With a Whip And A Chair but only because the electrical cattle prod is on the blink, again.
That’s what I answer if you ask me how I control my muse.
And by this I don’t mean getting ideas – I’ve already confessed I have more ideas than I’d like, and frankly if things get any tighter I might resort to standing at corners, near writer’s conferences and whispering to passing groups, “Hey, buddy, wanna buy an idea?”
No the problem starts once the idea is in motion. One of the things I disliked about the… ancient regime of writing, the traditional way of going about things, is that if I wanted to sell something I needed a proposal. And sometimes I needed to tweak the proposal to be acceptable to the publisher. Which was to my purpose, nothing, as you will see.
Later I sold some books on one paragraph description, but even then houses were likely to say “Okay, you told us who dies and where the body is hidden, but what is the purpose of the book? What does it mean?”
Yesterday Robert was helping me cook dinner. As usual in this house, when two of us are busy at anything non-mental, the talk turned to writing. When it’s the four of us we talk of other stuff too, mind you. This might be a trained reflex to prevent the house from becoming an extended, overstretched, single-focus writers’ conference.
So, Robert was chopping the salad and said that the problem he has in sticking to any kind of outline, or even changing a book so “it’s not quite so weird” is that “if I play with any of the elements, the meaning might not ever come out right, or I might not ever know what the meaning is, even.”
This was the first time I knew he works like I do, with the meaning unfolding slowly – I was going to say like a flower opening but that’s not the right metaphor. It’s more like you just found an egg in the woods and you bring it home, and as it starts to crack, you wait to see what comes out and have no idea if it’s a snake, a lizard or a bird. Only this egg was in show business before (shuddup – whose blog is this, anyway) being an egg, and so opens very slowly, letting you catch this which might be a claw or a beak, or a fang, then a glimmer of brown that might be pin feathers or infant scales, then— Then suddenly and gloriously it opens up (and you could literally get addicted to that moment.) and it’s like the whole universe unfolds, and you see it all and what it means. Afterwards, as I read the book over for editing, I realize it’s all a cohesive whole and it all points the right way and that the glimmers of the meaning/result are obvious halfway through. But while I’m in it I don’t see it.
I’ve always know this — no, wait, a brief digression is in order: When I started writing I was a pantser, which is roughly the method I’m describing. Pantser is short for “flying by the seat of my pants.” It is opposed to “plotter.” Plotter has many varieties mind. Some people write a two page plot and leave all the details and subplots blank. Some people write plots that are novels without the dialog and the more vivid description.
Any time you get a bunch of writers together, you hear plotters and pantsers arguing. The Hattfields and the McCoys have nothing on us. “You guys just throw stuff at the page and see if it sticks. Your plots aren’t cohesive.” “You hold your plot so tightly you squeeze the life right out. Inside your carefully outlined books there’s live characters screaming to come out.” You haven’t lived till you see a bestseller plotter or pantser comment on the book of a bestseller of the other group. The curl of the lip, the sneer in the voice, the “So and so is one of THEM and it shows.”
My problem is that, by temperament, I’m a plotter. Look, I’d be an engineer if it weren’t for the tragic fact that I can’t give someone a phone number without transposing at least two digits – and in equations I can get to be lots of fun. Mind you, I loved math, and given enough time to make sure I hadn’t transposed anything, I was very good at it. But I guessed at an early age that working in a high pressure environment where I’d be required to solve mathematical problems quickly and in the middle of chaos, my little problem could become a major liability. So I gave up on the dream. But my temperament is still the same. I like to know the thing will work before I build it. I like to know what elements I can alter. I like to know and be able to tell the publisher “Yeah, put the dragon on the cover. There’s a dragon in it” and not have it turn into an emu or an ostrich halfway through. A well plotted, well oiled novel moves the way it’s supposed to, and does what it’s supposed to… except…
I tried it. Did I EVER try it. You can’t say I didn’t give it more than a fair shot. For about the first five years of my career I forced myself to plot, tightly. I removed everything that my – for lack of a better term – muse insisted on putting in. Funny scenes, excessive grief, and the bit where he held onto her hand for no good reason. Also, the moment when the character realizes there’s something wrong with him. Or… All of that. If it didn’t move the main plot or one of the auxiliary plots forward, it came out. (And the auxiliary plots had to move the main plot forward.) At the end of it, my outlines could run to fifty pages, and had side notes on what this scene or that was trying to show.
