I’ve been assigned by the Planetary Defense Commander to join the Writing Process Blog Hop. The Commander is tasked with defending the planet from bad science fiction, and we’ve never been more in need of his services. Take a look at his site for a rather different approach to reviews. Meanwhile, the idea of the Blog Hop is to get inside the heads of writers, to find out what makes them tick by asking four basic questions:
1. What are you currently working on?
Hmm. Motivation, mostly. I’m still refining Infinity, the novel that got me going on this journey (not counting the two decades I spend collaborating on a ridiculously over-ambitious Blake’s 7 fanfic). I finished the novel nearly a year ago, but since then my query attempts have not gotten me anywhere, so I’ve been doing massive revisions in an attempt to make it more marketable. Some people tell me to stop and just go with what I have, but I do think I keep making it better. Other than that, I don’t have anything on the front burner, mostly because my teaching job eats up a lot of time. I’ve tossed out a couple of short stories I need to revise and shop around, and I have two other novel ideas, one “Young Adult,” the other definitely not, and I really should start working on one of them in earnest.
2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?
That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not particularly well-read, and these days I don’t much enjoy reading. I know, that’s heresy for a writer, but I read so much in my job that it makes it very hard to read for pleasure. Beyond that, I’m so infamously disenchanted with the state of Young Adult fiction that I can only say my book differs in that it’s basically not like that stuff at all. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all YA is “garbage,” as some people assume. I just think it could be so much better than it is. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and readers deserve better. I am sick of all the darkness, and so my book is upbeat and fun, because that’s what I’d want to read. It’s largely free of violence, and what is there has profound emotional and moral consequences. On the other hand, there’s nudity and sex, and I’m trying to present that in a fun and positive way as well, something also uncommon in YA.
My non-YA stuff is, I suspect, right in line with current trends in science fiction, as it’s quite dark, but in what my readers call a “beautifully sad” way. But it’s not particularly violent, and is more about the human condition, and the human spirit.
3. Why do you do what you do?
In terms of writing? The difficulty of the last question makes this one easy. I want to offer something different from all the paranormal angst and dystopian despair. I firmly reject the oft-repeated mantra that says that writers write because they love to write, and that’s really the only reason to do it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, that’s a rather self-indulgent attitude. It also sets a very low bar, if you are only writing to please yourself. I write because I have a story to tell and I want people to hear/read it. My book is nothing without readers.
But more than that, I write as response to the problems I mention above. I want my book to be an instrument of change, to be the vanguard of the rejection of all the darkness, to be a setter of a whole new trend in hope and humor and bringing fun back to teen books. That, I think, is the best reason to write. Great writers write because they want to change the world with their words.
This attitude, by the way, has met with great hostility. The ever-supportive folks on Agent Query Connect responded to my negative opinion of YA fiction by informing me that I was insulting every single writer, publisher and reader of YA out there by not loving it exactly the way it is right now. They couldn’t be more wrong when they accuse me of having “contempt” for YA readers. It’s the publishing industry that’s selling readers short, by assuming they won’t read anything unless it’s about teens just like themselves dealing with experiences that can all be correlated to going to high school and stuff, and I want to offer something better. When I expressed my desire for my book to bring about change within the genre, I was told that that was an extremely arrogant attitude, and that I was doomed to fail. An odd thing for one writer to tell another, don’t you think? It may go a long way to explaining how YA has gotten the way it has, if it’s being written by people who want nothing more than to just contribute more of the same, with no real vision, and no desire to shake things up.
Obviously, I don’t go to Agent Query Connect anymore.
4. How does your writing process work?
I start with some sort of observation, which then ferments in my thoughts for a while while I’m doing other things, until I have a basic story idea. Then I just sort of start writing. I wrote one short story loosely inspired by an old Star Trek episode that got me wondering how a multi-generational colony ship would actually work. Another story had its genesis when I saw a breathtakingly beautiful little girl in the supermarket and found myself wondering how her parents felt about that (and about the fact that I was probably not the only person noticing her). My not-yet-started YA novel Hayley and the Aliens came into being because, on a whim, I Photoshopped a crashing spaceship into a photo of a girl looking out at the ocean, and realized that was the beginning of a good story.
Time Passes is a direct response to my opinion of Young Adult fiction, which led me to wonder why we even have to call it a genre. Why we can’t just call Harry Potter “fantasy”; why we can’t just call Divergent “science fiction”; why can’t we just call The Hunger Games “horror”? Why do we have to attach the “Young Adult” label and put it in a special section of the bookstore? We never used to. And why then don’t we target books specifically to thirty-year-olds, or fifty-year-olds, or seventy-year-olds, all of whom have unique perspectives and experiences every bit as profound as teens have. So I set out to write “Old Adult Science Fiction,” with a story that touches on the experience of middle-agers trying to still be relevant in a world that seems to have passed them by. Nothing autobiographical about that.
Once I have the basic story concept, I sketch out the characters a bit, then start writing. With short stories I write the whole thing in one sitting (generally). With a novel, I bounce around, writing anything that has a clear picture in my head. This timey-wimey approach confounds many of my fellow writers, because I can be simultaneously working on chapter four and chapter twenty-seven. But I find this really helps maintain continuity and ties the story together. This only works because I know the end point of the story (although I may no know exactly how I’m going to get there). That’s what’s stalled Time Passes, because the end point is still fuzzy.
That’s surprising because it has my most blatantly autobiographical character, other than the one in a short story I wrote about a frustrated writer who builds a time machine so he can go back and stop himself from trying to be a writer. But the thing is that my characters are real to me, and, as they develop, they take more and more control of the story, sometimes surprising me. I have a key scene in Infinity because one of my characters (the one who’s generally the loudest in my head) insisted. Literally as I was writing, she butted into the dialogue and said, “We have to do this.” The other characters considered, then agreed. And I was sitting there thinking, “Great, now I have to write a whole new sequence.” That’s exhilarating when it happens, but what’s funny is that, in the recent massive rewrite, the sequence got totally restaged, so I no longer have the scene where she insists on doing it. That worked better played out between two other characters. But it was still her idea.
I revise as I go (a side effect of jumping around), so when I’m done with the “first” draft, it’s really already had a fair amount of polish. I bounce ideas off of critique partners and take problem passages to my writers’ group. And sometimes a whole new idea will pop into my head that leads me to make significant adjustments. I’m facing that right now with Infinity. The hardest part, I suppose, is finally declaring it finished. I really thought it was done last fall. But then the query process so thoroughly undermined my confidence that I’ve gone back in, and I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m happy with it again. I suppose that’s why people say you should just write for yourself; you’re the only one who isn’t going to reject it.
Oh yeah, and I always have my famously eclectic iPod playing as I write, sitting right next to whichever caffeine-delivery system I’m using at the time.
Okay, now I’m to tag fellow writers (and friends):
Cheryl Mahoney writes clever, slightly subversive re-imaginings of fairy tales and classic literature, and her stories are delightfully free of violence and brutality. She’s also as well-read as I am not and offers great insights on that on her website. And she gets most of my obscure sci-fi/fantasy references.
Kelly Haworth, despite being a voracious reader of YA, writes things that are anything but. Dark, twisted stories that challenge your conceptions of identity, especially when it comes to gender. With characters who are all extremely damaged. And Kelly loves aliens (if you know what I mean…).
Andrea Stewart is the closest I know to an actual professional author, her quiet, poetical stories having appeared in legitimate anthologies and landing her an actual agent and everything. She’s prolific to a degree that makes my head spin. And she paints. In the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”