Just Shut-up and Write

"Damn it Zor, I don't think humans are supposed to bend like that."

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”  ~T.S. Eliot   

To the sarcastic turd who just opened their mouth to object before allowing me the privilege to elaborate: Yes, I know, you bathed in awesome this morning and you can’t imagine what Eliot is talking about…but let’s give it a shot anyway huh?  

I asked a question on facebook recently, “As an author (or artist), if you had to choose one ability to be stripped of, what would it be? By ability I mean strength or virtue, something that relates to your current skill set as a writer.”  

I received the typical answers at first; “I can’t give anything up, I’d give up perfectionism, I’d give up my fears, etc.” After a few responses, Ien (who graciously blogs here for me from time to time) answered with a real, honest to goodness, answer. I’m not downing anyone who commented, please understand that, but it brings a few things to mind.  

The point of the question was to push you. Really push you. I knew what answers I would receive before I asked. It wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was supposed to force you to consider your safeguards—your actual, technical skill set as an author and what tools you’ve come to cling to as lifelines. Why? Because by weeding through what you can do without, you begin to discover just how broad your skill set is. When you spend an inordinate amount of time, unconsciously leaning on a crutch, you forget how much you can do without it. If you naturally write with sarcasm in your voice and therefore take it for granted as your “style” and “strength” you may never find out how emotionally cutting your serious tone could be, if you only pulled it from the tool box and used it. If you rely on witty dialog, as one commenter said, then you may never know the power you could wield with an awkward conversation, a long unsure pause, or even silence.  

 In other words, I wasn’t interested in “that shirt” that I loaned you last year…I wanted to see what all you pulled from your closet in your attempt to find it. You getting my point yet?  

You may not be ready to give that question the gravity that it deserves and that’s okay. File it away, and if you ever find yourself feeling blocked, uninspired or simply in a rut, pull it out, dust it off and dig in with abandon. See what you can shear away. Strip naked and you’ll find more than mere flesh and bone; you’ll find the muscle, sinew, joints and most vitally, blood of your writing abilities. You’ll eventually put your clothes back on, and thereby your tried and true skills…but they’ll feel different. You’ll feel the rush of that blood in your views, instead of merely knowing it’s there. You’ll know the twists and turns of your plots in ways you couldn’t have imagined because you’ll know the joints that allow such unwieldy movement. You’ll see character threads interacting in ways you’d only hoped they would because you’ve inspected the sinew that holds the work as a whole together. You’ll run farther, faster and last longer, once you know where your muscles are, how they work with your bones and how to take care of it all. Ask any athlete and you’ll find them to be a wealth of physiological information and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the human body and the creative body are so similarly constructed. As authors it’s our right to explore our “bodies” the same way…our tool boxes.  

So, don’t over think this. Don’t spend time arguing with me on what you simply can’t. do. without. Just…shut up and write…  

P.S. Are you wondering why I chose that quote? Because some of you are relying on those crutches for no other reason outside of your psychological need to identify with it. “I can’t give up vague inferences. I just can’t…it’s…who I am as an author.”

Guest Blogger: Ien Nivens

There’s No Place Like Terra Incognita: Ien Nivens

The problem with novels is that they are very long stories, and long stories tend to get complicated.  The problem with long, complicated stories is that you have to keep them straight and you have to remember what you’ve said; otherwise people begin to suspect you of telling lies.  Which of course, if you’re a novelist, is exactly what you’ve been doing.

Everybody likes a good story.  Nobody likes to be lied to.
The trouble with fantasy novels in particular is that the people who read them really, really want to believe in them.  So badly do they want to believe in the alternate worlds of fantasy that some of them dress, talk, walk and behave in other ways as if those worlds are as viable and complete and, well, as “real” as any other shared reality and as if other people—ordinary, decent people who inhabit, either principally or exclusively, the world outside of or in between the realms of fantasy fiction—people who have never attended a fantasy convention or even want to know about them—are unimaginably dull.  Nobody suspends disbelief half so well or half so willingly, in other words, as a devout reader of fantasy fiction.  Nobody more actively participates in the fictional world.  Fans of fantasy want to know your monsters and other magical creatures, to converse with your heroes and heroines, to vie with your villains and villainesses and, most importantly, to believe in the laws of your imagined physics—precisely because those laws and the situations governed by them provide an interesting and often empowering alternative to the physical, social and temporal limitations we all face in our daily, three-dimensional-only lives.

You’d think—wouldn’t you?—that the willingness of such a readership to suspend disbelief in one’s fiction would be the greatest asset a writer could enjoy.  Probably it is.  But there is no disappointment more bitter than the disillusionment of the true believer.

