My VP classmates Lise Fracalossi and Alex Haist tagged me in the Talk About Your Writing Process thing that’s going around, and thus am I compelled by sacred oath to answer—even though I have a terrible aversion to talking about my art, and am furthermore vaguely superstitious about my process.
WHAT AM I WORKING ON?
Couple of things. The most significant right now is what I’ve been referring to vaguely as the Big Thing, which is a still-untitled fantasy novel about alternate technology paths, weird materials science, women being friends, and the problems of revolution. It’s set in a very similar setting to my story in the Puzzle Box anthology, although the feel of it will be very different from that story.
I’m also writing a web-comic-ish thing that Alison Wilgus will be illustrating, which will probably end up as a novella-length illustrated narrative about anime fandom and online roleplaying in the early-mid 90s. It is called Trans-Spacial Cosmos Defence Force NOVA BLAZE.
HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN THE GENRE?
The Big Thing came about because I wanted to write a novel about airships, and had indeed made several abortive attempts to write novels about airships, and after doing a lot of reading about zeppelins, blimps, and lighter-than-air craft in general, came to the conclusion that the reason nobody uses airships any more is that they are horribly, inexorably impractical, and that if you’re going to write a pulpy adventure story involving airships that isn’t entirely about airships being a giant pain in the ass, you pretty much have to ignore how they actually work. And I didn’t want to do that.
But airships are just… god, they’re super cool, aren’t they? So I invented a fantasy universe where they make sense. It is possible that somebody else has done this, too, but I haven’t read it, and I’m very happy with my various clever solutions to Airship Problems.
My sincere hope is that the work will convey the feel of living in this place with a very different set of technologies available—that one will encounter the airships and other nerdy nonsense in my story and buy what I’m selling, e.g., the notion that this particular assemblage of neat stuff is not just what the author thought was cool, but also feels like a natural consequence of the low-level worldbuilding conceits I started out with. It’s all nonsense, of course, but the goal is that it will not feel nonsensical, and my hope is that readers will not, therefore, feel sold a bill of goods.
WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
I had a whole answer written out for this, but upon reading it I realized it was all bullshit.
The truth is: I want to read these stories. Before I die, I want to see the stack of the manuscript pages or the directory full of HTML files and know that I told the stories I set out to tell, that for once in my fucking life I didn’t settle for just daydreaming about how cool it would be if I actually did the thing, that this time, I did the goddamned thing.
HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?
I have recently undergone a profound shift in my attitude toward my process, thanks mostly to Alex’s unbelievably kind shepherding of me through some real bad shit.
The most important realization I have ever had about The Art Of Writing is this: For me, the process is the art. The art is not the manuscript, not the finely-wrought sentence, not the perfectly-crafted narrative payoff. The art of writing is the minutes and hours spent doing the work, and getting better at the art, for me, had nothing to do with learning about story structure or language usage, and everything to do with thornier problems of discipline, self-care and, yes, -love.
And I have arrived here: My writing process begins with sheets of blank printer paper and a nice fountain pen loaded up with blue-grey Pilot Iroshizuku Shin-kai ink. I printed out a line-guide that I clip behind the page I’m working on, and I sit anywhere I can find a flat enough space to write, and then I write the next sentence. And the next one after that. Sometimes I cross mistakes out, but usually I just keep on rolling. Very frequently I write something I know is a real fucking clunker, but it doesn’t matter. The only thing I care about this stage is filling the page, which at the rule-size I work at will wind up containing about 250 words. I force myself to consider even one sentence a triumph, but I try to write at least one page a day.
A digression about speed: My friend John Wiswell, for whose artistic discipline I have essentially limitless admiration and respect, sets for himself the goal of 1000 words a day. Joe Hill doesn’t do anything else until he’s hit 2500. These numbers can make me feel like a real loser. But the other day something funny happened. I was looking at a weekly word-count log I’d kept for an abortive novel attempt I made a few years ago, and after the first week of 1000 words or so, the weekly word counts were in the 2-400 range.
These days I write between 2-400 words a day, and not infrequently spike above 500. I’m no John Wiswell, but I’m 15,000 words into a book right now, and I haven’t been 15,000 words into anything since my hilariously terrible NaNoWriMo book of 2003. So a page a day ain’t bad.
More importantly, when I’m writing by hand I find it much easier to feel for the faint tugs of Story. The frustrating truth is that I am not a very intuitive writer, or at least I don’t feel like one. I don’t have that instinct for Story that some seem to have. But it turns out that I’m not entirely story-deaf. I just have to listen very carefully, and writing by hand makes it easier for me to listen. To this end, I have only a very sketchy outline of big plot events I want to reach, with lots of room left in the interstices for unexpected discoveries. I have learned that planning too far ahead doesn’t work for me; It turns out that when I leave myself room to do so, I discover moments and characters I could never have come up with in an outline, but who arrive on the page ready to act in ways an outline-beat just can’t.
(That said, when I’m writing something short to a deadline, I will shoehorn myself into an outline because it’s the only way I can get a coherent story done on a schedule)
After I finish a section of story, I type it up. This is where I go from a zeroth draft to a first draft, and correct the worst of the clunkers. I generally leave at least two weeks between zero draft and first draft, which gives me adequate time to mostly forget what I’ve written and how I felt about it at the time. This amnesia is crucial, because it makes it easier to be ruthless with cuts and corrections.
Having typed up the first draft, I’ll let the piece sit for a couple of days, then reread it and give it another editing pass, whereupon I engage in the most shameful of my process stages: the Only Tell Me Nice Things stage.
Here’s a juicy writer confession for you: You know all that be-brutal-with-yourself, kill-your-darlings, ruthless-crit-is-the-best-crit stuff? Yeah, I can’t hack that. When it comes to criticism, especially early stage criticism, I am the specialest of special snowflakes, and I have a few friends who are generous enough to indulge me.
But in the negative space of the compliments I demand from these friends (I am an awful person, etc.) I have a chance to address things that might not be working, and at the very least provide more of what is working, before I subject myself to the okay-tell-it-like-it-is round of crit. Which I then do my damnedest to address.
So there you have it. 1500 words on writing process from a guy who’s never sold a single story. SEEMS LEGIT.
Rawles Lumumba, a writer and friend whose instinct for character I have admired for pretty much ever.
My bffsy Alison Wilgus, with her ridiculous facility for story and her intimidatingly deep toolbox of tools with which to tell those stories.
Devin Singer, whose grimly sentimental SF is the Real Fucking Deal, no joke, you heard it here first, also she’s an excellent human being.