Writing Books Outside and Other Myths

Windowsill by amttholland from FlickrThis past weekend was filled with a horrible rainstorm, and then one of the most beautiful days ever. Unfortunately I forgot that it was a three day weekend when I was making up my work schedule, and so I had to sit inside on that most beautiful day ever. I always say, the best part of writing is that I’m my own boss. And the worst part of writing is that I’m my own boss.

While texting with a friend, I mentioned that it had been glorious outside when I went to grab my coffee, but that I had to get some writing done so I was currently only viewing the weather through my window.

My friend’s response: “Go write outside!”

I get this a  lot. That I should go outside on nice days to write. That I should go drive around the country and write from hotel rooms. That I should be fine taking a trip for a week somewhere with friends because I can write anywhere.

These notions, for me, are big fat lies.

I have never been able to function properly as a writer of books anywhere but at a desk where I am bored and everything is familiar to the point of absurdity.

Go outside? Please. I’d sit down and stare at my laptop for about ten seconds, then get distracted by clouds and fall asleep. Drive around? My god that sounds utterly romantic, and then when I stopped for the night I’d spend three hours trying to figure out how to set up my work station in an unfamiliar room and then fall asleep. Write on a trip? I doubt my laptop would ever leave its bag.

Simply put, I don’t want to write outside. Not books anyway. Oh I could journal or probably knock out a blog post or sketch down some ideas, but books?

No.

Writing is book is the most singularly unique task I have ever performed in my life. Books appear over the course of a year, not a day. They require constant chipping away. They need to be slugged through even when they seem like the dumbest thing ever written. They are, ever so strangely for something that produces wonder in its readers, boring and tedious work.

The rushes of ideas, the conception of characters, the realization of what is going to happen next? That can come while sitting by an idyllic pond, or while on the road, or while hanging out with friends. That can come anywhere.

But the writing of a book? I’m talking about stringing over 100,000 words together, usually upwards of 200,000.

Think about that. If you were to type out 200,000 words in a straight line it would be over a mile long.

That…doesn’t seem to capture what I’m saying.

It’s a lot of words is what I’m saying and flashes of inspiration do not equal word count. Typing diligently every day equals word count.

So, no. I don’t go outside to write. Frankly I can’t go outside to write. I need routine, I need mundane, I need minimal surprises because when it comes time to actually write a book, it stops being about the beauty of the cathedral.

At some point, you have to start laying brick after brick after brick.

I Still Think It’s Monday

Prague Charles Bridge by Pedro Szekely on FlickrThis past Sunday I rode a trolley around the city, drank champagne, played skeeball, drank pickle backs, and lost my glasses.

I know, I know, it all sounds very glamorous from the outside, but really it was a lot of confusion and a mysterious amount of receipts in my pocket the next day. And also, no glasses.

But that’s how we celebrate birthdays in New York…apparently.

And then the Monday after we sit at our desk unable to form coherent thoughts or come up with blog posts.

But that’s okay, because I have the greatest blog post ever!

Except I wasn’t sure if I could write it.

See last May, as some of you might recall, I was contacted by a student at a film school in Prague who had read my short story Private Showing and wanted to film it for her final project.

Over the weekend she contacted me to say that the film was finished, as well as sharing a link where I could take a peek.

Watching that ten minute film was the strangest and most awesome thing ever. Frankly, it’s been awhile since I’ve looked over Private Showing, so it was like watching a movie someone made about my past but only a dream I had of the past? You know?

Whatever shut up. It was great and she did an amazing job.

However since the link she sent me was private (hehe the subject of  her email was “A private showing of Private Showing” which is very clever) I’m not sure if she wants it held under wraps for now or if she needs to wait until after class is over to share it or what.

Odds are it doesn’t matter but I wanted to make sure so I wrote her an email during my post-trolley-party hungover freak-out, but I haven’t heard back from her. So I’m waiting until post time for this blog in the hopes that she’ll respond and give me the all clear to share her film with you.

Which is an awesome blog post if it happens, otherwise it’s just…you know…well this.

You Can’t Choose Your Fans

Parkpop 2008 - The girl in the crowd by Haags Uitburo from FlickrI’ve been noticing that a lot of writers I talk to all seem to have the same hurdle: They have a hard time selling their work to others.

Now, on the one hand, this makes perfect sense to me. I have a difficult time summarizing my books or telling people in casual conversation what they’re about.

But that’s more about coming up with an elevator pitch, and that’s not what I’m getting at here.

No, I’m talking more about the mindset new authors have of deciding ahead of time who is going to like or hate their work.

