It kinda starts with what do you intend to do. I harp on this a lot because I feel it deeply. What is the "gift"? What are you presenting beyond two covers with pages to fill? Adventure, fun, love, insight, laughs, uneasiness, scares; it can be one of these, it can be all of these, but you as writer must feel it first. Without that mental/emotional connection you're just helping to pass time on the subway ride home, which I'll accept as your intent but you can do a lot more. You can start your zombie apocalypse book by telling me a ton of information like so:
“Ships never came to us anymore. It had been four years. Four long, terrible years of plague and death…and them. The zombies of Station Five. That’s where they first came out. The Midas Genetics lab in Station Five. It was the biggest medical renovation corporation allowed on-planet, nothing now but a huge mausoleum. There was no safe haven anywhere. We didn’t know what we would do, but we would survive…”
Or you can hit me with this:
"There weren't enough of us left to dispose of the bodies." Yes? Because that carries the dread of the situation, and that's what you want me to feel. In the first you described it to me. You wanted me to see your idea. You would have gone on to tell me the color of the doors, the exact look of Dr. Nina Haagen, and what model futuristic smart car took the space zombies to hospitals all over the world when they stumbled into them and mumbled, "Brains." In short, you wanted to create a movie in your reader's head complete with voice-over and tracking shot, and by then our relationship is already tenuous. We're just not connecting. Hush now. Don't speak. It's better this way. You don't trust me; what do we have without that?
More accurately, you don't trust my imagination. Listen, we're both adults. You're not my first zombie apocalypse and I'm not your first reader. Let's be real. I don't care about Dr. Nina's symmetrical freckles and neither do you. We both know Nina's cute, capable and, despite several close calls, will survive this story. So instead tell me about Nina's suppressed self doubt; tell me why the worst of humanity loves showing itself when situations are grim; clue me into the fact that Nina has no desire to save the colony at all but will do all she can because "failure is not an option" was the mantra that got her through high school and her current life of solitude.
The second example: you made me feel. As a reader I now love you. A wonderful writer friend of mine wrote about the problematic trap of needing to create a "movie in a reader's mind." Allow me to paraphrase:
Two major issues that seem to be a common thread with this tactic:
1. Describing every scene, every character, every movement in minute detail;
2. Providing far too much "historical" detail in large chunks, when it doesn’t serve to further the storyline.
In the first instance, novel-writing is being approached like writing a screenplay… but they are very different beasties entirely. With a screenplay, the goal is to provide as much minute detail as possible so that the directors can create the scene exactly as the writer has envisioned it, from the buttons on a frock coat to a head tilt. Every line of dialogue, every hand gesture, every step, all plotted out in order to bring the writer's world to life on screen.
With novels, one has to take a very different approach, and provide only as much information as necessary so that the readers can imagine the world themselves. That’s one of the greatest pleasures when reading a novel: conjuring what a character looks like, or what people might be wearing, according to one’s own preferences.
As for historical detail, it's a wonderful thing, and it’s great to be able to learn bits and pieces of history (whether real or purely fanciful) as we read, but it’s another thing entirely for the forward momentum of a story to be halted by a Wikipedia stub where a paragraph should be. The key really is to dole out tidbits sparingly (only the most relevant ones at that) and in such a way that they don’t appear to be a history lesson dressed up as prose. If they are of absolute relevance to the story and help to move it forward, wonderful: ease them in at the right moments. If they’re just “interesting”? Leave them out.
Coax the story out in such a way that you’re captivating the reader, piquing their interest and keeping their attention as little gems are revealed one by one. If there's one piece of advice I can impart, it's to read and read and read… and read some more. Immerse yourself in the kinds of novels you're aiming to write, and see what works and doesn't work in terms of other authors' approaches to world creation.
