I read a really spectacular Advance Reader Copy yesterday of a book called THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT (out Sept, 2015. I’ll talk more about it then). I was hooked from the first page and cried through the first 40 pages. It’s a tragedy in the traditional sense, like Madame Bovary or Macbeth (or Mass Effect 3!). You know everyone is fucking doomed. You know it from the first forty pages, and the inevitability of that, of knowing that to “win” in this book, for the protagonist, means the endurance of staggering, brutal losses, was actually terribly comforting for me.
I dreamed about it when I went to sleep – about being stuck in these horrible political nightmares, of trying to untangle plots through bank notes and accounting, and desiring the wrong people, for all the right reasons, in a society that kept close watch on me, like a secondary world fantasy Big Brother, marching me inevitably toward my doom. I dreamed of trying to fight a system within a system that was horribly corrupt, and trying to retain my own sanity, my own decency, my own sense of self, while knowing the only way to win was to give all that up.
Horrible choices. A terrible bind.
And I admit that sometimes this is what is feels like to be a career novelist.
This theme of becoming what you hate in order to destroy what you hate is a big part of THE MIRROR EMPIRE and the sequel I’m working on right now, EMPIRE ASCENDANT. It’s a theme I love, and it shows up in spades in my favorite novel of the year, CITY OF STAIRS, as well. I also dealt with it in the only short story of mine ever to appear in a “Best of” anthology. It’s something I think about a lot as someone committed to women’s equality, too. Equality is a necessary step. But can there be true equality in a system which has been built on inequality from the start? Is it enough to try and change it from within, when its founding principles are so fundamentally broken? Rebellion and revolution starve and kill and destroy people. But is mere existence in a broken system any better? (this is why I enjoyed Snowpiercer as well, which is unafraid to ask and answer this question).
I’m drawn to a lot of fiction that explores war, power (including the various -isms that come with it), colonialism, rebellion, genocide and the like. We have moved well beyond the days of the “war is fucking awful” post-Vietnam novels to a new wave of more complex voices who are writing astonishing stories that take on these issues in far more complicated new futures or secondary worlds. These topics were my academic interests, and seeing the interplay of all of these things in real life, they continue to weigh heavily on me. In order for me to understand a thing, it’s not enough to read about it, speak to people involved in it, I have to process it the same way I process many of my thoughts, and that’s by writing about it. I write about these things with a good dose of feminism, of women doing things, of an awareness of the diversity of people in the world, and the diversity of real and potential lived experiences, whether that’s with family relationships or the way governments are structured. I got into this game because I wanted to write worlds that were really different.
My writing journey has been one about leveling up, time and time again. When I finally got into the Clarion writing workshop (I was rejected the first time), I found I could hold my own with the other writers, but there were certainly some who were flat out better, and even more who were flat-out better than me with particular parts of writing– they were great plotters, great at dialogue, or better at character, or worldbuilding. Instead of making me feel like shit, though, knowing that there were people who were better than me who were at this same stage in their careers was really invigorating. It challenged me. I’m a naturally lazy person, and I live for a challenge.
Which brings us to now, four published books into my writing career, with a fifth book that’s been kicking my ass since February. When you bang your head against a book long enough, you start to despair. When you read some great books that are doing what you could only wish you’re doing, it can get downright depressing.
But there’s a funny thing that happens to me when I read great work. Yes, sure, there’s the initial, “OH GOD WHY AM I NOT THIS GOOD!!?? I WANT TO BE GOOD LIKE THIS!!” But after that comes this very slow circling and narrowing of focus, and I become very intent, like, “OK, there are some really exceptional books in the world. That is a fact. Nothing has changed. It’s just that there are more exceptional books nailing what I want out of a book, too. If I want to get noticed, if I want to be read, I need to be better than everyone else. I need to work harder.”
Constant improvement of craft is a necessary thing in this business. If you hope to cruise along writing the same book for two decades, well… yes, there are some people who can do that, but not many. What I see most often is folks who get stuck about book four or five – where I am now – and just cease to improve. They start writing the same book, at the same level of craft, and wonder why no one’s buying them anymore.
The reality is that when books that explore your same themes come out, and they are markedly better than your books, you don’t have any way of carving out a place in that market anymore. I’ve told people before that I don’t want to be a part of a genre, I want to be my own genre. I want to create it. I want people to say, “I want a Kameron Hurley book.” What a Kameron Hurley book is is going to change as I do, but my hope is that I can keep leveling up my craft, keep improving my skill, and bring my readers with me.
