On Efficiency

For those of us by our natures who are forced to figure things out as we go, there’s a part of the creation timeline I’ve come to refer to as the “Fits & Starts” stage, which is rather where I am now. In a short story it usually doesn’t last very long if the story is going to work. A book, if you’ll pardon the expression, is another story. It can last for chapters at at  time and often does. If it lasts more than that, well, that’s a problem.

Fortunately for me, my characters usually sort that stuff out themselves, once I’ve got a handle on them and what they’re up to. Yet sometimes it seems that this “sorting out” happens when they insist on talking to each other for extended periods. Sometimes these are the sorts of conversations that the eventual readers needs to be in on from the start. Sometimes not.  Or as one of Ursula Le Guin’s early editors of what became the Earthsea Trilogy is alleged to have said–“Ged is talking too much!” With all due respect to everyone involved,  I think I know why.

I definitely  know the time will come when, after the sorting out period and rough draft period, there will eventually come the rewrite period, and at least some of these fascinating (to me) conversations will have to end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Pity? No. Pitiless. When something once served the book but no longer does, “When it’s a drag on the flow, it has to go.” It’s our job to write it, and our job to cut it if and when the time comes when sections of the prose no longer serve the story. Chunks of any given book are completely necessary for us to write, and absolutely useless, nay counterproductive, for the reader to slog through. It’s sort of a paradox, but there are a lot of them in this process, so you just go with it.

As others have rightly observed, writing and then disposing of these chunks of superfluous wordage is not a very efficient way to go about the job of writing a book, and I heartily agree. I might find myself in envy of those people who can work all this out in a detailed outline before they even start. Then again, writing a hundred page outline of a three hundred page book doesn’t strike me as all that efficient either. Maybe writing is not supposed to be “efficient.” Maybe it’s just supposed to be done, and any way you can do it is the absolute best way there is.

 

True Things

A wise writer (@saladinahmed) once tweeted something to the effect that the plot of any story will fall apart if you look at it closely enough, because it was a story, not real life. What wasn’t said, naturally, is that the difference between a story and real life is that a story, at least within the confines of its internal logic, has to make sense. Real life, as Mark Twain once famously observed, suffers no such limitations.

So we’re automatically at a disadvantage at least in that regard, trying to write a story where the reader, at least for the space of time they’re reading it, can forget that they’re not really living a story but reading words on a page or screen. We like to talk about something called “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief,” which is the ability to do just that. We like to talk about it because, to a fiction writer trying to reach a fiction reader, it’s beyond important—it’s absolutely necessary. All fiction readers have it or they wouldn’t be reading stories. Some people, I’ve discovered, have this ability to lesser degrees or even not at all. I vividly remember doing a signing where an older lady approached and asked if my books were about “True Things.” It took me a while to realize she wasn’t talking about non-fiction. She was talking about stories that mirrored and reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, the sort of things she saw and experienced every day. Give such a reader a story by, say, Ray Bradbury or Octavia Butler and the immediate reaction would be something along the lines of “This isn’t real!”

Of course not. It’s a story. If it’s a good one there’s Truth in it, but real? No. Then again, the “True Things” which she enjoyed weren’t real either, but try to explain that? No thanks. I’ve seen that lack go even further, and those readers only read news stories or biographies or, well, words on a page which claim to mirror actual events. Nothing speculated, nothing made up. It’s not their fault, but for whatever reason, they lack the toolset for anything else. I’ve tried to imagine what that’s like and the closest I can get is to picture a situation where you hear people talking about different shades of red when you’ve been colorblind all your life. You’d think they were talking nonsense, and from your perspective, you’d be right.

Anyway, to get back to my colleague’s point, no plot is perfect. There’s always a hole somewhere. If we do our job right it’s a little one, hardly noticeable or missed completely if the narrative pulls the reader along as it should. There’s a reason it’s called The Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It’s primarily our job not to muck with it as we spin our stories. Anything that throws the reader out of the story, even for an instant, makes them less inclined to trust you next time, if there even is a “next time.”

There will be holes, and inconsistencies, and whatnot. That’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is that they will ruin the story. If the story works, the question on the reader’s mind will be “What happens next?” rather than “WTF was that?”

It’s our job to make sure the reader’s concern is the former and not the latter. If anyone ever said this was easy, that was not a “True Thing.”

Shifting Gears

I don’t shift gears well, as in flitting from one action to another. The first time I wrote that sentence I typoed it to “I don’t shift fears well.” Both are true, and maybe part of the same thing. See, right now it’s blog time. I set myself a deadline to do at least one blog post a week. Deadline being Monday, as in “today.” I don’t always make it, but at least when I don’t, I know which deadline I’m flubbing.

The thing is, it’s also Chapter 2 time. Which is sort of a made-up thing except that it could be anything else. Chapter 7 time, or a story where “that scene where the thing my heroine dreaded turned out to be the least of her worries” time. It just so happens that this time is actually Chapter 2 time. As in “Why, this is Chapter 2, nor am I out of it.” Except I’m writing this thing I’m calling a blog post instead of Chapter 2. What is Chapter 2? Good question. Remember, I’m a pantser, as in writing by the seat of my pants. See, I didn’t know that the norn Skuld was going to show up in Chapter 2 until she did. Why did she show up (It’s a book. Everything happens for a reason. Some say real life is like that too, but the jury’s still out on that one)? Good question. Frankly, I wanted to know the answer to that one myself. Right now the characters are hashing that out while I try to write it down. Or at least that’s what I was doing until the blog called.