All novelists tell lies.  Fantasy writers tell whoppers.  For this reason there is—or at least, in my opinion, there more often ought to be—a greater level of anxiety and uncertainty in a fantasist’s heart than in the heart of any other kind of writer.  If our vulnerability to our own enthusiasms and our unrealistic expectations of the world and how it might operate are part of our charm, these tendencies might also explain why the “mainstream” world of fiction so often and so reflexively despises our stories, why its critics wink and draw circles around their ears whenever we venture beyond the Young Adult section at the bookstore.

“Why?” we might ask ourselves, bewildered.  “Aren’t all novelists, all story-tellers, engaged in the same game of make-believe that we are?”

They are, they are.  And that, I think, might be a significant part of the problem.  As fantasists, we are such a patent bunch of bold-faced liars that we threaten not only our own houses of cards but every house in the neighborhood and, by extension, every flimsy edifice in all of fictiondom.
Fantasy has long borne the status and the stigma of cult fiction.  What makes a cult a cult, however, is not the ludicrousness of its beliefs but its fanaticism, the enthusiastic and uncritical devotion of its adherents to its central tenets.  In other words, a cult is defined by the lack of a sense of irony to buffer its edges, those corners where it most uncomfortably rubs up against a prevailing and contradictory doctrine.  (This explains why magical realism is not truly a subset of fantasy, why it stands so much closer to the heart of mainstream fiction and does not get relegated to the YA shelves.)  In fact, what marks a group as a cult is the dismissive attitude of the sanctioned religion toward it and any other sect that embraces beliefs (called heresies) that challenge the perceptions of reality embraced by the more powerful group.  A cult is an outsider religion, and fantasy is outsider fiction, naïve fiction.  Because it does not seem to appreciate or even to quite grasp the popular elegance of conventional representations of reality, it seems somehow primitive, awkward, uncouth.

The mainstream, in order to maintain its credentials and its credibility, would like to deflect attention from the fact that it perpetuates the same kinds of lies that fantasists tell, and for the same reasons, but mainstream writers get to pretend that they are somehow closer to the perceived ideal of a universally shared “adult” reality (which gets equated with truth and associated with respectability, with—come to think of it—the likes of Shakespeare and Beowulf and Homer and the Bible and the Arabian Nights and…want me to go on?)

Yes, it’s absurd to relegate the fantastic to some low-frequency end of a cultural spectrum, but it’s persistently done.  You know it and I know it.  And our discomfort under the scrutiny of an authority predisposed to disapprove of our methods, our shakier verisimilitudes, makes us want to create air-tight magical systems and worlds that obey at least most of the laws of physics (as we currently understand them) and maps and comprehensive language systems and imaginary histories and cultures and—did I say maps?  Especially maps.  Maps simultaneously ground us and lend us a god’s eye view.  Maps and plot outlines—very detailed plot outlines—to help us keep our stories straight.

We tend to get lost in the back-stories of our back-stories, in the prehistories of our subplots, in the nuances of tectonic plate shifts in the late antediluvian period of a planet created by a wizard banished from a star system in a parallel universe referenced in a footnote to an imaginary biography of Plato’s mother.  It is all a wonderfully entertaining distraction from the job of telling bold-faced, entertaining fictions.

We have prepaid subscriptions to Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory (you know the one:  that a writer must know seven or eight times more about his story than he includes in his actual manuscript, if it is to float like a convincing ice castle capable of sinking a real life, nuts-and-bolts Titanic).  But by the time you’ve finished a rough draft, you probably have more information in your head than you need about your invented world or magical system, with or without a plot outline.  Blueprints, I say, are for houses that are not yet built, not for an ice castle that’s been afloat since Odin was a boy.

The acquisition of knowledge is a twofold process:  first, of discovery and, only later, of the invention of categories by which to sort and label those discoveries and other accumulated bits of information for the sake of easy reference and retrieval.  We learn about the primary world as children at play, through observation of and interaction with its elements and principles.  We discover the fundamental laws of physics by climbing on things, throwing things, bumping into things.  Before we can wield logic as a tool for abstraction, we must experience situations that create in us the immediate conditions of pain and joy, comfort and fear.  We deduce because we exist and because it is in us to want to go on existing.

Imagining a secondary world necessarily mirrors the proces of discovering our first one.  Since we can’t experience such another world directly, we do it vicariously, through a set of characters—a set, that is to say, of imaginary playmates—who act out a story on our behalf.  Only as a result of that activity do we begin to know what sorts of features exist in the invented world.