Wonderful advice. And so very correct. We all have different skill levels when it comes to writing and conjuring, but very often a writer commits the disservice of information-overload, leaving the reader with the impression of reading the author's notes, research, and early draft rather than the engaged final effort. This is where re-writing comes in. It comes hard.Think of writing as though you’re a human 3D printer. First draft is you pre-scanning the source material: you want all the details you can glean of your imaginary world in order to present a usable replica. Second draft, you’ve adjusted the preview scan and tightened the parameters; now you can go for it. You can hit ‘scan’.Third draft: you are a multi-handed printhead working like crazy to mold that scan into something a reader will ooh and ahh over. Your goal as writer is to get in my head. Direct where those oohs and ahhs occur. See, just as in movies, you’re a director (a good director; no jerky cam jump cuts), but where cinema gets to show Rosario Dawson in her glory, you get to impart the feeling of that awesome glory as concisely as possible. Find your inner Akira Kurosawa. Rather than trying too hard to describe what's in your head, make your reader feel *why* it's there and why the reader should care. Don't spend so much time setting the scene that you forget to heed that important nuance. Personally, I run from writers who want their vision so clear in my head I might as well not be there. It contributes to lazy writing (and lazy reading, which we’ll get to another time).
In my own work I generally give few descriptors. I tend more toward the Harryhausen mode of visual imagination than the goal of today’s current CG artists who give us both spittle and snot on conjured beasties. I love technical prowess, I love research and the artistry needed to create wonders. However, for an effect to be "special" one must be judicious with it no matter the art form. I like to think Ray Harryhausen, given 21st century computing power, would still go for the feel of the monster rather than just hyper-reality. Today's effects guys detail their pieces all the way down to random spittle and snot flying from the maw of every roaring dragon. That's not your job as a novel writer. Everybody wants dragons. We love dragons. Space dragons. Historically accurate dragons. Well-realized rom-com dragons. Even zombie dragons.
Nobody wants spittle and snot.
Question: What does music do for your writing?
Well, music is emotion, so music fuels me.
Question: Have you ever written anything you’re ashamed of?
Question: How often?
Question: You’re on a road trip with Matthew McConaughey in his brand new Lincoln--
Oh hellz no.
Question: Who’s the most famous person to have held any of your books in their hands, and which book?
Pam Grier. Book is Neon Lights, an urban comedy. I won’t say she read it but I gave her a copy during dinner. True story.
No, really. Absolute church truth. You can read about it here:
Question: Tell us about your most recent novel, The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan.
It’s a sweeping, fun, adventure book that hugs Buckaroo Banzai and says thanks. I miss fun in my diet, don’t you? Enough with irony deficiencies! It’s about two brothers who are adventurers, who are black, don’t die, and aren’t magical (not in that way), fighting an eternal war against the False Prophet Buford. It rocks, son, and that’s a plug.
Drop the T, son.
Question: Do you enjoy writing? Like cheesecake, sex, and good sci fi?
Question: And you have a goal of world literary domination and supple book groupies?
That’s called ‘incentive,’ son.
Question: If Rosario Dawson never reads Jetstreams?
Question: Biggest writing goal?
That there’s fun in our lives, the reader’s and mine. Even with serious stuff. Or the not so serious.
Question: Tell us about your alter ego, Thor MF Jones, erotic writer and part-time plumber.
Y’all ain’t ready.
Question: Favorite books you’ve read in the last 2 years?
Archangel by Marguerite Reed. Science fiction for grown, feeling folks. There Is No Lovely End by Patty Templeton. Fun, macabre, imaginative and sharp.
Question: Favorite song of the last 2 years?
Prince, Way Back Home.
Question: Spock or--
Question: Buddha or Jesus?
Bare knuckle fight? Buddha could take him.
Question: What is best in life?
To get out of your own way. To chill, to write, to have people dig the words and buy the books. The paintings. The records. The woodwork. The sculpture. The life. The life is best in life. Can you dig it?
Question: I can dig it.
Oi, there’s a post. That’s summing we haven’t seen before, innit? Originality, ‘e says. Do. Tell.
That smarmy bastard right there? Ignore ‘im. ‘Ere’s the thing aboot originality: the verra definition of it is, “Are you anybody else?” Of all the someones out there, you a copy, a simulacrum, a 2-bit clone of base intentions?
Did not think so.
