Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Do You Care About?

     This one is for the other fiction writers out there, whether already practicing or still just “loosening up.”

Why do you [want to] write?

     It’s a question many of us never face squarely.

     I’ve known people who were avid for what they imagined as the “lifestyle” of a writer. Seldom did their imaginings bear much relation to reality.

     I’ve known people who wanted to memorialize certain events through a fictional lens. They found those events to be supremely important, and they knew that fiction is better than exposition at expressing the underlying themes of human action and human nature.

     I’ve known people – including one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever met – who merely saw fiction as a way to augment their incomes. The great majority of them have been bitterly disappointed by the returns on investment.

     And I’ve known people who just wanted to see their names on the cover and spine of a book: the “now I’m somebody” syndrome that more often plays out in the context of one of the performing arts.

     But why do you want to write? Is it one of the reasons above? If not, then what?

     You really should know, and quite clearly, before you set your fingers to the keys. It will determine everything.

     One of the foremost science fiction writers of the Twentieth Century, Robert A. Heinlein, said on several occasions that he wrote “to buy groceries:” i.e., simply for what he could earn that way. You sure as hell can’t tell from most of what he wrote! They’re replete with insights of all kinds: into government and politics, social structures and their evolution, religion and human speculations about the supernatural, human motivation, the limits of the achievable, and so on. A few of his books might seem lightweight at first. A couple of them, toward the end of his life, were self-indulgences (e.g., I Will Fear No Evil and The Number of the Beast). But by far the greater part of Heinlein’s oeuvre is rich with thematic content of the sort that renders them usefully instructive – intellectually durable – memorable for the best of reasons.

     I could name other writers, alive and producing, who claim to be “in it for the money” but whose stuff has the thematic heft and solidity of Heinlein. A dear departed friend who sought to make his living from fiction discovered that he couldn’t do it. He cared too much about the quality and thematic content of his stories to pour out saleable hackwork. And I will tell you something I’ve never told anyone before: I couldn’t do it either. My first agent encouraged me to “lighten up,” to write stuff she knew she could sell because it was already flying off the shelves. I tried...and gave it up long before I could produce even one novel-length tale.

     At this point I’ll stop circumnavigating the shrub and tell you baldly what you need to know, fellow storytellers and storytellers-to-be:

You’d better know what you care about the most, because that’s what you’ll write about.

     And there is not one single thing you can do about it.

     Fiction writing is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort. It’s frequently frustrating, too. No one can dedicate himself to something as prolonged, arduous, and intermittently maddening as the creation of a novel unless he’s getting exactly what he wants from the process and its products.

     Storytelling can be like mining coal, or it can be like searching for diamonds. The market for coal is much, much larger and steadier than the market for diamonds...but you must be willing to accept the grime and the drudgery of coal mining to reap the profits available from that market. And what you get for your labors is weariness, black fingernails, and coal. There’s no kidding yourself about that.

     So know, clearly, explicitly, and beyond all possibility of self-deception, what you care about sufficiently to embrace the labors of the storyteller. I’m here to tell you: storytelling is the hardest work I’ve ever done.

     I have no doubt that you’ll feel the same.

     You might be wondering why I chose this topic for today. Simple, really: I’m serving as a countervailing voice to a writer I like personally who apparently feels otherwise. Sarah has a lot of books available. I haven’t read most of them, and most of the ones I’ve read have failed to affect me. However, Sarah is a respected figure, at least among speculative-fiction writers and fans. For that reason a lot of aspiring writers and newly fledged ones will take her sentiments to heart. That makes it important that other perspectives are available to them.

     This one is mine. Make of it what you will.


Linda Fox said...

While I appreciate what I've learned from Mad Genius Club and According to Hoyt, I have to disagree with the idea that "not painful" is good enough. There is a point at which you have to accept that most of your writing is not perfect, but that shouldn't keep you from making the effort to make it "as good as it can be, given time constraints".

Col. B. Bunny said...

I've never attempted a work of fiction or a comprehensive anything of non-fiction. Non-fiction acquires a momentum of its own as, for me, it becomes an intriguing process of polishing and refining.

Mencken's idea is probably the bottom line: Writing is easy. You just sit there at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead. However, I did for a brief moment experience what I thought was true inspiration once when I put together a stand up comedy routine for an office party. The ideas truly seemed to flow out of me effortlessly. It's as though they came from somewhere remote from my conscious mind. Never repeated in any intellectual endeavor of mine since, alas, but something to think about.

I think for me the most important thing to do is ask what problem am I trying to solve? It's an approach to any aspect of life but no less so if the objective is to produce a written work.

I do think I could maybe start with a sentence such as, "He sat reading his book at one of the tables outside his favorite coffee shop when something caught his eye." Just start is probably the operating principle here but I think it's likely to stall out without a real plan. If a few paragraphs help formulate a plot, that's great, but just continuing to write down stray ideas is probably a formula for really hard work ahead and eventual frustration.

The movie "Multiplicity" has always delighted me. Start with the premise of easy duplication of yourself and the story almost writes itself.

I attended a workshop years ago where it was demonstrated that a large group is better at problem solving than a small group or an individual. People play off of each other in a fun way that the smaller group does not. I don't know how that can be made to work for an individual author but perhaps the thing to avoid is becoming bogged down in one's too-narrow view of one's work.