Thursday, August 19 2021

Quote of the Day

Craft is not about cultural exceptions, but about cultural expectations–which means we need to understand traditions, not individual books. We need to learn both the conventions of a tradition and the experiments and exceptions and other genres that have influenced, resisted, and changed it.

Matthew Salesses, Craft in the Real World

I am completely, utterly overwhelmed

I have, this morning realized with a kind of doomed clarity, that I haven’t been putting in the work.

Not that I haven’t been sitting down to work, but that part of my historical problems with writing is that I haven’t been doing what I need to do to write. This is complicated.

Ok so all last year I spend studying plot and character to finally get my brain wrapped around how to work with those concepts to apply them and finish writing stories. I figured there would be more to learn as I go, but with that solid frame built on the sturdy base of my grad school Jungian studies I could finally move forward.

I thought of a story idea that was futuristic climate fiction, hopepunk-y while also exploring the past. My Thanksgiving novel.

As part of my process, I’ve decided to make a lot of the big plot, character, and worldbuilding decisions upfront, instead of trying to work every single thing out while drafting. Which means researching, and I love researching!

Or do I?

My first, never finished, revised 7 million times, worked on for 3 years novel took place on another planet in the future. I think I put in maybe a couple afternoons-worth of research on star types and planet types and what a year would look like on a planet revolving around a different sun. I decided on a roll of dice to go with cryosleep and no light speed engines. I didn’t spare a thought to what culture or cultures existed in the universe, if first contact had or hadn’t happened, how communications worked, how my colonists would live on an ice-planet (physically, socio-politically, or psychologically), why they would want to. My big bad plot device was some sort of telepathic alien that granted vague magical powers but also had near-complete control over people’s minds and had an evil plan to—? I never figured out where the alien came from or what its motivations were or even what it wanted all these mind-controlled people to do for it.

But I wrote some really great scenes. Honestly, I look back at the drafts of this thing and I am actually amazed at how good the writing is. In, I now realize, a really really really middle class white cis way. I also now realize they are very glossy attempts to paint over the fact that there was no story. Few decisions were ever made, because the story existed on a slapdash set hanging over a void. In my fiction-writing classes, literature was what was taught. Research on worldbuilding could be skipped entirely, as the places were real-life places or facsimiles thereof. I can write scenes of people simply interacting with each other all day. That is what I learned to do in creative writing class. Exercises.

I am sitting down to think out some big decisions for my new novel, and I am realizing:

  • I need to research how climate change will make life different in 30 years
  • I need to research eastern Oregon, especially their history of wildfires
  • I need to pick a town in eastern Oregon and research the geography and layout, perhaps even go there
  • I need to research and understand the culture of that area
  • I need to research technological solutions to some of the aspects of climate change people will be facing
  • I need to research virtual reality and how it could be implemented in 30 years
  • I need to research the culture and history and political climate of the Wampanoags in the 1600s
  • I need to research the geography of New England of that time
  • I need to select certain historical characters and research them well enough to bring a facsimile of them to life

And that’s just for the worldbuilding. I also need to research genre conventions, because I haven’t read a lot of hopepunk or clifi.

And now Craft in the Real World is telling me that I need to research cultural traditions and expectations. Since I am writing about the Wampanoag, should I research their cultural traditions and expectations and include that in my craft? Am I even a good enough writer to accomplish that feat? I should also identify my audience, and write to their expectations.

And assuming I can get through all of that, I still need to work out a plot that conveys my theme set in this world I have created, and create a protagonist and other characters that will embody the plot with enough respectful diversity to make a positive reading experience for as many people as possible.

This is what I mean by I haven’t been doing the work. (As an aside: how in the hell does the ridiculous advice “just write every single day and you’ll get better at writing” account for the breadth of this undertaking??) I haven’t been doing the work of writing that no amount of slinging words at the page will solve. I honestly had no real idea that this is what goes into a novel. Not every novel–understanding this also makes me understand why it is so easy to pump out contemporary romance or thrillers. Not that they can’t be satisfying or well done, it’s just that once you figure out the genre expectation formula, research your location, and make your decisions, you just write the thing. No fuss necessary.

What I think I’m trying to do here is…….overwhelmingly huge. And I have no clue how much research I’ll need to do to make a fake world. I doubt anyone can tell me that. But this is years worth of work before even starting a first draft. I mean, maybe months? But really I think somewhere between 1-2 years of prep work.

On one hand I don’t know why this is such a surprise. As a former tech writer, I never once tried to write a manual without understanding the product. Clicking every button, mapping out every menu, learning what each feature did, interviewing people to learn how the software is used to put together typical workflows…and this process would take me months. I would warn my employers about that right off the bat. And when I was writing requirements as a business analyst, I would never even start the document until I knew what the requirements were, why they were necessary, how they would affect all parts of the system, and thought out the design and implementation. And yet in fiction writing we’re told to just write.


I honestly don’t know how to grapple with this. I mean, in one sense I know that the work won’t do itself and the best time to start is now, but also…..Do I really want to commit to this? To not having any thing to show as my work for years? And at the end possibly have something no one wants to publish or read? To after those years of novel-making have to go through years of submission and/or years of marketing to make any money and gain enough of an audience that would be interested in reading the next thing I want to write…which will take even more years? Is this….sustainable? Worthwhile? What I want to do?

I don’t know. I don’t know.