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I will miss a couple of days in my NaNoWriMo writing posts because I’ve been asked (on an extremely tight deadline) to write up a piece for another venue on a “feminist classic.” I’ll be writing about Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books.
I plan to start up again next week with a post on voice and point of view featuring Tricia Sullivan’s SHADOWBOXER and Beth Bernobich’s THE TIME ROADS.
After which I will likely switch my focus to posts on world building for the rest of the month.
NOTE: Due to two unexpected requests on a short deadline for non fiction pieces, I have combined today’s and tomorrow’s NaNoWriMo post into one.
I have the hardest time defining “voice.”
I think of voice in two ways. I believe (you are welcome to disagree) that every writer has a fairly consistent internal voice in terms of intrinsics, regardless of whether any given story will appear the same. By this I don’t mean that every one of their stories will be told in the same style or with the same point of view inflection but rather that they will bring their perspective, their experience, their biases, the peculiar nature of their particular interests and how they focus on narrative , and subtle, specific similarities of rhythms and colors and filters to their work. This will hold true within the deepest levels of story even when the external voice, the point of view and style any specific story is told in, varies from piece to piece.
It’s a truism that writers must “find their voice” and to a fair degree I believe that to be true although I might phrase it differently. Each writer takes a different path to uncovering what’s at the heart of what they want to write about. For some, voice comes first before anything while others have to peel away competing layers of borrowed voices until they get to their own.
It is difficult if not impossible to tell other people’s stories by which I don’t mean that you can only write about your own direct life but that you can’t write the stories other people think you should write. I have had both relatives, writing teachers, and other folks KINDLY inform me that if only I would write this other stuff, this important stuff, then it would be the right thing to do: These brutally realistic tales of immigrants failing to succeed at farming on the Great Plains are REAL novels. Why are you wasting your talent on fantasy and sci-fi when you could be influenced by Hemingway? Instead of writing this novel the way you are proposing why don’t you write it in a way I think is more appropriate? Please write something I can read like something without magic or spaceships in it.
Even within the sff field I used to receive comments suggesting that if only I would write something different, something more worthy, more important, more to their critical taste; just not what I was writing.
Perhaps it never occurred to these people that it had nothing to do with me being “stubborn” or “not listening.” Perhaps it never occurred to them that the stories they wanted me to tell weren’t the stories I had to tell.
In my first NaNoWriMo post I mentioned my four writing observations, of which the third is:
Write what is in you to write.
The comment is not mine. I’m handing it on to you from Damon Knight.
I became acquainted with Damon Knight mostly on the late, lamented GEnie, an early internet forum that became a gathering place for many sff-related folks. Because he lived near my parents I ended up meeting him in person a couple of times although I can’t say I ever got to know him well. In addition to their writing careers, he and Kate Wilhelm taught a great deal (having founded the Clarion Writing Workshop) and took teaching (and thus mentoring) very seriously as a contribution to the future of the sff field.
One year while visiting my parents I went to Knight’s house to have tea. Although he could be acerbic in writing I always found him kind in person. After his years at Clarion he surely had become used to young writers asking endless questions about writing and confiding in him about their endless struggles.
That day I told him I was having doubts not about my writing specifically (I always struggle with those) but about WHAT I was writing. Should I be writing something else? Something that would be deemed more important or more worthy? Was there any point to writing the stories I was writing, I wondered? What if they didn’t matter? What if the people who wanted me to write something else were right, and I was just stubbornly writing trivial stories that anyone could see inhabited the most shallow pool of the narrative ocean?
He listened carefully. When I was done he said,
“We write what is in us to write.”
The words stopped me dead.
It’s not that they gave me permission but that they allowed me to stop asking for permission.
The statement made me realize I had to stop fighting the stories inside me. It didn’t matter if what I was writing was important or worthy by anyone else’s lights or measure. What mattered is that my voice is my voice, and my stories are my stories.
Someone will always be happy to tell you that you should be using your creative mind in a different way, one that fits with their prejudices, their tastes, their judgment.
But it’s not true. We write what is in us to write.
We do not in fact know who will read our stories. We don’t and can’t know who will be touched by them in a way that is consequential to them. Every writer I know has a story or ten of receiving a letter from or being directly told by a reader who thanks us in a profound way: “your story saved me,” “your character’s journey gave me hope,” “this novel brought me through a dark time,” “your words helped me see this aspect of myself in a different way” or even just “your story let me see myself.” Even a simple “your story kept me up late” or “I enjoyed it so much” or a heartfelt “your stories inspired me to write” is a mark of worth.
