…and it reminded me that this is one of my big weak points as a writer. I can’t describe food very well.
Partially, this might be related to my well-documented issues with describing anything. But only partially. If I buckle down and get in the right frame of mind, I can describe a landscape or a building or even a piece of clothing. But food really is the hardest one for me.
Part of it is that I don’t think much about food. My mind pretty much checks out after I ask the following questions about food:
Is it good for me?
What side effects will it have?
How does it taste?
The answer to the last question is either “good” or “bad”. I’m not someone who can write at length about how something tastes. I’m always baffled by people who can describe food or drink in complicated terms.
In all my time writing this blog, I’ve covered quite a few subjects. I think I’ve done three posts about food, and one of those was about Doritos, which barely qualify.
I’m a bit better about having characters in my stories drink stuff. I think that’s because I once wrote a story where a character drinks something with poison in it, and in order to keep that scene from standing out, I had to constantly (it felt like) make references to what people were drinking in other scenes.
There’s a scene in The Directoratewhere two characters have lunch together. That was at the suggestion of a beta reader who specifically complained about people never eating anything. I think I even specified that they ate sandwiches. That’s about as much detail as I could stomach. (pun intended.)
I know plenty of authors who do a great job describing food, though. Two came to mind when I read Lydia’s tweet: food is a key thematic element in Carrie Rubin’sEating Bull, and so she is careful to describe what characters eat, and why. In Sheila Hurst’sOcean Echoes, there are vivid descriptions of the meals that characters eat while on a scientific cruise.
Later, I thought of a couple more examples of the use of food in fiction I’ve read recently: in Mark Paxson’sOne Night in Bridgeport, there’s a running joke (for lack of a better term) that the protagonist keeps craving a cheeseburger. (Mark himself is a skilled cook, as he documents on his blog.) There’s a similar idea in Ben Trube’sSurreality, where the detective is always hankering for a Reuben sandwich.
I’m currently reading Eileen Stephenson’sImperial Passions, and I happened to be reading a chapter in which the characters are having dinner. It occurred to me that it is very important for historical fiction to describe what people are eating, not only by conveying authenticity to the reader, but by helping to describe the structure of the society they live in.
This is why food is a key part of world-building generally. One of the famous questions asked by (good) designers of fantasy worlds is “what do the people here eat?” Because if you can answer that question, you end up answering a lot of other questions about the society you’re creating. When you write historical fiction, that information already exists for you, but you have to research to get it right. (e.g. “in the 1800s, Americans founded cities and towns along bodies of water over which agricultural products could be shipped…” etc.)
So food is a very important part of any story. (Well, any story about biological life, anyway.) I need to do a better job keeping that in mind. But I still don’t see myself writing an extended paragraph about the texture and aroma of a meal anytime soon.
A little while back, I was describing Audrey Driscoll’s The Friendship of Mortals to someone. After I was done, she looked at me and said, “So it’s an H.P. Lovecraft slash fanfiction?”
I was about to argue the point, but then I realized she was right. It is–except that, if you describe it that way, it would lead people to expect something very different than what The Friendship of Mortals actually is. Fanfiction has a reputation for low quality among Serious Writers, and so if you describe something as such, most people will automatically assume it’s bad, or at least amateurish.
Friendship of Mortals is a very well-written, high-quality book–in fact, it’s better than many books from big publishers and well-known authors that I have read. Calling it a Lovecraft fanfic, while perhaps technically accurate, doesn’t begin to describe it.
People often assume that the ideas are the hard part of creating something. I used to assume this too. I think it was when I watched this talk by Chris Avellone that I realized it wasn’t true.
(That’s a fantastic talk, by the way. If you don’t like video games but enjoy writing, just watch this section. If you like games, watch the whole thing.)
This isn’t a new concept–hence the famous Edison quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. But it’s hard to grasp until you start making things.
In this regard, ideas are easy to come by–they are like abundant raw materials that require lots of training to know how to use. It’s easy to dream up a concept for a story, or a new invention, or a business model. The hard part is doing the nitty-gritty stuff that makes it work.