This is the natural way to invent worlds.  At the very least, it is the novelist’s way.  It may not be the planetologist’s way or the linguist’s way or the way of the chemical engineer or even the way of the writer whose advice you’ve always taken, but it is the way of the born story-teller to make up lies on the spot and to cover for them with ever bolder, more audacious lies when the first ones begin to feel wobbly.  It is, in any event, the way that I advise.

Your imaginary world is not going to exist more convincingly (even if you happen to actually be a planetologist) just because you’ve thought everything out in advance of telling your story.  It will exist in your reader’s mind to the same extent and for the same reason that it exists in your own:  because it’s where your characters bump into things.

So tell your story first; figure your world out as you go along.  Trust it in the same way that you trust the floor next to your bed in the morning.  Describe it with your senses.  Touch it with your sentences.  Explore it with your eyes and your fingers and with the muscles of your legs and your back, not with your prefrontal cortices.  The time will come when you will need to develop cohesive theories, or at least an intuitive understanding of the nature of magic in your world.  You will get to tell snippets of the history the neighboring kingdom, if you need to, and develop taxonomies for your species and maybe even decline the verbs of a language or two.  And yes, you may have to rectify certain details of your story that you got wrong the first time through.  If you don’t find a good enough explanation for the fact that your princess had green eyes in chapter 8 and yellow-orange ones at the end of your story, when it matters, then you had better find the bottle of correction fluid or the delete key.

That’s why we read and reread, revise and correct and ask someone with a fresh pair of eyes to proofread for us sometime around the fifth draft.  The first draft is a race against time across unmapped territory.  You will get lost.  It’s necessary and it’s to be expected.  Does this mean you don’t plan for the trip?  No.  You take what you need, but you travel lightly.  You hope that you will find something edible when you get there—wherever it is (you later discover) that you were going all along—enough to sustain you while you explore your new environment.  If you don’t find the food you need to keep you going, come on back.  Reprovision for a different trip.
What provisions do you need?

You need a crew—a protagonist, probably an antagonist or two and one or more allies—and a handful of ill-conceived ideas about what’s important to each of them, what they hope to accomplish and what’s going to get in the way.  In other words, a scene or two.  A conflict, a situation, a beginning and a middle and some vague ideas about how it’s all going to turn out—whether for good or for ill—in the perfect world of your imagination.

Start by writing scenes.  Not a novel.  Not an outline.  Not an introduction and not a beginning.  Scenes.  The most exciting scenes you can think of, no matter where they might ultimately occur in your story.  The first mission is reconnaisance.  Grab a parachute and drop your protagonist somewhere—anywhere—behind enemy lines.  Follow along and see what happens.  Draw your maps, if you have to have them, after you get there.  Better yet, bring a camera.  Take lots of pictures.  Draw the map when you get back home.

The Saltiness of Time

Your lordship, though not clean past your youth, have yet some smack of age in you, some relish of the saltiness of time.” – William Shakespeare

I realize, before anyone takes notice and remarks, that I’ve mentioned this aspect of writing before…but, like most worthwhile things, it bears repeating: I’ve heard that at some point in their career, a great many authors will grow embarrassed by their earliest work. A friend and I spoke at length about this and per usual, it has now become fodder for a blog post.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with anything that was said, quite the opposite. However, one small thing—that minor prediction—rang untrue. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a moment like this; where solid bankable information, for whatever reason, doesn’t equate for me like it should. Let me be more specific. When I was in High School, a male friend made the remark (rather heatedly) that I would speed on a regular basis once I got my license. I’ll not easily forget sitting in the passenger seat of his mother’s cutlass that night, feeling very much like my companion had been abruptly replaced with a stranger, and thinking, “There are many things about who I am and who I will become that still feel vague or wholly unknown to me…this is not among them.”

I’m 29 now….obviously been driving for a while….and I’ve never once been pulled over for speeding or been given even a single parking ticket. You know why? Because I rarely ever speed. Unless I feel that something serious is at stake (like the interior of my car should I find myself in dire need of the facilities) then it just doesn’t occur to me. How could I have possibly known that about myself three years prior to obtaining my license? The same way that I know now, regardless of how much I will inevitably improve over the years, that I’ll never feel embarrassed by my early, unformed, rough-edged, voice.

There are some of you, like that boy who once said he knew me so well, who are saying at this very moment that I’m naive, confused, or romanticizing this in an attempt to appear pious. I won’t try to convince you otherwise, just like I didn’t argue with him. Time, unforgiving and omniscient, is the only thing that can justify my words. But, as an author, there will be more than a few occasions where people in authority will tell you things; sound, appropriate, reasonable things. They will mean well. They will be right 99% of the time. That doesn’t mean it applies to you.

