I’ve been working on some requested edits for God’s War this week. Revising can be a hell of a lot of fun when you get feedback of the “I’d like more of this! and this! and this!!” variety. Not so fun when you get the “I’m not sure why this doesn’t work, but could you make it work?” variety.
These are fun edits.
One of the biggest writing lessons I’ve learned over the years is that if I want to write good stuff, I need to absorb an incredible amount of media, and whenever possible, a heap of real-world traveling, socializing, listening to others’ stories. And it needs to be varied. And it needs to different. And it needs to be good.
I used to think that writers and “creative” people were just these natural geniuses, and everybody else was a bigger genius than me and that’s why I had to work so hard but they just pulled all this stuff out of their heads that was New! and Different! and Kewl! and they SOLD it!
It may still be true that there are wacky brain-full geniuses out there who pull this stuff out of thier asses, but what I’ve found is that I’m more likely to spit out stuff of the kind of quality and variety that I absorb. One of the reasons I majored in history is because I believed it would expose me to more stories than I’d get as an English major (I figured I was already reading all those books – history would force me to read different kinds of stories), and being a better writer is one of the reasons I’m a crazy credit card traveler. Traveling, for me, is like a drug. I get high on the very idea of all the great ways I can use all the material.
If I spend a lot of time reading Dragonlance novels and watching bad tv sitcoms, I’m going to write something that comes out like a bad Dragonlance novel sitcom (it may have been all very well and good to write Dragonlance back in the day, but there’s nothing new or fresh about it now; if you think there is, you’re probably just new to the genre, or very young).
Garbage in, garbage out.
I didn’t realize how much I did this until I had somebody asking me a bunch of questions about God’s War: how did I come up with the bug magic system? The setting? The holy war ideas? The word “bel dame”?
And you know, when you pick out ideas like that, I can tell you where I got them individually (as a whole, tho, I’ll have to tell you it’s Schenectady, of course).
The bugs came from living in South Africa in a – quite literally – coackroach-infested flat that was also full of geckos and flying ants – swarms of flying ants – on occasion. It wasn’t like visiting Disneyworld where it’s hot outside and maybe you see a big moth and then you go back into the air conditioned superplex. No, there was no air conditioning. There was no fake superplex (OK, there was the Gateway mall , let’s be fair. But basically, there was the Gateway mall and then… everything else). Bugs were just sort of a fact of life. I’ll never forget walking past this huge house one day that was covered – completely covered – from roof to sidewalk with thick plastic sheeting. The vans out front announced the fact that this house was being fumigated.
Bugs were a fact of life.
And where does “bel dame” come from? “Bel Dame” is actually an ancient word from Biblical times (Assyrian? Babylonian? I forget now) that meant a person who was hired by a family whose relative had been killed in order to apprehend the person who committed the crime and collect “blood debt” – either by killing the person or getting their family to pay the other family blood money in lieu of, well, blood. (it also is reminescent of “belle dame” – a beautiful woman or beautiful mother. And “bel dam” – an old woman or a witch). It was reading a book about the practice of ancient blood debt that gave me the foundation for the bel dames and ideas about swapping blood and organs for bread.
Everything else came from books, from media. I did a library search at the Northwestern University Library and made a list of books I was interested in; they were all about ancient Assyria, Iraq, Iran (ancient Peria), guerilla warfare, Islamic history, Islamic women, Islam in general, warfare in general. Jenn would pick these up for me from the Northwestern library ten at a time, and I’d go through them like I was writing another Master’s thesis.
I started trying to teach myself Arabic. I started dying from diabetes.
I wrote the opening line for the book, “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert,” a few weeks after I got my IUD, and was experiencing so much blood and pain that I just wanted to rip the fucking fucker out. IUD + dying of diabetes means you’re going to start writing some pretty fucked up shit about the body and one’s relationship to the body.
Those themes get hit even harder in book two. As do themes about loss, dependence, death, and rebuilding.
It all goes in there, one way or another. I still write down particularly witty quotes or witty plot devices from books and movies. I spent last night collecting all of the extra quotes and details and interesting characters pieces that I hadn’t managed to get into the book the first time. Now, I can go through and check them all off when I’ve added them.
My fourth disk of Rome is now in the mail. I just finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, and re-reviewing In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. I’m still hip-deep in William T Vollmann’s abridged version of the classic morality-of-violence epic, Rising Up and Rising Down.
Today I picked up a copy of The Kite Runner and Ragamuffin. I’m going through my book of Insects and my book of Poisons to pull out some details about bugs and get some inspiration for fleshing out my biological weapons.
This stuff doesn’t come from nowhere.
And I guess, really, it shouldn’t be any surprise. What makes good writers isn’t just being able to put down a sentence. If writing a good book was easy, we’d all be bestsellers and/or award winners and everybody would’ve finished a book and every one of them would be this wacky, unique blend of media and life experiences.
But that doesn’t really happen.
I remember reading Perdido Street Station for the first time in South Africa. It wasn’t, I thought, a great book. The plot was a mess and I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of the characters. But it was wild and messy and fucked up, and the stuff on the page raised the bar for ideas in the genre, in fantasy, for me. Elves and swords were all very nice and good. Genocide and feudalism were fine. But this was something else. It was pushing toward that other place, that someplace that was really different.
And it’s been my goal, since Clarion, to push the envelope. To take everything I do and push it just a little bit more, twist it in the opposite way that I’m inclined to twist it. I don’t ever want to get charged with “a failure of the imagination” again.
If you want to keep getting better, if you want to be really different, you have to do that the whole way. You have to challenge yourself. You have to stop eating garbage. You have to pull in all the stuff you love, you admire, the stuff that twists up your head. And a lot of is, yes, a great deal of it, is going to be about you. All that emotion, all those experiences, are funnelled through you. It takes some courage. And a lot of hard work.
You can certainly make a living not doing that, but that’s not the reason I got into writing genre fiction.
If I wanted to make a decent living, I would have become an investment banker.