So, for the last few days, I was agonizing over whether or not to post a poem I’d written. I eventually decided to do it, then had second thoughts, then finally settled on making it a page of its own instead of a regular post. (In the process, throwing off some readers who were linking to the original post. My apologies, Phillip!)
The reason I got so concerned about this, as I mentioned on Twitter, is that the poem is very dark. I hate to inflict this kind of gloomy subject matter on an unsuspecting audience. I myself have very mixed feelings about dark fiction.
So why did I write it then?
Well, first of all–and this is especially true of poetry–these things take on a life of their own. In this case, I started writing with the general concept that I wanted a poem about a Knight writing to his Queen for help. I wanted the Queen to initially seem unsympathetic, but have the Knight (and hopefully the reader) come to understand why she behaves the way she does by the end of the poem.
I didn’t have any specifics in mind of how this would work, and I just let things play out line by line. Rhyme is a major factor too–if I write a line I like, I’ll try everything I can to come up with a respectable rhyme for it rather than cut it. So the words I pick in lines 1 and 2 dictate what happens in subsequent lines.
I remember reading an interview with the comedian Danny Kaye, in which he said he would like to make a recording of some Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. But when he tried, he said, “something goes haywire inside me–and the words go haywire.” The result was he would sing updated parody lyrics.
I think I have a similar condition, only instead of updated lyrics, my words tend to turn into bleak ruminations on the dark side of humanity and the universe.
And the reason I really wonder about this is that, in fact, I have led an extremely blessed and happy life. Probably better than about 98% of the world’s population. I have no tragedies or trauma in my past. The only loved ones I’ve lost are my grandparents, who lived well into their old-age, and pets, most of whom lived to their full life expectancy. These are sad things, but also part of the natural order of the world.
Moreover, I happen to know–either from reading their blogs or from other communications with them–that some of my readers have had to go through much worse things than I ever have. I feel guilty when I inflict made-up horrors and tragedies on people who have almost certainly had to deal with plenty of sadness in real life.
There are times I wish I could be like P.G. Wodehouse, and write brilliant pieces of light entertainment that are funny and fun and make a person feel better while reading them. But, as I’m not a genius like Wodehouse was, when I try it comes off as fake and saccharine.
And on that note, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Ponder this: why did he cast the snakes out of Ireland but leave the spiders be? Seems like a rotten deal to me.
I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.
It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)
The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.
This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.
My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.
[I recently read The Friendship of Mortalsby Audrey Driscoll, the first installment in her Herbert West series. I absolutely loved it, and sent Ms. Driscoll a few questions about the book, her other works, and her thoughts on writing in general, which she kindly and thoughtfully answered. One note: there are a few minor spoilers for the first book below. Enjoy!]
BG: What was it about Lovecraft’s original Herbert West story that first inspired you to write this series?
AD: I was aware of the story for years before I was able to track down a copy. Its reputation as HPL’s worst story intrigued me. How bad could it be? After I read it, I found myself wondering why Herbert West is so interested in reanimating corpses, especially considering how badly his attempts turn out. HPL calls him a totally rational type, but some of his activities, especially in the later chapters, seem pretty irrational. In other words, I thought Herbert was interesting enough to need a backstory, so I wrote one, incorporating other elements from Lovecraft – the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Kingsport, and a few others. Not Cthulhu, though.
BG: How did you manage to write the romance scenes and still keep in the Lovecraftian style? Were there any other sources that you looked to for inspiration on that, or to help with writing the early 20th-century setting in general?
AD: As you know, since you’ve read both HPL’s original story and my book, both are narrated by Herbert West’s friend and accomplice. Lovecraft doesn’t give him a name, but I called him Charles Milburn. I pictured him as a lonely, middle-aged librarian (and I’ll just add here that I worked as a librarian for 35 years), telling the story many years later. His somewhat obsessive, confessional style was perfect for the tale, as though the time has come to tell his long-kept secrets, and he can’t wait to pour them out. The romance element lent itself well to this, because Charles’s affair with Alma must be kept secret from their colleagues, and Charles’s romantic impulses toward Herbert are pretty much unacknowledged by him. Once I discovered/decided that Herbert was gay, I read quite a few works by and about gay writers, which helped me to shape the characters.
