On Writing Process, part two: first novel (and more me)

Posted in writing, process.

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 :)

29 Responses to On Writing Process, part two: first novel (and more me)

  1. Z Hunt says:

    Thank you for posting this and the post prior to it. I always find it inter­esting to read things about people’s processes. And it’s always a high­light of my day when you post some­thing new here. So, thank you for that as well :)

    Small confes­sion, I got way too excited when you mentioned not knowing the color of your husband’s eyes. I thought that was a me thing. Friends of mine have gotten so upset with me for not knowing the color of eyes other people have that we both know and it’s just not some­thing I gener­ally notice. It’s just never been some­thing overly impor­tant to me. I like the person or I don’t like the person. They could have devil eyes for all I care at that point…

  2. Z Hunt says:

    @michelle: I’ve been on the receiving end of a similar tone. I always feel like some sort of alien at that moment,

    I’m certain there is a good chance I -noticed- someone’s eye color at one point, but there is no part of the eye color that defines my rela­tion­ship with others (in my mind) so I must dismiss that obser­va­tion rather than store it some­where it could be recalled from.

  3. Argentum says:

    Thanks for sharing more insights into your personal process. I am one of those people who remem­bers eye color before names; my own husband was impressed when I noticed — before we were even dating — that one of his pupils does not dilate, which can create the illu­sion of two ever so slightly different colored eyes (an obser­va­tion never made by most people he knew, even well and for a long time.) I have trouble writing a scene unless I can visu­alize it. Often I’ll google around for a photo of a land­scape or room that could serve as the setting.

    I, too, initially wrote just for myself with no intent to share. For me, though, this meant I only ever wrote begin­nings. My imag­i­na­tion was captured by the poten­tial of a story, by hooks in the form of char­ac­ters and their circum­stances. Unfor­tu­nately, I’ve no natural talent for narra­tive arc. Patrick Roth­fuss has a line in The Name of the Wind, I think, about how there’s only one story, but smaller pieces of it seem to be stories them­selves. That is how I wrote — stories every­where, no coherent struc­ture. It was a real process trans­for­ma­tion, for me, to define The Ending. I believe I’m jealous that the ending comes first, to you :)

    As a side note, thanks for explaining poetry, which has always seemed to me too abstract for compre­hen­sion. It will be super useful to read poems from now on with an inter­pre­tive lens: which of my own expe­ri­ences does this poem speak to?

  4. hanneke28 says:

    Sorry, that was supposed to be a reply to not noticing eye colors.

    I enjoy reading about your process, though I’m not a writer myself. This focus on the emotional payoff of the ending, and writing from within the char­ac­ters, is prob­ably why your books always ring so true to me. Inter­esting.

  5. michelle says:

    @ hanneke28 I wanted to mention this because some writers are very highly visual. They can see the movie, which poses different chal­lenges. And I’m coming from a place of words, so the chal­lenges are different.

  6. Therese says:

    I’m a very visual thinker, but your writing process sounds a lot like mine! I know where the story needs to go, but how I get to that point will change as I write. If I try to outline it, I just end up frus­trating myself.

  7. michelle says:

    @Therese: I’m thinking of talking about outlines vs. pantsing and the grey areas in between, because this entire thought train about process started for two reasons, and one of them was that.

    ETA: When I say I’m a pantser, I don’t actu­ally mean that I just sit down with almost nothing in mind and write. I don’t sit down and plan out events because the book I’m writing never sticks to those events completely; when I think about “what happens next”, i.e. the thing I do when I sit down to write every writing day, I’m right about 50% of the time. The other 50%, it’s left turns. Or right turns. Things that stay on the map, but aren’t what I thought they would be.

    For me this means the book is alive, in some sense. It’s when I’m certain I have a book.

    …the other is, oddly, longevity.

    ETA: so. Many. Typos.

  8. JuliDH says:

    Lovely. I read your stories because your thinking makes sense to me. I hear your words and the flow is beau­tiful. Thank you.
    I am no writer, but as I guide my chil­dren through school essays, I see that they struggle, too, with the outline concept(graphic orga­nizer) but when they write without that tool, their words and ideas are so much brighter; the connec­tions they make are fluid and rich in detail. They are hemmed in by that struc­ture, too.

