Some recent words I’m proud of

Snow and sky mirrored one another, stark whites and shadow blacks meeting and melding like the finger-paints of a sullen god. The only line separating their reality was the mist-shrouded darkness of majestic pine robed in ice – two rows of their solemn silence divided by a pristine strip of diamond-white snow. A narrow path between absolutes.

At the end of that path, the frozen air obscured the form of a man standing alone.

Be a sublime fool; the world needs your madness

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

— Ray Bradbury

Short and sweet-ish

Call me disloyal to the great American literary form, but I’ve somehow never been one for the short story — at least on the creating end.  I’ve enjoyed reading my fair share of them.

It’s just that when it comes to getting my head around the beginning and end of a story, to write it, my tendency is to go macro rather than micro.  The little stories contained in the hours that make up our days and years, these are not my strength as a storyteller.  It might have something to do with the way my mind continuously looks for patterns whether I want it to or not.  All events lead to other events, and it’s my inclination to follow that train of thought for the long haul.  So when it comes to picking out just one moment and encapsulating within it the full scope of the dramatic arc in miniature, I struggle to see beginning and end.  To me, it’s all middle.

However.

There is much to be said for the short story, as a writer and not just as a consumer of words.  As much as I might flail when forced to be brief, it’s a useful exercise.  It’s no less true that every word has to count in a novel than it is in short story, but somehow, knowing that you mean not to break ten thousand makes you look at every word with a different kind of scrutiny.  You want each and every one of those evocative bastards to be telling a story all by itself, not just pulling its own weight.  (Unrealistic?  Sure, whatever.  It’s not a writer’s job to approach things in terms of what’s realistic.  Our work is with the substance of dreams.)  The story has to introduce the protagonist and his conflict, show action toward the resolution of that conflict, present a climax, and tie up any loose ends on short rations; no word of dialogue, no line of description that does not aid in this is welcome to the show.  Shrinking novel mentality down to sitcom-episode size takes constant vigilance, and that’s good for someone like me who tends to be wordy (in real life as much as on the page.)

From the perspective of a serial novelist, short story is like a working vacation.  You can put aside, for a moment, everything you’ve had to hold within your mind regarding the big picture.  And believe me, holding the pieces of an unwritten novel together in your brain is no easy task.  For most people, it’s too daunting a prospect even to take seriously.  We novelists are an eccentric bunch in that we know what a scary job it is but we decide to do it anyway.  But when writing short, you get to step away from that crazy internal almost-chaos and just take a moment to explore character.  Or setting.  Or tone.  Visit techniques or genres or ideas you don’t know well enough to give your attention for the full length of a novel.

Then you have a lovely finished product to sit back and admire after an effort that can be measured in hours rather than weeks, months, or even years.  There’s no denying the appeal of the immediacy of the gratification.  And once you’ve completed the exercise and patted yourself on the back, you get to return to the scary, more complicated world of the novel with the reassurance that you do in fact have it in you to get things done.

Yes, this is my dreadfully windbaggy way of saying I wrote a short story last week and that I liked doing it.  And that it helped me want to get on with the novel.

A reflection on 40K

I believe it was some time in the spring of 2009 that I began seriously considering the reality that I had written a good book based on a trilogy of bad books, and that something would have to be done about this if I wanted my future fiction empire to have any kind of foundation.

I was at that time just finishing up a long piece of fanfiction that was the first thing I had managed to write since concluding the principle writing on Faríel in 2004. I had been learning things from fanfiction and from editing other people’s work that no college course had ever taught me about what other people like — and expect — to read. It felt good to be constructing phrases and plots again, and coming within shouting distance of the end of that long fic had given me the confidence to believe that I still had it in me. Not just to write, but to write better. I was able to convince myself that I could rewrite my first novel, that I should rewrite it, that it would be great this time and furthermore I would breeze right through it because I knew the world and the characters and the plot so well.

At about… 2 a.m. on September 19th, 2011 (give or take an hour ago), I finally managed to crack 40K on this beast. A whole forty thousand words, two and a half years later, of what was supposed to be an easy, fun rewrite. This is a bigger deal than it should be.

Somewhere along the way, things went pretty screwy.

Maybe it was the fact that I peddled Faríel for three years without a single bite. Maybe it was depression, adulthood, overexposure to bad fanfiction, stored-up childhood insecurities, or sheer mental exhaustion; but somehow, somewhere, I lost my confidence in my words. The thought of writing instantly brings with it these days a sort of clenching in my chest, a greyness in my thoughts as I try to map out what I will write and am met by the unrelenting internal response: but I have nothing to say.

I never used to believe this. I can still remember the days — not so distant, surely — when you couldn’t stop me from writing. If I was going to be the passenger in a car for more than five minutes, I brought pen and paper. If I was supposed to be taking notes in class, I was actually writing about elves. Or trickster gods. Or warped fairy tales. Just not about the economic theories of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. or the failed military decisions of General Lee in Pennsylvania. I knew my work wasn’t great, but I always felt there was a yet unspoken in there. With all the writing I did, all the time, everywhere, whether there were other things I should be doing or not, there was no way I could avoid learning how to be not just publishable but famous. It’s great that I genuinely believed this. All children should have that kind of passion for something, that kind of self-confidence.

I lost it somewhere.

If I could just pinpoint the moment of initial decay, or find somewhere to point the finger, it might be easier to relearn to believe in myself. Problem is, I don’t know when it started or why. All I can do is try to stop, take a look at where I am now, and see that whatever else I might have been once, at this exact moment in time I am a woman who can string a damn fine sentence. Looking at the future raises the frightening spectre of doubting my ability to build a solid plot that other people would find interesting. Screw sixty thousand words from now, a hundred thousand. In my imagination, I’ve already failed at the story by then.

What matters is that right now, right now, I’ve got 40K I wouldn’t be ashamed to attach my name to, and I wrote them. I wrote them.