BG: There are lots of themes in The Friendship of Mortals, but the main one seems to be the narrator’s romanticism vs. West’s materialism. Did you consciously want to explore this conflict, or did it arise organically in telling the story? And do you think the reader should come away favoring one viewpoint or the other, or is it more of a “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing?
AD: West’s materialism was emphasized by Lovecraft in his original story, so I must have organically decided to make my narrator, Charles Milburn, a Romantic. A certain amount of conflict developed naturally after that, which was a good thing. And since Herbert undergoes a transformation analogous to the process of alchemy, I suppose I expect the reader to follow along and experience that along with him.
BG: There are a few passages in the book that have to do with music. Can you talk a little about how music influences your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
AD: Yes, definitely! I actually worked some pieces of music I listened to at the time, such as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Allegri Miserere, into the plot of The Friendship of Mortals. Another CD I listened to during that writing was The Mask and the Mirror by Loreena McKennitt. Her setting of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross had a profound influence on the novel, sending it in a direction I certainly never intended.
The most musically-influenced of my works is a literary novel entitled Winter Journeys, about Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. It’s not historical; the action takes place in the years of its writing, the winter of 2007-2008. I haven’t published it myself as yet, because I still have an idea I might try to get it traditionally published. But I’ve been so taken up with publishing the Herbert West books and writing my current work in progress that I no longer have the mindset necessary for submitting to publishers.
BG: What other authors, besides Lovecraft, have influenced or inspired you?
AD: Stephen King, of course. Both his novels and On Writing, which inspired me to start actually writing, instead of thinking I couldn’t possibly. Peter Straub as well; his approach to horror is more subtle than King’s. The most elegant horror story I’ve ever read, though, is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” Nothing I’ve written even comes close. Otherwise, among the authors whose works I hold dear are Mary Renault, Elizabeth Goudge, Mervyn Peake and J.R.R. Tolkien. And Leo Tolstoy. And the garden writer Henry Mitchell, whose style I found most appealing.
BG: Besides your literary work, you also blog about gardening. Are there similarities between the two activities? Any gardening wisdom that helps you in writing?
AD: Well, there’s nothing fictional about gardening. It’s as real as can be. That helps to reset my perspective. It’s done outdoors, which means I spend time away from the desk and computer, and it’s physical. Digging up tree roots is extremely physical. So is pruning, especially huge old climbing roses and prickly hollies. I have the scars to prove it. Noticing, observing, and visualizing are necessary in gardening, and are helpful habits for writers to cultivate as well.
BG: Would you be willing to discuss any new literary project(s) that you have in the works?
AD: I have just finished the first draft of a novel which is a sort of sequel to the Herbert West Series. It features a descendant of Herbert’s (and you have to read the entire series to see how that comes about!) The title is She Who Comes Forth. It’s set in Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis in the autumn of 1962. It will come forth, I hope, later this year.
BG: What has surprised you most about writing/publishing? Was it easier or harder than you expected when you first started?
AD: When I started writing The Friendship of Mortals in November 2000, I was blown away by the experience. That book pretty much wrote itself. I was obsessed with it. The obsession lasted through 2005 and three more books, although each one took longer to finish than its predecessor. Of course, I was trying to get traditionally published during those years, which introduced an element of harsh reality. Maybe that slowed me down. In 2010, I discovered self-publishing via Smashwords and eventually Amazon, and began my blog. I was taken up with those activities for the next seven years, so didn’t start writing another novel until 2017. A year later, I’m still at the raw first draft stage. Of course, I do my own editing and my own formatting — even for print, which is more challenging than ebook formatting. Altogether, though, I like the degree of control I have over the look and feel of my finished books. And as an indie, I can take whatever approach I like to marketing, as long as I adjust my expectations accordingly.
