Noah Goats’ latest piece, in addition to providing a tantalizing glimpse into some of his unpublished work, also raises a great point about writing: often the best way to come up with a new story is to find a way to combine to seemingly-unrelated drafts. He writes of his book, Incomplete Works:
The book was nothing but stitched together chunks of three abandoned novels, but despite the Frankenstein origins, Noah was proud of the result. Evelyn Waugh had used similar methods to put A Handful of Dust together, and Raymond Chandler had stitched his way to two of the greatest crime novels of all time.
I find this is usually how an idea that I’m able to successfully turn into a story comes together. I generally have a number of ideas I’m working on at any one time, and at some point all of them have run aground and appear stuck, when suddenly I see a way of combining two or more of them.
I know I’ve written about this before, but that was what happened with The Directorate that ultimately allowed me to finish it: I was trying for about the fourth time to write a story about a space station with a space elevator, and I decided to make the protagonist a character from a draft of an unrelated story.
I’m working on a story now that combines elements from ideas I’ve wanted to do forever with a relatively new one. Once again, I was only able to produce a complete story after I said, “Aha! I can interpolate my old concept into this new one.”
This is why it’s important to write down and keep old drafts, even when they initially seem to have stalled out. You never know when you may be able to use them again down the line.
On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.
As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.
Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?
Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it.
Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.
Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)
With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.
Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.
And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.
I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.
In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones.
This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept.
It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.
Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.
So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that?
But uncanny is good. It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time.
It’s a gloomy, wet, unseasonably warm night here in Ohio. It feels like a good night to write a story, although I’m not sure what it would be about. But it set me thinking about how the immediate environment can influence one’s writing.
For example, I’ve never been to sea. I was on a boat in Lake Erie a couple of times, and I’ve been to the beach twice. So when I wrote 1NG4, I mostly used my imagination–but I did go down to a bridge over a river the day I wrote the first half of the story. I stood around, soaking in as much detail as I could. Doing that helped me write some of the description of the sun reflecting off the water.
Another example: for the scene in Vespasian Moon that takes place inside the title character’s cabin, I purposely stayed up much later than I normally do, turned out all the lights except for a flickering jack-o’-lantern, and then wrote the scene. That helped me with describing the way the shadows on the wall moved in the candlelight.
As someone who has long struggled with writing description, I’ve found this is a helpful trick. Of course, it has its limits. I doubt I’ll be traveling to any other planets to get the vibe I want for my science fiction stories.
[How many people still use the term “bleg,” I wonder? Andrew Sullivan used to use the term a lot, but I haven’t seen it lately…]
At the risk of becoming repetitive: please, please, please go read the latest short story by Noah Goats. It’s free to read on his blog.
I love all Noah’s work, as you know, but this is a departure from his usual humorous style. It’s much more in the realm of speculative fiction or even horror, depending how you look at it.
It’s everything I think a short story should be: concisely evocative, moving, and open to multiple interpretations. Noah is turning out great stories at a nearly McCollum-esque pace. I’m hoping he will collect them all in a book at some point. At any rate, his work deserves to be widely-read.
This is a collection of ten short stories, many of which are inspired by myths, fairy-tales, folk-lore and poetry. Sort of like Angela Carter’s retellings of well-known stories, Spicer cleverly re-invents these classic tales, telling them in a new way or from a new perspective. All the stories are enjoyable and interesting. My favorites were the poignant “Stranger at the Crossroads,” and the delightful “An Unlikely Friendship.”
Because these are short stories, I don’t want to discuss them in detail because it may give too much away. Lydia Schoch’s review discusses the two tales I have mentioned above, and she’s much better at reviewing without spoiling than I am. I encourage reading her review—it was what first brought this book to my attention, and I’m glad, because it’s a very enjoyable read, especially for the autumn and winter months. If you enjoy subtle horror, fantasy or paranormal stories, this book is for you.
After reading this collection, I was eager to read more of Spicer’s work. And I also started reading her blog, which is a real delight—check it out; she has written tons of excellent posts on a wide variety of topics, including various writerly matters and book reviews.
Andrew Crowther is a writer I’ve followed for some time. I was delighted to see he recently started a new blog, and today he has a great post about four books: Vice Versa, Good Omens, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Man Who Was Thursday. I’ve only read Hitchhiker’s Guide, and a few excerpts from Man Who Was Thursday in the game Deus Ex, but I love what Crowther says in this post, particularly:
The end of the world was in the air; it was ten years before the Millennium, and almost subconsciously a lot of us felt that if things were going to end, that would be a good date for it.
As someone fascinated by the concept of fin de siècle and what was sometimes called “millennial madness” in the ’90s, this got my attention. I’ll have to read Good Omens.
Besides that, Crowther has identified the key elements of writing a philosophical comedy. Which I never even realized was a genre before, but now I see that’s exactly what these books are.
A big problem in my fiction is that my endings are too rushed. I used to think this might be part and parcel of the No Description problem, but I realize now it’s a separate issue. A number of readers raised this complaint with all my early stories, and while I tried to improve in The Directorate, it still came up.
It’s also proven to be a problem with the novel I’m working on now. Several beta readers have said the same thing, and I agree with them. The ending is, once again, too rushed.
At this point, you might be thinking, “So add more stuff then, stupid!”
The problem with that is I can think of nothing else to add. The ending comes along when it does because all the pieces are in position, and it seems natural to tip the first domino and set things in motion. If I add extraneous material, readers will notice that I’m just killing time.
