Without being too mystical about it, there’s something magical about Alan Bennett. When I want to remind myself what truly good writing is, I pull out his essay collections Writing Home, and Untold Stories.
Here’s an excerpt from his 2014 London Review of Books diary entries (an excerpt of an excerpt), and dammit, isn’t this just freaking magical? Looks at what he does here. Under the guise of the most casual and offhand observation but he paints a vivid socio-geographical picture in just over 150 words:
5/6 July, Yorkshire. Watch various stages of the Tour de France on TV more out of an interest in the topography than the cycling itself, which is hardly a spectator sport and tedious to a degree. The route is thronged with spectators who seem highly excited and anxious to be part of the spectacle, leaning out in front of the bikers, flourishing flags in their faces and generally making the riding more hazardous than it has any need to be, so that when a rider comes off, as happens disastrously at the first day’s finish, it’s hard not to wonder how often the spectators are to blame. The countryside, particularly in Swaledale, is bathed in sunshine and looks spectacular, especially from a helicopter, though since part of the object of the exercise is to fetch more tourists in, I have mixed feelings about its attractions. Most memorable is the scene on Blubberhouses Moor when the cyclists stream over into Wharfedale watched by onlookers capping the most inaccessible crags.
Alan Bennett is the Fred Astaire of writing. He’s dancing on air here, making it look easy.
One thing is true: Writers need other writers. Aside from the obvious benefits of companionship and mutual understanding, one of the reasons we need each other is that sometimes, if we’re very lucky and listen carefully, a fellow writer will offer a bit of advice that makes all the difference to our work.
I had one of these moments at the 2012 OryCon, attending a panel hosted by writer and life coach Steven Barnes, when he said something that made all the difference to my writing. The advice was this:
You approach a story via either story or character. If approaching via story, ask yourself this: What is the problem and who is the worst person to give the problem to? If approaching via character, ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen to my character? And better yet, how can I make them do it to themselves?
At the time I was struggling to draft a historical fantasy set in Versailles in 1738. Steven Barnes’ advice made me realize that I had given the central problem of my story to the wrong character. I couldn’t make the story work because there was no good reason that character couldn’t have solved the problem on about page six.
I threw the entire draft out the window and started fresh in April 2013. By November Waters of Versailles had turned into an 18,000 word novella. And in October of this year Ellen Datlow bought it for Tor.com. It’ll appear there on June 3, 2015. And over the past year I’ve finished four other (much shorter) stories, and sold three of them.
Now, I’m hardly starved for the company of writers. I’m married to a very talented, award-winning writer and writing teacher. Alyx and I talk about writing all the time, but I honestly don’t think any of these writing victories would have happened without Steven Barnes’ advice. He said the right words at the right time. Thank you, Steven!
I started the first draft of this Process Blog Tour post by waffling over whether I have enough real writer points to legitimately respond. But screw that. Cut cut cut. Then I delayed posting this because I felt superstitious — like if I posted it I’d never write fiction again. Dumb, hmm? But Caitlin Sweet tagged me because she’s interested in what I have to say, so let’s just do this. Protesting too much is boring. Delay is boring.
What am I working on?
Final revisions on a historical horror story set in 19th century Bavaria. Horror isn’t my thing at all, but I wanted to submit something to a particular anthology so I waded in. When I first started drafting, I got myself quite freaked out while conjuring the horrific elements (I have an overactive imagination). It’s okay now, though.
I was surprised to discover that horror seems to require huge amounts of sensory information, and I loved writing that. It was an excuse to get a little lyrical, where otherwise my writing tends to be quite straightforward.
On the novel side of things, two potential projects are battling for supremacy. One is an alternate-present fantasy and the other is near-future non-genre. Both have their pros and cons. I just need to decide which project will make me happiest — which pinata contains the most candy.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
God, what a loaded question. First of all, I reject genres as anything other than marketing categories. Some people only read within certain marketing categories and that’s great if it works for them. I read the best (as I define it) across all categories. That goes for all media.
