It is a strange thing: this phenomenon of characters getting away from you

I just wrote a scene where the characters did exactly the opposite of what I’d planned for them to do. And this is a very normal occurrence when you’re a writer, but I still think it’s such an odd thing.

We still don’t know exactly what happens when we write. People like to be all blase about it and say, “It’s a craft, just like any other.” There are so many books on deconstructing plot and so many classes and college programs in how to write. In some ways, teaching people to write is almost as big a business as writing itself (certainly it seems to keep many more people employed).

But this thing that happens when your fingers hit the keyboard…it’s insane. There’s no real way to get a handle on it or manage it. Writers have gone crazy or taken to drink or killed themselves when faced with the simple truth that there does exist such a thing as inspiration, and it can’t be turned on at will.

During the first five or six years of my writing career, ideas came pretty easily to me, but for the last, well, almost the last ten years, I’ve had an increasingly difficult idea coming up with ideas. I’ve written so many words that were totally worthless–millions upon millions of words that literally have zero worth, because they didn’t contain even the ghost of inspiration.

I am extremely aware of what it feels like to be forcing it.

And I’m not even talking about the novels that I finished but which never got published. Most of those at least had a modicum of inspiration behind them. I’m talking about the rest of it. Sometimes I look back on my writing career, and I feel that almost the entirety of my time at the keyboard has been spent producing false starts and half-drafts and little scenes or fragments that never showed any threat of cohering into a real story.

And I still don’t entirely know how a person gets away from producing stuff like that and moves towards producing work that is inspired. But I have developed a few rules of thumb over the years.

  1. Don’t write the boring parts – Write only the parts of the story that hold your attention. This is why I stopped writing action scenes of any sort. By and large I’m only interested in extremely fine social movements–I’m talking about the little undercurrents that pass between two people who want something from each other.
  2. If something feels like it’s wrong, then it probably is — This is probably bad advice for you, but it’s great advice for me. Time and again, I’ve heeded the instinct to slow down, stop, or throw away something, and each time I’ve been right. I think that the essence of writing is the fine-tuning of your ability to tell the right words from the wrong words.
  3. Be wary of repeating yourself — This is the hardest one to follow. Many times when I’ve had a good idea and brought it to completion, my next few dozen ideas will be variations on the first. I mean they’ll have similar characters, conflicts, and plots. Sometimes as I pursue these ideas, they diverge from the original and become something new. But I have noticed that the best sign of an idea worth pursuing is if it’s substantially different from anything I’ve written (and completed to my satisfaction) before. Of course, many of my ideas are rehashes of old failures, but that doesn’t count. If I’ve failed before to write something, then maybe now is the time I’ll succeed.
  4. Be wary of too much complexity — Oftentimes I’ve tried to solve problems in my writing by generating a lot of froth. I’ll fracture the timeline or tell the story from an outside narrator or I’ll have a lot of running back and forth and very complicated plotting. Always I’ll have some reasonable explanation for why the story needs these things, but I find that too much complexity (for me) means that intellect has taken the place of instinct. Whereas when an idea is really working, the resulting story is generally very simple (my first book, Enter Title Here, is a notable exception here. The plot is wayyy too complex.) Similarly, I find that new writers’ response to critique is often to add new elements to a book, whereas they should really be thinking more about taking things out. When I revise, I know a revision is really working if it smooths out or eliminates some knot that previously existed in the draft. Oftentimes you’ll find that your unconscious mind has created these shortcuts or easy solutions within the story, and all you need to do is to see them.
  5. If I opened this book, what would I want to see — This one is sort of corny, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I imagine I’m a reader who’s opening this book to the first page (or to whatever page I’m on), and I think about what I’d want to see. It doesn’t begin with words, it begins with the shape of the paragraphs. Does it begin with a long paragraph or a short one? Is there lots of dialogue? Then I trace through these lines a little bit, and I try to follow this line of reasoning–what is compelling here? What do I want to read? I’m not saying that this leads to any dramatic breakthroughs, but it is helpful sometimes for me to connect to the book as a reader.
  6. Am I willing to reread this book a dozen times? – As a practical matter, if you want to sell a book, you need to be willing to re-read it A LOT. I mean more times than you can imagine: at least a dozen times, but most likely two or three times that many. If I’m souring on a book, sometimes I’ll go back and reread the beginning. If I can’t bear to reread it, then I’ll think “Do I really have the stamina to reread this book a dozen more times?” And usually the answer is no, so I’ll shelve it.
  7. Is this the book that I’d write if I was dying – As I remarked recently on Facebook, I once upon a time spent all day writing a bucket list, only to realize, the following day, that I had ZERO intention of actually doing any of the things on the list. I didn’t want to learn a new language or travel the globe or go skydiving. All I wanted was to read and write books. And sometimes I think, if I found that I was dying, would I spend my remaining time trying to finish this book? Or would I abandon it? This means: Is this the book that only I can write?; and Does this book get at the things I’ve spent my life trying to communicate? Usually the answer is “No,” and to me that too is very clarifying.

I’m not sure any of these techniques will work for you. They’re my own answers to the problem of “Is this the real thing? Or am I just faking it?” But I do think the essential lesson here is useful for anyone. And that lesson is, “How do I get at the heart of my own experience of life?”

Note, I’m not saying, “How do I get at the heart of why I want to write?” Because for most people that heart doesn’t exist. People usually don’t want to write because they’ve anything particular to say. They usually want to write simply because they love books, admire writers, and want to live a meaningful life. In fact, new writers often search for many years for their subject matter.

What I’m saying is something different. It’s more like, “Given that I want to write, what do I have to write about?” It’s similar to “Write what you know?” (which, I have to say, is not a terrible adage), but it’s more like, “What compels me?”

The weird thing about writing is that your writing is fueled by everything you’ve thought and felt outside of writing. It’s fueled by every story you’ve read or heard. It’s fueled by all of your desires and longings. It’s fueled, most of all, by your sadness and your thwarted dreams. I don’t mean to say that all writers have to go to war or tame wild horses or do any of that crap, all I mean is that in your writing, you have to get somehow at the essence of things, and those ‘things’ are inevitably going to come from your own experience of the world.

Now at this point my huge audience of speculative fiction writers are going to go, “But how can I write my secondary world fantasies? Obviously I have no experience of using a swords to fight a bunch of monsters.”

To this my response would be that all novels are fantasies. No novel portrays the real world. I mean, think about it, have you ever read a book that felt anything like the experience of being alive? No. All books are dreams. When you write secondary-world fantasy (or science fiction) you’re still in that dream-space, and I think the question of “What about this is compelling to me?” still applies.

What function does fantasy serve in your life? Where does it take you? Why do you need to go there? Your stories exist somewhere in the interaction between fantasy and your own deepest desires. And, again, this isn’t something you’ll be able to come up with through reason alone. Like take Dune. Obviously this book came from some very deep place inside of Frank Herbert. I mean look at the images he uses: the spice worms, the Fremen in their still-suits, the Spacer’s Guild, with its big fishy navigators inside cannisters of spice.

There is some deeply evocative shit going on in there. And it takes a lot of courage and insight to harvest those visions from inside yourself. Which, ultimately, is what we’re all doing. Just harvesting our own visions.