This was posted on Joe Abercrombie’s blog the other week. I know at times it seems like I must be working for the man, but genuinely, it came up in my Facebook news feed and I thought it was particularly interesting and inspiring.
Now, if somehow you still don’t know about his work even though I bang on about it a fair bit, it’s pretty gritty, angry stuff. It’s fantasy with its teeth bared. The characters are morally ambiguous, the world is tearing itself apart, and the “heroes” can’t really be trusted as far as you can throw ‘em. It’s not really a chivalry and princess with wimple fantasy story. Heck, there aren’t even any elves! There’s magic, of a sort, but mostly it’s blood-and-guts “you’re on your own, buddy, have fun with this oncoming army and your tiny, ineffectual sword!” kind of stuff. It’s cynical and world-weary and defeatist. But in a hopeful way!
The point is, he’s now Made It. He’s not a writer. He’s an Author. He has Published Books. Someone asked him about his first draft for The Blade Itself, his debut novel. He says a lot of things, and amongst it was this:
“I spent an awful lot of time in those early days revising, refining, reading over, experimenting with what worked and what didn’t, developing a style. Or perhaps different styles with the different points of view. So whenever I wrote a line, I’d look at it, re-write it, think about it. Whenever I finished a paragraph I’d revise it. Whenever I finished a scene I’d look over it again, add, take away, reorganise. Every time I sat down to write I’d start by reading what I wrote the last time. So working out what needed to be described and when, how to pace a scene, how to use dialogue, mostly working on instinct and trial and error. That was very important to do, I think, not just in achieving a good result, but in working out how to achieve a good result.” – Joe Abercrombie
That is a lot more work than I put in. Got to be honest it sounds exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I do edit as I go a fair bit; I type dialogue and then think ‘wow, that sounds so cheesy’ and rephrase, for example, but I don’t go that far. I just want to get the story out. Major editing is for after I actually know what’s meant to happen. I don’t think either way is a wrong way or a right way.
I mean, I like to think that when I write, I pick the words I want to use the first time around. Adjective choice might need refining, but on the whole I feel like if I’ve written it a particular way it’s because that’s the way it should be. If I’m trying to communicate that it is raining, why would I talk about the sun? Y’know? If it needs that much of a re-write then either what is in my head does not come out on the page, but I think it does, and I’ve just written 500 words about bananas even though I think it’s about my writing process, or whoever is reading/editing with/for me doesn’t get it.
I’m so modest.
“My own feeling is that the sense of effortlessness you strive for as a writer actually derives from an awful lot of effort. But having said that, there was some spark in the book that became The Blade Itself right from my first efforts that I at least found fascinating. Without that, I’m not sure I’d have got past the first page.” –Joe Abercrombie
Testify! I agree there. The ol’ swan metaphor. Obviously we need to put the effort in. I probably do a lot more revising than I think I do, because I do it without consciously thinking about it. I think the problem stems from the majority of my writing time coming from NaNoWriMo. Through November I have smoke coming from the keyboard as I Word Sprint and chase that 50k target. Quantity, not quality, perhaps. Although, even on a bad day I think my stuff is pretty schweet. So, anyway, since writing isn’t my job (yet… *shakes fist*) I guess I’m a bit haphazard about it. There are weeks when I’ll write every day even if it’s only a few sentences. Sometimes I go months without adding to anything existing. Not exactly the way forward if I want a career. So I know I need to be more proactive.
There’s a writing group near me. I don’t go. Maybe I should. I know someone who has been and apparently there are some scary practices going on. Like micro-planning everything before you begin: overall plot summary, chapter by chapter summary, lists and histories and bios and spider diagrams and everything neatly pinned to a board before the first creative word is written. I’m all for having a rough idea what the hell I’m doing but that’s going a bit too far. Isn’t it? I have a few major signposts and a rough idea of an ending, but how the characters get there is up for negotiation. But only with my own brain. I don’t negotiate with the characters.
