I try not to buy into the romanticism of writing. To me, it’s a job, something I would eventually like to be a sole job because I genuinely enjoy doing it so much as a hobby. I think that the tortured artist image does a great disservice to the creative process, as do the ideas of being able to turn creativity on or off like a faucet. As does attributing it to inborn talent – the implication there, I find, is that some people are never meant to write, will never be able to no matter how much effort they put into it.
I find that elitist, disparaging and ultimately self destructive, because what you do when you propagate those views is that you make people who don’t fit into those prescribed stereotypes into outcasts from the community. I do know writers who fit into the tortured artist thing, absolutely. I know plenty of writers throughout the ages who have felt unable to create without the “aid” of drugs. At the same time I know just as many straight-laced people who can hold down banal jobs while creating marvelous things during their free time.
It’s not mystical, it’s not something that necessarily needs to be revered. Appreciated yes, but not put up on a pedestal. All of that, all of that out of the way… Man, writing is weird sometimes, isn’t it? You’re vividly hallucinating things in your head, and then making notes about them and then showing those notes to other people and making them share those hallucinations. Trying to replicate the chemical reactions and spread them around like some kind of story-virus, hoping that it takes over a portion of their brain that causes them to consider it worth passing on to other people. Like a genteel STD spread by e-reader screens and dead trees.
The part of it that always gets me is when you’re writing the initial outline or draft. The one you don’t show to anyone, when you’re shoveling a bunch of raw materials into your workspace just to have them all present in the same area. You’re telling yourself a story at that point, one that you created. For me I generally know how the story is going to end, and half the fun of writing is finding out how the characters get there. Occasionally I’ll just really like a character I cooked up and I’ll drop them in a setting, follow them along and see what trouble they get into. It’s cool! I wish more people did it, I think the world would be a much happier place if became a more widespread habit. It would certainly make for more fun things to read and a wider variety of stories.
But I digress here. Drafting. Moving from one stage of a draft to another, refining it. It’s an extremely bizarre process and I think it’s the closest I come to really adding elements of mysticism to the creative process. You’ve got a story, right? But now you’re looking at it, vivisected on your word processing program of choice, and you start seeing ways that you messed up. That you could improve. If you stop partway, you’re not going to know if your flaws are truly flaws or if you just haven’t wrapped up those loose ends yet. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I see this kind of “storytelling is basically shamanism” and bleeding-into-the-keyboard rhetoric from people who also complain about rewriting over and over without actually finishing a rough draft, particularly in creative writing communities.
I’ve got a couple of examples I’ve been working on. One is a story I’ve worked over and over again, trying to get it just right. I always come near the finish line and putter out. I put in a serious effort to finish it, and I did so, and less than 24 hours after seeing it from start to end I realized how I needed to fix it. It’s a story dealing with cultural clash between two extremely similar groups, outsiders and invaders coming in and not meshing well. It’s firmly in the New Weird genre so there are supernatural elements, but as it turns out, when you borrow too much from Lovecraft? His racism tends to permeate the work, and once I got to the end of the story I came to realize that hey, this reads as virulently anti-immigrant and incredibly gross. And my protagonist recognized it too, because the brick wall I kept hitting at the end was her thinking how fucking stupid the entire conflict was and working to resolve it. When I made that realization I restructured it, kept the same characters for the most part but made it much more grey. You have people coming in and clashing with the established community, but… what if the established community are kind of being assholes about it too? What happens when the elders on either side refuse to compromise? It happens all over the world, on a daily basis, with religious and cultural schisms. The difference is here on my document I can resolve that shit and maybe plant a seed in some reader’s head someday that when they run into a similar situation (that hopefully doesn’t involve vengeful lake gods and driftwood gargoyles) they should make take a step back and not jump in on one side or the other. I mean, if you’re writing to be read why not make readers question their perceptions?
Another piece I’ve been working on, it’s been a grueling one due to the amount of research I’ve had to put in on it, is a story of fire marshals and forensic investigation when a fire simply does not obey the laws of physics. I wrote that thing three times from start to finish before I realized how I wanted to tell it. I tweaked different things each time. Hell, I tweaked the perspective from third person past tense to first person present because the only way I could make it work is grabbing readers by the throat and holding them inches away from the proverbial debris that the protagonist is sifting through, trying to find some fire accelerant that explains a burn pattern that simply shouldn’t exist in the natural world. I tried salamanders, efreet, dragonfire, August Derleth’s really bad attempts to classify the Cthulhu Mythos beings as elementals, none of it worked and I had to get to the end each time just to make sure it wasn’t my mind playing tricks on me. I didn’t want creeping horror for this one, I wanted the story itself to resonate like flames, I wanted the same tension you got from the first season of True Detective where you have no idea if it’s the world or the character going mad. By the way, I’ve been rewatching that show with my wife lately (her first time) and damn does it hold up well. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a weekend and marathon it. Toxic masculinity overlaid with cosmic horror and the nihilism of bayou ghetto society? Imagine me doing that chef-kissing-fingertips thing right here.
