 7 books of the Dark Tower series and still feel like you’d missed something.

And maybe that’s the crux of the problem for me, why it gets under my skin: because in all the crossovers I’ve mentioned here, the (ostensibly self-contained) series making the references is a commitment on its own. Three books, or four, or six, or nine; maybe 100 or 150 hours of TV. As a longtime fantasy reader, I’m very comfortable with long series, and very conscientious about starting from the beginning and making sure I read things in order. But if I’ve done my due diligence and started from Book 1, when I come to a scene or a plot revelation that’s clearly written to make the audience gasp, I want to know what I’m gasping about. In the same way that I try to build each book in a series with a self-contained story so that readers don’t feel like they’re being bribed to buy the next book, I feel that if a reader’s followed a series from the beginning, they shouldn’t trip up halfway through with the feeling that they should’ve bought all the author’s other books, too.

I’d be curious to hear other authors’ and readers’ opinions on this: how do you feel about encountering material in a story that you know isn’t there for your benefit? If you’ve got a large world with many stories in it, how do you maintain and manage the boundaries between them?

Do You Want a Stroll or a Road Trip? On Reading Standalones and Series

I’m a creature of habit. That may be one reason why my list of favorite books includes so many series: once I’ve gotten comfortable with a setting and a cast of characters, I’m inclined to settle down in their world for as long as I can. Fortunately, long series are a pretty common element of epic fantasy, which by definition encompasses big stories; the tale I’m telling is currently slated to span ten books before it’s done. I’m the sort of person who’ll never roll my eyes upon hearing that a beloved series has expanded to encompass another book. And yet, when I’m testing out a new author, I’m inclined to look for standalones.

Of course, this is at least in part for efficiency reasons: if I’m unsure about an author, it’s easier to get a sense of their storytelling skills if I can see how they plot out a whole arc. But I think the main reason is because the big stories told by series have at least as much potential to let down their readers as they do to bring joy.

On the simplest level, this is because the nature of series writing leaves the author with many more traps to avoid. If you’re writing a series, whether you’re telling a succession of effectively standalone tales like the ones in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files or Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books or, like Stephen King in The Dark Tower or NK Jemisin in The Inheritance Trilogy, a story that’s basically one long novel stretched over a few thousand pages, each book needs to be crafted individually. Whether individual volumes are meant to stand on their own or not (which is a different discussion), readers come into a series expecting that each volume will have its own plot arc, its own mini-journey, and in all but a few of the most loosely connected examples, it’s also expected that each book will contribute something to the overarching plot of a bigger story. That’s something most series readers love and look forward to; it also requires authors to carry two different plot valences in their heads from the very beginning, and means that the odds of writing yourself into a corner go up exponentially. If JK Rowling had decided two-thirds of the way through her tale that Harry Potter shouldn’t live with his horrible relatives anymore, she would’ve had to jump through more hoops to get him away from them than if she still had the whole story sitting in front of her, unpublished and accommodating.

Besides the problem of juggling plots, there’s also the trouble of reader expectation. Readers who discover a series early in its publication history have lots of time between volumes to grow attached to characters, to gossip about plot twists and dream up the endings they want for “their story” – and sometimes, the ending the author chooses isn’t the one you’d have picked. This happened for me with Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, a guilty-pleasure choice of mine where I reached the final book having read and reread the others until I had sections nearly memorized, and then was left cold by how the author opted to end her story.

Obviously, the ways reader expectations are developed have changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet; George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books might be a too-obvious example of this, where any fan who wanders onto the discussion boards almost can’t help but be prematurely spoiled about the final picture Martin’s been slowly laying out with hints and prophecies. I’ve heard more than one fan say that if Character X ends up proving to be aligned with Interest C, as some readings of the clues suggest, they’re declaring the final books non-canonical (in the same way some people have done with the Star Wars prequels, or the new Star Trek movies). Giving fans more time with a story, and letting the anticipation build for its conclusion, opens the door to disappointment that can’t be there in the same way for something wholly contained in a few hundred pages.