  9. Maia says:

    I really like these posts. They are honest and make me think.
    Think, and imagine dragons. ^^

    also, there was one memory which surfaced during my reading,

    I was sitting at the dinnig table, long long time ago, and was really, really hard wondering about the name of the film. I had this vibrant and colourful scene in my head but for the love of all above and bellow, I couldn’t remember the name.
    It was so obvious that my little sister looked at me weirdly and asked if I am okay. When I explained my problem, she was surprised, because she’ve seen me reading books all week long and no other thing.
    (It was summer and I was blissful child without things to do.)
    And in that moment it hit me — it wasn’t film. It was book.
    In fact, it was one scene from Into the Dark Lands, not sure which one. But it left me stupidly looking at my sis because it just… really surprised me. I had the scene painted in my head so vividly. And I just couldn’t under­stand — how could I imagine things so well when I was reading text? Because if I want to remember some­thing, I have conce­trate on it really hard.
    Also, I could visu­alise the face of my mom in my mind even if my life would depend on it.
    So. I was mysti­fied.

  10. Jo-Ann says:

    Can I say I find it kinda shocking that you do Not ‘visu­alize’? I cannot imagine how this…works. I take that visu­al­iza­tion Of what I’m reading so far for granted that it’s near impos­sible to imagine how one does not do this while reading. But it accounts (to me) for one of the Very few things I find Very margin­ally discom­fiting? (trying to find a gentle low-key word here) in the stories you’ve told…that I get not-enough-for-me descrip­tion of what the char­ac­ters Look like. Although I very much appre­ciate the emphasis on Who they are as opposed to what they look like…and even more the total lack of the rele­vance of their shape/size/attractiveness quotients — I still long for a bit more of an least general reminder that so-and-so has black hair (i got that All the Barrani do) or that Jester’s eyes are ____? Without having to track back — some­where? Not sure why I get stuck some­times leafing through scenes to find these triv­i­al­i­ties but i Do.

    Much more impor­tant to me is a ques­tion that might (prob­ably) will at least start off (and no doubt end) vague or inexact. The ques­tion regards the role of metaphor IN your writing. All of it. I do so love the way you’ve described how it works in Poetry but it has Long been a burning ques­tion to me in terms of what I Feel from All of your writing. Let me say that I think I Still (at this pretty late date) have an inexact or mushy idea of what metaphor IS. I feel like I use the term incon­sis­tently or too widely. I do know what the strict defi­n­i­tional (why is spellcheck telling me that’s spelled wrong? I don’t see it) terms are…but those seem pretty narrow and limited when I’m thinking about how broad swathes of almost all of your writing (for me) seems to Be metaphor. Do you Intend this? Is this a ‘secret’ of writing in general?

    I know that last sounds, errr, kinda ridicu­lous as I write it but I don’t come across much discus­sion of what I’m inel­e­gantly trying to…pin down? It’s just that…yes, I think your stories are beau­tiful and compelling (and funny and wrenching) as ‘just’ stories…but it’s the very thing I’m Trying to get at…the sense that Every­thing is meant to convey…something Else? broad applic­a­bility? deeper meaning?…it’s That sense or over­ar­ching or under­pin­ning or woven-through-it-allness of meaning that vaults what-Ever I read of yours into the sphere of Most Impor­tant, to me. I cannot quite see How to Do this if it is ‘just’ a gift..that is, if it is an uncon­scious connec­tion to meaning on your part. An unin­ten­tional after-effect in writing about characters/stories you care about. If you are not Trying to write about, say…your connec­tion to and expe­ri­ences of …the writing process…while Also writing about Kaylin’s ‘gifts’…and it’s just There (for me)…then… well, I don’t know. It’s just Your gift? It is I guess, silly? to ask this, given your stance regarding outlines in general because Plan­ning to write a Multi-level story would be even more of a night­mare. I think. But when you’re writing a scene about…oh anything…do you consciously think of some­thing else You’ve expe­ri­enced and use it as a template? or some­such in order to write words about that scene about.. magic…or interactions…or the diffi­cult atti­tudes of a mentor…or the time you expe­ri­enced a lack of trust…or, I do Hope you get what I’m trying to say.

