In university, I had some poems published in the UC Review.
I felt that I understood poetry (all free-verse style; I find that actual meter is difficult to write because I get overwhelmed by the “sound” of the beats the form dictates; I almost can’t catch the words and their meaning, they get so drowned out. If I read them out loud, I can, because one doesn’t read out loud with that heavy, heavy rhythm, but writing isn’t about out loud, initially, at least not to me).
Poetry was the art of creating metaphors to circumscribe emotions. Reading poetry is reading a language of experience; you see, in the metaphors that you would not have written because they wouldn’t have occurred to you, a new way of looking at things you’ve personally felt or experienced. There are echoes in poetry of that; it’s almost a language of isolation, a way of waving flags that say, “I’m here”.
Prose, to me, was different. Novels were different. And as I was not going to pursue the career of a poet — because it’s hard to make a living as a poet unless poetry is an adjunct to something like an academic career, something I wasn’t going to have — I had to figure out what I thought the differences were.
What I came up with is this: Poetry speaks to experience in new ways. Without the base experience, poetry is often impenetrable.
Prose creates the context to invoke an emotional experience. In order to feel something, the prose itself sets the scene and tells the story that will deliver the emotional core of the end. So: you can speak to people who have not had that experience, and convey it.
I wanted to write novels. I wanted to write fantasy novels because those were the books that I’d read, reread, and loved.
I’ve spoken about my early prose attempts. I’ve spoken about writing, out of order, scenes that spoke strongly to me. I wanted to write those scenes. But… out of order scenes with strong emotional undercurrents were accessible only to me.
And I discovered in earlier attempts that if I wrote those, I was done. I had written what I wanted to write. I didn’t stitch them together. I made one attempt to do so, in high school, in order to finish a full novel (I didn’t call it a novel). I wrote out of sequence scenes that I really liked (don’t ask now, I’m not showing them to anyone), and I set about trying to write the stuff in between.
I then discovered that I could not write the stuff in between. As I started to do that, as I started to write interactions between characters, the characters went in directions that I did not expect or plan — directions that would take them away, forever, from those scenes I wanted to reach.
So I had a bunch of disconnected things that were not going to be part of a single, structural continuum. Ugh.
That taught me, in the early years, and before I decided to write novels, that I could not write out of order. So: I had to start at page one and go through to THE END.
The second thing I learned: if I talked extensively about the end, or worse, if I actually wrote it, I was done. I wanted to tell the story. I had told the story. Whatever pushed me to write to that end? Done. Gone.
Since I wasn’t really writing for others at this point (except poetry), it didn’t matter — but I realized the drive to tell the story itself was a huge part of writing for me. If I had told the story in whatever form to an attentive audience of even one person, I no longer needed to tell the story. So: I stopped talking about the endings, and I stopped writing things out of order.
And now I need to take a small digression.
I have no visual memory. My ability to visualize is at the bottom of the bottom. My ability to memorize things is not terrible — but it’s based on sound and … words. If I see something that impresses me, I often describe it, on the inside of my head, with words; the words become the anchor for the reaction. I can see. I can recognize people and things I’m familiar with. But if you ask me to imagine them, to visualize them, I’m not doing what some people do. There’s no mental image. There’s no mind’s eye. My mind’s eye is, and has been since I was a child, words.
Using words to communicate, using words to memorize, using words to navigate and to express my interactions with the world is the coping mechanism for an almost complete lack of any visualization skills or abilities. (I had no idea that this was not normal until about five or six years ago. I thought that “visualize” was an umbrella term for the gathering of the bits and pieces of internal thought. I did not struggle with it; I assumed that this is just the way memory worked. I mention all of this because I want to be clear that words were always the way I anchored memories. Thoughts were things with, and of, words. I remember being dumbfounded when someone told me that they didn’t think in words. Like… but… how does that even work?)
Words describe the shape of things. Words evoke the feelings. Words contain my impressions of people. And words are the interiority of emotion. When I “visualize” a character, I am not seeing what they look like. I am “seeing” how they think, how they feel, what they want, what angers them, what saddens them, what moves them.
I did not know, until I was married for a number of years, what color my husband’s eyes were. I’m not making this up. Eye color — the bane of my writing existence and the reason I started making long character lists — was not relevant to our lives. Brown eyes, blue eyes, etc., would have made no material difference to our interactions at all.
I know what color they are now because someone at the store asked, and I had to think about it, and then to attempt to derive a reasonable answer. He is Finnish Canadian, and his hair was blonde, so I assumed that his eyes were probably blue, which was the answer I gave the person who asked the question. I then had to go home and check that night at dinner. Am I looking at him all the time at this point? Yes. Did I catalogue eye color? No. Do I remember it now because of that question? Yes.
