The Human Condition:

On Becoming a Writer – June 2, 2013

Book of Kells

A page from The Book of Kells

I recently posted about the tension between the known and the unknown—between what you get by following the rules and what you have to forget in order to discover something new—in fiction writing or in any art form.1 I also made reference to the sorts of formulaic story structures, fully developed and unchanging series characters, and stock situations you find in popular authors like Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. That leads me to think there are two main approaches to becoming a writer and two motivations for writing.

The first kind—call them Type I, and include the authors named above—has a talent for knocking out words and wants to make money at it. They will write for the market because their first goal is to sell books. That means they will look around at the competition and try to do the same thing only better. They will let their agent propose book subjects and try to write them, or quit on a project as soon as their agent says something like, “That’s going to be a hard sell.” They will follow their editor’s instructions out the window, taking seriously a half-serious suggestion like, “Couldn’t one of your characters be a vampire? … Well, just think about it.”

They will plan and scope their books as a franchise or series, because those build faithful readers and generate their own recognition. But writing for a franchise creates certain limitations. For one thing, you can’t kill off your main character—or even put him at a credible risk for death and maiming—because every reader knows he’s coming back in the sequel. So the plot suspense becomes not “Will he die?” but “How will he get out of it?” Some writers will shrug and say, “Well, I don’t like to kill off my characters anyway.” But death, the ultimate mystery, the final disappearance, the last goodbye, is a powerful dramatic tool. Reduced to a problem to be escaped, it loses some of that power.

This kind of writer will also join the franchises of other writers, either as subsidiary author of an original book, or as author of a book or media tie-in in a collaborative series. The goal of working on other people’s stories, in other people’s universes, perhaps using a stock set of familiar characters, is not so much to create something new as to leverage existing recognition, familiarity, and fame among readers.

Truth in advertising: four of my novels with Baen Books2 were collaborations with senior authors, undertaken at my editor’s suggestion. These were not the sort of collaborations where two authors of equal or near-equal rank think of an idea, kick it around, develop plots, characters, and scenes, and then take turns at writing them. These were commercial ventures, in which a famous author had a “trunk” idea—that is, a story he had thought of, perhaps done a bit of research and plotting, but then abandoned or “put in the trunk”—that he knew he was never going to write. The author had offered this formative material to Jim Baen with the understanding that Baen would find a young author to work on it. The young author—me, in these cases—would then flesh out the story and write the manuscript. The senior author would get first edit and refusal rights to the book. And if the senior author finally approved the manuscript, it would be published under both our names and we would split the royalties.

Recognition is everything in the writing business. You can get it by leveraging something that’s already in the public eye. Mining current events and scandals is what Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood: take a notorious case and write a book about it. It’s what every reporter-turned-book author tries to do. Publishers know they can sell a book whose subject has already caught the public attention, either through building on past sales of a franchise fiction universe, through linking with a famous name, or through explaining or amplifying current events or famous cases.

Type I writers are looking for a sure-fire hit, for access to the mass market, for an inside track to the public imagination, and to become the next big thing. Ten years ago they were kicking themselves for not being the first to think of writing about child witches and wizards at a school for magic. Today they kick themselves for not thinking of writing about a virtuous young woman who falls into sexual bondage to a billionaire. The kinds of books they write have “bestseller” written all over them.

There is a tendency for this kind of writer to think that story and plot are a kind of wind-up toy: give them a subject, and they'll start banging out character types and story lines. They believe the old saw that there are only seven plots (or five, or thirteen) in all of storytelling. They like to think they are professionals because they can name the tools of the trade, as a carpenter knows his saws, chisels, and hammers.

I have nothing against that kind of writer. They create much of our popular fiction. They also can occasionally create something new. Ian Fleming created a new kind of spy story that mixed glamour and assassination and did away with the disguises, codebooks, and grunt work of traditional espionage. Agatha Christie created the archetypal mystery, where a famous detective identifies the criminal from among a multitude of colorful suspects. And Edgar Rice Burroughs created a new kind of science fiction, blending science and fantasy with outright sexual tension.

I have nothing against that kind of writing—except I cannot do it. I tried, as noted above in my collaborations through Baen Books. But those efforts were never very satisfactory, not for the readers, not for the senior authors involved, and not for me. I discovered that I am a Type II writer.

Type II’s have fallen in love with the inner workings of the imagination and with the writing process itself. For them, writing is a way of finding out what’s real, what they know and think about the world. Stories are not wind-up toys but voyages of discovery. They tend to believe their characters are real people, not types. They tend to follow their story lines as life experiences, not archetypes. Boy wizards and bondage heroines are all very well, and it’s nice that somebody else is writing about them. But the meat and potatoes for the Type II writer live in other places.