    I really am Hoping it is Not ‘just’…you. I will still trea­sure all your work. But if I can get it together (enough) to disci­pline my own damn self to put in the work required to write “4 pages a day”…I want to write stories…yes…but too, ones that Have that multi-layered­ness. If it (the thing I’m trying to talk about) is not a conscious effort and is an arte­fact of just who the author Is, then it’s not? some­thing I can…produce?

    I myself have No thick skin derived from the expe­ri­ence of hearing words crit­ical, brutal or other­wise. I cannot quite help saying that if you do feel able to respond to this in any way, please keep in mind that I already feel quite silly in my groping towards some­thing. I will say that what­ever it…Is…I value it Very Highly, for a value that — even has me looking up — program­ming language? in order to make my point even though i do not get it all. So I’m still groping.

    I will say too — I lovelovelove all these posts on process. Thank-you.

  11. michelle says:

    @Jo-Ann: I am working away from my computer today, and yesterday was at a memo­rial service, but I will defi­nitely try to answer this ques­tion when I get home. Well, after dinner.

  12. michelle says:

    in order to make my point even though i do not get it all. So I’m still groping.

    I know that it was prob­ably very diffi­cult to try to ask a ques­tion that is still somehow amor­phous to you.

    So, while you are groping toward a solid sense of it from your side, I’m now working from the oppo­site direc­tion, and it’s possible that we can meet in the middle.

    I’m trying to get to the heart of the ques­tion you’ve asked.

    These stories feel true to you. They feel real.

    Since you realize that you are reading fantasy novels, and these are not real, you are wondering if these books are a metaphor for some­thing larger or more mean­ingful because you feel so strongly about them.

    If somehow there’s an under­lying metaphor, you think that might explain your reac­tion. Or if I use actual, personal life expe­ri­ences as templates for my scenes the might explain the reac­tion as well — because then it would make sense that they feel real.

    Is that close to right?

  13. Thunderchild says:

    @Jo-Ann: I’m not sure if I’m under­standing it correctly either, yet some­thing in what you wrote struck a chord with me so I’ll try to say how I read the books.

    Some books you read and they’re wonderful and yet they also feel totally contained within the book, almost as if the author is telling you how to interact with the world or in other cases there is length and breadth to a book, but little depth; my personal example here and this is only my opinion would be the Jordan books. I enjoyed the books but never felt like I could dive beneath the words and expe­ri­ence the world.

    For me, and it’s partic­u­larly true of the West books there are always bread­crumbs I can follow to go further into the world, almost as if she shapes an approach. Some authors will describe a sunset and it can be the most beau­tiful sunset ever described but it never goes deeper, whereas I some­times I just get told to follow the sun. In the end it’s both about sunsets, but one I was told about, the other I discov­ered. That sense of journey can often be launched with a phrase or word, where what is unsaid is so much louder than what is. Two exam­ples from other books would be Harpist in the Wind when he said “release the winds” and The Darkest Road “I go as deep as you”. To me they’re rabbit holes to jump down into the books.

    Again I’m not sure if this is what you mean, and I have no idea how to phrase my impres­sion into a ques­tion or even if this is how the books strike you, merely this is what I thought of when you talked about metaphor.

