Writing Isn’t Always About Writing

Me too by alles-schlumpf from FlickrYesterday I started a new scene in Book 3. It wasn’t a natural continuation of any scene before it, it was an abrupt shift introducing a new character in a new setting who will, in a few more scenes, be engulfed by the main story line.

I managed to write this new character’s name down, then a sentence or two after that. Then I became completely and totally stuck. I knew nothing about this character. I knew nothing about her average day, or the color of her hair, or whether she likes to laugh or enjoys torturing puppies.

All I knew yesterday was that she existed.

That’s about as tiny an opening into a character’s world as you can get. You are aware of their presence, but that’s it. Usually you get a little more than that. You get flashes of what someone looks like, or you have an ear for their dialogue, or you know how their appearance effects the mood of a story. In those cases when you bring a character in for the first time it’s not too bad.

But every once and awhile you just know that a body with a conscious mind inside of it exists somewhere in the world of your story…and that’s all you get.

This is a terrifying situation to be in.

The amount of laboring that something like this presents is, I think, where the fear comes from. Every sentence has to be thought and rethought. Dialogue has to be held up to constant scrutiny (and generally during a first draft, anything held up to scrutiny gets pooped on). Since this character is appearing in a totally new setting that means that you’re going to have to come up with a bunch of new names and secondary characters, because odds are this character doesn’t sit around by herself until she enters into the main story line.

The entire life of a human has to be crafted out of nothing, and I mean nothing, simply because your brain tells you that it is time to switch to a new character.

Terrifying.

And so I wrote a few sentences and then I stopped, because I had absolutely no freaking idea where to go with this person.

But then I had a thought. A very simple one. I thought, “Meh, I’ll be going back over this plenty and I’ll be thinking about it constantly. In a week I’ll know more about this character’s world than I ever thought possible.”

It’s important to remember that all of the stories that you’ve written right up to this very moment have been exercises in a craft. Because writing isn’t really about typing. Not always. Typing is the edge of the forest. Writing is what you’ve trained your brain to do. Writing is constantly sucking up information, throwing it together, filing away what you think works, and then doing it again and again and again. Writing is knowing how to approach a subject you know nothing about, and in a day be able to act like an expert at it.

Writing is creating a world as an additive process, so that even if you are terrified as you lay it down brick by brick, you will still be able to look back after a period of time and see that a structure has formed. Maybe it will still need a lot more work, but it will be there.

Her hair. What she eats. Who lives with her. What she’s doing when we first meet her.

These simple things are what I worked out over the course of last night while I was watching TV. I wasn’t trying to think about them, but I was writing even though I wasn’t typing, my brain was at work, and some decisions were made. And as I made those choices, they stuck, and they combined, and when I sat down to write her today I had an opening scene.

Never forget that you are always doing two things while you write. You are, obviously, creating whatever your work in progress is.

But you are also honing a craft. You are strengthening a muscle. You are training your brain to do tricks that you’ll be able to pull on for your next work.

You are always growing.

What’s in a Flashback

Sneaky super moon by theqspeaks from FlickrI am currently writing the story of Gregor. This tale contains nothing about when he was a human; it focuses on the hinted-at-story of how he tried to strike out on his own in the world of testers. This is touched on here and there in the first two books, something about how his work became such an integral part of the world that people such as Bram Stoker were able to make use of it.

But whatever could that mean?

And, it is also mentioned that Gregor’s work brought down the only official punishment ever meted out by The Council.

But whatever could that mean?

I also have a large story-line taking place in the present day.

And I have Epp as a human, which seems like a large section. Plus I have brief hints of Matthew, Madeline, Mary, and Bartleby as humans, which seem like brief little flashes of sections.

The thing is I have no idea how to fit any of this together. I keep moving forward with Gregor, and I keep coming up with things that make me laugh like an insane person, and those usually translate into really good scenes. But I have no idea why I’m telling Gregor’s story. It doesn’t want to dovetail with the present-day story.

And the present-day story is also shaping up to be really good. But it doesn’t want to be tied to Gregor’s story.

And then I start thinking really weird thoughts. The Gregor section is getting to be as big as the rest of what I have written so far. That’s part of what has me worried, Gregor’s section seems to be taking over and I’m not even sure I understand the point of it. But, and here’s where it gets weird to me, isn’t the point of writing a good story just just to write a good story? Isn’t that why I do this? Can’t I just have a few disparate story lines that are all interesting on their own? If they’re good they’re good, right?

I don’t know, but I feel like for a third book that would sort of be crap. If this story has nothing to do with anything at all, then it isn’t really a part of the series. So I’m obsessed with finding a common thread through all of this. I have some decent ideas for tying Gregor in. But why on earth we’d go back to hear Epp’s story is a bit beyond me. Unless…again…don’t we just tell stories for the sake of telling stories?

Why am I telling any of this story?

I mean, there are tons of episodes of shows or movies in a series that are heavy on the past just because that’s the story they’re telling.

Maybe I just feel inadequate. Like who am I to tell you that these characters are so interesting that you’ll want to know their past? Or, maybe if it’s written well enough, and I find enough of my mojo in these stories, and I cackle like a madman enough times, I’ll be able to say to myself, “Yes. This is worth handing on to my readers simply because it’s worth handing on  to my readers.”

Or maybe there’s more than three books.