In fact, time presents a whole set of problems for series writers. Sometimes, an author’s voice shifts from the first book to the last on a path that readers don’t want to follow. I had a difficult time with the last trilogy in Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange series for this reason; I found the final books, with their more “modern” slang and their constant references to heroes of old, to read like a caricature of what I loved in the earlier trilogies, and they didn’t find a permanent home on my shelves. Sometimes, as with Melanie Rawn’s Exiles trilogy, an author loses the muse that was whispering that story in their ear, and moves on to other projects: while I’m the first to agree with the argument that authors, as artists, should write what they want, and stop when they want (as Neil Gaiman memorably put it in a post on the subject, “George RR Martin is not your bitch”), I do understand the impulse to avoid all but completed series to avoid being left stranded in mid-stride. And (most) finally, like Robert Jordan/James Rigney, an author might die with their story unfinished. I’m not a big enough fan of the Wheel of Time series to have read the new books Brandon Sanderson authored using Rigney’s notes; my impression is that many fans think they’re better than they might otherwise have been (review links to io9 and includes spoiler warnings for the final book), but I’m sure there are others in the fan base who feel the story couldn’t truly be finished without Rigney there to write it.

And so, in short, it seems like series offer more risks to the reader, extra disappointment on a whole range of levels. There are extra responsibilities in place for the author who wants to write good series fiction; first, the responsibility of making sure that the seeds you plant in early books are tracked, of figuring out whether you want your books to have a grand arc beyond the individual volumes and of what pieces of that arc you want to fit into the smaller stories. As a reader and a writer, I’d also argue authors have some responsibility to make each volume stand as a complete story on its own. I don’t mean that readers should be able to dive into the middle of the series, but I don’t like cliff-hanger endings between volumes, especially when there’s going to be years until the next one’s released (I nearly turned my back on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy after the way the first book ended). Series have to do more work than standalone books to succeed in the story they’re telling: there are some authors who I count among my favorites, authors whose standalone work I read over and over again, who seem to choke when they’re faced with stretching a story over multiple books. Series can be tricky.

But when they work, in my view, they allow modern readers to fall into one of the best aspects of storytelling, the kind of storytelling that’s been around for a long, long time – of falling in with characters from legend, characters whose adventures are legion, and starting down the road with them knowing that there’s a long, long way to go. That’s why I’m writing one, and why I continue to embark on road trips with other authors familiar or otherwise.

Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

The Brat was eight years old the first time she rode over the covered bridge that crossed the distance between Lost and Found. — from Chapter 2 of NOS4A2

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I finally purchased it a few weeks ago (something I rarely do anymore with authors whose work I’m not already pretty familiar with) and I’m glad I did. I think I may be reading it again.

I first encountered Joe Hill in Peter Straub’s anthology, American Fantastic Tales. and was excited to read his story sight-unseen, but I’ll confess that initially it wasn’t because of anything to do with the story or its premise. All I knew about Hill was that his birth name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and that his father is Stephen King. Since I’ve been a fan of King’s books for 15 years now, I looked for traces of the father’s writing in the son’s story. I didn’t find anything obvious: the story’s an example of quintessential magical realism, where we’re walked through the extension of an absurd premise (in this case, the narrator’s best friend being an inflatable person) with methodical care. As I’ve written here before, I often find myself feeling disenchanted with the short story format, but I liked Hill’s story a lot. It made me want to read more of his work, and not because of who his father is.

I also like vampires: they were my favorite of the classic monsters long before Twilight, ever since I bought Barnes & Noble’s 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories when I was about 12. So when I first saw NOS4A2 (in the book, it’s a license plate; a play on Nosferatu) on the rack in my local bookstore, I was immediately interested. When I finally got my hands on a copy of the book, I got a happy surprise. In this book, Hill sets his hand to some of his father’s most reliable themes — and gives readers a tale that feels simultaneously like a cousin to King’s stories and something very original.

There are two main threads to this book. One concerns “the Brat,” a woman named Vic McQueen who spent her childhood finding lost things with the help of her old bicycle and a covered bridge that only appeared when she needed it. The other is the story of Charles Talent Manx, a man who takes children to a magical place named Christmasland where they stay young and happy forever (incidentally, so does he; also-incidentally, the children develop sharp teeth and a taste for violence in the process). One day, when Vic was a teenager, her path crossed with Mr. Manx’s, and she got away. As you might guess, he didn’t like it.

