Or, What I Learned From Failing As An Author
(I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, you just found an Easter Egg. The bad news is, it’s just me talking about writing; there’s no Pyrebound stuff. Consider this the equivalent of bonus features on a DVD–the ones nobody watches because they’re just the director dithering on about his vision.)
I am not an expert in literature. I have only a bachelor’s in English, and I can’t say I worked very hard at it. All of my basic skill at writing came from a youth spent arguing with strangers on the internet; the great works I learned to appreciate were, with few exceptions, the ones I read for myself.
Around 2004, I set out trying to make a novelist of myself. I’d never tried it before; I was a shiftless twentysomething, vaguely aware that as an adult I’d need a calling and that writing was something I had a knack for. I thought that would be enough. It turned out I was wrong.
Fifteen years later, I have written somewhere in the area of two thousand manuscript pages of failed novels–books that seemed brilliant in my head but fell apart from fatal flaws halfway through. Counting only the ones I got a good start on–more than fifty pages–I have seven aborted books under my belt. Pyrebound is a radical reworking of one of them.
I like to think I’ve learned now, that I’ve finally gained all the skills I need to tell a story right. But I thought that five years ago, as well. I’m approaching an asymptote; I can get closer and closer, but never quite reach it. I began with a reasonable aptitude for basic composition, and the germ of a talent for worldbuilding that I had to develop through practice. Altogether, I had less than half of the toolkit I needed to be a good author of fiction by my own current standards.
There are plenty of “what you need to be a good writer” lists out there; I think most of them fall far short. Many are lists of attributes (such as “persistence,” or “willingness to learn”) required to be successful not as an author specifically, but as anything at all.
So here’s my own list–unsolicited and self-indulgent though it is–handily condensed into four words starting with C, arranged in order of increasing subtlety and rarity. Not every author, or even every successful author, has all four, but they’re the toolkit as I think of it. This list applies specifically to prose fiction writers; I can’t speak to nonfiction and poetry, never having tried either at length.
The basic ability to manipulate the English language, sticking one word in front of another and having it come out grammatical and intelligible. Bonus points for efficiency, clarity, and aesthetics. The very worst can’t communicate effectively in written form at all, but plenty of people are mediocre from lack of practice.
There’s very little that needs to be said about this, except that it functions as a kind of gatekeeper; it’s immediately clear when someone simply can’t write worth a damn. A quick scan of several lines of fumbling text will lead to an equally quick rejection. The other three entries on this list are more subtle, and take longer to develop as an author, to manifest within a work, and to appreciate as a reader.
A form of logic; the knack for keeping track of your creations, and piecing together how they would affect each other. You could call this “creativity,” but in a very specific sense, the one Tolkien called “sub-creation.” Every form of fiction requires the creation of a counterfactual world–invented people, places, ideas, beliefs, animals, what-have-you. And every good work of fiction keeps them all straight and anticipates how they would act if they were real.
This is most obviously important for science fiction and fantasy, which really hang on their invented worlds, and to some extent historical fic, but even making an effective plot in realistic fiction relies heavily on maintaining a consistent internal logic. There’s a close and little-appreciated kinship between effective worldbuilding and effective plotting; people who are bad at one are often bad at the other, because both are about following the changes you have made to their logical end.
What we commonly think of as creativity–a “right brain” activity, fluid and uncontrolled–is something of a chimera in my experience, at least if you think of it as a rare talent. Every human brain can vomit out oddities; we do it every night without trying, when we dream. Being able to organize those oddities in a way that makes sense is a deeply rational process. So you’ve stapled a man’s upper half to a horse’s body, inventing the centaur–very good! But what would that imply? Follow it through, and see if it leads you to anywhere interesting.
There’s a very good reason why the stereotypical sci-fi/fantasy fan (or author) is a socially inept nerd. A well-constructed fantasy world can be quite soothing, compared to the chaos of the real one.
The truly fluid, unstructured, illogical aspect of writing; the ability to understand what makes human beings work, and the way our experiences affect our understanding and our approaches to life. This is important for multiple reasons. Most obviously, you need it to be able to create diverse, well-rounded characters, to make their actions consistent with their goals and needs, and to get someone to care about what happens to them.
But it also has a much broader effect, in that a sense of empathy yields an interesting and emotionally compelling story. After all, your reader is also human, and needs to be understood. This extends even to fundamentals. If you do not grasp the limitations of their perspective, they will lose track of what’s happening. If you abuse their patience, pacing will become an issue.
On a more abstract level, compassion allows the writer to deal with complex issues in a mature and satisfying way. What we tend to think of as the essence of art–what we talk about when we start chucking terms like “the human condition” around–is the result of a gifted artist reaching deep down and finding something that can resonate with an unusually large subset of the human race.
So much of spec-fic falls apart on this level. The worst of the genre is utterly wooden crap with unbelievable characters propelled by implausible motives, but succeeds on the technical, constructive level. I think I still need some polish on this one, personally. It’s my weakest area of the four.
The real make-or-break, the final exam of the four, is the stunning revelation that the author is responsible for the story. This should not be a surprise, but it is, because in America at least, we are taught to regard every creative art as some kind of occult magic. Because the purpose of writing is self-expression, it must be free and unconstrained, and work by black-box methods hidden deep in the most secret parts of our minds.
Now, obviously you can’t express anyone but yourself. Art is an extension of its creator, this is true. But it’s easy to take this eight steps too far, and make a fetish of your own lack of discipline. This is appealing on several levels. It casts a flattering magical aura about the creative process; it excuses all failures and inconsistencies; it provides an armor against criticism because the process is ineffable and sacrosanct.
Tragically, it’s all so much bullshit, and the belief that whatever comes out of your clever head is beautiful has inflicted a lot of very ugly and unnecessary things on the world, because the mind has as many ugly and horrible things in it as the rest of the world. If not more.
If you’ll indulge me in a potentially overextended metaphor, our creative processes are like the goose that lays the golden eggs. Sure, you get gold out of that bird. But the bird only has one hole back there. That’s also where the poop comes out. And while bird poop has its uses (read: you can learn from your mistakes and failures), it is quite unmistakably not gold. The fourth C is the ability to recognize when you are trying to tell yourself that, really, that smear in your hand is priceless.
Pyrebound is actually my second “published” novel. My first was set in a world every bit as rich and complicated, with interesting characters, and so on, but I’d made up my mind, for some reason, to tell it in epistolary format. There are few formats more poorly suited to exposition of an exotic world than telling a story through in-world documents. It requires an absolutely unyielding intimate perspective, with no zooming back or asides to the camera.
But I convinced myself that I could pull it off, and I did a good job of it. If you’re very smart, and extremely committed to sticking it out, you can probably figure everything out by going over every line and consulting the appendices. Sadly, most people just aren’t that committed, and the average reader is utterly bewildered by this thing. My test-readers all tried to tell me as much, but I’d invested so much in writing it this way, and was so determined to publish something, that I convinced myself it would be fine.
I self-published it, and nobody who wasn’t a good friend or family member read it all the way through. I wanted to take the story further, but I can’t muster up the energy to go back and tell it right, and looking back I can see that I talked myself into taking the story in the wrong direction several times to make the format work. Because what the author wants is right!
Now I find it liberating to think that, really, I’m a craftsman. I make stuff for other people to enjoy. It is a product for consumption, the same as any other, and I have a responsibility to put out a good product. If my muse doesn’t like that, she can deal with it. The muse won’t ever buy a single book, and anyway she’s stuck with me.