I am sometimes a bit suspicious of people who treat their characters as though they’re real. A good example of this is from a NaNoWriMo write-in, in my first year of participating. My flatmates and I, all suckers together, were nervously listening to a seasoned NaNo vet. She was telling us things about her plot. She went into a little Word Sprint trance and rattled out another page or so, before exclaiming that she hadn’t realised that one of her characters had a cellar in their house. Um, what? There was an expositional scene in her book at that time, where two people are in a house. They end up in the cellar, much to the author’s surprise. She literally said, “Oh, I didn’t realise [character] had a cellar! It turns out that’s where they keep the [macguffin]!” like she was actually discovering a secret fact about a real person. Like she’d met this person and seen bits of their house and then found out, perhaps by a casual mention of the cellar in an un-related conversation, of its existence.
I know, when you’re writing, things come out that you didn’t plan. But it’s still a choice the author makes. Somewhere in her brain, she decided to have a character explain that the thing they were looking for was in the cellar, and take someone there to see it. She might not have expected to be writing about the cellar based on her original plan for the scene, but she did choose to make it part of the book. It’s slightly different from writing yourself into a corner with a character’s motivation or logical actions. That’s still a choice, but sort of a forced one. I mean those times when your writing is going as planned but due to the fallout for plot reasons, a character becomes derailed from your original idea and acts/speaks in a completely different way than you were expecting but it has to happen because ignoring it would make no sense.
For example, a spurned lover (who was a totally nice character and you thought they’d end up opening a pasty shop and they’d even filled in all the forms at the bank and everything) decides they can’t live in the same town as their ex/crush and moves to France because it’s high time they followed their dream, dammit!
What not to say: “Oh, I didn’t realise Tim was so keen on Impressionism!”
What to say: “It’ll mean a bit of a re-think but it made sense for the character, so I chose to put Tim in an art school on the continent while he sorts things out.”
I don’t care how invested in your work you are; please don’t become an idiot.
Slightly off-track. Writing process. I think I need to have one. Or is my lack of rigid process a process in itself?
Writing process isn’t enough in itself. Today, with amazingly good timing, Scott Lynch (another of my favourite authors) posted on his blog today about the magic shortcut formula of getting published. Or rather, the lack of one.
“Look, read this next bit very carefully: Famous useless idiots get book contracts all the time. Let us assume that we are not famous useless idiots, you and I. Therefore their situation is not germane to ours. Terrible, terrible writers also get book contracts all the time; this is because there’s no accounting for taste and because there is no accounting for taste and because, if you dig, there is no fucking accounting for taste. I can’t teach you how to get hit by a meteorite; I can only tell you about the “actively try to not be a terrible writer” approach, because it’s how me and most of my peers end up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This situation, which is my situation and, not to put too fine a point on it, YOUR situation if you’re unpublished and want to kill that ‘un-,’ is defined by the following equation:
Hard work + self-awareness + perseverance = MAYBE
“Maybe?” you say. “What the hell do you mean, maybe?”
What I mean is welcome to the universe, kid. No guarantees about anything, and the clock is already ticking. Try the potato salad. But that MAYBE is a golden result compared to the way the equation turns out if you subtract hard work, self-awareness, or perseverance. When you do that, MAYBE becomes NEVER. In fact, it becomes NEVER in bold followed by THIS MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS. !!!!!!!!!!!!” – Scott Lynch
You are my hero. Scott, if you ever read my books or even this blog, know that you are the first person this week apart from my friend J who is the person who sent me his own copy of Locke Lamora in the first place*, who has made me smile.
So, on top of the writing thing, I need to work on the perseverance thing. I feel like I’m already pretty self-aware. Amirite? I said the other day that I had a major motivator at the moment in pure and unadulterated rage and righteous indignation. I know that will wear off. I know I have to kick myself in the arse rather than wait for the next person to do it for me.
In the mean time, I’ll keep writing this blog, I’ll keep tweeting and writing short things and poems for online mags and fiction reviews, and I’ll keep bashing away at Quril and Murder Express, and maybe get around to making up better titles for them. I hope I do.
*I’m listening to the audiobook at the moment and Locke has just met the Grey King. I’m very excited by going through all this again but with character voices! The narrator is amazing.