Why write?

I can’t imagine anyone is wont to asking writers why they write any more than I’ve heard of them asking painters why they paint – which is, to say, not at all.

Well, exceot scholars and writers. They come up with Theories: to entertain, to inform, or to persuade.

That sounds so clinical, doesn’t it? I suppose it is true, though it tends to be said in a fashion that could be interpreted as they are each mutually exclusive. That a persuasive piece couldn’t be, also, entertaining and informative. It doesn’t actually say this because, obviously it can be any mix of the three. Though I would venture to say that the idea that a story is meant to be one of these, then it cannot be all of them (or two of them) equally.

It also doesn’t really answer why. That’s more of a category of what: something entertaining, persuasive, or informative. Why is, I think, a need to share.

We need to share our point of view, our knowledge, our experiences, our thoughts, feelings, and even our imaginations. Simply: we have a story to tell. Even a travel guide, in a twisted you-have-to-squint-to-see-it way, is a kind of story that someone wanted to tell about where the best places to eat in Morocco or Jamaica are. It could be written entertainingly – take the Volo’s Guide series for the Forgotten Realms D&D setting (what? I never claimed not to be a geek) as an example, they may be travel guides for a fictional place, but that doesn’t mean they had to be fun to read.

I write, and I think all the authors I’ve met and spoken to agree, we write because the voices won’t go away, won’t shut up. But those voices are the idea; they’re the data clamoring to be free; the ringing, Martin Luther King-esque, gripping speeches and essays; and they’re the epic tale of intrigue, romance, and a hamster in a tutu.

Oh, I’m sure that plenty of people write for a paycheque. Staff fiction writers, certain non-fiction writers, technical writers, etc. How often, though, is the staff written novel as good as the freelance stuff? How often the non-fiction work dry and dull, only able to hold your attention because the data it provides is just fascinating?

Still, even they: we write because we must. Some, it’s to eat. Others it’s to be heard. To more it is because we have to know what happens next.

My own fiction. I can discuss wanting to write a sweet, lighthearted, happy homosexual teen romance because I saw an absence of such and felt this unpardonable. I could discuss how I hoped that Sally and Lauren’s sexuality being treated as secondary to the plot and its events – merely a catalyst for certain conflicts and growth – might show that homosexuality isn’t anything more significant about who a person is than the colour of her eyes. I could discuss how I hope that by showing two normal girls in a healthy, loving relationship that people might get it through their heads that LGBT people are still people. And it’d all be true … to a point. Yes, I saw this lack of bright gay fiction. Yes, I did feel that the story should be about love, friendship, etc. I also told myself I had no interest in trying to write such a thing. The story wanted written … I had a tale that needed told. I had no choice.

This isn’t at all the same as where the inspiration comes from. I think, for some, the voices that won’t let you not write can be bill collectors, yourself, sneering detractors, and other very real voices. These can be rather different voices than the ones that give us fiction authors our inspiration and narrative.

Look at it this way: if I didn’t have thoughts and ideas that wouldn’t leave me alone, I wouldn’t have written this or its predecessors. Some of you might think that would have been a blessing if I hadn’t, but regardless it’s true. These posts are simply a compulsion to share what’s on my mind – well, some of it. I can’t understand the people who feel the need to share their inner turmoil over whether to have spaghetti or stir-fry for dinner.

I haven’t the slightest idea if this posts makes any sense, but I feel better having said all this.

Because the voices say so

It’s funny, but a lot of people tend to ask writers: where did you get your inspiration? Where do your ideas come from? And various other questions in that vein.

The thing is … for most writers, this is as strange a question as: so what made you write this?

By and large in all of those cases, the answer boils down to “The voices said so.”

Sometimes, yes, we do have some stimulus that gets us to thinking in a particular direction. Now & Forever was born because I read a sweet, happy romance at around the same time I noticed that there was an acute lack of such stories featuring a same sex romantic pair as the main protagonists. Oh, they exist, and in more abundance since that point, but it’s irrelevant. That made me think of writing such a romance. The rest came down to, Lauren and Sally asked me to write their story.