BG: Any advice that you would like to pass on to other aspiring authors?
AD: Writing and publishing are two completely different, although related, operations. Writers should ask themselves why they write, and what they expect from that process. Same for publishing. What constitutes success in each area? Each author has their own answers to these questions.
How much time, effort and money are they prepared to spend in writing and bringing their works to the world’s attention? It is possible to publish well with relatively little monetary expenditure, but that means doing a lot of it oneself. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go into debt as a first-time self-publisher. Indie authors are a huge market for products and services; there are many hands ready to take one’s money, and not all of them are helping hands. Like so many other endeavours, self-publishing might be summed up this way: good, fast, cheap; pick two.
Writing is a solitary activity, even when done in coffee shops, but it’s immensely helpful to be part of a writing community. The internet is a good place to meet and communicate with other writers, both trad- and self-pubbed. I recommend finding a niche there. WordPress has dozens, if not hundreds, of writers’ blogs. Not every piece of writing/publishing advice you see is relevant or useful, so it helps to exercise one’s critical thinking abilities, and to keep asking the questions I mentioned earlier.
Thank you very much for the thought-provoking questions, Berthold. And for giving me space on your blog.
BG: It was my pleasure! Thank you for your thoughtful answers, and for writing such wonderful books.
One Night in Bridgeport is a legal thriller that follows Jack McGee, a law student who is sent to Bridgeport, California to deliver some papers concerning the purchase of some land by a large corporation. While there, he decides to have a one-night stand with a local woman, Lea Rogers. (Who, though McGee doesn’t realize it at the time, is the daughter of the property owner.)
The next morning, McGee wakes up feeling overwhelmed with guilt and regret over cheating on his fianceé and leaves without speaking to the still-sleeping Rogers. She wakes up in time to see McGee’s car pulling out of the parking lot, and immediately feels angered and hurt by his caddish behavior.
Later, she discovers that McGee is handling the purchase of her mother’s property, and her anger only increases further. In a conversation with her friend and local lawyer, Butkus Sweet, she mentions sleeping with McGee and Sweet decides that it must have been rape. After he pressures her to do so, Rogers presses charges against McGee.
From this point, things go from bad to worse for McGee, beginning with his initial decision to tell the investigators he has never met Rogers, and continuing through his trial, where many other questionable aspects of his past come to light.
The book has an almost Rashomon-like quality to it, in that we see things from different characters’ points-of-view. In addition to McGee, Paxson also shows the perspectives of Rogers, Sweet, and the Judge. (Personally, I found the Judge and McGee’s determined-but-overworked defense attorney, Tammy, to be the most sympathetic characters in the story.)
The plot is well-paced, and the final twist that resolves the story is both set up well enough that it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere, but hidden well enough that you don’t see it coming. I also enjoyed the descriptions of McGee’s walks in the snow. At one point, Paxson alludes to the eerie, muffled silence that accompanies a new snowfall–I loved that, because to me it’s one of the most interesting things about snow, and not enough writers make mention of it.
My only real problem with the book was how unlikable McGee is, but I suspect that this is a pretty realistic depiction of this kind of case. Some readers might be alienated by his personality, but if you’re the type who needs someone to root for to feel engaged with a story, be patient–in the second half of the book, the Judge emerges as a very well-written, sympathetic and interesting character.
It’s the sort of book that I think can be perceived very differently by different readers, so before you read my last bit of analysis, I recommend you read it yourself and make up your own mind. I’m not only going to spoil some plot points below, but also say some subjective stuff that could color your perception of the characters. So, now’s your chance to bail if you don’t want spoilers.
Maybe you’ve heard the term “experimental fiction”. It’s usually used to mean some form of fiction that is very unusual in form, as opposed to “literary” or “genre” fiction. Experimental fiction typically means fiction that breaks all the established rules of literature.
As with everything, breaking the rules often means you crash and burn. The rules are there for a reason. But once in a while, it leads to great discoveries and innovations that alter the entire field.