Our authentic voice is the gift we have to give to the world.
As I have mentioned multiple times in the last two days, I finally finished the revisions for BLACK WOLVES, the first volume of a new epic fantasy series. I wrote two days ago about what a difficult book this has been for me to write.
I have early drafts of different versions of the opening going back to 2009 before I was overtaken by Cat Barahal’s story and wrote the Spiritwalker Trilogy. As it happens, the opening I have now is not any of the multiple iterations I trotted through their paces over the last five years.
What I haven’t discussed is what my long-suffering editor at Orbit Books endured during this long writing process. She was both kind and patient during and after my father’s illness and death. In Winter 2014 I was able to start working on the book again. Writing this book was like carving a path through molasses with a feather.
Every time I sat down two overwhelming thought processes dominated my thinking.
The first was a constant unceasing voice second-guessing every single decision I was making, what I call the Hyper-Energetic Overly-Critical Internal Editor Who Can’t Shut Up:
“You shouldn’t do that. It won’t work.” “if you did it that way it might be better.” “I wrote that scene but she should put the cup down on the tray not the table” “This is too (sentimental) (violent) (political) (boring) (feminist) (not feminist enough) (static) (dense in world building) (focused on family relationships) (ridiculous) (simplistic) (complicated).”
The second, not surprisingly, was the other voice, the one many writers have struggled with, the one that says, “this is all pointless and awful and you should just quit now. In fact it would be merciful not just to you but to all of us if you would just quit.”
These two voices are not the same but they often get intertwined.
I believe the second voice springs out of our deepest fears as creative people and as people who often have to overcome obstacles of lack of time, lack of support, lack of belief, discouragement, physical and economic challenges, prejudices and bias, concerns that we ought to be doing something more practical or “worthy” by other people’s standards, that what we’ve done hasn’t been good enough and can never be good enough: The list rolls on and on.
It is a crisis of belief that ebbs and rises; I think it is part of the human psyche exacerbated and amplified by damaging conditions and other external obstacles that impact our ability to create. Grief, depression, stress, severe anxiety: All feed into that voice. Sometimes we have to deliberately find ways to comfort the voice to quiet it; sometimes the only option is to ignore it or try to shut it away. A visualization I sometimes use is to imagine setting the voice behind a door and closing the door.
The first voice (for me) has a different role. An Internal Editor is necessary because that is the voice that helps you-the-writer edit, improve, change, meet the challenge, and come up with something that isn’t the same thing you did last time.
But when the Internal Editor gets on that hyperactive treadmill it is so debilitating.
At some point in Spring 2014 I called my editor, probably in despair, and she patiently let me talk on and on as she does.
And then she said, “Don’t think. Just write.”
I actually wrote down those words and posted them on my computer as a reminder.
Not because I shouldn’t think when I write, but because I know (but have to remind myself) that when my head cycles into that over-thinking stage, it doesn’t help me proceed with the first draft, with the upwelling phase of the writing where I have to allow my subconscious to work so that the best connections and ideas can bubble up into my conscious writing brain.
Later (at a normal volume) the Internal Editor is crucial and necessary. But if you write a first draft as I do (and not everyone does), then too much thinking in the first draft gets in the way of the tangled process through which I unfold and discover my story.
I did try to “think” less and second-guess myself less as I went on. I did finally finish a mess of a first draft and turn it in (usually I turn in a second or third draft but in this case I had to move the draft off my desk and take some deep breaths). I got a long long editorial letter in tandem with a long long phone call.
Revisions went much better although they took a long time. By this point the Internal Editor — now speaking at a reasonable volume — was much happier and therefore more incisively useful. The Internal Editor is never useful to me when it is being hyperactive; then it is just telling me that I should move the salt shaker six inches to the right while standing on my left foot. But when the Internal Editor is working in tandem with my writing brain, they can get an amazing amount of work done.
For months in the Spring and Summer of 2014 every morning when I woke up my first thought was, “this book is broken; it will never work” accompanied by a leaden wave of despair.
Last week I woke up and I had a flash of a thought. “What if the book isn’t going to work no matter what I’ve done?”