  14. Jo-Ann says:

    @Thunderchild: It’s amusing to me that you mention Jordan because just before Michelle’s recent releases I had finished a reread of his saga. I still enjoyed Much of it, even though his writing about women still trou­bles me. But it will serve well as an example of a Story I (still) like but find to be, for lack of the time to find a better compar­ison, A + B = C. That is, a descrip­tion of events, people and their inte­ri­or­i­ties that goes along very enter­tain­ingly until the end.
    Let me back up a tad to say, I’ve been reading fantasy fiction since my first read of Tolkein at 16 and after a recom­men­da­tion from my then English teach (shoutout Miss Hollo!), Donaldson’s Covenant series. Since those heady days (some 40yrs ago — ach!), I’ve traversed many (hundreds) of the worlds and words of fantasy writers. Vanish­ingly rare are the ones that don’t seem to me to be Just A+B=C even if they do this in ways that are vari­ously elegant, compelling or even other­wise infor­ma­tive about the ‘real’ world. I must say though — thanks for reminding me about the Riddle­master of Hed series by Patricia McKilip and the Fionovar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay — both were, um, seminal for me, (I can never use the word without wondering why there is no female equiv­a­lent), and Yes also had/have aspects that for me too, drew me in Deeper to a level that was more than the words on the page.
    “Almost as if she shapes an approach” — yes, that is getting closer and I appre­ciate how you’ve phrased that.
    But @Michelle — I don’t think it Is either of those things — that the stories ‘feel true’ (though they do) or that I feel strongly about them (ditto) and so am looking for reasons why that go beyond the surface. I also Do feel like I am treading in murky waters with what feels to me like a poten­tially dangerous ques­tion — I don’t want to break the 4th wall or dampen the magic — but I will risk it, not just because I want to Know (and I do) but because you and Thun­der­child have been so kind as to try to parse my own words and offer comment.
    So if you would be so kind, please refer to page 344 of the text, Cast in Flame (do I need to warn of Spoilers?), where Helen is talking to Kaylin (and hold the giggles at my pedantic manner)…please also note I’ve just picked this one book up randomly from the trove, opened one of the Many pages that are earmarked (they are My books and I’ll do with them what I want) to read the passage/pages, (ahem):
    “Can you read these words?”
    “Yes, But I can’t explain all they mean to you.”.….
    to the middle of pg.346
    “What happened to all the other words? How were they destroyed?”
    “As I told you at the tea table, I destroyed them,” Helen replied.

    Ok. So remember, I picked up that book and passage Randomly, knowing that I’d find an example of what I’m trying to get at…it’s just there for me all through this and other series that you (Michelle) have/ has written. If I take out the names/objects (for the most part) I am reading something…that is About…something else…in this it is (as in many other instances) about writing partic­u­larly (?). That I could do this, with all the Other books, (and find even more convincing exam­ples?) is partly my point. Strangely? I do fear a bit that I’m trying to do what Helen is warning against here “You cannot see the inside of your hand without removing your skin, and causing perma­nent damage”. Like Kaylin, “I don’t want to screw up because I am igno­rant”.

  15. Thunderchild says:

    I’m going to take a second stab at this on two levels.

    Part 1: Again this is just me trying to see if I under­stand what you feel is happening.

    Using that partic­ular passage, I can read it and regard­less of how many times I read it, there’s an imme­diacy to the words. So I’m there caught in Kaylin, gripped by the book and the place is alive for me when I read it but then I get to that last line of Helen’s and all of a sudden it’s like the curtain has been ripped back and all the infor­ma­tion prior gets cast in a different light, the shadows are deeper and for me the world becomes stronger.

    It has been some time since I last read Cast in Flame, yet having read that section, I was compelled to finish the book because of Helen, because there was some­thing in that state­ment that I responded to viscerally;something that changed/deepened the story.

    Part 2:
    If this is a correct inter­pre­ta­tion, then are you wondering if Michelle plans that sort of reader re-eval­u­a­tion or is it a func­tion of expe­ri­ence? Does it just flow natu­rally with no conscious design or is it a skill set which can be learned?

    Are you worried about looking behind the curtain and seeing the wizard? That if you under­stand the trick it’ll lose its power? If Michelle answers it, you’ll then be able to see the thread whilst reading and thus it’ll have less impact?

    For what it’s worth, this small discus­sion has made me think more on how I read, so thank you for that.

  16. michelle says:


    If not for thun­der­child I would honestly — as the writer — not have seen what he pointed out. But I under­stand what he pointed out: I under­stand the move­ment of the scene.

    Is what he said correct?

    Because here’s the thing with reading, as opposed to writing: We all read differ­ently.

    Take 10 Tolkien fanatics who have read Lord of the Rings dozens of times. They will, when they get beyond Tolkien neep, be reading for, be moved by, different things entirely. What I loved, and the reason I reread those books sooooooo many times is not what thun­der­child loves.

    What you read in my books, other readers won’t see or care about. What they read and move past doesn’t cause the same reader-reac­tion. (ETA: They will like or care about different things, or be inter­ested in different ways.)