Writers’ inspiration, by and large, is the same as any artist, I should think. Life. We look around at life and ask What If, or Why Not – thus we write various fictions, especially speculative. We look around and we see things we wish to point out – thus is born things like satire. We have a feeling, and we wish to share it – thus is born Romantic fiction (not to be confused with romance fiction, which is a sub-category of this). But in all it’s life, and voices.

The voices are the characters. They’re visions of people, and of places. Sometimes we try to guide the voices, but mostly they guide us. We just have to be quick at taking dictation.

Yes, some authors do construct stories. They build dialogue. They think long and hard about the nature of plot and such. Those people seem, most of the time (in my experience at any rate) to favour literary fiction, a genre whose purpose I’ve yet to fathom. Some do write romances, mysteries, SF, westerns, or horror. Seemingly, though, of a literary nature, or of a completely ephemeral and throw away nature.

All the authors people really seem to dig, the stories that seem to resonate with the most readers, though, those are the ones where things are described as a period of discovery. We learn about our characters, we become friends or enemies with them. We witness the births of cultures, the deaths of races. We see the whole tapestry of events unfold with each stroke of the pen or press of a key. The inspiration particles sleet through our brains, and when we’re feeling particularly receptive to them the words flow like water that has just burst its dam and threatens to flood us to forgetting all but the story – sometimes it happens. These are the authors who might say things like “I want to know what happens next” (Louis L’Amour).

Good or bad. I’m not saying that believing your characters are living, breathing beings somewhere, or anything of that sort, will make you the next Jo Rowling or Neil Gaiman. Talent, the ability to take that inspiration and shape it and forge it into a solid tale, engrossing and engaging, that matters at the end of the day as much or more.

My other point is, for every one person for whom their character is nought but a cog in some literary device – no more real and alive than a transistor (and all too often, in my reading, with as much personality and ability to garner the sympathies of the reader) – there are a dozen or so who talk of their story or their characters as a thing alive that has an either parasitic or symbiotic relationship with the author’s psyche and mind.

I, personally, think this always shows in writing. Even a talented, skilled, brilliant author whose story isn’t a living thing won’t shine as well as the person with only mediocre skill and so-so talent whose story is like unto a living thing. It’s in the language of critics and fans alike. The tales of Oz or the adventures of the young Miss Alice, sailing the high seas with Long John Silver or Captain Nemo, slaying vampires with Van Helsing or slaying orcs with Arylin and Danilo all can be said to come alive. Maybe it’s because the story, in some way IS alive and was so for the author and now is so for the reader. Just as the purely mechanical – all technique and no heart – writing of the literary purist might be no more alive than a machine, no more soul than a desk fan, and thus as it had no life for the writer it has no life for the reader.

I could be wrong. I know how I write, and I know what it looks like when my favourite writers talk about writing. I know what I see on the rare occasions where I venture into internet discussion forums (which, on those rare occasions I do so, do tend to be writer’s forums). I wonder … can corollaries be true? Can a story that was alive and vibrant in the author’s mind find death and mechanical lifelessness once written? Can something born of technique and lifeless prose tell a story alive and vivid to the reader? I wonder if you could tell; would the formerly alive have the feeling of a corpse? Would the lifeless machine that has come to life still show signs of having once been the prose equivocal of a little wooden boy? Ah well, I suppose in the fullness of time anything is possible.

Can anyone write a novel?

We’re approaching another WriMo event.  They’ve got this ‘anyone can write a novel’ attitude and philosophy.

But is it true?

Hard to say, for one thing, how do you define a novel?  For my purposes I like Wikipedia’s answer of the moment:

novel is a long prosenarrative that describes fictional characters and events in the form of a sequential story, usually. The genre has historical roots in the fields of medieval and early modernromance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter, an Italian word used to describe short stories, supplied the present generic English term in the 18th century.