So I’ll redefine the question to: What characteristics does my work have that I think might be somewhat unusual?
I’m not interested in writing about characters like myself. To date I’ve mostly pursued male characters. Out of the three stories finished this earlier this year, one MC is a mentally disabled Viennese janitor, one is a potty-mouthed Australian winemaker, and one is an Enlightenment-era French slut. All men.
Maybe that’s because I’m mostly interested in characters who are absolutely convinced by the actions they’re taking and it’s easier to imagine men moving through the world with that kind of conviction. Women tend to be more ambivalent unless they’re pretty extreme outliers. But I’m not interested in extreme outliers.
However, the new historical horror has a lesbian MC. She’s backed into a corner physically, financially, and emotionally, so I hope she’s moving with conviction. I had trouble getting her there, and I’m afraid she might not be sympathetic enough.
Why do I write what I do?
Better to ask why I write at all. Because it would be better if I didn’t. All writers know that the opportunity cost for what they do is huge and the chance of it ever paying off financially is little to none.
I write because I’ve always wanted to — always — and getting the psychological permission to do it was one fuck of a battle that only started turning when I approached 40.
I write because it’s taken over 300,000 words to figure out how to write something I’m proud of. I’ve got great taste, and I can tell when something’s shit even if I’ve shat it out myself. So after learning how to please myself it would be a damn stupid waste to stop now.
I write because it’s mentally beneficial and controls my anxiety. Which is a way of saying that I really NEED to.
I write because finishing something and having people you respect like it, understand it, maybe even love it, is the best feeling in the world.
I write because many of the people I love and respect are writers, and I always felt like an outsider when I visited their playground. That wasn’t a good feeling. It also wasn’t a good way to achieve the recommended levels of mental health and self-love.
I write because I love fiction and can’t live without it, but I don’t love it unconditionally. I have high and exact expectations that are rarely met. So if I want to read something that pushes all my buttons, I have to try to write it myself.
How does my writing process work?
I’ve tried the “quantity not quality” thing and it doesn’t work for me (it was a great way to learn though). It just makes a mess too awful to face cleaning up. Not very many people can write quickly and produce something worth reading. I think the quantity not quality orthodoxy is responsible for a lot of crap.
Some people can write a story in a weekend. That’s not me. For the previous two stories, seems like I’ve gotten a 5000 word draft in a month by working at least eight hours a week. Then finishing it takes huge amounts of revision — 30-40 hours. Maybe 100 hours per story total. I haven’t actually calculated it.
I start a drafting session by grooming the last 1000 words or so to make sure I’m not headed off on a tangent. That means by the time I have a complete first draft it’s already been revised at least three times, except for the end. Which means the ending sucks. Then I rewrite several times before asking Alyx to weigh in on it. She’s wonderful at critique not only because she’s a terrific writer and experienced critiquer, but she also teaches writing so is very smooth at communicating her opinions and fixes. Rewrite again and get another crit from a friend. Then rewrite again and again. Maybe 5-10 revisions?
Revise, revise, revise. There is no other way.
My most unusual tool is an 11 x 14 inch sketchpad, which I use to doodle scene mechanics, story, and plot. If I’m spinning my wheels, the sketchpad will usually put me on track again. Scribbling has always helped me think.
Our condo is too small for me to have a desk. My laptop lives in a drawer. But our condo building has a library with wifi, which is nice. Our kitchen table works too. Often Alyx and I will write in a coffee shop. The current spot is Jimmy’s on Gerrard, which has two upper floors with big tables.
I can draft on an iPad with a regular Mac bluetooth keyboard, which is great to haul around to the coffee shop. This setup is no good for revision because cutting and pasting and flying around a document with efficiency is impossible on an iPad.
Research and inspiration
I read a lot of non-fiction. Good, clear non-fiction primes my brain for the kind of writing I want to achieve. I actually think that Alan Bennett’s essay collections Writing Home and Untold Stories are magical in this way. I can’t recommend them highly enough.