I’ll be honest: I have never much liked these divisions of “literary” and “genre” and “experimental” fiction. To me, there are only two kinds of books — good ones and bad ones.
The truth is, all fiction is an experiment. The writer puts together the tale as best he or she can, and then there is a process — similar to a chemical reaction — that determines how it plays in the readers’ minds. Every reader brings their own experience and perspective to a book, and there’s no knowing what their perception of it will be.
Now it’s true, there are certain types of stories that each individual will tend to like or dislike. I like sci-fi and horror in general, and am usually not much for fantasy or murder mysteries. But there are always exceptions. There are horror stories I hate and murder mysteries I love.
Every writer, regardless of whether they are classified as literary, experimental, or in some genre or other, is writing because they feel they have something to say that no one else can. Maybe there are those who write so-called “potboilers” and are just in it for the money, but even they have to try to bring something at least somewhat new to the table — otherwise their work won’t sell.
But it’s always an experiment, even for the most famous authors. I could name works by my favorite authors that I don’t think are very good, and one-hit wonders by authors who never again wrote anything I liked.
[I want to reexamine a topic I first wrote about here—I’ve given it some more thought, and come up with a few new points.]
When you look for writing advice, sooner or later you see tips like “Avoid lengthy descriptions” and “Cut all unnecessary words.” (These are two of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, but lots of other people have said similar things.)
Well, I’m here to tell you that having fewer words isn’t always better. And sometimes, it’s worthwhile to describe characters and things in detail.
I know this because I once believed these nuggets of advice wholeheartedly. I think I subconsciously always thought wordy descriptions were for pretentious twits who wanted to sound fancy. Reading this advice just validated what I already wanted to believe.
It wasn’t until I started writing fiction and my readers started asking “Why don’t you describe stuff?” that I began to think I was mistaken. (It took embarrassingly long for me to become willing to admit this.)
I started thinking about the work of other writers I regularly read. Did they describe stuff? Well, yes, they did. Did they always use the minimum number of words needed to say what they wanted to say? Not really.
Here’s the opening paragraph from H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale, The Call of Cthulhu:
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
This could be much more simply rendered as:
“It’s better not to know some things.”
Same point, fewer and shorter words. Must be better, right?
Here’s another example, this from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves:
“Contenting myself, accordingly, with a gesture of loving sympathy, I left the room. Whether she did or did not throw a handsomely bound volume of the Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at me, I am not in a position to say. I had seen it lying on the table beside her, and as I closed the door I remember receiving the impression that some blunt instrument had crashed against the woodwork, but I was feeling too pre-occupied to note and observe.”
He could have just written:
“I left the room, and I think she threw a large book at me, but I was pre-occupied with other matters.”
Much shorter! And yet… that doesn’t seem as good, does it? It’s still funny, but Wodehouse’s more thorough description is more amusing.
As for description: we can argue over how much is too much—it’s true that you don’t want a multi-paragraph description of somebody’s eye color. But few people would even think of writing that in the first place
Readers want to form a coherent picture in their mind’s eye, and reading physical characteristics helps them to remember people and things; just as when you meet someone in real life, you tend to remember them by certain physical attributes. Anyone who has ever read Harry Potter can instantly tell you what color Ron Weasley’s hair is.
Another good example of why it’s sometimes worthwhile to dwell on descriptions is the opening of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces:
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.”
This is some pretty detailed description, but it does more than just tell us what Reilly looks like. It also gives us an idea of his personality. From this point on, we have an impression of him to file away and call up whenever his name appears on the page. The cap, the moustache, the oddly –colored eyes—all these things paint a vivid picture of the character.
Could you trim this down a bit? Sure. Just say:
“A mustachioed man in a green hunting cap looked around disapprovingly at the crowd.”
But that doesn’t linger long enough to make an impression in the reader’s mind. They’ve passed it before their brains are even fully engaged, and as a result, have formed no mental picture of the character.
To be clear: I’m not saying I favor describing every detail you can think of. In horror especially, there are some things you should leave to the reader’s imagination. But you don’t want to leave too much, or else you don’t have a book. You just have a very sophisticated outline. Many of my early stories fall into this trap.