  17. Jo-Ann says:

    @Thunderchild & @ Michelle

    So — all out of order — my thoughts. Yes I Am afraid of the wizard behind the curtain — but not because it might change things for Me. I under­stand and accept How I read, and how I read Michelle in partic­ular, and neither the power of the scene(s) or the whole is lost to me as I read on these ‘different’ levels (though I some­times reread passages out of delight in the ways they speak to my (own) under­standing of them As scenes or as…More. I’m Not afraid of under­standing the ‘trick’ behind the power — I Want the trick, if it exists in a way I can learn/absorb rather that being an outgrowth of Michelle’s partic­ular talents. One other book comes to mind regarding said trick that made a powerful impact upon me — the Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Since that time I have read Every­thing differ­ently. It had that, metaphor­i­cality to it that I so long for or at least am on the lookout for as I read.
    I don’t know if Hesse or Michelle Planned that reader re-eval­u­a­tion or expe­ri­ence but I do know that they and presum­ably other writers, write (great) stories that can be read on a strict surface level — and that is ‘good’ enough. I’m not concerned about the reasons for my own way of reading — whether that is from expe­ri­ence Of reading or Of life — or about anything losing impact from under­standing the inner work­ings (should they in fact Be a conscious choice). I’m not afraid of the whats/hows of what others read. I am afraid of In Any Way prying too deeply into a writer’s process (whether they’re conscious of it or not) — espe­cially when said writer is trea­sured beyond measure (sorry for the superla­tives but it’s True) — I don’t want to upset any apple carts with my awkward bungling.
    But if it IS a skill-set that can be learned…

    That is what I Want. I don’t want to shine a blaring intru­sive light on the inner work­ings if it might mean…I scare away the cat (sry, just having read a bit involving Shadow/Snow/Night has cats on my mind..though they’re not likely to get budged by a Stupid light).
    Maybe if I approach this ‘ques­tion’ from a different angle that intru­sive light will be turned in another direc­tion. I want to write. I have no stories. It was a shocking lack when my chil­dren were young — “tell me a story” and I’d be para­lyzed. Books and the stories they contained were my go-to. The stories that others told. I cannot (as yet) come up with my own. But I am — good — at seeing how those stories Related to their life/lives. I could — trans­late — for them, the Mean­ings that applied to them and to anyone else. (Not sure they appre­ci­ated that though.)

    If I have my stock of expe­ri­ences, inter­ac­tions, jour­neys phys­ical and emotional from which to draw as does anyone else, I do not want to write About them in any ‘here’s what happened and how I felt’ sort of way…stupid And boring (to me). I have my Expe­ri­ence reading fantasy (mostly) and my learning in every­thing from univer­sity to long-haul self-taught about this and that. Apart from the ques­tion of my alarming lack of self-disci­pline (cause I know it’s a sloggy lot of Work), I can just barely make out the possi­bility of Trans­lating those personal experiences/interactions/journeys into… Some­thing. Maybe. It’s not that I want it to be About me in any fashion, just that That is what I have to draw from — the resources so to speak. It’s not in any way that I think char­ac­ters, their devel­op­ment, plot or other consid­er­a­tions are imma­te­rial (she said oh so naively) but that I wonder if the nitty gritty of producing these (in a Mean­ingful, to me, way) is a process that can be learned (apart from said slog).

    I have a hard time putting words that are direct to this (obv) Because it’s so Direct?, but — ‘do you actu­ally Think of (whilst), and incor­po­rate Your Own Actual expe­ri­ences (of other things) into and while, producing the word/actions/plot/interactions of your stories?’. There. I said it. Don’t know why this gives me the heebeegee­bees but it does. Feel free to laugh/scoff/ignore/evade (not that you ever have, but others might and I have that thin skin). Perhaps what I’m asking Is obvious. I miss That all too often. So it’s not about the fact that your stories ‘feel’ true or that I connect with some­Thing or other contained in your stories (though i strongly do on both counts and I under­stand this varies according the the person reading/connecting) — it’s about the How of making those things and feelings…a process ques­tion… I think.

    Perhaps I am going at it all back­wards. Not unusual for me. Perhaps I’m being too ‘intellectual’…in the sense that I want a roadmap or instruc­tions to some­thing that might be, er, inef­fable. I suspect at some point in my thinking/writing here today I have answered my own question…to myself anyway. At least I have a sense of what I want to do and what I want it to mean…

    I’m also extremely grateful for your creation of a space/thread where I might explore/ask these things…and others can/do respond in with their time and consid­er­a­tion.
    Thanks thun­der­child and michelle.