I was saved from strict plotting by attending a reading of a fellow author. The fans had heard her read that novel before and requested one particular scene. “The bit with the sausage.” It was a scene that took place in an inn and it wasn’t – it couldn’t be – in any way instrumental to moving the plot forward. It was a bit of slapstick, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s bits with the man and the dog. It meant nothing. The audience LOVED it.
This was when I was revising Draw One In The Dark to deliver, and about to cut the scene I call “three guys in a car” which is basically when you have the three, very young protagonists, coming away from a fight, getting food and clothes, and well… making jokes with each other the way three guys who aren’t (yet) friends and who were in a fight on the same side do.
It wasn’t in the outline, and my gimlet eye judged it to be useless. Just three guys being sort of funny in a car. It was using up words and I should cut it. (I should explain here I come from a poetry background. Every word must do work or out it comes.) After watching that scene I decided to leave it in.
I’ve just revised DOITD for re-issue (I think in Summer, but those of you who are flies can ask Toni.) And now, that I’ve been away for… 5? years, the scene reads completely different. Without it, the book wouldn’t really work. Or rather, it would work, but the meaning wouldn’t be the same. That is the scene in which the guys become friends, and what makes it possible to believe they look out for each other in the climax.
So, I’m not dumber than the average bear. But I didn’t know why my mind was inserting that scene in there, when it did, and were it not for the fortuitous having listened to the audience reaction to that bit with the sausage, I’d have mutilated the book.
I have not read the other books I’ve written as a strict plotter to see if I mutilated them, either. I don’t want to know, unless the rights revert and I get to fix them, there is no point.
But what I’d never conceptualized till last night was WHY it worked or didn’t. And why I can’t work as a plotter – unlike other people I won’t sneer and say no one can. I’ve got friends who are plotters and who do very well – and why a lot of other people – rational people, even from STEM backgrounds – are forced to be pantsers.
I told Robert I’d told a ton of editors “I have to write the book so I know what it’s about.” (Note, children, this process is very bad with legislation.) And “I work through issues by writing a book.”
And Robert said “Oh, that explains it. I’ve felt for a long time that I write with the same part of the brain with which I do calculus. It makes sense, one way or another, it’s highly abstract manipulation of symbols. This is why given a set of premises, writers can write something that’s, say, extremely Libertarian while they themselves are well nigh Stalinist. It’s why writers who can’t discuss a subject coherently can write a novel that puts everything in place for other people.”
I thought about it. I was always rather good at higher math, where it’s all symbols. It’s the kitchen math that trips me up.
Robert explains this better than I do, but if you take the various elements of the novel as symbols that you are manipulating to get a result that makes mental/emotional sense, you can see where it would be out of the control of the author.
Your subconscious comes in by (usually) dictating the problem that must be worked out. In my case, stuff that’s been nagging at me tends to fall into novels: rebellious ne’er do well children; the dynamics of government… what have you. And then the “equation” sets itself up in my head. Sometimes I have control over the parameters, sometimes I don’t. (One of my published books – no, not the upcoming one, that was something I couldn’t change – I changed the gender of the main character.) Robert said something about this phase being where you setup the symbols and – I think. It’s been a long time since I took calc, and it wasn’t in English – populate them.
And then you work through the problem set up that way by rules of logic. (And novels have their own internal logic.)
To ask a writer who works that way what the novel means before the novel is done is sort of like asking what the result of a new mathematical proof will be before the mathematician is done solving it. It doesn’t work that way.
Now, you say “but you’re always teaching us techniques. If we have no control, what good are they?” Well, mathematicians still need to know math. Everything you learn goes into your “internal rules” and besides, if you get to the end and the result is “two ducks” and you’re writing a novel that involves physics, you want to know where you went wrong and how to change it.
One of the most common signs that you did something wrong, btw, is when the novel “seizes” i.e. the mechanism stops working, because you violated a fundamental rule of how the novel logic works. That means you need to go back and work through and try to find out what went wrong. For that you need to know what the general rules are.
So, now if you work like me, you have the tools to explain it to people “It’s like solving a calculus problem; in Martian; under water; blindfolded. I can’t tell you what it means till I get to the end.”
Now, if I could get series to stop presenting this way. In the Earth revolution series, for instance, I can see EXACTLY one book ahead, and I have glimmers of what I think is book six? But I don’t even know how long the thing is.
Quadratic equations. Under water. In the dark. Blindfolded. In Martian. With my feet in a cement sack.
But it’s the only way to do it, and so I forge on.