January 19, 2015

The muse with a gun to its head


This weekend was ConFusion in Detroit, and over the course of five or six tequila shots I did an extremely silly Reddit AMA. (When Joe Abercrombie, Mary Robinette-Kowal, Peter Brett, Myke Cole, and just a ton of other authors are in the room doing AMAs with you, you have to stand out somehow.)

During the AMA, I was asked this question – in essence, “How do you write?” – and I came up with the answer above.

My answer was trite and silly, but at the same time, it’s true. Writing gets compared to many things, and some of the metaphors I’ve used are:

  1. Walking through a dark tunnel, feeling your way forward with your hands
  2. Running an obstacle course with a blindfold on
  3. Sex
  4. Building a house from the inside out, never getting to see what it looks like from the outside, and only ever hearing descriptions of it from strangers you don’t really know
  5. Kissing
  6. Operating in a terrorist cell
  7. A conversation or argument with yourself
  8. Masturbation
  9. A puppet show where you can only ever see the strings and the artifice, and never the show itself
  10. And, finally, sex again

These metaphors, though, only capture what it’s like to write, and don’t work much at all when trying to capture what writing really is – and writing is, in my opinion, just kind of making shit up and keeping the stuff you like.

There is no kite, key, and thunderstorm. No combination of secret ingredients bubbling away in a copper pot. No calisthenics routine to purge the mind of errata, and bring on spiritual clarity. It’s just you replacing emptiness with shit you made up.

But the hardest thing to do – and I think this is the real question – is how to do this on demand. This is why so many people fail to write stories: we all want to build these worlds, but the effort of sitting down, making this shit up, and carving away the excess (see? another metaphor) is difficult to do.

This is why I feel like the muse performs best with a gun to its head.

What I refer to here is the process by which the writer gets themselves into a situation in which they have no choice but to write, where they are compelled by forces beyond their own choosing to sit down, face the blank page, and cover it with words.

Frequently this force manifests as a deadline. This is why you hear writers talk about deadlines so much. I think some of it’s complaining, but some of it is also acknowledging that they are going to write soon, a whole lot. By saying that it’s going to happen – first to the publisher, creating the deadline, and then talking about that deadline to friends and family – they are actually talking to themselves and all their mental juices, saying get ready, writing is going to happen.

In a way, they’re telling a story, starring themselves, in which they finally sit down and write the story.

The act of sitting down before a blank page and touching keys is probably the single hardest step in most of writing. (Sure, copyediting sucks, but that’s different.) What you start will probably own your life for the next year or two, at least. Sometimes it’s easier to trick yourself into believing you don’t have any choice at all.

Think about it like (another metaphor incoming) starting a fire. When someone picks up a lighter or strikes flint on a stone, they’re not willing fire into creation. What they are doing is creating conditions in which fire has no choice but to come into existence. Writing, to me, is quite similar.

The muse needs a kick in the ass, a gun to its head, a spark that gets the whole machine firing. Creativity isn’t a process, it’s a passive energy, and passive energy needs to have an instigator to put it in motion. Creativity can’t spark itself. It needs the need, the compulsion, the gentle prod to get it going.

This is also the difference between having an idea and writing. A writer can get as many eureka moments as their brain allows, but if they don’t write them down and work on them, then it’s the same as never having any at all.

So this is how I write:

  1. Agent asks if I have an idea of what I want to write next.
  2. I say yes, I do.
  3. But I don’t really. I have ideas of ideas, images and pieces of a story. I don’t have a story itself.
  4. Because I have said I do have a story, I am forced to sit down, face the page, and write up an outline of what I think that story is.
  5. Agent gives their comments, and says, “Can you make these changes?”
  6. I say yes, I can.
  7. Oh, god, I have no idea if I can. But I won’t know until I wade in and get down in the weeds in the words.
  8. Agent goes to editor with the idea. If I get lucky, the editor says, “I’ll take it. Can you have it to me by [THIS DATE]?”
  9. I say yes, sure I can.
  10. I have absolutely no fucking idea if I can get it to them by that date. I just lied on a contract, in other words. I’m probably going to prison, and soon. But I start writing, and in the process of writing, I try to figure out what the story is and what it needs to be.
  11. I write. And write. And rewrite. And rewrite the rewrites.
  12. I hand in the novel. The editor says, “Can you make these changes?”
  13. I say yes, absolutely.
  14. Holy shit, why did I say that. I am totally fucking clueless as to whether or not I can incorporate any of the changes they’re suggesting. I start looking online for houses in distant countries, where I can begin a new life.
  15. Before I do that, though, I start writing. I get inside the guts of the story and try to mentally map in how I would make the changes they’re suggesting. I write, and edit, and think, and rewrite.
  16. I send it back to the editor. If I’m lucky, they say, “Looks good!” and send it off to the copyeditor.
  17. Copyeditor sends back edits. I need to finish any and all changes by [THIS DATE].
  18. Copyeditor asks, “Do you know you have a veteran of this war in the book being born after the war ends? Is that an easy fix?”
  19. I say, sure, that’s an easy fix.
  20. Oh, fuck my cock, why did I say that.

In other words, this is the incremental process that Bradbury once described – throwing yourself off a cliff and building wings on the way down. But sometimes it’s quite hard to actually jump off the cliff. That’s why you create circumstances wherein you don’t jump, but wind up on the receiving end of a very strong push.