  18. michelle says:

    @Jo-Ann: The short answer is: No, it’s not delib­erate. The choice of words is, of course, but the shifts and under­cur­rents aren’t.

    When I wrote the scene you chose as an example, it was part of the novel, but it wasn’t meant as metaphor. I wrote it the way I write anything else. I have no conscious or delib­erate metaphors in mind when I write.

    The True Words, the marks of the Chosen, are entan­gled with the way I think, and have thought, about language. About words. Obvi­ously, as a reader, words *were* magical to me. The same words I used in daily speech were words that, rearranged, could invoke such strong reac­tions. They were words that could make me think, could reshape how I thought going forward.

    And yet, still words, still English.

    At my most inse­cure as a writer, one thing has always been true. If I am crying while I write a scene, the scene works. Period.

    I have tried to parse why this is true, over the years, in a desperate search for more certainty or confi­dence in my writing. I have — still, and after all these long posts — no answer to this partic­ular ques­tion, because they are all words on the page. They are all words that I use in real life, rearranged and somehow made powerful.

    When I first started writing — and publishing — I was very very careful when talking about process, because I was some­what afraid that I would break some­thing. That there was a kind of magic that would be lost and it was a magic I needed going forward.

    I am not new to writing anymore. If I could write a How-To that could somehow serve the purpose of writers like me, or whose process is more akin to mine, I absolutely would. I trust my process — but it’s still my process. I’ve been trying to explain how it works, but I think all process discus­sions are by nature incom­plete, and frankly, I’m also trying to explain it to myself.

    I would not suggest that you take specific, gran­ular, biograph­ical data and attempt to write them into your story delib­er­ately, though.

    For me: all expe­ri­ence is like soil. Books are planted into that soil, and nurtured or screamed at or etc, until they grow. The growth — for me — is organic. I might think I’m getting corn and discover it’s an oak tree. Or poison ivy.

    But events of your life, while they give you expe­ri­ence with different things — grief, love, anger, hope, etc. — are… not the story. You know grief. If you can contex­tu­alize the mean­ings of stories for other people, you can prob­ably find a context within story for grief that is … not attached to your life specif­i­cally.

    I think for some readers, the struggle with process is to learn to access the knowl­edge without the specific real-life context; to under­stand how grief and the context of the story – which is not their life – fit together. To see that emotion through a different set of eyes, a char­acter who is not you or has not lived your life.

    I tend to find that elements of my thought and my thought process will — because they’re on the inside of my head — fit the context of the story itself when I write. But the effect they have on readers is up to the reader.

    If talking about process is diffi­cult, I think talking about reading would actu­ally be much harder, because I think that readers, like writers, have unique processes and unique ways of reacting to text.

    Five people can love a book fanat­i­cally, and they will, broadly speaking, agree on the parts they love — but if you drill down, you will find that they love those parts for vastly different reasons. People who have read the scene that spoke to you so strongly with Helen might not have had the same response to it that you did, but might still like it.

    So… I would say that your reader reac­tion to the scene is a lot of what is driving your ques­tion. It resonates with you, and it makes you think of other possi­bil­i­ties, other things. You are attuned, as a reader, to my writing, but you’re bringing your­self to the table when you read it.

  19. Carrie Hamilton says:

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to come back to your digres­sion on visu­al­iza­tion. I am a VERY visu­ally oriented person and (sadly) one who judges books by their covers. For example, I could not finish the first edition of Patrick Rothfuss’s “Name of the Wind” because the cover creeped me out (it’s the one with the angry looking redhead). I only managed to do so when the publisher released the second edition with a different cover.

    I teach many studio art majors, and some take a design class that includes a section on book covers. I’ve never spoken to the professor who teaches the class or to the students, but the exam­ples I’ve seen of their work on the university’s walls often convey a trendy visual approach rather than a sense of a book’s contents.