Further definition of the genre is historically difficult. The construction of the narrative, the plot, the relation to reality, the characterization, and the use of language are usually discussed to show a novel’s artistic merits. Most of these requirements were introduced to literary prose in the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to give fiction a justification outside the field of factual history.

Now, I’m going to say no … and yes.  This isn’t GATTACA, anyone can fly a plane, but not anyone can fly with the Blue Angels.  I’m not talking about eyesight and other requirements, I mean some people simply lack the reflexes, the neurological circuitry to do that without killing themselves or others.  In some cases, timing is something you’re born with, not something you learn.  I think everything in life is this way.  Some people have talents that guide them one way or another.

In this vein, no, not anyone can write a novel.  Not everyone possesses the talent to tell a story well, to build endearing and enduring characters, to entrance and enthrall the reader.  Am I such a person?  I hope so, but who knows?  I suppose in the end only time can say.

Anyone can be taught written language.  Even severe dyslexics can learn the ideographic writing of China or Japan, and the corresponding languages, and tell a story in them.  You can then learn about structure, characterisation, plotting, and all manner of other things I can’t name because I neither think about them or even know about them (I never paid attention in Lit class … well, twice.  Once we were reading works by Edgar Allan Poe, and the other was Romeo & Juliet).  They would have a technically perfect novel when they were done.  They would have a long work of fiction, but is it a novel?

That depends.  Let’s leave the world of fiction and writing for a moment and go to another bit of art:  Music.  Did you know that study after study says that people don’t like computer generated music?  I don’t mean MP3s, I mean programming a computer to reproduce a piece of music.  Why not?  It’s Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Jimmy Hendrix, but without the flaws!  It’s perfect, each note exactly the right length, each chord exactly the right pitch and key; the frequencies guaranteed or your money back.  That’s the problem though.  It’s soulless.  That perfection, that exact timing, that exact frequency, it’s … wrong.  Music has life, has spirit, and the people playing it adjust accordingly.  It might say an eighth note on the paper, but it really needs to be a 31/256th note, but that would be silly to write down.  It might say C♯, or B♭ but really it needs to be something just … not exactly that.  Then the music is perfect.  And that’s something that can’t be taught to a computer, nor to a human being who lacks that talent, lacks that ear and sense for when to make a ‘mistake’.

Is what the computer makes music?  If it is, then yes … anyone can write a novel, make music, paint a portrait, write a sonnet, and so on.  If not, then no — they can put words on paper, paint on canvas, make sound out of an instrument, and put 14 lines in a rhyming pattern on the page.

The most endearing, the most well loved stories are ones that don’t follow ‘The Rules of Writing’ as a lit major might refer to them.  Have you ever noticed how the things that lit majors and their ilk go on and on about in rapt adoration are the things no one else reads, no one has heard about unless they had to endure it for a literature class, and/or are things that, have you read them, are known to cause you to wake up years later in a cold sweat going on about giant dung beetles?  At the time, Mark Twain’s stuff was not well liked, Robert Service wasn’t considered a Real Poet, and J. R. R. Tolkien told silly children’s stories (when he wasn’t reinventing the study of Beowulf, of course).  These people broke The Rules!  They didn’t do things Right!  Good God, for one thing, they wrote stuff that was popular!  Accessible!  And, horror of horrors, entertaining!  Cardinal sins, one would think from the way some go on about them so.  But perhaps novels, short stories, poems, paintings, and many other things need that little bit of instinct, that little voice and connection that says ‘no, that’s not exactly right, I’m going to do it this way instead’.  Maybe a technically good novel … isn’t.

So yes, I think anyone can write a novel.  Anyone can learn to put words on a page, get enough of them together to have plot, characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  No, I don’t think just anyone can write a good novel.  Not everyone has the knack for telling a good yarn, and keeping the audience’s attention; to breathe life and soul into the words.

A good novel is one you read and you think, This wasn’t bad, not my cuppa, but I can totally see why people who’re into this kinda thing would like it.  For me that’s Seanan McGuire‘s October Day series, too dark for my tastes, but well written and a good novel nonetheless, just not one I’m in a hurry to read.

But what do I know?  I said, I found more interesting things to do in my literature classes, both high school and college, than paying attention.  I can’t even name the rules of writing.  I couldn’t really give a definition of theme, nor could I find the theme of most things I read with both hands, a GPS, and a pack of bloodhounds.  I just love to read, love to explore the worlds of imagination; to sail the high seas with Long John Silver, to explore the Yukon and Alaska with Mr London, investigate the stars with Heinlein, fight heroic battles with John Carter upon the vast plains of Mars, and face dragons with a little burglar named Bilbo Baggins.  Maybe I don’t know a good novel from a bad one, but I know what I like.

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules

Gaiman’s 8 Rules

These, by and large, are really common sense,. But really that’s why I absolutely love reading Neil Gaiman. Not his books, though several of his are on my to-read list, the only one I’ve managed to get around to yet is Good Omens (very awesome, by the way), I mean him.

Really it does all boil down to: If you want to write, have a story or, better yet, have characters and see what story they present you and then try to keep up.

Write! You’ll never get your story told if you put it off.

Once writing, keep at it. I add the corollary of get the idea down, if not now, ASAP! You may truly not be able to get it down right as it happens. Maybe you’re making love, or driving, or cooking, or skydiving. Inspiration hits at inconvenient moments, but as soon as you can spare a moment get it down. Don’t wait. If you wait you’ll forget the tiny key that made it brilliant and you’ll be left with something flat and lukewarm instead of the vivid fizz that might have made that scene one of the greatest of all time.

Finish. See it through to the end. Even if you have to backtrack several times, even start from the beginning again and again. See it through. If you believe in the story tell it.

Write your story. Once upon a time a brilliant story would be published by someone. These days the major publishers are a bit hung up about genre and marketing and other things, but the beauty of today is you can put it out yourself or find a smaller publisher who is looking for brilliance, not trends. Jo Rowling, Stephen King, and Terry Pratchett should write those stories, you shouldn’t, and any agent or editor who tries to convince you to twist your story into that of someone else, fire them. Walk away and find another.

I love what he says too about having friends read it and how to take their advice. It’s quite true too. In one story I wrote, one friend simply asked questions about a scene – it was a scifi tale with odd paper, but she didn’t grok it. I looked at the scene and realised I knew what it meant, and some folks who were fans of certain SF, the newest example of which is Firefly did too, but to everyone else I had to explain the scene for them to get it. I rewrote it. More brilliantly than I’d had it. Another friend, though, pointed out specific passages and started suggesting changes. His suggestions hurt the narrative, broke the flow, and glitched the carefully wrought illusion of reality to bring the reader’s mind back to the fact they’re merely taking in words on a page. He was, in short, horribly wrong.

No matter if you read his work I do suggest one make a point to read his thoughts and anecdotes as much as you can. He’s almost always fun, and so often wise and … bloody brilliant. Take these rules for writing. Now extrapolate them. Make them apply to other things in life. See the wisdom yet?

Oh, my … delays

I don’t expect, typically, to provide a blow by blow status update of each book’s progress, but at times things seem important and this is one such.

First off, my editor can not begin her vacation until she has caught up with some other items in the pipeline, so as they’re a couple weeks overdue at this point, that delays her break thus delaying the editing of Love or Lust, but such is life.

Ready or Not has slowed. Sadly this is unavoidable circumstance as work and weather conspire against creativity and as I’m forced to stop for research to carry me through a bit I’m at in the tale. Still, in all, I’m confident it will finish in a timely manner and then I can get to work on the third and, as yet, nameless tale.