I realized at that moment that this was the first time in weeks I had thought about the book as (potentially) broken. I had just experienced a normal flash of anxiety, not the punishing despair I had fought through. The realization gave me a sense of peace, a reminder that even as we struggle through the despair, we may also find the light.
Having emailed the revised manuscript for BLACK WOLVES to my editor yesterday at 1 a.m. (which means technically today but let’s not quibble), I managed to do pretty much zero today which all told I am taking as a win.
I do not have enough bandwidth to write anything that takes more than 5 brain cells rubbing together so I decided to take a photo of my three current projects all lined up in a row on my kitchen table.*
On the left we have the page proofs for THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT, a short fiction collection by Tachyon Publications, due for publication in February 2015.
In the middle we have the page proofs for COURT OF FIVES, a YA fantasy novel (“Little Women meets Game of Thrones” is what the publisher is calling it) being published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on 18 August 2015.
Finally, on the right, the typically monstrous epic fantasy since that is apparently the only type of epic fantasy I can write. BLACK WOLVES will be published by Orbit Books. Possibly October 2015 but that is not yet confirmed.
I have all these books coming next year because I had nothing come out in 2014 due to the events of 2013 putting the brakes on my writing for the year.
Publishers usually like to have completed revised and edited manuscripts a year ahead of publication date because that gives them plenty of time to move through the production phase and whatever marketing and publicity work they are going to do to get pre-orders and publicity going for the novel. There is a lot of lead time in this business (books can be produced quickly but it costs more, so with commercial publishers a very short lead time is an option only for books that must have a quick turnaround for timeliness or are expected to be bestsellers).
What do I personally get for all that lead time? Focused and intensive editing, a good-to-excellent copy edit, excellent design and typography, great covers (not always for everyone but I’ve had quite good luck with covers), an expansive distribution network, and a lot of miscellaneous work that I simply could not do myself or wouldn’t be good at. On a later date I will post the timeline of COURT OF FIVES to give a sense of how the process worked.
Meanwhile I am going to bed in the hopes of catching up with my sleep so I can embark tomorrow on the glamorous immediate-post-manscript writing life of laundry, filing, opening mail, and a few errands.
* the advanced reading copy in the background is Wesley Chu’s TIME SALVAGER (July 2015, Tor Books)
I interrupt this series of posts on writing with a bit of news.
The revised manuscript of BLACK WOLVES, volume one of a new epic fantasy series, is complete and has now been emailed to my editor at Orbit Books. It’s not the longest book I’ve written by a long shot, and unfortunately it is not the shortest either, running as it does to a little over 700 pages (that’s about 225,000 words in the font I use).
At the moment I have no easy way to explain this novel except that it is about how the past pervades the present. I can’t even figure out a handy Chthulhu meets Pokemon shorthand description, not yet anyway. The story is set in the same universe as the Crossroads Trilogy but is specifically written to stand alone from that trilogy (you do not have to read the earlier trilogy to read this).
It’s almost 1 a.m. as I write this so I’m not sure I can do justice to my feelings.
I was about a third of the way into the first draft of this novel in Summer 2013 when my father was told that his cancer had returned and he entered hospice care. I could not write first draft during the last 2 months of his life, and I could not write first draft for several months after his death, which meant I could not work on this novel. Somewhat strangely, I was able to revise the already completed YA fantasy manuscript, so that’s what I worked on.
However when the YA was complete and turned in, I picked up Black Wolves again and the work became a morass. I always hit a point in every book where I think it is the worst thing I’ve ever written; where I wonder if I should stop writing; where I think maybe THIS TIME I have really lost my writing chops and should just quit while I’m ahead.
I call this phase of the process the Chasm of Doubt.
Tied as it was to my beloved father’s passing, Black Wolves became a grueling emotional and psychological battle. I pushed through a monstrously uncooperative first draft (with the encouragement of Karen Miller, Andrea Chandler, and Paul Weimer) that to be frank was a mess. I seriously considered abandoning the novel more than once because I thought I could never get past the despair it engendered in me (not the story; the book itself).
But I’m stubborn, and my editor insisted that I absolutely could fix the things that didn’t work because the stuff that did work was all there ready to be polished and shiny. Plowing through revisions was almost as hard — and seemed to take just as long — as writing the first draft, and I want to thank Tricia Sullivan in particular for saying the words I needed to hear to not give up.