A Pooka, a Banshee, and a Norn walk into a laundromat. It’s no wonder I’m confused. The real wonder is I’m not confused all the time. Rather like my “hero.”

 

Aednat frowned. “He’s looking confused again, so perhaps we’d better cut to the chase. Nudd, it wasn’t that you played a trick. It wasn’t even that it changed the past and present. No, the real issue is that no one anticipated it.”

Skuld nodded. “Or were able to factor your action into either the intent or necessity of the outcomes my sisters and I had projected.”

I bowed slightly in Skuld’s direction. “With all due respect, how is that my fault? As I said already, what I did to McReedy is no different than the sort of things I’ve done to mortals hundreds of times over the centuries. I’ve even done worse, the truth be known.”

If Skuld took offense, she didn’t show it. She simply said, “Not this time. You changed the past and the present, none of us saw it coming, and right now no one—including the norns–knows how you did it. That’s the different part.”

“Which means,” Aednat added, “that what you did was pure chaos. Or do we need to explain that part as well?”

Oh, crap….  They did not. Rather like looking up in the middle of the street and seeing a speeding garbage truck looming over you–you immediately understand the situation, even if that understanding doesn’t do you a damn bit of good.

 

Sorry, had a little bleed over there, which turns out to be the scene where our hero realizes just how much trouble he’s in, and why. Now, as soon as he tells me, we’ll both know.

Time to shift gears. Later, people.

 

“In Memory of Jianhong, Snake-Devil”

I’ve been dropping annoyingly vague hints here and there, but now it’s all out in the open—I’ve apparently started a new fantasy series. I didn’t really plan to do it and I certainly didn’t think I was ready, but then I’m not always in charge. I know writers who strongly disagree with that perspective. “I’m in charge and my characters do what I say.” And that’s often true even with me, as in sometimes I am and sometimes they do. But for me it usually works out better when the characters do what they want and I just follow closely and mark it all down, then cut out the bit where they stared at the horizon for an hour just for the hell of it and add the bit where one of them tripped and fell into the icy stream. Just for the hell of it. Or maybe because they deserved it…ahem. Where was I?

Right, the new series. The first one, “In Memory of Jianhong, Snake-Devil” is now up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #226. I’ve already written and sold the second one and started blocking scenes for the third. As I said, after Yamada I wanted to do some stand-alone stories, since some of my favorites of my own work have been books or stories with no befores or afters, except what was implied in the story itself. I once attempted a few befores and afters in the case of Jin from All the Gates of Hell, because I liked the character so much, but none of them worked out. She was done, and thus so was I.

Pan Bao and Jing were different. I’ve had them in my head for a while, wondering what they were about. I first had him pictured as a bumbling Taoist priest kept successful (and alive) by his far more competent daughter, and there are still echoes of that, but the man himself turned out to be quite different. Then Mei Li showed up, and well, that was that. So it’s a series. I hope you like it. If you don’t I’ll write it anyway.

It’s not like I’m in charge.

Waiting

Waiting again. This time for the furnace technician. The same boiler that serves our radiators also feeds the hot water heater, of which at the moment we have none (hot water, that is). So. Waiting. I should be better at it by now. In this avocation you certainly get a lot of practice.

The advice everyone hears, once a piece of writing has been submitted, is: Don’t Wait! Write! It’s good advice so far as it goes. For one thing, it keeps you doing what you should be doing anyway. For another, there’s a good chance you’ll have a finished piece ready to submit elsewhere before the first one sells or comes flying back (Figuratively, as almost no one does that now. It was a paper thing.) Never having to pin all your hopes on just one possibility, which may (likely will) disappoint you. Doing your work, also a coping mechanism for waiting.

But you wait anyway, despite all the defenses and deflections and denials. There’s that one market you really, really want to crack before you die. There’s a special piece that you just know is the best thing you’ve ever done and you want it Out There! Rather than sitting in some editor’s queue. And if it gets bought, then you’re waiting again, until it’s actually out there, which means there are lead times and what’s bought in March doesn’t get published until October, if you’re lucky. For books it’s even longer as a rule. Before you even get to that point there are edits to get through, and then you’re waiting (again) for editorial approval of the changes, or more corrections and the process starts again…. Then there’s the gap between buying and the check arriving, and don’t get me started on that.

Waiting.

I seem to be living in reverse. When I was younger, I had more patience. I find it’s a scarcer commodity as time marches on. Too conscious of the passage of time, too aware that the time to get things done and find whatever it is you’re trying to find in your work, in yourself, is very finite. Any time spent waiting feels like wasted time, even when you’re not just waiting, you’re also waiting. There’s no real escape from it. Just make it share the time it wants to take from you with whatever doesn’t involve waiting. You can’t get rid of it, but at least you can make it earn its keep.