As I read this novel, I thought more than once of King’s 2013 book Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining: there are some obvious similarities in the themes, malevolent forces abducting children for their life force and an adult who had traumatic supernatural experiences as a child. There are also bits of It here, where children can touch the supernatural more easily and naturally than adults. And yet, Hill takes those themes and twists them in a new and compelling way. His supernatural gifts have costs in the physical world (even for children), and his child characters aren’t as resistant to the supernatural’s darker sides as are King’s.

Hill also has unique ways of making his villains creepy and his heroes relatable. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that actually made me uneasy, but this book managed it. When Mr. Manx abducts a child, his assistant deals with the child’s parents (almost always the mother) in a unique way that really made my skin crawl. As for the heroes, well, in the present (when Vic is an adult), they include her partner, Lou, a morbidly obese comic book nerd who named their son Bruce Wayne Carmody, and her friend Maggie, a woman with special gifts like Vic’s, who maintains her sanity and keeps her contact with the Great Beyond through drugs and self-harm. Neither one is exactly your typical heroic figure. Both are genuine, likeable characters who you root for without hesitation.

This book got under my skin: the paperback is almost 700 pages and I read it in 3 days. It’s deeply creepy, very original, has strong characters and well-crafted prose (Hill has a particularly good hand with dialogue). I’d recommend it. Just be aware that once you’ve read it, you’ll never think about out-of-season Christmas music quite the same way again.

Tiny Windows: My Uneasy Relationship with the Short Story

I have a short story problem.

In my reading queue right now, I have four unfinished short story anthologies. One is by HG Wells; another by LeGuin. A third, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, has been widely touted as one of the most important anthologies to come out in the last few years. I recently ran across Charlie Jane Anders’ post on i09 titled “Essential Short Story Anthologies that Every Writer Should Read.” In response to that, plus a few other conversations I’ve been following recently, I’ve now requested precisely 7 anthologies from my local library.

Short stories are important for writers. I know that conventional wisdom states most authors, regardless of genre, get started with short stories, because they’re the way to get past the Catch-22 that blocks people from serious consideration with agents and editors (that you won’t be taken seriously without any publications, but you can’t get any publications unless someone takes you seriously). I know that the big genre-writing workshops, like Clarion (which I’ve seriously considered and rejected as a summer indulgence at least twice now) are all about honing the craft of the short story. I completely agree with the point Anders makes in her post, about why short stories are an essential component of the field:

Short stories are the lifeblood of science fiction and fantasy — novels get all the buzz and the parties, but short fiction is where the wildest ideas and coolest characters come out.

It’s the same principle as what I tell my sociology students about the difference between journal articles and monographs. Books take a long time to come out; in the time it takes a book to go through the publishing dance, its content might become less cutting-edge. There’s a bigger investment with books, so gatekeepers are less likely to take risks on them; conversely, when you get down to it, any schmo can get a book published, while short pieces dependent on publication in some moderated medium have more quality control. That’s the reason I subscribed to Fantasy and Science Fiction for years, the same reason I try to keep current with the American Journal of Sociology; because periodicals are where the cutting-edge stuff happens.

I know and understand all of that. And yet I still can’t find a big place in my heart for the short story. I’ve written a couple (including both of my technical publications to date); I have a few well-worn anthologies that I’ve kept through a dozen moves. But in the end, my love is the big story. My tastes in writing and reading run to thousands of pages, long elaborate stories with dozens of characters and massive plot arcs.

I increasingly suspect the main reason for this is that I’m a character person: whether as writer or reader, I like watching my protagonists grow and change, and especially go through multiple changes. In a short story, you’re frequently limited to one big change. There are other problems with the format for me, too. I tend to like my worldbuilding explicit; if you’re writing a short story in a world that isn’t this one, you either need to shorthand your setting or leave a lot of it in the hands of the reader to interpret. I’m also not someone who typically spends much time appreciating other authors’ prose: although I admire a beautiful sentence as much as the next person, I’m much more interested in bulldozing through the lavish descriptions of setting looking to find out what happens. Short stories, by virtue of their compactness, seem to rely a lot more on careful reading and reflection on each carefully chosen word.