So, why do legendary writers like Leonard say to avoid lengthy passages and detailed descriptions, when that isn’t what readers want? Even more confusing: why do many authors preach that while not practicing it?
My guess is that a skilled writer becomes so adept at translating their vision to the page that it ceases to feel like description at all. The descriptive passages, the dialogue, and the action scenes are all so woven together it becomes difficult to separate one piece from the whole.
Moreover, this is also the reader’s impression of good writing. Well-written description doesn’t even register as separate from dialogue or plot—it’s all part of the world that the reader becomes immersed in.
Note the all-important qualifier “well-written”. If your description is badly-written, you’re in trouble. But that’s true of anything in any book. And if someone asks for advice on writing, saying “write well” seems like a useless thing to tell them. The question is, how do you write well?
The answer is not to minimize description and word counts. I think the real answer is something like “Make the description integral to the overall story”. As in the example from Dunces, you want your descriptive passages to be tied in with the characters and the world.
In other words, don’t just tell the reader that “This jerk had light-brown hair and glasses”. Tell them that “The sandy-haired man peered at him through his spectacles, as though he were some type of revolting insect.”
This tells the reader both how the character looks and how he behaves, allowing them to quickly make a mental note:
Brown-haired glasses guy = jerk
This is what readers want—the ability to quickly and easily understand characters, places and things.
Most days, it’s a real struggle for me to get started on writing even a paragraph in one of my stories. Once in a great while, I’ll be struck by some inspiration and then it’s just a matter of getting the words down as fast as I can, but that’s rare. The more normal case is something like this:
I need to write something where X happens.
[Write a word or two]
Huh, I wonder what’s going on in the news.
[Half hour later, force myself to write another sentence or two]
Are there any good videos on YouTube?
I have to consciously force myself to stay on task and write something down. If I manage to do that, most of the time I hate what I’m writing up until I finish, at which point it starts to seem possibly decent. But the whole time I’m doing it, I feel like I’m doing lousy work, and moreover, it takes all my willpower to even do that.
Why is this? Writing is supposed to be what I like doing. No one is forcing me to do it—it’s what I want to do. But then why am I strongly tempted to avoid doing it, like it’s a job or something?
At first, I thought maybe I was just a lazy bum. But I follow lots of hard-working writers on Twitter, and they frequently report this same problem. I even did a poll of my followers, and while the sample was small, 100% reported they procrastinated:
Question for writers: do you often find yourself procrastinating when you want/ought to be writing?
So, it’s not just me being lazy. Other writers face this problem too.
The simple and obvious explanation is that writing is active. You have to consciously do something to make it happen. Whereas reading the news or watching cat videos is passive—you just find your way to the site and put your mind on cruise control.
But this doesn’t totally explain it. One of the ways I procrastinate is by playing video games. And that’s not passive; I still have to press buttons and make decisions to get the outcome I want in the game. Yet it’s far easier for me to play a game of FTL or computer chess than it is to write. I don’t have to will myself to play a game.
My next-door neighbor has had all kinds of hobbies over the years I’ve known him, from shooting guns to building model airplanes to mixing drinks to, yes, playing video games. And he doesn’t seem to need a huge amount of willpower to make himself work at any of his hobbies. Why is my hobby different?
Part of the problem is that I’ll write something down and then think, “Well, that’s not any good”. This feels unsatisfying. And at some level, I think procrastination is a defense mechanism. Skimming the sports headlines may not yield much satisfaction, but at least it won’t be as disappointing as writing something imperfect.
But why should that be disappointing? After all, no one else is going to judge me by the first draft. No one else will even know it existed unless I show it to them. So why am I bothered if it’s not right the first time? I don’t get discouraged if I don’t win a video game right away. On the contrary, losing a game just makes me want to try again.
Writing, unlike other activities, is more closely associated with having an audience. After all, if you’re just writing for yourself, why bother writing? You know the story already—the only reason to write it down is to communicate it to others.