Now, I’m not saying it will always be a good thing when what they say doesn’t apply to you. What “should be” isn’t always related to the running habit of lemmings. However, what it should be is genuine. In order to know that, you have to question everything that makes the core part of you bristle. There is a reason for it and it isn’t always denial or fear. Sometimes, it’s your foundation groaning under the weight of what will naturally test weight-bearing walls. They’re constructed that way with good cause.

How will you know? You just will. That’s all I can tell you. If you’ve taken those seemingly indulgent moments to study every ridge, groove and crevice of your cornerstone, you’ll know beyond a shadow of a doubt if something doesn’t fit.

 The real question though, is will you try to make it fit anyway?

From Where I Stand

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
~Pablo Picasso

What do you see when you close your eyes at night? When the world, gravely still in its slumber, no longer lingers on your doorstep, where is it that you go? The writing life has charming aspects, horrific aspects, poverty-striken aspects and that’s all well and good; writers are as unique as pieces of art or musical compositions and we all experience certain aspects more than others. However, what I am asking for, aside from your vulnerability, is for you to tell me the truth about what kind of writer you really are. When we aren’t looking, when you have only the watch dog of your own mind to keep you company, where is your heart?

I spoke, via email, with a dear friend who gave me the highest compliment I can imagine when he told me that (in direct relation to my fiction) my heart was good. He could give you more details as to exactly what he meant by this, but after pondering on it for the better part of a day, I think I have an idea.

From as early as I can remember, I’ve been governed by a fine line between what is and what might have been. When I was younger (and had less freedom to practice my night-owl tendencies) I spent hours awake in the dark, and there I would listen to music and tread through imaginary landscapes. The feeling you get from walking out of a movie in which you’ve been totally submersed, where it lingers with you for hours or days, is the same feeling I had every time I’d let go of the walls around me and succumb to my imagination. Yes, most children play make-believe and in a way this is sort of related. The relation, though, is as distant as a cousin twice removed. This is more than mere play or the transitional sort of imagining that even non-creative individuals experience as children. This is a conscious act of destruction on our part in order to see beyond the “if” and into the realm of reality.

For some authors, stories—while certainly imaginative—are purposely constructed. Every path is laid with intention, every character rendered deliberately, every plot twist is part of the author’s skillful manipulation or slight of hand. These mentoring authors write books on technique and style and voice. They teach classes, attend conferences, work as “staff writers” at one writing asylum or another. They are brilliant creators. Some authors believe that everything is centered around the rules taught by these mentors, either that they are gospel truth or that they are poison to the creative process. The “good” advice is to find middle ground. You may see yourself in one of these three groups, but what about the rest of us?

Those walls, were they ever there for me, were torn down so long ago that I can’t even detect the ruins. Those stones were worn away till nothing but sand remains, hot and fine as it slides through sweat-slicked fingers. Traces remain in the creases of my hand—small, irritating bits that get into my eyes at times, but little else. Does that mean I’m pathless? Directionless? Doomed to spend the rest of my life piddling with half-baked stories? Some of you are saying, perhaps aloud, that “yes” I will…that my fiction isn’t any good and that I should learn to pay attention or it will never get any better. You might be right. But, something else, something that rings deeper and truer, tells me otherwise. There is no option for me. As I craft fiction the very fact of being an outsider, who has intruded on some grand illusion, is inconsequential. I genuinely love to read about how some writers weave amazing things into their work, like embroidery thread—where each stitch is undetected by the viewer when the work is seen as a whole. I’m impressed by this, intrigued. I know, vaguely having heard something of the sort, that there are elements of fiction. I’ve read all about them…and continue to read about them. Yet, strangely, these things don’t come to mind when I am writing any more than the evening news does. I simply cannot see them from where I stand…

I don’t fall into the category of believing that rules are restrictive to the process, because I can’t visualize the process when I’m in the midst of it. I also can’t be considered in good company with those who have found that legendary middle, because the very act of ‘finding’ it indicates that a choice has been made, that effort has been exerted towards a goal. Don’t bother posting remarks about why I should get educated on the process and definitely don’t waste your time and mine by commenting on the technical aspects of writing (like grammar)—that will only tell me that you haven’t listened to a thing I’ve said. I’m not talking about editing. I’m talking about story-telling. I’m sharing this, because I know I’m not alone and I’ve yet to hear anyone else speak quite as candidly on the subject. It’s taboo to say that you write without conscious thought…perhaps because it invites others to remark that it shows. But, who convinced you that it would be such a horrible thing to hear? It depends on how you look at it. It warmed my soul to have it affirmed.