Yesterday my sister said to me that it was time to let the book go and stop worrying about what it is, if it’s good, if it’s worthy. It is what it is. It’s done. Now it has gone to other hands. What happens next I don’t yet know.
But I do know that if there is one thing a creative artist needs it is sheer stubborn persistence, the ability to trudge on and on despite the mire, to just keep going even when you despair the most and the road seems impossible, impassable, and endless.
Yesterday I wrote 3105 words on a book which I tell you not to boast or preen but to let you know that I am desperately pushing to finish revising a novel that is overdue and which I’m almost finally done with.
Partway through the day I wrote some words to a friend.
You don’t know how your creative work will be received. All you can do is offer up what is present in your imagination.
It’s the choice we make as writers, I think, because I don’t think we have that much “choice” in what is inside us to write. Our individual imaginations are what they are.
Our choices are 1) analyzing those stories and revising/re-visioning them to filter out as many of the prejudices, cliches, defaults, and errors as we can 2) deciding whether we really want to expose our entrails (which is what we always do when we publish: to allow others to share in our creative imaginations is to make ourselves vulnerable).
What, how, and why you create is your path to walk. No one else can give the world what is in your heart and your voice and your experience.
Later I had lovely phone calls with both of my sisters. One, an academic, talked about a colleague of hers who is trying to convince her university to fund a program incorporating the study of fanwork. Yes! Fanwork is steadily infiltrating the academy.
The other sent me this quote that beautifully and brilliantly encapsulates what I was trying to say to my friend:
Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille –
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open.”
Occasionally I’m asked about what is needed to make a story epic.
There are several definitions of epic, including the great mythic tales that have survived over hundreds and thousands of years as part of our human cultural heritage.
My brief thoughts today reflect on the modern written genre epic. I consider this to be a story that needs an expansive canvas to accomplish the scope and tapestry of its narrative.
My short answer? I like to think in layers and in terms of camera view.
Often it is useful to plot in layers: start with a global (or galaxy-spanning) plot which serves as the big tent under which all else is covered; add a couple of regional level (however you are defining regions) plots that may have a political, economic, military, religious, or larger cultural significance, and then ground all this with intimate personal plots that move forward within these larger narrative arcs.
In film terms we might say you need to mix long shots scanning the landscape, medium shots (Fred and Ginger dancing; people talking in a room; sword play on a staircase yes Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn I am talking about you in The Adventures of Robin Hood), and close ups. If all your shots, if all your plotting, is at intimate or medium range, you may have a fantastic story, but it won’t be an epic. If it’s all long shots, I’m not sure quite what you would have although it might be very beautiful but a little distant.
Likewise, your personal plots move in tandem with or against the global and regional plots. Some may have been, in fictional terms, created by the larger plots; some may gallop on despite the larger plots, that is, they don’t purely serve the function of the larger plots in plot terms although they must be woven into the overall tapestry in such a way that if they did not exist within the whole, the whole would be lessened.
Tone can also be a form of distance. If every scene emotes or colors with the same tonal feel, then it’s difficult to create a sense of the wide world. Don’t be all grim, or all chirpy, or all tragic, or all jocular, all the time. Vary your palette.
Contrast works wonders here: parallel a love story that turns out happily and is precipitated by global events with one that had begun before the story begins and is tragically destroyed by some element in the larger plot. Yes, as horribly cliched as this is (so cliched that even Shakespeare used it!), contrast a comedic subplot with the dead-heavy serious one.
What don’t you need? Just adding episodes to make it longer. Length doesn’t make an epic. Contrast and variety and stakes and emotion do.
I’m sometimes asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser. A plotter outlines heavily in advance. A pantser writes “by the seat of the pants,” that is, making it up as they go along.
There is not a right way to do this. There is the way that works for you, and for the particular story you are working on at the moment. Be proud of your plotting or pantsing. If it gets the job done then the method works.
I don’t fit neatly in either category, as I suspect many writers do not. I can’t walk blind into my stories, feeling them out as I go. But I don’t outline down to the chapter and scene particulars either.
I do have some fairly basic patterns by which I work into and through the first draft of a novel or short story.