There are a few authors whose stories I reliably enjoy, the most notable of whom is Stephen King (I continue to be envious of his ability to write good short stories, good novellas and good doorstops). But King’s short stories are different than LeGuin’s, or Wells’s. For the most part, a 15-page King story will be focused on a central gimmick. There might be a poor guy who’s confronted with a finger poking up out of his bathroom sink (“The Moving Finger,”) or a poor sap who’s trying to quit smoking (“Quitters, Inc.”), or a couple whose car breaks down in a strange town (“Children of the Corn”; “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band”; really, too many others to count ;)). But the picture is compact, and the story centers around a single concept.

Before I started this blog entry, I found a quote by Neil Gaiman that I think speaks to my short story dilemma: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” This is a lovely phrase, and I think it speaks exactly to what genre writers who go after short stories are looking to accomplish — but generally, it’s not what I want. I don’t want to be back in time for dinner; I want to disappear to Westeros or Southmarch or the Final Empire for a week at a time. Those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved, and the ones I’ve always wanted to tell. I want readers to feel they know my characters well enough to have conversations with them, and you can’t have a conversation through a tiny window.

I’m going to keep reading short stories; I’m going to make it through those long-ago purchased anthologies I’ve got sitting around my house, and I’ll try to read the ones I’ve collected from the library, too. Because they’re an important aspect of the genre I’m trying to write in, and because every now and again, I find one that speaks to me (to be uber-stereotypical for a moment, there’s very little out there more powerful than LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”).

But for better or worse, I’m coming to accept that my heart belongs to the doorstops.

For those who might be interested, some anthologies I’ve read and enjoyed:

  • Adams & Cohen, Oz Reimagined
  • Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
  • Bradbury, Bradbury Stories
  • Card, Maps in a Mirror
  • Anything by King (he’s got 6 or 7 sets, I think)

…and the collection I’ve assembled from the benevolent local library system:

  • Beagle, The Secret History of Fantasy
  • Campbell & Hall, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond
  • Dillon, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
  • Griffith & Pagel, Bending the Landscape (Fantasy): an anthology that labels itself as “queer fantasy”, including stories by queer authors and about queer characters
  • Hayden, Starlight 1
  • Kelly & Kessel, The Secret History of Science Fiction
  • Van Gelder, The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Say Goodbye to All of This: The End of a Good Character

We had a house party this past weekend for Husband’s birthday (happy birthday, Husband! :-D) and at the end of the night, I got into a pretty nuts-and-bolts writing conversation with my neighbors about important questions like how to write fight scenes (conclusion: don’t let your characters think about anything besides the guy or gal who’s trying to kill them) and how to get past the fear that what you’re writing is garbage (conclusion: write it anyway. Garbage is easier to revise than a blank page). But I think the most thought-provoking piece of the conversation had to do with killing characters.

I’ve never had a problem killing off my characters: my bad writing always tends toward the angstiest of angst, and the earliest piece of writing in my childhood scribbles file has the main character dying at the end. In fact, my never-finished “first novel,” a quasi-reboot of Black Beauty written when I was 11, had my narrator shunting from disaster to disaster because the only reason I could think of for her to move to a new home (which was the main plot thread of the story) was to bring violence and death to all the other horses in her barn. As my writing’s gotten better, though, I’ve started to realize that just like everything else, there are good ways to kill a character, and there are bad ways (of course, as with all my writing rants, these are open to debate).

As I’ve said before, in my own writing, because of my crazy levels of outlining, I tend to know a character’s fate right from the beginning of the book, even in early drafts. What that means is that for the most part, my job is to make my redshirts lovable — because in my mind, if you kill off a character whose death will have an emotional effect on your protagonist, it’d better be designed to have an effect on your reader, too.

A few of my favorite strategies from “real books” (including A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and Star Wars) after the jump (in case there’s anyone out there in my universe who doesn’t know those yet… in which case, you’ve got some reading and watching to do… also talk about Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Black House, but I do that in a more anonymized way…)