    This leads to some ques­tions which you may not know the answer to. First, how/why did DAW choose Jody Lee to design the “Michelle West” book covers? She does a great job capturing the flavor of a book’s contents. I’ve read that she does not live in a coastal, metro­pol­itan area, so this may explain some of her visual “success” with the SF/F genre (i.e. she’s able to avoid pres­sures from the trendy crowd) but not her access to publishers. Second, have you heard if publishers of SF/F are having an increas­ingly diffi­cult time finding artists who can read a novel AND trans­late the author’s words into an inviting and atmos­pheric cover? I grew up on Hilde­brandt Bros and Darryl Sweet covers, which drew me into the genre in the first place. I can’t think of many compa­rable artists in this gener­a­tion, and books today often seem to have cookie cutter covers rather than specif­i­cally reso­nant ones (btw, I don’t think the new Patrick Roth­fuss covers are helping him in this regard either, even if they don’t creep me out anymore. LOL?). Or is the primary culprit — as I assume — $$ (i.e. it’s cheaper for publishers to buy a generic design rather than commis­sion one of greater speci­ficity when their bottom line is rapidly shrinking). I assume you have some opin­ions on this from not only a writer’s perspec­tive but a bookseller’s one as well.

    Sorry if this is too much a diver­sion from your task at hand! My ques­tions echo broader issues I’ve been grap­pling with profes­sion­ally for years. But that’s a different story… Thanks!

  20. michelle says:

    @Carrie: this is a more compli­cated ques­tion.

    I got Jody Lee because I asked if it was possible, as I love her work. I have had people tell me that this was not the best choice for these books.

    HOWEVER, art is very subjec­tive.

    And pack­aging, also. UK markets are not, for instance, the same as US markets when it comes to what works for book covers. Things tend to move and evolve, and as the Next Big Book comes out, it’s some­thing that publishers will try to visu­ally echo in books that follow it.

    The cover, for instance, that you didn’t like on the Roth­fuss? It was painted by one of the most respected artists in the SFF field — Donato Gian­cola. He is no one’s defi­n­i­tion of cheap; no money is saved, ever, when using a top tier cover artist, which — he absolutely is.

    But — and here is where things slide a bit — the “sense” of modern, of “new” is defined by pack­aging. So: the novel covers, while works of art, are *also* pack­aging. When trying to pick up the younger market, you want to move away from books that somehow remind them of the books that grace their parents shelves.

    And it’s not easy to do this. You want some­thing that will somehow speak visu­ally about the tone or voice of the book — but it also has to speak to a broader market of people who are looking for a book by visual cues.

    Type plays a huge role in all of this: type, framing, fonts, etc.

    What evokes tone and mood in one reader will not work at all for another reader; age, taste, and the visual cues of impor­tant books in their lives almost define it.

    So — I don’t think it’s that publishers don’t care or are trying to be cheaper and save money (that was always a concern), as it is that they’re trying to create covers that will speak — quickly — to the market for which the books were meant. And some­times that doesn’t work.

  21. Carrie Hamilton says:

    Thank you very much, as always, for responding in such detail. I was surprised to learn you not only requested Jody Lee but got her. I always seem to be reading about how authors have little control over their covers and are often disap­pointed. I was further surprised to learn that people thought she was the wrong choice for your books. I assume you can’t say in this public forum why that would be.

    I am aware that art is subjec­tive, and I know I am a self-consciously “picky” reader in this regard. I lived in Paris many years ago and at the time was reading Julian May’s Pliocene Exiles series. When a new volume arrived at the English language book­store, I was dismayed to find how different the English cover was from the Amer­ican ones I already owned. All of these years later, I’m still perturbed every time I reread the series and hit the “oddball” in the group. Since then, I have wondered how this issue affected the SF/F publishing industry, so I appre­ciate you bringing up this issue as well.

    When I say publishers are trying to take a less inex­pen­sive route, I think of how many covers on book­store shelves seem similar. For instance, my library invited two local authors in the past year whose covers of a woman walking on a beach were almost iden­tical. I realize these images send their own message and are meant to entice a partic­ular type of reader, but once a design trend emerges, it seems to exhaust itself even more quickly than ever before. That’s why I find the covers for SF/F a tricky propo­si­tion: the best artists not only avoid the obvious route, they demon­strate an under­standing of the writer’s tone and thereby avoid becoming an easily mimicked model. The last can (presum­ably) only be achieved by actu­ally reading the book. You’ve said previ­ously that Jody Lee read yours. Is that common?

