I’ve come to a realization over the last few days. I’ve been reading some Pulp Revival blogs, and other blogs by and for writers. There is a lot of good advice on the craft of writing out there, but thinking over the perspective from which these pieces is written has made me understand something.
Successful writers are manufacturers.
Now, folks coming from an MFA, Art For Art’s Sake viewpoint might read that statement as a slam, but it’s not meant that way. I admire manufacturing. Being able to produce a product with a consistent level of quality, to a schedule, to satisfy customers–that is a laudable skill. As a consumer of media I am very happy that certain authors can be counted on to release good books at regular intervals. There are times when I am in the mood for a particular kind of novel, and there are authors that I can turn to for it.
Knowing what I will be getting is not the same as getting the same thing over and over. Manufacturers innovate, they try new products, they watch their customers to see what works and what doesn’t. Charles Stross’ Laundry Files and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are two good examples. Both authors manage to introduce new characters and ideas into nearly every book. Some work and become continuing characters and themes. Some fall by the wayside because they didn’t interest the readers.
I suspect that most writers who make a living as writers would agree with the description of writing as manufacturing. They would say that they strive to produce good books on a regular basis and that they continually refine their writing process to make sure that what they deliver is the best that they can create.
I am not a manufacturer, though. I am an inventor.
Again, that statement is not intended as a value judgement. I am not claiming some kind of artistic high ground. It’s a different way of approaching the craft, that’s all.
I’m much less interested in what works than in why it works, how it works, how far it can be pushed before it stops working, what happens when you try it this way or that way. When I read an analysis of how authors create compelling characters or fascinating plots, my first thought isn’t to adopt those techniques but to dig into the nuts and bolts behind them.
My goal is the same, in the end. I want to entertain my readers. I want to produce stories that get people emotionally involved, that are enjoyable (for occasionally very skewed values of “enjoyment”).
It’s how I go about doing it that is different. It’s hard to explain, but in every new project I start from scratch, reinventing the wheel. Even in my series, The Book Of Lost Doors, the four novels are intentionally structured differently. (They are, in essence, each structured around the question, “Who is Agony Delapour?” and built to give four different answers to that question.)
My short stories tend to be even more experimental. I tend to write them to test a particular theory–“can this be done?” Frequently the answer is “no, it can’t” which is why I have a lot of unfinished short stories.
Much of this work is done unconsciously, or semi-consciously. I don’t do a lot of planning in the conventional sense of plotting a story out in advance. Instead I focus on what I call the deep structure of a work–those things like word choice and rhythm of language and level of detail that invoke feelings in a reader that are independent of what is actually happening in the story.
It is in the opposition of the overt story–the events being described–and the covert story–the mood created by the way in which those events are described–that I feel I do my best work. In this way I write much more like a poet or lyricist than a novelist.
And I’m okay with that. I realize that invention is not a way to be commercially successful–those inventors who became rich, like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, did so because they applied their inventions to their manufacturing. You don’t get rich by inventing something, you get rich by selling a whole lot of things. If it’s something that you invented, that streamlines the process, but it’s the sales, not the invention, that pays the bills.
But I like what I do. I nearly always enjoy the process, and I frequently enjoy the outcome. I think other people, both readers and writers, get something out of my experiments. When I wrote “A Hill Of Stars” for Cirsova #1 I created a world that quite a few other authors have been able to work in, and there are more “Eldritch Earth” stories in the works.
That pleases me.
The 21st Century Thrilling Adventure anthology that will be coming out is also, in some ways, my invention. That pleases me, too. I like to be able to see other artists building on my ideas, it makes me feel like my effort has been worth it.
So I’m going to keep doing it wrong, and see what happens.