At first I think one’s audience is a very specific thing. I’ve spoken on here a few times about how impossible I believe it is for the human mind to visualize or grasp large numbers, like a huge crowd. Instead I believe we substitute in a random group of people, and that’s a crowd in our mind. But even the most random people you can come up with aren’t very random. They’re probably people you know and people who have similar backgrounds. Meanwhile, an actual crowd of people will be totally freaking random with some of them thinking things you can’t possibly imagine because they’re so outside of yourself.

But we only have that starter crowd in our heads, and that comes to be identified as our audience, a very specific thing…at least early on. And so the brain, in all its stupidity, defines our audience using this horrible metric we made up. This can cause you to assume with near-absolute surety that Person A would never be a fan or that Person B couldn’t possibly like your book, all because they don’t fit into your definition of your audience.

And so we come to yet another reason for me to give out my absolute bottom-line piece of writing advice: Write more. Finish things. Get them out there.

Why?

Because the reactions people will have will surprise you.

There have been two instances of writing in my history that have utterly baffled me in their reception.

The first was the short story “You’re Allowed to Order Take Out.” The second was Kyo’s section from Probability Angels.

Both of these pieces of writing I finished, published online (I was working under extreme deadlines so I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and ponder them) and then sat back and said, “Well. That didn’t turn out at all how I wanted it. There’s really nothing there. Nobody is going to like this, especially Person X.”

What were the responses?

They were absolute shocks and went against everything I expected.

“You’re Allowed to Order Take Out” was called a “perfect short story” and I’ve been told that I connected emotionally with my readers in that story in ways that I had never done before.

And Kyo’s section from Probability Angels was deemed: “One of the best written bits of historical fiction” that Person X had ever read.

I should add that both of those pieces have become personal favorites of mine.

See, the more words you get out there the more varied an audience you’ll come to see. And the more varied an audience you come to see, the better chance you have of remembering that life, people, and your own writing can surprise you sometimes.

You shouldn’t decide ahead of time who will like and not like your work.

You should let your readers decide that.

You should just shut up and write.

Researching Fiction, Or The World’s Biggest Con Game

Three Card Monte by oschene from FlickrI have been doing quite a bit of research while writing this current book. I’ve read books about everything from sewing to Ancient Rome. Most recently I finished off a brief history of Romania.

You would think that I would be getting more confident in my ability to portray these concepts in my fiction. However, an odd trend has started popping out at me where, when I get a little bit of a handle on a subject, I actually lose all my confidence in being able to write it. It’s almost like I’m better off going in with zero knowledge and winging it, rather than taking a peek at something and then trying to write it.

I get rattled that my knowledge isn’t complete enough. A little research only serves to show me how much more I need to learn. This is because I forget one very important fact: fiction is complete and utter bullshit.

No one who has ever written a work of fiction has had complete knowledge of their story. That is literally impossible. They may have first-hand knowledge of one or more of the subjects, but that just isn’t the same.

Tom Clancy has been heralded for his research, mainly for The Hunt For Red October, during which he spoke with naval experts the world over. The book used so many terms and had such intimate knowledge of submarine that it seemed real.

But it was complete and utter bullshit.

See, Tom Clancy may have been able to learn all the names of the doodads on a submarine, but he couldn’t possibly have known how the water in the shower smelled or the food in the mess tasted. Only actually being on board could bring that sort of knowledge.

So you’re saying, fine, what if a submariner had written The Hunt For Red October? Well, there was also a lot in there about helicopter piloting and Russian subs and Arctic water and I don’t even know. Plus, there were parts from the point of view of a number of different ranks and crew positions. And you can’t possibly know what every point of view is like. So even if a book was only about the inside of one submarine having zero contact with the outside world, it still would be impossible to know everything.

I realize this is a fairly absurd length to take this point to, but it’s currently what I’m wrestling with. And this mental exercise helps me to remember that writing something smartly often trumps tons of research. If I can see, really see the story through one of my character’s eyes, then that will fill in a lot of gaps. I may need to look up when something was invented now and again, and brush up on who was wearing what, and what buildings were made of, but really, confidence in my scene tends to override any goofs I may make due to lack of knowledge.

Now I’m not saying you do zero research and then try to pass a scene off in a place and time that you know nothing about.

But sometimes I hit a plateau of research and I start to freak out because I don’t know enough and I might be using the wrong word to refer to Romanian nobility in the 1600’s (they were known as voievods or boyars depending on the region).

But then I remember this one simple tip and it helps me to relax again and move on with my work.

Because in the end, I don’t have to actually know what I’m doing. I just have to know enough to convince you that I know what I’m doing.

Thoughts on Critical Mass

Bouncing Atoms by Mr Jaded from FlickrI’ve noticed recently that I mention the phrase “Critical Mass” a lot when I discuss marketing. Actually, I mention it a lot and thousands of other people mention it a lot as well. The other day I was giving this phrase some thought and decided that a few words on its origin and what it means to me are in order.