Usually I begin with a sense of the thematic and emotional feeling I want for the novel/series. Slowly encounters and scenes and confrontations begin to develop in my mind around which the larger plot adheres. These bits and pieces get written down on scraps of paper or as notes on my computer. Big sheets of graph paper also work well for me when I want to make columns with characters and their “important plot points” or when I want to write out events and link them up with lines and arrows so that it looks like a huge brainstorming chart (although it isn’t quite that).
As I write, and the closer I get to the end, the more I do tend to outline the next few chapters and what needs to happen in them to move the plot forward. If I outlined more tightly from the beginning my novels wouldn’t sprawl quite so much. However, some of my best and most brilliant plot twists have happened during the course of writing, and there is something about the process of actually writing that brings new ideas and connections to the forefront that wouldn’t happen if I had it already planned out.
On the whole I think I work best in the ambivalent space where I know where I’m going but not quite how I’m going to get there.
By daily practice I don’t mean I think you should or must write every day. If you want to and if it benefits your writing and your psyche, do write daily. If you can’t (and there are myriad reasons why people can’t or don’t want to), then write as you can on the schedule that works for you.
Just don’t beat yourself up about what is unavoidable.
If there is one takeaway I would hope readers would get, it is that line:
Don’t beat yourself up about what is unavoidable.
If you don’t get all the writing done that you were hoping to, especially under circumstances where you may simply have no choice, it’s okay. It happens.
This discussion came up often between my friend Michelle Sagara and me because we are both parents, and especially when our children were quite young there were days and emergencies and plain boring irritating interruptions that we could not control. I used to tell my children: “Don’t interrupt me unless there is fire or blood.” So it isn’t as if I gave them the message I was available to them at all times with no boundaries about my own needs and work. But some days work became impossible, and one of the lessons both Michelle and I (and others) had to learn was when to let go of what couldn’t be helped.
It’s important to be able to accept and move forward when you-as-writer (or creator) realize that this is one of those days or weeks where you miss your target. Letting go is better than holding on to the sense of failure. Let the short-term daily target be seen within the perspective of the medium- and long-term. If you set a goal of writing 1000 words a day, on 5 days a week, for 4 weeks, and you end up with 16,500 words instead of 20,000 words, you still have 16,500 words more than you did when you started.
I use the term “daily practice” in this context to refer to the general routine through which a person writes on a reasonably regular basis.
As a writer writing under contract, with deadlines, I personally find I must treat writing as work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t also inspiration, creativity, joy, and all the other lovely categories that speak to the intrinsic beauty and challenge of creative work. But I am also doing this to make a living. I personally can’t wait around for “the muse.”
That means my daily practice centers on moving forward at a steady rate toward a set goal.
I’ve learned a few things.
1) Set a rate that is generally do-able.
How much that is will change depending on your circumstances, how much time you have, how well you know the story you’re writing, your physical and emotional health (both big factors in your capacity to write well), and simply your skill level at producing words. Again, you won’t necessarily always meet the daily target but you’re aiming for a strategic goal.
1A) As a working writer I can’t just measure word count. I have to factor in time for 1. development, 2. revisions 3. edits, proofs, and other elements of the production process.
2) There isn’t one true way to proceed. Process is mutable and circumstantial.
Sometimes I have to feel my way forward. For me “feeling my way forward” is a slow process that creates an immense amount of what I will call slag: stuff I write that isn’t use-able later. In cases where I can block out a next scene decisively, knowing exactly what has to happen, why, and what people’s reactions will be and how the narrative arc of the scene goes, I find I can write far more quickly and efficiently than if I’m exploring and groping. But both ways — and others besides — are valid. A discussion of process is one for another post.
3) Build in time off.
No, really. Burnout is a real thing that happens. Some of the most productive writers I know build in time off into their writing schedules and still produce at extremely productive rates. I would suggest that the time off, the breaks and vacations, the periods in which you “refill the well,” all enhance productivity.
4) Always, always, be kind to yourself.
I mean this in the deepest sense. Struggling with internal negative voices is hard enough; I do it all the time. In my experience as a human being the negative self talk is about as beneficial and fruitful as turning that same talk onto a child or another person. I don’t know about you, but I know that my loved ones are especially responsive when I lecture, scold, rant, and yell . . . IOW, they aren’t. It’s okay to be kind to yourself. It’s not smarmy, it’s not weak, it’s not lazy; it’s both wise and humane.
Thanks to Erica Jane Archer on Twitter for suggesting this topic.