That’s the heart of the difference: When I play a video game or exercise or any of the other things I do for fun, my only audience is myself. If I’m satisfied with my performance, that’s all I need.
We are trained very early on that writing is different. Writing is what you do when you want to tell other people something. As a result, when you write, you are subconsciously trying to please other people.
Ta-da! This explains the mystery of why writers procrastinate. Procrastination is something you do when you are assigned a task by other people, and writing feels like that because that’s how we’re trained to regard it. It’s the same reason we all procrastinated when our teachers assigned us to write a paper on such-and-such-thing-no-one-cares-about.
Some of the most common advice I’ve seen from successful authors is stuff like “Write for yourself,” “Ignore your inner critic on the first draft” and perhaps the most common, “Lose your fear of writing”.*
This advice always puzzled me. Of course I was writing for myself! Who the hell else would I be writing these weird stories for? And my inner critic? Who’s that? As far as I knew, I didn’t have one. The fear thing seemed the most sensible, although for me, the fear wasn’t so much of writing as it was of publishing.
But now I see what all those famous writers were saying: you think you’re writing for yourself, but you aren’t really. In your unconscious mind, you are still trying to figure out what the readers are going to think of what you wrote. It’s a deeply-rooted habit, probably one that evolution instilled in us—the societies where people could clearly communicate their ideas to one another were the ones that flourished.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write so that other people can understand you. But the point is, that has to come later. First, you have to treat writing as a personal challenge between you and the part of your mind that wants to stop you from doing it. It’s like working out: you know it’s good for you, and you know you will feel great afterward, but you have to overcome the natural instinct that tells you it’s easier not to do it.
The precise way to do this can vary from person to person. You’ll discover the method that works best for you as you go along.
One exercise that I think can help teach how not to write for an audience is to just try writing stream-of-consciousness. For this post, I deliberately tried an experiment where I turned off my sense-making filter and just spewed forth whatever came to mind. This is what resulted:
Grey window skies empty noises and duahgter nothing al dhpauiw hope thjat move listen coffee righ fjor wdesk need time hope sk
Sitting on a cold day that is grey and deporessing why am I doing this write exercise imagine plains vision skies weird black nebulous
This seems like incoherent babble, but it’s really not all that random. For context: I was sitting at my desk by a window on a cold grey day, drinking coffee. I could hear people outside talking and someone said something about a daughter.
For the second paragraph, the other people shut up, and I started to let my imagination roam, which led to visions of Lovecraftian weird cosmic horror, because that’s my favorite genre, or at least the one I’m most familiar with.
As sloppy and gibberish-filled as that is, you can see my thought process even through all the errors and downright nonsense. Which brings me to my point: as in many other fields, “true randomness” is actually pretty hard to achieve in writing. Your brain will work very hard to force you to make sense. Which is helpful in many other ways, but the problem is that our brains have become so good that they will try to prevent us writing anything less than the perfect sentence on the first try. That part of the brain would much rather procrastinate than risk writing something nonsensical.
This is what all those famous writers mean when they say “Write for yourself” or “Don’t worry about the audience” or “Ignore the inner-critic.” It’s all true, but it’s not specific enough, because when you are tempted to put off writing and procrastinate instead, you don’t realize you’re writing for someone else, or that it’s your inner-critic, or your fear of the audience. It feels like you’re just trying to write something that makes sense, and for some horrible reason, you can’t.
That’s because it doesn’t make perfect sense, and your brain hates that. But it’s okay. You can fix it later. Editors and beta readers will make sure of that.
So my advice is: don’t worry about making sense. In fact, I’ll go even further: actively try to avoid making sense on the first draft. Just put down the most basic, sub-literate version of what you want to convey. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not make sense—your unconscious mind will keep you at least within saluting distance of it most of the time. After that, you can just iterate until your visceral idea has been refined into something your readers can understand.
“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.
One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”
This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”
I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.
I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.
But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.
This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.
A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.
One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic Worldwas the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)
It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book. At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.
Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.
Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.
This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.