Next question. Are you righteous in your filtering abilities? What I mean is, you’re working on a project, yes, and it’s about dragons and we both know you’ve read a million books about dragons, so are ye only telling a dragon story? Or have you read a million books about ecology, quantum entanglement, and solar energy as well? Can we see a bit of that in your story then? Beauty.
What’s this aboot not wanting to break rules? D’ye know the rules? Are ye comfortable with the weight and shape of ‘em in yer hands? All right then. Move ‘em about, bend ‘em up. The more pliable the better. Rules are just meant to guide intentions. Ye can achieve the desired effect a hundred different ways if you know to build upon what’s on your page. According to my personal tastes and peccadillos, I, for myself, would love to see a New York rom com start off with an invasion of sentient foot fungi only 2 truly in love asexual biochemists could cure, all the way to the happy ending and character growth at the end. There are only 2 rules you need to write down: Don’t be mean, and don’t be boring. It’s not easy not being mean, I know. I’ve done it meself. God bless editors who lay the red like a Throne’s wedding. Be prepared to alter your point of view in your own work, and you’ll be all right.
Oi, but don’t strain trying to be clever, mixing and matching and gliding willy nilly. That can be just as fooking boring. It’s like the guy performing oral sex for a 30 minute open mouth gymnastics set when 5 minutes (10) of varied interest in your lover’s nibbly bits would do. A kiss here, a lick there, a pause to reflect on genitalia’s awesome impact on human civilization, then back to business. Conduct your skills and wit accordingly, else your asexual rom com lack any human connection.
Here’s where you put our knickers back in place and post-coit for a bit. The idea was nice and your technique was great. Thumbs up on the orgasm, mate. Top notch caring, that. And I’m not criticizing here, no no…but can we make it better? The idea? Maybe a smidge to the left or to the right, yeah? I dunno, maybe they don’t need to fall in love? I mean, personal growth happens a million different ways right? Takes time to find those ways, true, but I’m not going anywhere if you’re not. We’ll wait. Maybe go see what the blokes over here are writing, doesn’t mean we love you any less.
OMG. Guess what? There’s a lady one move over writing about the exact same thing as you. Kinda. Sorta. Not sentien foot fungus per se—but demons who saw The Vagina Monlogues and thought that’d be hilar in real life. Possessed vaginas and the Catholic nuns who realize how much more they need each other than a church to set things right. Exorsisters. Seriously, that’s what she’s calling it. But totally different from yours. Enough so anyway. Write your book, odds being small that it’ll get published anyway. Volume, son, volume. Write all the things.
What’s that guff about sales? You want to write something that’ll get pubbed? Yer lookin’ for mass market sales and accolades? Bless your heart. Let’s edge away from that, lad, that’s a slippery slope until your footings a bit more sure. Are you starting to think maaaaaybe if ye write it Just Like That where “that” is the Himalayas of Writers where their frozen, lifeless bodies lay in clear view up summit way, let’s step back just a bit and remember that if originality is a question on your mind you’ve already spotted out a different path up the olde mountain. Fewer frozen bodies, more hot cocoa and tub parties. Your originality comes from what you want to do, and then how you do it flows from that, and then it all comes together into a book you’re going to have to rewrite 4 times anyway.
Y’know what? Perhaps we—yes, let’s reframe. Let’s think of this with some funk rock lyrics. Prince, from “Hello”.
But maybe at last it's the end
Because I am not like others
I'm unique in the respect I'm not U
Harkens back to the clone bit, dunnit? I can’t write the book you write; you can’t write the book I write. We can get close but it’ll never be a cigar. Not if we’re, y’know, being us and not some imagined faceless them. It’s a good feeling, being comfortable enough to walk along with y’self as company. Very enjoyable when ye’re willing to see where you can go and all the ways you can get there. We’re even at the end of this little half-cocked blog, and ye’ll note I did not say “It’s all been done.”