Anyway, my point here is that when I get these stories to the point where I feel comfortable showing them to people, even when it feels its absolute most mystical and I’m drawing folklore wholesale from the luminiferous aether… I’m not. It’s a sum accumulation of bits and bobs of other stories I’ve picked up over a couple dozen years of reading everything I could get my hands on. The stories get better because of rote repetition and rewrites. They don’t magically become better because a muse whispers something to me between draft 2 and 3, it’s because I am practicing and putting out a lot of waste product for every good product, and I can’t recognize the flaws in something half-complete. I wish I had realized this earlier in my life because I feel like my writing has taken a tremendous uptick since the revelation.
So, writing out of the way, let’s talk reading. Specifically research reading.
The project I’ve been working on for the last couple of months is very short story based and it’s caused me to put a hold on my novel progress. That’s fine, writing is writing, and frankly I feel that doing these 8-12k pieces has centered me a little bit, built back up the good habits that I had lost over a couple years of slacking when my day job and planning for emigration took over my life. I’ve taken the opportunity to get some distance from my early outlining and re-approach it from a new perspective.
Something I complain about a lot is how eurocentric fantasy writing can be. I know, everyone like to observe this about the genre. It’s knights, castles and western dragons as far as the eye can see. Rehashes of the Norse and Greco-Roman pantheons are the gold standard. Please note, I read and love this stuff too. I grew up on it. In a lot of schools that’s most of your world history right there. Fertile crescent, jump ahead to Greece, then Rome which is basically Greece but angrier and with bigger armies, then a bunch of knights and peasants run around until you hit the renaissance. It’s systemic ignorance rather than the fault of any particular author, and frankly there’s still plenty of great literature out there using it as a basis. But as someone who does complain about it and who wants to read a wider variety of settings, I realized it was kind of hypocritical to make the core of my setting into something Europe-derived. And I saw that as a person who has made an effort to read outside of the “classical” education even back in school, I just don’t have a big enough background to write up a secondary world and have it work on internal consistency. I fell back on having a couple of western-style city-states as my core. I got really into the worldbuilding for those two regional powers and since taking a break and re-approaching, I’ve realized that I can still have them, and have characters from them, but make them small islands and fragments of a former empire awash in civilizations based on everything from an industrialized Mayan society to sorcerer-glutted Egypt to Bedouin nomads following great flights of kraken through the deserts. Off to the book store to, you know, make sure I knew what the hell I was talking about.
So I’ve picked up a few very good books. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization by Paul Kriwaczek. Holy shit, so good. It follows the very beginnings of civilization up through the beginning of the Persian Empire, and it touches on so much stuff that I’m going to plunder for different groups. What’s great is that it not only looks at these ancient civilizations but how they still influence the modern world, not just with writing but with regional warlords attempting to live up the mythologized kings of old. How their gods were essentially a rotating pantheon where the ones that proved themselves most powerful got worshiped for a generation or two but could fall out of favor and have their temples torn down and rebuilt as easily as a politician eating dirt in an election. It gets right down into the nitty-gritty, even stuff like proto-chemistry and artificial lapis lazuli being created in ancient palace-cities. Take that process and the religious and cultural significance behind it and add actual supernatural elements to it? You’ve got enough for an entire book series right there, much less the background I’m working it into.
Another one I picked up was Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples. This is an area where I’ve really strove to be careful and respectful. It’s a history that isn’t necessarily touched on very often in the west, and I think that’s a damn shame because it’s an incredibly rich history. A lot of what we do get is heavily propagandized or more opinion piece than history. I think that if I want to create a setting that it at least in part based on a fantastical reimagining of the middle east, I owe it to myself, any potential readers and to the culture I’m borrowing from to do it with respect. I feel that a lot of the reasons we see so much “white” high fantasy is that we deliberately gloss over and erase things like Al-Andalus, Islamic Iberia. Multiple religions in the “dark ages” actually getting along quite nicely for the most part, people who would definitely not qualify as milky white knights on horseback in glinting silver armor riding from castle to castle. It’s something I had to actively search out as a student after reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan and totally falling in love with the setting. I’m not far into A History yet, since I’ve been spending a lot of time taking notes. Highly recommend it so far, though, it’s fascinating stuff and again a largely untouched goldmine for worldbuilding. Just, you know, do it nicely and put in the proper footwork. As I’ve said before, I am Jewish, I’m sure I’d be pissed if I found someone doing a shoddy job using the Kabbalah as the basis for their magic system without researching it very much.
Stepping away from the cultural research, I also grabbed something that’s been on my list for awhile, Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams. Now, admittedly, in my setting the kraken can fly, their ink has magic properties when tattooed into human flesh, and they may or may not be the degenerate offspring of gods long ago displaced and/or killed off by the contemporary pantheon, but I figured I should roll up my sleeves and learn about how actual squid function. It’s a really surprisingly accessible book for someone who was awful at science back in school. Lighthearted but still lays out all the solid information you need to get the behavior and habits of cephalopods, and it’s reminded me of other stuff I can add in like the bioluminescence. I feel like my fictional sky squid are going to feel about as realistic as they possibly could now.