Outstretched Arms in the Dark

Beauty and the Beast

‘Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.’  ~Salman Rushdie

Gratuitously successful souls aside, there are few authors who will tell you that they don’t look back on their unpublished years with a sort of soft, fond, remembrance. I think back on my childhood and can still smell fresh cut grass in the southern summer heat, see the fleeting glow of lightning bugs in the darkened wood line, feel the warmth of the earth beneath my bare feet, and I suppose that writing isn’t too unlike this.

The days first spent with my husband, the love of my life, also remind me of this sweetness—this time of ‘not knowing’. We’ve been married for almost 9 years. We’ll never have the sort of, inexperienced, fumbling only granted to first time lovers still getting used to each other’s movements. The love of writing, like any other love, grows and swells with time, into a solid, unmovable force that anchors, if allowed.

Some authors fear being published, like some fear getting married. The machinations of editors and publishers alike have made many an otherwise sensible author suddenly feel murderous. Yet, this is not always the case. In fact, I’d bet that more often than not the opposite is true. Good news never makes the news, right? Personally, I’ve had a wonderful experience so far. I’m learning, I’m being stretched beyond boundaries I didn’t think I’d ever reach, let alone pass by. Do I miss the days and nights where I was alone with my writing? Sure. I miss, at times, the juvenile, almost callow sense of perfection that accompanies most beginners in their prose, where only the story holds weight and nothing else. Sort of like a woman who, upon learning that she is pregnant, carries that secret for a bit—just to revel in its glory on her own (along with the new life growing within her), so too did I revel in this story as it was harbored in my breast. I felt like I had this grand, unfurling thing that would come bursting out of my chest at any moment. When I met people, though I’d rarely ever tell them I was an author, I would think it: I held it like a superpower, ready to spring it into action at a moment’s notice. Ridiculous, certainly, but aren’t all children? I was a child at heart then (perhaps I still am).

Another reason writers fear publication, and rightly so, is criticism and the staggering dearth of good advice on how to deal with it. What have I to say on the matter? Well, why do children fear growing up? For all the same reasons. There isn’t anything you can tell a child about life as an adult that would be fair or even relevant aside from assuring them that they can stay up late and eat all of the gummy worms they can afford.  Yeah, I’m being a little cavalier here. Truth is, you can’t prepare someone for the unknown. There are more clichés on this subject than anything else that deals with writing as a whole; “behave, take time to really look at and learn from the critique, mind your manners in return, be professional, keep your chin up, thicken your skin.” You might as well recite the alphabet. It makes more sense in this context and is equally useful in its application.

The problem with all of the usual advice, is that it gives this looming sense of failure if you can’t “grow” from the criticism, or don’t understand how to, or have the ability to. Yeah, sure, they say “leave the rest” but what does that really mean? This is all double talk. I grow from reading both books for pleasure and books for technique (actual, here’s-how-to-form-coherent-sentences type stuff). I can’t learn from someone else’s opinion unless I know their definitions, where they are coming from and most importantly, their bias. What do they actually mean by “poor plotting” or “flat affect” etc? Those are the types of things I always hear from writers as the bits they’ve paid attention to when criticized. That isn’t sage advice, that’s a reviewer pressed for time. A character may be flat…but to who and how many whos? Twilight as an example: Stephanie Meyer has a tremendously loyal fan base who adores Bella Swan. If she listened to the majority she’d crush the few who matter the most and in turn, her own creative work. She wrote Bella the way she saw her and didn’t go asking for outside input beforehand. Thus, she represents someone to me who stays true to their craft and isn’t interested in group productions just for the sake of a sale. She clearly benefits from it.

We tell children lies all of the time; you can be anything you want; if you wish upon a star your dreams will come true; think good thoughts and good things will come to you; behave yourself and you’ll avoid getting into trouble. All of it, in retrospect, is crap. Same with everything that’s said to beginning authors…yet there is this sacred, hushed, climate about all of it. Why pretend? Criticism from a reader hurts like hell. Reviews, particularly when they’re well worded, are even worse. The only way to thicken your skin is to admit it. There is power in telling the truth as it really is, instead of sheltering it, trying to make something positive out of it. Bottom line is, not everything can be made into a paper mache flower. Period.

So, enjoy it if you’re reveling in the ‘not knowing’. Breathe in deeply, don’t worry about the rest. There will be plenty of time for that later. For now, just for now, feel the grass beneath your feet, feel the awkwardness of that first kiss, stumble around with outstretched arms in the dark. The light will come on soon enough.