Sometimes we do a thing and we think doing the thing gives us license to ill. I'm talking about professional jealousy (when, to be harsh, at best it's amateur). Destructive pangs of godlike woe hit and we start conjuring; somebody does the thing like we do the thing but they're obvs more successful at it seeing as they're getting awards, contracts, mega deals, groupies, fistfuls of money, dinner on a glittering patio full of popes and angels... and we are not. We ascribe luck to them or some other force outside our purview to account for their good fortune but usually, if it's truly luck, we know it's luck. Nobody is jealous of luck. Luck is completely random. No, what we are jealous of is the perception of unfair advantage. If we're both talented but my talents aren't being recognized then, flipso ipso, everything suuuucks and one's ass is available for dis-pleasurable kissing.
Except, Charlie Brown, that's not how this works. That's not how any of this works.
Join me in this most sincere pumpkin patch.
I have been fortunate enough to smile with several amazing writers, mostly online, some well-known, some on the road to becoming so, some not known at all. As I write this 3 of them are in the running for cool and prestigious awards. I'm rooting for them so tough my name is Yggdrasil D. Groot and living right smack in a patch of damn good dirt. Not only are they good people, their work is top notch.
But when has the work ever stopped at the writing in writing? With the number of writers out there we're practically living that infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters thing these days. Do you know how hard it is to get words noticed in the age of too many choices? It's hard like a mofo.
But Kelly Robson, a writer whose works you need with the quickness, tweeted something a while back that's stayed with me: "If I never get any accolades, it will be because my work didn't measure up, not because I was too shy to put myself forward." Read that again, because too often we don't permit ourselves that level of honesty. Ms. Robson's statement is the opposite of self-aggrandizement. It is acknowledgment of the Work. Infinite monkeys, yo. And each of us is a Rhesus Peesus: a wee voice in the screeching din. A lot of writers hate self-promotion, which is actually a bit odd. Very few disciplines believe that simply creating the work and lightly wafting it through the air suffices. You never see a Hollywood director saying, "Hey, I kinda made a movie that I think might be good and maybe you wanna see it?" Most craftspersons/artisans (except those doing craft beer, which we all know is just stale Michelob they rebottled) complete a work, see that it is good, put on their Superman cape and underwear over their outfits, and smile their most genuine smile on metaphorical street corners everywhere. This is part of the Work. Submit, promote, believe. How the hell do you think we got "Purple Rain"? Wasn't by Prince wasting time being jealous. It was by him being a funky monkey.
The Work involves promotion, dogged submission, respect for both the yes and the no, exploration, and a contradictory yet necessary Zen-like acknowledgement that not every monkey's screech can or will be distinguished above the noise. Being jealous of someone else's success generally means you have not entirely done what you need do to cultivate your own. Search your feelings. If your friends are succeeding, how can you fit anything but joy inside that meat bag folks call "you"? If your enemies are succeeding you first need to live your life so that, y'know, you don't have enemies, and secondly: this isn't a race. Every accolade that doesn't have your name on it does not mean there's one less accolade for you.
That's not how it works. Nary a bit of none of it.
Get noticed. Those truly working to get noticed don't have time for jealousy, those not truly interested in getting noticed can't even spell jealousy; they are esprits du luce and are to be cherished. There's time for frustration, self-doubt, ennui, and the wringing jeebies of mortality, but not for being jealous of good things surrounding good people. The mere act of creating something has never been a guarantee of anything. Just ask a few deities; they'll tell ya.
This doesn't discount the obvious, insidious hideous gatekeepy reasons your work may not be as acclaimed as others'. And we're damn well not interested in the tiring notion of exceptionalism. My advice? Get angry at the systems and burn them down till the cows come home, but keep the green-eyed monster out of all planning sessions. Jealousy is self-anger. Howlingly useless. Don't be the Howler Monkey of Art. Be the Rhesus. The Rhesus Peaceus, swinging from project to project with excitement and intensity. Jealousy, professional or amateur, kills your motivation. And a monkey without motivation has zero swing.
Yes, I'm going to end with this:
Whatever you do in life, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Because if somebody else is doing well, particularly a friend, particularly a good person, then the goodness of the world magnifies by that much, and you, my dear love, have license not to ill but to heal in such grace.
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY