Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Writing Weird Shit

One of the things that always interested me when I was reading Really Weird Shit (like, say, a Mieville or a VanderMeer or even a Catherynne Valente), is this:

Do they come up with all the weird shit in there the first time through, carefully working it all out, or is there just this made dash through the tangle with the occasional cleanup as they go?

Cause what I've discovered is that writing weird, really weird, and staying consistently weird (it might be weird to us, but not the world), isn't something I do on a first pass (and still not something I do well. I'm young. I have a long way to go yet). My drafts sometimes have the rough outline-feel of, say, Titus Alone vs. the fully-formed crackpit that is Gormenghast.

Sure, there's some stuff in there the first time through. I mean, I knew the bakkies would be powered by bugs. I knew there weren't going to be a lot of big animals and most of the protein was just bugs. But it wasn't until the very last couple of drafts (*after* they'd been seen by my crit group and at least one editor) that the chickens got scales and the bakkies belched and got organic guts.

And there are about a million places where I could push the book more than it already is. One of the biggest challenges of Black Desert is knowing that I need to push the level of weird and newness to another level. You can't just write the same shit in the same world over and over again. That defeats the point of having a series. You write a series because the world's so big and cool and weird that you want to open it up and reveal it even more than you did last time. And, ideally, I want to reveal it in a way that doesn't necessarily make it more knowable, but makes it weirder and more interesting and more fucked up. You aren't going to get any hard and fast answers.

One of the things that annoys me about a lot of SF is that there's this need to explain exactly how the world got to be the way it is. Here's the ship's name, where it came from (oh the mystical EARTH!!). But I like writing SF that's so far future it's become fantasy again. I like the Gene Wolfe idea where the world's so ancient they don't really remember anything before it. Sure, they came from the sky, but from another planet? A seed ship? A multitude of worlds? Who knows? And, honestly, within the context of the stories I'm telling on the world, it's not terribly relevant. Who cares? Suffice to say, here's the world they made it, and it's wacky.

The thing with pushing yourself every book is that you push harder every time, and if your head's not hurting, you're not trying hard enough. I sat down last night to clip off my draft and described Tirhani houses and landscape and knew even as I did it that I was going to have to go back over it several times to flesh out the weird. Because most writers, I think, are lazy.

First pass through, all my folks have living rooms and kitchen nooks and mailboxes and happy 50s social pairings, and as I go further, dig deeper, draft after draft, the whole landscape starts to change. There's the ubiquitous Ras Tiegan servant in every house, the bug pillar for collection of message swarms, the organic flooring, the prayer nook, the spider garden, the stairs that no longer lead anywhere. And then you go over it again, and stuff starts breathing and sprouting wings and the kitchen's not black and white anymore, it's technicolor, and you're not even sure it could be called a kitchen now anyway.

Thing is, if I concentrated on the weird shit during my first drafts I'd lose 1) the plot 2) the character relationships.

First run through, it's all about the relationships, with an eye for keeping myself on track with plot everytime folks try and sit down over tea and over-explain themselves. Pieces of the world that are already in place, I can weave those in and they hook up with the plot and the folks, but as I start to push it on the second and third and fourth pass, what happens to the scenery and mechanics does change the character interactions and plot somewhat.

First time through, though, I'm lazy. Lazy writing, lazy ideas. A great example of this was, in God's War Nyx and her team need to cross the war-torn border, so, you know, I have them get in their bakkie and, um... drive across. Cause I needed them to get across the border, yo. Oh sure, there was a brief run-in with some wasp swarms, but it didn't mean anything, didn't add anything, and it made the border a lot less messy and scary that it should have been.

It wasn't until I watched an episode of Aeon Flux where she infiltrates Bregna by getting dropped over the border with a big load of dead in metal coffins raining from the sky that I realized that a fun way of getting over a border would be to smuggle yourself in with the dead.

Yummy. And not quite ordinary. Is the scene the best it could be? No. I think it could be weirder. But it's a long way from the lazy place it started out, and it means a lot more to the characters and the world. You learn a lot more about how it all fits together with this scene than you do when they just drive across the border (not to mention the sheer suspension of disbelief you'd be requiring of your reader for that one, and I say that as somebody who's writing books about chicks with swords and bad aim who come back from the dead and practice magic with bugs).

There are all sorts of assumptions we make about other worlds, other places, as writers. It's easier that way. Easier to go with our assumptions. And lots of times, we'll look at the impact of a technology on the way lives are lived, physically, but not the way lives are lived, emotionally. What happens to our families? Our friendships? If you take us out of our time and place, who are we? What sorts of morals do we have? Are people really basically born good? What's "good"? What makes us all the same? What makes us different?

It's these questions that really got me writing SF/F. If we strip everything else away, what are we? Who are we, if things are really different?

No, really:

What if things were REALLY different?

And the questions I ask are very personal questions, ones that I've run into in my own life, of course. What if women were measured by strength instead of beauty? What if we could manipulate the fabric of the world? What would it be like to BE the law, and then lose that privilege? What would it be like to feel no fear, no shame, no self-consciousness, about your body? What would a world where the nuclear family was unknown look like? How does changing the nature of the family change the society?

What if cutting off heads was a respectable way to earn a living?

You know, real important shit like that.

But when you ask those questions, you can't be superficial. When you answer those questions superficially you end up re-writing somebody else's book. Your book sounds like every other feminist dystopia of vampire bounty-hunter bodice ripper, and you're just another jelly bean; a thousand flavors, one type.

There's nothing wrong with different flavored jellybeans. The trouble comes when all you have is eighteen flavors of vanilla and not one strawberry, because look at how much everybody likes vanilla! They eat vanilla up! We sell 8 bazillion vanilla-flavored jelly beans a year!

It doesn't mean vanilla's the best jellybean. It just means we haven't tasted anything else yet.

I write the books I write because I wanted this flavor jelly bean.

The hope is that a lot of other people wanted it too.

I guess we'll find out.

And until then, hey, even at this pay rate the writing keeps me in bread and boys, and I, at least, find the books terribly tasty. Can't knock that.

2 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

La Gringa said...

As long as you never, ever sneak one of those foul popcorn flavored JellyBelly jellybeans in there, we're cool.


Jim Van Pelt said...

Great post. Thanks for taking the time to think it through on paper.