a non-exhaustive list of things that help move a story forward

I know I’m not the first person to suffer w—— b—- (I’m not suffering from it now, so I’m not going to jinx myself, but it’s that thing that happens when you want to write but you can’t). But I’ve been having a few good writing hours recently on the Sekrit Project, tentatively called “Project Waveman,” so I thought I’d go through the recent factors in my life that might be underlying them.

collaborators

I am not a comics writer (or, really, any other kind of writer), so the Sekrit Artist’s offer to draw a graphic novel from my script was, frankly, a huge opportunity, and one for which I’ll thank him more profusely and publicly as soon as it becomes apparent that the wheels aren’t going to fall off the whole thing. But his generosity’s created two pressures at least superficially at odds with one another: Pressure for time and pressure for quality.

Normally, when I’m writing, I write whatever I feel like writing; the novel if I feel like the novel, one short story or another if I feel like that. And, to a lesser degree, I write whenever I feel like writing. But with a collaborator who represents the possibility of a real breakthrough sitting idle with an itchy drawing finger, I’m much more motivated about using my free time a.) to write, and b.) to write Project Waveman. So that’s time pressure.

How does time pressure interact with quality pressure? If the issue was just that I needed to get a certain quantum of words out in a certain amount of time, I’d focus on writing that is writing—i.e. not background research, not character sketches, not backstory. But SA has gotten good reviews on his solo work, so I have a bar to reach; and SA and I are friends, so I don’t want to hand him something that will cause him to laugh mercilessly at me over beers. I can hand some random editor a sub-par thing in the hope of publication (and have done, and will do again), but not SA.

So I do the back-end work to sustain quality. And then I get panicked about my lack of progress about the front-end work. So I do the front-end work too.

What does this all boil down to? Collaborators make you make time. They make the dishes go undone, the feedsites go unread, the laundry go unwashed—not forever, but enough to make space for the work. They lower the resistance to working, or at least heighten the ability to overcome that resistance. Everyone has 24 hours in the day, but the attention of a respected collaborator motivates you to scrutinize those hours much more carefully and use them much more wisely.

I’m not exactly sure how you’d leverage the ass-fire-lighting properties of collaborators on projects that are more traditionally solo, like novels and short stories (or more or less any writing other than textbooks and scientific papers—which, it bears mentioning, are not famous for high-quality writing). Committing to a readership is probably a similarly useful move, although generating a readership for fiction is not necessarily easy. You could find other writers and try to commit to generating pages (or chapters, outlines, whatever) for each other on a schedule; the problem with that sort of arrangement is that, when you’re all in the same boat, you tend to get overly sympathetic to each other’s difficulties (for similar dissipation of responsibility via sympathy, see: gym buddies, journal clubs). Maybe the best thing would be to co-write a story with someone—alternate sections on a schedule. If you like the project, you’re less likely to be sympathetic to your co-writer’s slowness, because you’re champing at the bit (whereas, admit it, you could care less about reading your friend’s story).

Or you could start up a big old famous fiction groupblog.

motivation

Not my own motivation. I’m a relatively motivated person, and the aforementioned Huge Opportunity has lit a (low) fire under my ass. This is just a recap of one of the obvious but hard principles of writing: If characters don’t have good reasons for what they do, it’s hard to decide what they’re going to do, and hard to write it once you do decide. It turns out that I more or less wrote about this already in the post below on the Snowflake Method, and it’s not exactly a revolutionary idea; I’m just attached to it because I’ve generated it de novo by dint of hard experience.

By way of new insight, I’ll offer that having a personality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for having motivation. This is something that (I think, in retrospect) confused me for a while—not that I explicitly thought they were the same thing, but that I implicitly thought motivation could be computed as a linear combination of situation and personality, of which I could readily generate both. It’s not so simple. History is involved. A given personality can think many things, but (if any action is to be taken) has to settle on one; which one is a subtle matter, and a character who’s not a monomaniac can change beliefs without changing personalities. So, to extend my already tortured mathematical metaphor, generating motivation is less like taking a weighted sum of situation and personality and more like feeding situation to personality as represented by a backprop network with a hidden layer and semi-randomly initialized weights…

… I could shore up that metaphor if I tried, but no one would appreciate it. You have to run the simulation and see what comes out, is the point.

awesomeness

The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature states that all literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool, and the reader will enjoy the work to the degree that the reader and writer agree about what’s cool—and this functions all the way from the external trappings to deepest level of theme and to the way the writer uses words. —Steven Brust

When I first read Brust’s exposition of the CSTL, it was in a different interview—probably in the back of one of the Khaavren romances—and referenced rapiers and cloaks, which his fantasy work tends to emphasize over the more familiar fantasy tropes of plate armor and broadswords. The articulation of the theory here quoted slights these aspects (the “external trappings”) by contrast to what we all know in our hearts is more important, theme and language.

The CSTL is not presented as a way to write good literature; if anything, it’s a denial of the notion that “good literature” really exists, since all evaluative experience of literature devolves onto shared representations of coolness. We can, of course, try to universalize the CSTL by identifying aspects of literature that almost all adult humans view as cool, and I bet those aspects would be more numerous than you think at first—but I’m interested in the context of a way to allow oneself to write.

Many fiction writers are concerned with producing something of value. However, it turns out that most people’s first-principles ideas about value make for dry fiction. We want our stories to say something true and consequential about the real world—but formulating a statement and representing it in a story will, at least for most of us, yield an awful story. When I was first trying to write seriously (not very long ago, this), two of the stories that came out of my system were about “Consumerism is bad” and “U.S. drug policy is bad”. These weren’t much fun to write, and I never sold either one; I think the latter one has deeply latent promise, but the several thousand words of the former are probably worth no more than their summary, “Immaculate conception in a department store.” It’s the ideas that pulled my cool-strings—a conversation at the Old Spooks’ Home, an AI that tried to become a dead person by sucking up his Internet presence, a time-traveling samurai—that have gotten any traction with people.

Of course, there’s been plenty of crap that’s been produced in service of the CSTL; in some sense, genres are just common collocations of Cool Stuff. If I tell you “No one wants to read another knights-and-armor story,” you’re inclined to nod your head, especially if you’re heavily invested in the contemporary style of mimetic literary fiction. But George R. R. Martin tells knights-and-armor stories with the best of them—he has jousts, for fuck’s sake—and they’re excellent because they have all that other Cool Stuff, intrigue and conflict and character, all credible and compelling and human. They’re also excellent because they deconstruct the stereotypes they start out exploiting—and this, I think, is where the CSTL’s real value to a writer comes in. Once you find your cool zone, examine why you think it’s cool. Why a person in general would think it’s cool. What types of people, or types of thoughts, dispose one to think it’s cool? What about those thoughts is reasonable and what’s flawed? How might an amplification or contravention of this cool be leveraged for dramatic, or thematic, effect?

… and you’re off.

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