Journal
 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Writing Process

The spectacular Kiini Ibura Salaam, whose writing is like a lush incendiary locomotive crackling with electric intimacy, has roped in me and our fellow Clarion West 2001 classmate, Emily Mah Tippetts, into this "My Writing Process" authorial chain letter. (Since each author picks another two authors, who blog the following week, it will take roughly 32 weeks until every human being on earth has blogged about their writing process; something to look forward to this winter!)

1) What are you working on?

Ironically, after months of silence on the topic, I just covered this last blog entry: mainly I'm working on the fourth draft of The Unraveling, a far-future comedy of manners and coming-of-age-story featuring malleable bodies, stifling panoptic pseudo-anarchy, reinvented genders, and a pride economy rooted in ultimogeniture. On the side, I'm working on a small rules-light/fiction-first historical-fantasy RPG, a story game of the fantastic shtetl, Dream Apart. There is also a post-apocalyptic zombie story, "Tree of Life", with a lot of Talmudic citations, that I ought to revise when i have a minute.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

So one of my issues, I guess, is my difficulty settling down in a genre, making this question a difficult one to answer. Sometimes I write very classically extrapolation-oriented, core science fiction, like, say, "Start the Clock", other times I write very surreal enigmatic tidbits like "The Orange"; on a dare once I told an editor I would write a story containing all the genres he was missing for his anthology, namely alternate history, metafiction, pirate adventure, espionage thriller, and Victorian romance. (Of course, nowadays we just call that mishmash "steampunk", but in 2006 that term did not occur to a room full of science fiction authors working on a zeppelin anthology. True fact!)

Since each of my stories seems to want to be in a different genre than all the others, I guess I'm forced to answer this question on a project level. "The Unraveling" is, as far-future science fiction goes, awfully domestic, concerned with the intimate embarrassments and frustrations of growing up, against a backdrop of social upheaval. Another way to look at "The Unraveling" is that it's something like dystopian YA (though really, like the Samuel R. Delany books I absorbed in my own young adulthood, it's heterotopian rather than u- or dys-); it differs from other morally ambiguous dystopian YA by being obsessed with the physical and social malleability of identity, gender, social norms, and history.

"Dream Apart" and "Tree of Life" both differ from their genres -- historical-fantasy storygame and somber post-zombie-apocalypse slice-of-life respectively -- by having as a central component an irreverent, political, committed, critical engagement with Judaism and Jewish history.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Again each project is different. Sometimes a purely intellectual idea nags at me or strikes my fancy; sometimes I am annoyed by some conventional wisdom or flawed argument or lazy speculation and want to argue with it; sometimes I am intrigued and thrilled by the project of some artistic community and want to play along, to be one of the gang; sometimes a piece of my waking life wants transmutation into fiction; sometimes there's some old wound that I am worrying at; sometimes I begin without any plan at all, following voice or the shapes of words alone, open to seeing what happens, which of my obsessions will fight its way from my undermind and take hold of the story.

"The Unraveling" probably had some of each of those. It's full of intellectual ideas I wanted to play with, such as its transfiguration of gender, and its panoptic society. It started in part, years ago, as a crotchety argument against the extropian fantasy of uploaded minds that seemed to be dominating the science fiction of the moment (the argument mostly went, "you can reconfigure anything you like, but you can escape neither history nor the tragedy of finiteness, and your results will be fragile and fleeting in direct proportion to your denial of death, of the body, and of history"). It draws from my own experience of parenting, my own experience of adolescent rebellion, of my own excitement and confusion and self-alienation in growing up, my own disorientation at the radical disconnect between how much we see of the dramatic historical changes around us and how little we get to affect them. And it reinvented itself many times in the writing, my subconscious subverting my plans, insisting on different priorities.

"Dream Apart" proceeds in part from the "wanting to be one of the gang" thing -- it's my foray into an indie game design world I'm delighted by -- and in part from the "old wound" thing, sort of the classical "I don't see anyone like me here" representation issue: a Jewish kid playing D&D knows that Paladins didn't look so Lawful Good from the other end of the sword.

4) How does your writing process work?

Maybe the best thing is just to share some hard-won lessons about it.

I find I really need to write every day. I resisted this truth for a long time; and with short stories I can kind of get away with fits and starts. Trying to write a novel, it's just impossible: taking even a weekend off disrupts my momentum enormously. The trail is cold, I have no idea what I was thinking, and my ever-lurking fear that the book is worthless and that I have no idea what I'm doing becomes a paralyzing certainty. That dread is a constant companion anyway, and writing every day is the best way to beat it back.

Relatedly, and especially with novels, it's actually counterproductive to overdo it on any one day. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and if I have a 2000-word day I'm almost certain to bask in my own glory, blow off the following day, and suddenly notice it's a week later and I've done nothing and I'm doomed. Sometimes, depending on the stage of the work, I actually impose a cap -- no more than 500 words, say. Being forced to stop in the middle of a sentence is actually terrific psychological judo: the next day, you're itching to get back and complete the damned sentence. (I've heard this called "parking the car facing downhill".)

I am weak-willed and helpless before distractions; when I'm trying to write, suddenly everything else becomes incredibly urgent, from old email to the cobwebs above the door lintels (the technical term here is "vacuuming the cat"). Denial about this, and resolutions to attain willpower, are useless. Instead, if I want to be productive, I have to arrange things so that the least excruciating option is to write. My laptop has two accounts; an admin account, whose password is an unmemorizable 25-character random sequence of characters, and a writing account, locked out via Parental Controls from anything but Scrivener and Wordpad (no "research"). I go to a café with this laptop to write. This means that in order to surf the Internet I'd literally have to bike home and ransack my filing cabinet for the admin password. Basically, when I'm trying to write, I regard myself as an alcoholic and the rest of the world as a liquor cabinet.

Feedback is important to me, and I don't submit anything anywhere that I haven't run through peer review by trusted friends. But I also can't show things too early; feedback before my own vision of the work is stable is destructively confusing. I'm an extravert, and I long to show everyone everything right away; only through bitter experience did I learn to "write with the door closed".

I usually start without a plan. Sometimes at some point I scribble down a plan of sorts. Then I usually find myself violating it. I wish I could follow outlines; it sounds incredibly relaxing, and people who can do so fill me with envy and longing. I am almost always, when first-drafting, walking alone into a blizzard of ignorance.

I revise a lot. When I can, I like to have multiple projects going at different stages; revising or correcting proofs is a welcome break from first-drafting. The danger is when a secondary project is so exciting as to utterly eclipse a primary one. Sometimes I will force myself through the day's minimal 200 words of the primary, first-draft project and collapse gratefully into revisions of something else.

All right!

Next up in the Writing Process Amorphous Exponentially Growing Blog Threatening to Engulf the Earth Blog Tour is the illustrious, indefatigable, majestic and sovereign Mary Anne Mohanraj, who, in addition to being one of my favorite people, is a prodigious polymathic juggernaut of literary, organizational, social justice, and culinary doings: writing science fiction, erotica, and lit-fic like the dickens, founding twelve organizations each night in her sleep, and emanating luscious feasts, bountiful vegetation, languorously satisfied harem members, well-advised industrious protegé(e)s and delighted gamboling children in a half-mile radius around her like some kind of incarnated spirit of archetypical abundance.

And, because I love recursion, the other writer I will tap is none other than our own Betty Rosenbaum, who has already posted her blog entry, a week early.


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