These writers create strange books that you as a reader either love or hate or just don’t understand. They become bestsellers only by accident. But they secretly believe they write books that will be remembered for the ages. Type I writers think the II’s are dilettantes and naïve. Most Type II’s struggle in obscurity, but if once they can link a story to the meridians of the human heart and imagination, they can eventually find readers. The old publisher’s mid list—now the world of epublishing—is filled with Type II’s.

If a Type I happened to leave his manuscript on the subway, anyone else could pick it up, take it to an agent or a publisher, and pass it off as his or her own. That’s because, while the writer wants his story to stand out as a reflection of the current public mind and mood, he still wants it to blend into the popular culture and pass smoothly across the reader’s defenses and through the reader’s consciousness. He has been trained—or knows instinctively—that quirky little bits of prose style get in the way of this scientifically selected process.3

If a Type II left a manuscript, it would be so unique that an agent or editor would likely say, “This reads very much like so-and-so. In fact, it is a so-and-so. Where did you get it?” That is, of course, if so-and-so had a publishing history and any popular recognition. If not, then the agent or editor would probably say, “This is … interesting,” and probably be thinking, “Ewww!”

The Type I writer will seldom, if ever, suffer the pangs of wondering if the book he is working on is any good or if it’s just a bog and a mishmash. But at the same time she or he will seldom feel the joy of discovering that the book is better than expected and that all the parts—in hindsight, miraculously—work. Type II writing is an experiment, a passage into the unknown, a risky business. But its rewards—spiritual if not always monetary—can be vast.

I have a talent for knocking out words. I made money at it by writing and editing engineering proposals, biotech procedures, press releases, annual reports, employee communications, and so on. All of it was work for hire, all formula work. But my fiction is my own. Yes, I wrote some novels to other author's outlines while I was with Baen, but before I could write those books I had to delve into the story, explore it, add it to my psychic DNA, and bring it back as something I could see as a book.4 I may never make much money at fiction. But there are plenty of people trying to make money by knocking out the modern equivalent of pulp or dime novels as Type I writers. The publishing world is full of second-rate publishers and third-rate agents who are looking for them to produce "content." I dream of making stories that will be remembered for the ages.

Which type of writer are you? If you’ve done any writing at all, then you know that without being asked.

If you haven’t done any fiction but feel you have a talent for writing, then all you can do is write. Describe the things you see around you. You may have done some painting or music in the past; now bring that vision or that ear into words. Practice plot structure by writing down a daydream as the outline of a story: What happens first? What happens second? What are the consequences? Practice dialogue by picking two characters—even characters you’ve met in other books or in the movies—and imagining a conversation between them that is focused on some topic: How do we get out of this locked room? Who gets the last bite of the apple? Practice voices by taking a writer you like and trying to write in his or her style.

Write a little bit every day as an exercise. Collect story ideas and put them into computer folders. See if things start coming together around these ideas. This is how novels are born. Don’t bother too much with writing courses or author groups. They may give you some ideas, but they can also fill your head with a lot of stupid rules and prejudices.5 If you like to read books, then you already have buried in your head the essence of story, character, dialogue, and all the rest. Every writer is self-taught. Every writer finds his or her voice by admiring, emulating, and adapting.

I’ve been writing since I was sixteen. But if you haven’t been writing that long, is it too late to start? Well, there’s a story about a woman who reached the age of 100 and was interviewed by a bright young reporter. She asked if the old lady had any regrets. The woman said yes, that she didn’t start to learn the violin at age sixty, because by now she would have been playing for 40 years. We’re all going to live longer, what with healthier lifestyles and advancing medical techniques. If you start now, you’ll have a whole shelf full of books by the time you’re 100.

1. See Zen and the Artist from May 19, 2013.

2. See the complete list in Science Fiction.

3. I believe this is why writing teachers tell students to “kill your darlings.” Eliminate those passages you’ve labored over and feel they really express your idea, because you’ve made those passages stand out from the flow of the text. I also think this is what journalists learn, so that their prose won’t stand out—or stick out as a gaudy bit of color—in the mechanical sameness of the newspaper’s other stories.

4. This process was also amazingly instructive. I learned something about how the great writers gather ideas and build stories. And trying to write with the pace, tone, and voice of these other authors was a writing class in itself.

5. In one author’s group I attended thirty years ago, a particular member was death on “lists.” She always wanted any group of three or more items reduced to one or two, even if the intent was to show variety and richness of detail. (“ ‘They shopped for a long stay at the cabin, buying eggs and cheese, boned ham in a can, a loaf of whole wheat—supplemented with boxes of saltine crackers—two cartons of milk, a case of soda, and a package of those tiny star-shaped cookies the children loved.’ ” “Now that’s a list! Pick two of those things and just mention them.”)