So, critical mass is the amount of fissile material needed to create a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

Duh.

But what does that mean exactly? Well, oddly, nuclear chain reactions are pretty easy to understand. Not the nuts and bolts mind you, but the general concept.

You have a heavy atom. You shoot a neutron into it. When the neutron hits the heavy atom in a certain way, the heavy atom blows apart into 1) a lighter atom 2) another lighter atom 3) a neutron 4) another neutron 5) yet another neutron.

Again, we’re going with a bare bones explanation here. The type of atom needed is pretty important to the whole process. Also this is a fission chain reaction. A fusion chain reaction is possible as well. And it’s probably worth mentioning, seeing how it is the entire point, that this fragmenting of atoms creates energy…somehow.

But ignore that. You wind up with those five things listed above. Two new, lighter atoms, and three neutrons. The first two aren’t important. The last three are very important.

Note, you started with one neutron flying along which struck an atom. Now, after that happens, you have three neutrons. Why, what would happen if each one of those neutrons struck yet another heavy atom? By god you’d then have the same reaction three times over and would produce nine more neutrons, all of which could then strike their own heavy atoms and on and on and on and you have a runaway reaction capable of producing just crazy amounts of energy.

So where does “Critical Mass” come in?

Well, the critical mass is so critical because if you don’t have enough mass, your chain reaction fizzles out. Imagine this extreme example: you only have one heavy atom. You fire your neutron, your heavy atom splits, produces three more neutrons…and then they have nothing else to collide with because you only had the one original heavy atom. Thus, no chain reaction.

If you don’t have enough mass, enough of your fissile material, it’s possible for your initial event to only split a few more atoms and then the neutrons produced will miss striking other atoms and you’ll get no surge of energy.

Thus, critical mass.

Now, when it comes to marketing, this term is used to describe the audience an author tries to gather in order to achieve a real breakthrough.

The analogy is both good and bad, and pondering how well it works led me to some thoughts on the subject.

For starters, the analogy implies that you need a certain number of readers, a certain amount of mass, before your marketing can be a self-sustaining entity. This part makes perfect sense to me. If you give five copies of your book to readers, and they all love it, well odds are that still isn’t going to produce a giant runaway marketing surge. Those five people might decide to tell other people about your book, thus firing their own neutrons into new heavy atoms, but two of them might not have many friends who like that genre, and one doesn’t usually give out book suggestions so it kind of gets lost in the noise, and the last maybe gets two new people to read it. But then those two fizzle out.

On the other hand, if you get ten thousand people together to read your book at once and then let them loose to tell other people? Well…it’s quite possible to visualize just how different that event would be compared to the previous example of five people.

In other words, the number of readers your marketing efforts produce in one place and at one time is very important.

But this is already straying into the area where the analogy breaks down.

See, one heavy atom is another heavy atom is another heavy atom. They will all be structurally exactly the same. They will all undergo the exact same reaction if their nucleus is struck by a neutron. It will either produce the reaction described above, or nothing will happen.

This is very neat and pat.

People, however, are butt-ass crazy ape beasts that have no rhyme nor reason to them.

I dream of a world in which you can hand five people your book and get the exact same reactions out of all five of them. Even an “on or off” proposition sounds fantastic: nothing happens or the same exact thing happens. Great! Wonderful!

Alas, this isn’t even close to the case. You give five people your book and one might hate it, one might love it and want to tell everyone about it, one might love it and want to keep it a precious secret, one might be overloaded with that particular genre and turn their nose up at it despite absolutely devouring and loving three books right before it of lesser quality but similar flavor, and one might…I don’t know…decide that the cover is dumb and throw it out.

The point is, the reactions your work will instill in people will be all over the place. This is not an either/or prospect like neutrons hitting an atom, it is a spectrum of prospects.  And even if you only look at the positive end of the spectrum, the reactions will still be all over the place. Some people love to talk about books. Some people love to put their favorite books on their bookshelf and never talk about them. Some people can’t remember book titles. It’s beyond nuts.

And then you have to take into account what, if any, influence these people have. Maybe all five of them love your book and want to tell the world, but all five of them are soft-spoken and not really viewed in their social circles as places to go to obtain ideas for books to read.

Well then you’ve successfully turned on five readers, which, don’t get me wrong, is the point of writing, but as far as marketing goes you’ve produced nothing.

It’s confusing.

And annoying.

People should act more like heavy atoms.

But they don’t.

And then you have to start thinking about location and timing. How much does it matter that your readers be near each other be it physically or socially? Does it matter if they read your book at the same time?

Yes. I imagine these things do matter…

…but that’s maybe for another blog post.