what I’m “working on”: writing as specific practice

First, some good sales news!

I’ve sold my nanite clonepeople 2nd-person short, “All the Colors You Thought Were Kings”, to Elise Catherine Tobler at Shimmer, which I am extremely happy about! (I’ve been trying to crack Shimmer since I started submitting stories. Delightful to have managed it.) I’ve also — last month, but I don’t think I announced it formally here — sold a SFnal saint’s life( gnostics! in! space!), “Contra Gravitatem (Vita Geneveivis)”, to Ranylt Richildis at Lackington’s, for their “ARCHITECTURES” issue. Another market I love and am so happy to be part of! I think both of these stories will be out in January 2016, approximately.

Otherwise, I’ve been writing this novel. Interminably, and slowly. I am not good at it: the writing a novel part of writing it. The story itself, at least according to my first readers, seems to be fairly decent. I’m not displeased with it. (I am actually disgustingly fond of it, vilely in love with my imaginary people and their terrible political problems. I am that obnoxious writer, the one who likes her own work.) What I do not like is writing it, and in a slightly different way than my general dislike of writing in general. (I am also one of those possibly-less-obnoxious people who don’t like writing, they like having written. Having written is my favorite state in the universe. It is worth doing all the writing for.) I don’t like writing the novel because — well, because it’s so HUGE. I don’t have instincts for the pacing of it; I don’t have stamina for having gotten through 18k of a story and being only about one-fifth done. It just keeps GOING. And I am constantly in a state of awareness of this being the first time I’ve done this. I don’t have the reassurance of skill telling me that I can do this, I’ve done it before. It’s not even a great leap into the unknown: it’s a slow trudge into the unknown. Every step seems to require an individual act of self-propellment.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how what I’m “working on”, right now, as a writer who thinks about writing as a practice the way language-learning is a practice, or yoga, or rock-climbing. Something done consistently over time, that becomes a sequential and evolving exploration. Because clearly I am working on how to write a novel. That’s the part of my practice which I’m actively trying to push into, to stretch myself at.

A lot of this way of thinking, about “working on” applying not only to stories but to skills in writing, came out of a discussion at Fourth Street, which was about “how to draw the cards you aren’t dealt”. The metaphor is: everyone gets a few cards in their initial writing-skills hand. Some people get character (my friend Fade Manley is one of them); some absurdly lucky people get plot (my VP classmate Devin Singer); I drew setting, for my sins, and also theme, which is why all my early work is evocative-yet-overdescribed symbolic worldbuilding. (I got better.) This year at Fourth Street there was a panel which expanded the metaphor to consider how one learns to do the things you can’t do initially: i.e. drawing more cards from the deck. It was a great conversation — I particularly loved hearing about how Steve Brust taught himself structure in the Dragaera books by imposing strict formalist rules on his chapters — but the point which stuck out for me was the idea of deliberately trying to “work on” something you don’t do easily. To construct a story in such a way that the story failed or succeeded on the thing that you want to be better at, and then working until you figured out how to make that thing effective.

Later this spilled over onto Twitter. I tweeted something along the lines of “someday I will write a protagonist who isn’t a poet-diplomat” (and I swear, someday I will), and got into a lovely conversation with Max Gladstone about character types and templates. I came away from that conversation thinking that the next thing I really wanted to work on was, of course, character, really stretch myself to write new and different kinds of people with individual and diverse experiences —

— and then had the crushing realization that I absolutely couldn’t do that right now on this novel. Because I was already working at the very edge of my skill level.

(This is not to say there aren’t people with diverse experiences in this novel! I really hope there are. It’s profoundly important to me to write people who are different from me, on racial and gender and sexual-orientation axes! But all the people in this novel — even the ones who are pretty far from my identity-experience — are people I have some idea how to write. I’m not stretching. Not this time.)

The edge of my skill level on this project is in fact writing a novel. I am, I think, capable of doing it now in a way I wasn’t five years ago — which was the last time I tried — or two years ago, which was when I got serious about writing professionally. But I’m just barely capable. I’m in that active learning-by-doing phase of acquiring a skill. It makes me make some interesting and slightly conservative — conservative in the sense of not taking risks — choices while writing it. For instance, I am working in a cultural context I feel very capable and comfortable writing (inspired by middle-period Byzantine literati culture — never think the dayjob isn’t useful! especially if you put it IN SPACE) with character types I know I can write well (those damn poet-diplomats) and thematic concerns that I find deeply energizing and pleasurable to explore (memory preservation, imperialism and the colonized mind, uniqueness of individual identity). I’m letting myself pick things to put in this book that aren’t hard for me, because the act of writing a novel itself is so hard for me.

I think it’s going to be a good book.

But oh my god will I be glad when the part of my practice I’m working on isn’t how the fuck do you string one hundred thousand words together.

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One thought on “what I’m “working on”: writing as specific practice

  1. Congratulations for the story acceptance.

    I started working on my first novel ever last NaNoWrimo, but never finished it. I’m bad when it comes to writing long works, and I had intended this to only be a novella. I either plan to get back to it or start a new one altogether (probably during NaNoWrimo since that’s the only thing that will motivate me to start writing one.) So I’m more of a short story writer. But either way, I have to love the process and not just arriving at the completion. Part of this thinking comes from my Eastern philosophical beliefs (a little further east beyond Byzantine, as interesting as that culture and its history is). If I didn’t love the whole process, I wouldn’t be writing and so would give up too easily. That’s just me. Some people the end-goal motivation works best for them (which it sounds like it does for you). Great article.

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