Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Column: Bears Examining #5: Get ‘er Done by Elizabeth Bear
No kidding, I have the best job on Earth.
It doesn’t pay very well, it’s full of deadlines and stress and extremely public criticism. It involves a lot of travel and the elaborate pretense at being an extrovert, not to mention frequently falling flat on my face when I attempt something new and hard.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Because I set my own schedule, I work in my pajamas, and while I lack dental insurance I honestly have better job security than I ever did when I worked for somebody else. I know I’m employed through 2010, currently, which is something very few of my friends working in office jobs can say.
Also, I’m doing something I love enough that I don’t mind doing it ten or twelve hours a day. And it seems that a lot of other people would really like to do the same thing, and are looking for tips on how to swing it.
On the face of it, it seems like writing—telling stories—should be a pretty easy thing to do. And, after a fashion, it is. The vast majority of us are pattern-making, storytelling creatures, and most of us can, as Richard Adams has Bigwig say in Watership Down, “run and fight and spoil a story telling it.”
But most people can shoot pool, too, and there is a big difference between me and Minnesota Fats
(apparently, there was a big difference between Minnesota Fats and his carefully-honed image, as well, a little fact that may have bearing on the conversation later.). Which is to say, I’m not making my living shooting pool.
The making-a-living part is the hard part. The entertainment industry is merely a legal and reasonably honest means of living by one’s wits. This implies a few things: first of all, you have to be pretty good at whatever it is you mean to be doing. Not great—you don’t have to be better than the very best, though there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to that—but—like Mr. Fats—you have to be better than 99% of the nonprofessionals. Which means, good enough to be entertaining.
And you know what? I’m not going to talk about that. The internet and the book shelves are full of advice, some useful, some crippling, on how to learn the craft.
But there’s two other things you need besides craftsmanship. And those are the things I want to talk about here.
One of them is a work ethic. Working for yourself is a heck of a lot more fun than working for somebody else—at least for me, it is, and in writing books I feel like I’m doing something much more worthwhile with my life than if I were pushing papers around an office—but it’s still work, and there’s nobody to tell you to quit playing Desktop Tower Defense
and write the damned book, unless you’re so far over deadline that your editor is calling you every day to make sure you wrote. And that scenario presumes that you already have an editor and a deadline, which takes a certain amount of stick-to-it-tiveness to accomplish on its lonesome.
The Germans call it “Sitzfleisch;” my dad calls it “ger ‘er done.” I call it butt-in-chair, and what it boils down to is the ability to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and make the words happen. When it’s easy, when it’s hard, when you would rather gnaw your own fingers off than type another damned paragraph. It comes down, again and again, to simple endurance, and that’s really the only secret I know.
The other third of the magic equation is the hard part: I call it “knowing everything.”
Which is not precisely accurate. I mean, I don’t know everything, despite some people who may maintain that I act as if I do. But there’s an old adage—”write what you know,” and that’s what I’m talking about. When we write, one of the things that lends us narrative energy is narrative authority, and that confidence comes from, first of all, from mastering the tools of the craft—but second, from knowing your material.
In other words, it’s not so much a matter of writing what you know, as knowing what you write.
That knowledge—whether attained through research, travel, practice, or conversations with experts—is the thing that allows us as writers to make scenes and descriptions specific and detailed, to bring them to life. When we speak with expertise, we don’t need infodumps, and we don’t need to pause the narrative to explain. The necessary details to ground the reader arise as needed—and when we do pause for exposition, the exposition itself is often fascinating for its own sake.
When you speak with passion, people respond.
In practical terms, this means that the fiction writer, unless she is curtailing her topics severely, becomes a bit of a generalist. You learn to read widely, nonfiction as well as fiction, and pick up books on all sorts of odd topics because you never know what might come in handy. And some of that reading foments new ideas: it’s a neverending vicious cycle. There’s directed research, where you have a particular problem in your work, and you are researching to illuminate it; and then there is random reading, the drunkard’s-walk, where you are reading as if wandering through the woods, strictly for the joy of discovery. And both of those can inspire.
Ray Bradbury said, “All that stuff that’s collected up in my head—poetry and mythology and comic strips and science fiction magazines—comes out in my stories.” And I think that is the absolute truth of it. Everything that we pack in there influences what we create, even if we create in argument with it.
Of course, he also said, “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. “—a philosophy which would, if I had ascribed to it, resulted in me never learning to write my way out of a paper bag. I’m a believer in directed practice, which is to say, figuring out what you aren’t doing well and working on doing it better. Once you’ve practiced it for a while, you internalize, and then you don’t have to think about it any more. Which just goes to prove that nobody’s creative process is the same as anyone else’s. Find your own, and defend it.
An interesting side effect of this kind of research is that once somebody’s been writing for a while, they tend to get very good at Trivial Pursuit. My own favorite example of this is an episode of the National Public Radio quiz show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” in 2002 which featured Clive Barker in a segment called “It’s not my job!”
in which the hosts corral some famous, accomplished person and ask him questions entirely outside his field of expertise.
I was a barely-published young writer at the time that I first heard this, but something about it stuck with me. Specifically, I noticed the way Mr. Barker would self-deprecatingly say, “I only know a little bit about that—” and then get the answer right.
Because that’s the trick of the novelist. Tim Powers calls it “research a molecule thick.”
We know a tiny bit about everything.
The title of the radio segment aside, it is our job.