Sometimes people get annoyed at that. They go, “Well, this is what I write, and fuck you if you don’t want to read it.” And that’s fine for you! Do what you like. But that’s not my path. I can’t imagine Ursula LeGuin went, “Hey, I’ll just write every book the same now, they’ll all just be like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. I’ll just spit out a few dozen more like that and call it a career.”
I’m in this to get better. I want to be exceptional. And if you’re in this game to do that, to become an exceptional writer, you have to work at it. And me, you know… I didn’t start this game with as much talent as other people. I have to work harder.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Lester Dent plot formula, and Michael Moorcock’s advice on how to write a book in three days the last few weeks, using it to up the narrative and plot flow on a project, and you know, as I’m working on this thing, and finally grokking it – it feels like there are new pathways opening up in the brain. It feels like untangling a thing that was just a dark massy blob in my head. And then you unthread it, and you look at it, and it all looks so much simpler. That is learning. Leveling up. Getting better. It’s the long slog of knocking your head against a thing, coming at it from different angles, and then putting it into practice.
Active practice has been shown to be more important to an artist’s “leveling up” than sheer talent. I’ve seen this again and again, and it’s the old “ant and the grasshopper” story writ out in real life. The grasshopper might last a season through luck, but it’s the ant –with hard work and preparation – who’s going to consistently make it. I’ve taken this idea to heart, and what it means is that I’m never done learning how to write. Every book offers a new problem, new challenges, not just in their inherent structures, or genres, but the challenge to do things better at the plot, character, prose and structural level than I’ve done before. We don’t all have a runaway success right out the gate – and to be honest, I’m a bit glad about that, because I’d rather my runaway success, the book I’m known for, was a much better book than my first-out-the-gate effort.
This is why, when people ask about what surprised me most about publishing, I say it’s that the work is never done. That the leveling up isn’t permanent. Publishing one book doesn’t mean you’re going to write books people want to publish forever. What was “good enough” last year may not be good enough this year, or ten years, or twenty years from now. Writing is a constant process of leveling up.
So you’re not as good as a peer. So what? You aren’t dead yet. Go back to studying great work. Look at those great books that make you jealous and unpack them. If you suck at plot, study folks great at plot. If you suck at characters, read books with great characters. And when you’re not reading, watch great stories – television, film, plays, comic books, whatever. What makes a good story – people we care about, engaging in interesting things that challenge and transform (or fail to transform) them – are the same across a variety of media. As I said earlier, I found the video game Mass Effect 3 to be an exceptionally classic tragedy. I cried through most of the game. Only a great piece of storytelling is going to be able to have that effect on people. You could learn a lot from it.
I started writing books because I couldn’t find the books I wanted to read on the shelf. But now, increasingly, I’ve been finding more and more of those books – not just because there ARE more, but because they are getting far more visibility. They are getting picked up by mainstream publishers, not just the specialty or small book publishers. The market is catching up to what many of us have been writing for a good long while.
But that also means that it’s become increasingly important for me to understand what type of writer I am in this market. When you are no longer writing work at the margins, when the margins start to move mainstream, you need to figure out who you are, too. What makes you different? Why should anyone care? How is your work unique? You can respond, of course, by pushing out the margins, by writing edgier work. You can also respond by leveling up, by being the very best at writing the type of book you write. These are both hard decisions. Tough steps. But they are doable, and necessary, when the margin starts to move, and readers throw up their hands in ten years (as they are doing with grimdark now) and say, “Yes, you have diverse characters, interesting family structures, and women doing things. But the genre is FULL of those books now! WHAT ELSE CAN YOU OFFER ME???”
Finding out what I have to offer, and improving how I write those stories, is the key to my survival in the industry. Not so much in a marketing/sales sense, mind you, but for my own sanity. After all, if there are a bazillion other writers giving the market the same stories I can give them, only better, what’s the point of me writing it?
To stay in this game, I need to write just a little bit slant, sometimes. And I need to keep leveling up, or none of this is worth it to me, in the end.
I want to write books that keep people up at night, where they cry through the first forty pages and keep reading anyway. I want to write books they take with them to parties and hand out to people, because really, yes, you MUST read this book.
And if I want to write those books, I have to work for them. Not just today, or tomorrow. But forever. There is no final boss level. No award that means you’re done. There’s only you, and the next book. Forever and ever, until the last breath leaves your body.
I really hope you’re up for it.