Ugh.

National Sundress Day

Day at the park by nastasha1996 from flickr

Winters in New York are difficult. We are a walking city and when you have avenues that are miles long, the wind can whip down them at horrible speeds. Overcoats and hats and gloves can feel like they’re made of lace when you turn a corner and hit a negative twenty degree windchill.

Going out is curtailed. People’s faces are hidden by scarves. There’s a blind, zombie-esque trudge underlying everyone’s movements. Colds and flues move into your apartment and make themselves at home. I know families that didn’t have a single day this winter when everyone was healthy.

Summer in New York is…a bit of a mixed bag. The summer is fun but smells can abound and, frankly, fuck August. It’s too damn hot.

But Spring? Ah, Spring.

Suddenly the light has a different feeling and we change our clocks so that the sun doesn’t set at four in the afternoon. Suddenly the parks don’t look like cemeteries for trees and restaurants set up their outdoor seating. Suddenly you can see people’s faces as you walk around and the sound of free concerts fills the air.

Suddenly it is Spring.

This time of year has long had a significant impact upon the human race. All of our holidays hinge on the turn of the seasons. And from pagan rituals to organized religions to festivals and celebrations, there has always been a desire to cheer the end of winter and the beginning of warmth.

For me, I choose to celebrate whenever National Sundress Day rolls around. In some regions it is known as National Skirt Day. Were I into the male body it might be National Bicep Day or National Shorts Day. Were I more interested in myself it might be Feel the Warmth on My Skin Day. And were I in the Southern Hemisphere I would just be fucked.

But, as I said, for me it is National Sundress Day.

There are hints of warm weather leading up to this wonderful day, and then, after the mercury has stayed north of 70 degrees for a long enough period of time, everyone breaks out their warm weather clothes. Suddenly the human body exists again in all its wonderful glory. Suddenly skin does not need protection just to be outside.

It is a celebration, it is a time for drink and song.

It is National Sundress Day.

Get out there and celebrate.

Haircuts and Taste

Mr. Joseph's by 12th St David from FlickrI went to get my haircut today. This is not a process I have ever enjoyed on any level. I have a weird, misshapen, alien head and if the hair on top of it is cut incorrectly I look like Shrek. I used to go to a Korean lady downtown who I stumbled onto years ago for my haircuts. I literally walked into the closest place to my old apartment and hoped for the best. She barely spoke English but the first time I went to her I emerged very un-Shrek-like, and so for years I continued going back.

This year I finally decided that trekking downtown for haircuts was silly, sort of, and built up the courage to go to a barber where I live now. Which was confusing. I haven’t had the “How do you want it cut?” conversation in ages. Plus, the last time I had it, it was with the aforementioned Korean lady who spoke no English, so I don’t even know if that counts. That was mostly expressed through mime. Add in that most of my haircuts were dictated to me while growing up and I really never know what to answer when someone asks me how to cut my hair.

The guys in front of me in line had a number system down. They’d get “3 on the top and then 2 on the sides” or something. Which means that those are the number extensions to use on the electric razor.

No. Just no.

The only thing I’m sure of is that attempting to treat me like a person with a normal head results in me looking like a fetus.

Plus…I don’t know, most males my age seem to have given up on the notion of hair. Just getting it buzzed is fine. I’m not even sure that would work for me. I have to pay extra at my barber because my hair is too thick and they have to use scissors.

It’s complicated.

Shut up.

So I was sitting there while the scissors went snip and I started thinking about taste and subjectivity.

I mean, you take something as basic as hair cuts and they’re capable of making me feel lost. I mean, have you ever looked around at all the different hair cuts out there?

Good, bad, freaky, in need of, fake, shaved.

By the time you’ve reached the age of 30 you probably have a haircut that you generally stick to. People, unless they completely need a change, just keep on getting that same old haircut, as long as their hair allows them, for years at a time.

So those people you see walking around out there are all wearing something close to the haircut they want, and the solutions they’ve come up with are infinite.

How am I supposed to approach this situation as a book writer? How on earth do you take into account the broad arrangement of tastes that people have in this world?

I just don’t think you can. I really don’t think the human brain actually fits that many different tastes into its data bank. I think you convince yourself that you have an entire world contained in your head, but you don’t. You have your taste, which you know well, and then you have some sense of other people’s taste, and then you have “all that other stuff” which you think people don’t, you know, really like, but it still exists for some reason.

People will listen to someone list their favorite books, and then assume that they don’t really like those books if they conflict too much with their stored sense of the world.

It’s a profoundly difficult concept to grasp, but one person’s “crap” is another person’s “absolute favorite book.” And both of those people are right. The second person isn’t joking that it’s their favorite book, they really mean it. It honestly produced in them a sought after effect of stimulation in some mental or emotional form.

But try to tell someone that a book they hate is actually beloved by someone and the reaction is priceless.

It always makes me amazed to hear discussions about “what’s hot” and “what people really want” and “what will go mainstream.”

Take a good look at most of those predictions and you’ll see that they’re really just drawing obvious conclusions from hindsight.

Taste is nuts.

You can look at this situation and despair at ever managing to fit your work into an audience that is so amorphous.

But I like to take heart from this.

Anything can fly. Anything can be great. Anything can catch on fire.

So, please, just write your heart out.

And stop laughing at my head…