The visual details of things like this are … not part of how I have ever navigated life. Which might explain a thing or two about me.
When writing character, then, I don’t know precisely what they look like. I have a sense of it in how other characters react to them. But I write characters and viewpoints from the core of that viewpoint. I write them as if I am seated within them, or they are seated within the driver’s seat of me.
I did not ever attempt to find books in my childhood where people looked like me, but rather, attempted to find books where people thought like me, because, I think, of that lack of visualization and that interiority.
End of digression. Or this one, at any rate.
I started my attempt at a professional writing career with a short story. It was short!
It didn’t sell. In fact, I sent it to exactly one place. And it was rejected. And I put it in a drawer. This was … not following conventional wisdom. But: I was certain that I could do better! I would figure out what I’d done wrong — and not do that! (No I wasn’t certain what I’d done wrong. I was guessing.)
So I started my second short story. This one had an ending, because they all have endings. It was, to me, a strongly powerful ending. I needed to find a beginning that could lead to that ending, a world in which that ending could take place, a situation in which the characters would eventually arrive at that destination and the journey would give the destination weight.
All of these things arose because of the ending that I wanted to write. All of the decisions were based on the emotional arc. Even the beginning was created in order to support that ending. This is not quite an outline, and not quite world building, although the world building was important (and imperfect, seen from decades in the future). This is where I’m at my most intellectual when constructing what will become a novel or a series of novels. The ending didn’t have all this information associated with it on the inside of my head: what it had was the emotional weight. I could feel the ending. I… just needed to make it believable for people who were not me. I needed to create the structure and the container in which it would feel true.
I did that work, and now the short story had a beginning. I began to write, from page one. I wrote an outline of events, because Tanya Huff said I needed an outline, like a road map, and as she was published and I was just starting, I did exactly this. (With handwaving ending, no explicit details even in a rough outline.)
When I was fifteen years old, I went to a harborfront reading/talk. It was part of a series of sff talks, and the person who remains in memory is Fred Pohl. In the Q&A, someone asked him how much he wrote in a day. He said: 4 pages. I write 4 pages a day, every day. At the start of a novel, an entire novel seems mountainous and impossible — but anyone can write 4 pages a day.
This stayed with me. 4 pages a day. I could write 4 pages a day. (This would by double-spaced 80 column mono-spaced font manuscript pages, which almost no one uses anymore. In modern parlance, say 1k words a day) I set 4 pages a day as my metric. I would write those 4 pages, while working full-time. And I would start this for short story number two.
At this point I had: 1. Must write story in order to get to the end. 2. Must let the end of the story be the telling of the story. 3. must write 4 pages a day until THE END.
I got to work.
The short story became a novelette. And then it became a novella. And then, the end continuing to remain in the distance no matter how much I wrote to reach it, it become a novel.
I wrote at home, but decided I would try writing at work, because I had just bought — on fire sale — this IBM portable PC. It had no hard disk. It had two 3.5 inch floppy drives. It weighed a ton. But I had an hour for lunch and a back room, and I was determined to use that lunch time because if I did, I could go home after work and relax, right?
It took a while for my brain to accept that I was going to sit at that bloody computer for an hour writing in circles every day, even if the first thing I did the next day was to delete those words and try again. But when my brain rolled over and said uncle, I started to get my 4 pages a day on that lunch hour.
The next discovery, in this voyage of discovery, is that the outline itself was … not at all helpful, as I mentioned last post. I’d write 4 pages, and I’d have to rewrite the outline. After a couple of weeks of this, I just threw the outline out. It was more work and it wasn’t helpful at all.
so: point 4. Outlines, not useful to me, and they cause tons more pointless work.
(Very often there’s a binary question: Outliner or Pantser? Or a singular question: Do you outline? But there’s some variation and shades to the answer. I absolutely don’t outline because, among other things, it can kill the book for me (see: telling end of story). Even the outline I did write at that time was handwaving the end in an effort to avoid that. But… I also don’t just sit down with a blank page and start a book knowing nothing. Sometimes I know exactly what I’m doing, and it just so happens I’m totally wrong. The story itself is not the one I think I’m going to be telling, but the context remains a constant, and the context is important.)
When I finished my first novel following the four rules I had set for myself, I understood that it was probably two novels, because while I had reached the end of an emotional arc, I hadn’t reached the end that I had originally envisioned, and … it didn’t seem possibly that I could reach the end within a few more pages (it was 510 manuscript pages already).
I am trying to be clearer about my approach and the reasons for that approach – but questions about places where this has failed are fine :)