    I was unfa­miliar with Donato Giancola’s work, but I looked at his website. I see he relies heavily on old master painters for inspi­ra­tion, and I recog­nized the imme­diate artistic sources in a few cases. There’s obvi­ously nothing wrong with that, but it makes me wonder (again) how much effort he puts into reading the books. Inci­den­tally, I see he hit his stride just as I began focusing on profes­sional and then personal matters (hello, chil­dren!), hence my blindspot. I’m not sure how often you make it to NYC, but his work will be included in an upcoming show of SF/F artists at the Society of Illus­tra­tors on E. 63rd: https://​www​.soci​ety​il​lus​tra​tors​.org/​e​x​h​i​b​i​t​s​/​m​a​s​t​e​r​s​-​f​a​n​t​a​s​tic. It coin­cides with the Tolkien show at the Morgan Library, so you could make it a “twofer”.

    Again, sorry if this has been a lengthy digres­sion from your own work, but I appre­ciate your informed response. I normally don’t engage in online forums of this type, but your open­ness, sincerity and approach­a­bility made it easy to do so. I hope your reader’s reac­tions to these posts have provided a posi­tive boost in these diffi­cult times.

  22. michelle says:

    @Carrie: I was surprised to learn you not only requested Jody Lee but got her. I always seem to be reading about how authors have little control over their covers and are often disap­pointed.

    When I say “asked”, what I mean is “begged, pleaded, whined”. I did not have cover artist choice; I didn’t have cover artist approval. But Jody did most of her cover work for DAW (not all), and DAW was publishing my books. If I had, say, asked for Michael Whelan, there would have been crickets. Well, no, there would have been No.

    We don’t have cover control; we don’t have defin­i­tive choice in artists or in covers or in art direc­tion, etc.

    I was further surprised to learn that people thought she was the wrong choice for your books. I assume you can’t say in this public forum why that would be.

    A reader felt that they gave the wrong impres­sion of the content. Many more readers found the books because of the cover. Art, like writing, is so subjec­tive, we take different things about tone and meaning from our reac­tions to that art. Not all readers will like all art. The covers worked for the US market. The UK market was, at the time, very different when it came to how art and covers were perceived.

    Because I worked in a book­store in North America, I had a fairly good idea of what covers would and would not work in the market, because, hmmm, I could see what people picked up and bought. Covers are meant to get readers to pick up a book – to give it more thor­ough atten­tion.

    There are covers that I have loved, but I thought they were the wrong covers for the books that they graced – and that’s down to signaling and marketing.

    You’ve said previ­ously that Jody Lee read yours. Is that common?

    I have never worked at a publisher (some­times I regret this – I under­stand how book­stores work, and how writers work, but not how publishers, on the inte­rior, work). Even if I did, I would never be part of the art depart­ment, given my lack of certain skills.

    I say all this to make clear that this is a guess based on prior discus­sions with people who *do* work in publishing, and on my own expe­ri­ences. But: No, I would say that reading the manu­script is not common.

    There are many reasons for this. With the change of advance infor­ma­tion required by retailers (like Amazon), the cover is often started and finished *before* the book is finished. When 6 months notice was required, this was rarer (but not unheard of). Now that it’s a year out, it’s not. Authors in general, when dealing with contin­uing publishers (i.e. when not attempting to sell a new novel to an entirely different publisher than the one they’ve been working with to date), sell on proposal. Or on partial (3 – 4 chap­ters). Or on “next 2 Cast novels”.

    In order to have every­thing ready for the retailers, the covers will be discussed by the art team before the book is finished in many cases. What they have is a partial book. If we want to publish by a certain date, the cover has to be ready.

    So — I think it’s not the usual to have artists read the manu­scripts. And also: if an artist is creating 24 covers a year, they just won’t have the time. They’ll speak to the art director of the publisher. The art director will have ideas about what the cover should look like.

    I began writing for publi­ca­tion in the late ‘80s. I was published for the first time in 1991. It’s been almost (but not quite) thirty years, and things have changed quite a bit in that time.

    I sent Jody the (un-split) manu­script for WAR on my own. But – she’s been doing these covers for a long time, and I’ve spoken to her in person at various DAW gath­er­ings over the years; it’s not some­thing I’d suggest in general, and it’s not normal. And this meant she was reading some­thing that was not the finished book(s), in the end.

    And some authors would chop off their hands before they let a raw submis­sion pre-edit draft out into the wilds.

    (ETA: Typos again T_T)

Leave a Reply