I hate when authors drag things out. The best example I can think of is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. While I liked some parts, there were also times when I wanted to yell, “Just get on with it already!” Since the book hinges on an event which happened in the past and which the reader is anticipating, the way King stalled with one “the past is obdurate” setback after another was annoying to read.
In general, I’d rather something be too short than too long. If a reader thinks it’s too short, it implies they want to read more. Whereas if it bores them by being too long, they’re unlikely to read anything by the author again.
But, better than being too short or too long is being exactly the right length. I have reached a paradoxical point where the book isn’t as long as it needs to be, yet making it any longer would feel too long. Which is another way of saying that something is missing, but I don’t know what it is.
Point Lookout is unbelievably creepy, from the minute you get off the ferry into the deserted, foggy island, with its crumbling amusement park, cemeteries, bands of deformed, mad hill-people trying to kill you, and omnipresent strange hanging dolls and mutilated toys.
It only gets creepier from there, as you discover haunted mansions with an evil brain-in-a-jar, ritualistic sacrifice altars, evidence of plots set in motion by communist spies, a mysterious cult in a church, a quest to recover a forbidden Necronomiconical tome and a chilling hallucinogenic sequence set deep in the swamps.
(Oh, and there’s also wrecked ship called the USS Ozymandias. You can imagine how I loved that.)
Playing Point Lookout, I more than once wondered about the story behind it—there are so many unnerving, disturbing sights that I honestly worry about the mental state of the team that made it. And I haven’t even gotten to what makes it creepiest yet, but let me hold off on that for the nonce.
While I generally don’t like the stereotype of mobs of evil, in-bred hillbillies—always seemed a little offensive to rural people, to me—I have to admit it absolutely works here. They’re a lot more unsettling than the straight-up zombie skeletons that are also roaming around, because they’re almost human. And it’s not really explained how they got this way, either—there are a number of possibilities.
The main quest of the game is actually its weakest point, but that’s par for the course in Bethesda games. I still enjoyed infiltrating the cult.
The real strength of Bethesda has always been its environmental design, and is that ever on display here. There are a thousand little stories you can piece together from inspecting various aspects of world around you, and pretty much all of them are the stuff of nightmares. The Homestead Motel alone is terrifying.
I also like the puzzle to get into the sinister mansion, even though I had to look up how to do it online, which normally annoys me to no end.
All right, time to lay my cards on the table: yes, I know Point Lookout is actually an add-on for Fallout 3, which, while fun, is actually kind of a stupid game. The writing in the main game is abysmal, as Shamus Young has cataloged in meticulous detail.
The thing is, the general idiocy of Fallout 3 actually makes Point Lookout better. I wasn’t expecting to go from a relatively generic, incoherently-written post-apocalypse into a foggy swamp of psychosexual Lovecraftian horror. But that’s what happened, and the sheer surprise of it added to the fear.
It would, in my opinion, have been the ultimate horror-writer move to create Fallout 3 simply as a vehicle to get people to play Point Lookout. Fallout 3 is the red balloon, Point Lookout is Pennywise. I’ve said it a million times: the best horror doesn’t announce itself; rather, it sneaks in, presents itself as something unassuming and inviting, and then springs the trap. That was the way of M.R. James, and while he was an incredibly screwed-up person, he was a great horror writer. Because every time you start reading one of his stories, you think, This doesn’t seem so bad. And then…
Not that I think that’s what the designers set out to do. I’m pretty sure Bethesda didn’t take the trouble of getting the Fallout license just to mess with people. My point is just that this is how you deliver a good scary experience: first, change your audience’s expectations, so they’re not expecting to be scared.
I was going to do this as a Twitter thread, but then I realized it’s too meandering for that. It started with this:
I was about to use the line “ours not to reason why” in my latest project, but then I realized I referenced “Charge of the Light Brigade” in both “Start of the Majestic World” and “The Directorate.” On second thought, maybe I’ll skip it.
— Berthold Gambrel (@BertholdGambrel) April 5, 2019
Then I realized that the references to Tennyson’s poem come in the scenes I blogged about here–scenes that already had bothered me with their similarity, until I realized the one in The Directorate is way, way better than the one in Majestic World.
I have to be honest with you guys: I look back at The Start of the Majestic World and it seems pretty amateurish to me. There are elements I like (obviously) but the book as a whole I think isn’t nearly as good as I could do now. I toyed with the idea of doing a revised version last year, but I couldn’t figure out a way to coherently “revise” it–it was easier to just start from scratch and make up a new story with a similar vibe. (It’s called 1NG4.)
I’m greatly improved as a writer since Majestic World, which on balance makes me happy-–it feels good to know that you’re improving at something. But this leaves me conflicted about whether to even keep it up for sale. Part of me feels self-conscious about leaving something that’s not really my “A” game out there for sale. (It was my 2014 self’s “A” game, but not up to 2019’s standard.)
But I’m also sentimental about it. It was my first real attempt at long fiction, and some of the ideas in it have proven useful for future books. And I really, really appreciate all the encouragement and constructive criticism I got from readers. If not for you folks, none of my subsequent books would have happened. Without Majestic World, there is no Directorate.
I hadn’t re-read The Directorate since about the time I published it, but the other day, I flipped through it to check something about the word count, for comparison to the project on which I’m currently working. I was a little nervous, since the first time I re-read Majestic World after letting some time pass, I was underwhelmed by my earlier work.
Re-reading parts of The Directorate, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is good! No wonder I worked so hard on it.”
I’m not saying that to brag; I’m saying it to say that the way to improve as an author is to write, publish, and get feedback from readers. Including–especially!–negative feedback. There may be some things that you look back on and wince a little, but it’s worth it.