As you know, I recently decided to do a little something to give back to the SF/F writing community. As with most attempts at good works, the giver winds up gaining far more than the receiver. By sitting down with aspiring writers and sharing my experience, I’ve been afforded a great opportunity to examine my own process.
The one question most folks struggling to get book deals ask me is how one does it. What is the one thing that breaks through, that takes you over the top? There is no answer, of course. You control what you can control: You do the best work you can, polish it until you can’t think of any way to make it better, and then do whatever you can to bring it before someone who might pay you for it. There’s no magic key, there’s no end run. You work until you make it or you give up or you die.
I wrote this essay back in January of 2012, just after I’d first gone pro, and I am constantly drawn back to this line where I describe that very thing: a sense that a switch had flipped just after my third tour. The guy who landed back in the states was different from the one who left, I wrote, he could sell a book.
That essay credits my military experience with taking me over the top, and I talk a lot about exactly how. But there’s one aspect of the shift that I didn’t describe, and I wanted to say it here, because again, it’s something I wish someone had said to me when I was starting out:
Get your elbow off your forehead. Art is like talent. It’s a thing, but nobody can define it. Nobody knows what it is. Not really. Are you an artist if you write? Of course. But as with the talent myth, thinking of it as art is dangerous, because it can derail your process.
Let’s take the idea of a muse. We playfully take a page from ancient, benighted people who thought slavery was a good idea. The muse comes to us, hits us with the art stick, and the work flows forth. The inverse is that, if the muse is busy elsewhere, well, what can you do? How can you make art without magic creativity dust sprinkled on your head by her slender, long-fingered hand? My first blog ever was titled “Strangling the Muse.” That was by design.
I’ve always had the tendency to think of art as a natural disaster. It’s a hurricane. It’s a forest fire. It happens and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. You just have to wait, and pray it graces you.
And when I think back on my early days, admiring the work of China Mieville, or James Clavell, I knew there was work involved, but I didn’t know there was work involved. I always felt their muse was less fickle than mine, that they had more “art in their soul” (whatever the hell that means, and yes, I actually used those words, though it embarrasses the hell out of me to admit it now), that they just had this “God-given talent” for writing, this ephemeral, protean mysticism.
And, if it’s truly magic, why bother working at it? No amount of work you could possibly do can replace divine favor. Why edit? Why go through draft after draft after draft? Just write it once and get it out there. If the magic is in you, people will see it and be enchanted.
So, what was the thing that tipped me over the edge? The thing that broke through? The magic key? When I got my elbow off my forehead. When I cut that crap out. When I finally said: “Muse-schmuse. She’s on vacation. I’ve got work to do.”
When I stopped thinking of a novel as a work of art, and started thinking of it as an engine.
Engines are complicated, modern ones intensely so. They integrate with computers, run on waste oil and electricity, power things as sophisticated as fighter jets and hydroelectric dams.
But when was the last time you said a great mechanical engineer was touched by a muse?
It’s hard and it’s complicated, but if you take enough ME courses and spend enough time on the shop floor, you can figure out how an engine works. You can take them apart. You can understand them. And once you understand them well enough, you can build your own.
That was when I began reading differently. I gave up much of the resonance and wonder of the reading experience. Mieville’s prose ceased to transport me as I picked apart its breathy elegy and looked at just how he was evoking it. Martin’s characters lost their luster as I dove deep into how they were constructed, looking for the WHY in their appeal. I began to see where some of my favorite writers interrupted their narratives with unnecessary description, or tripped up a character with clumsy dialogue. I began to spot the places that made me want to put the book down, began to understand why.
While I imagined the muse was busy dancing on the eyelids of my luckier colleagues, I built engines in my workshop. Like all neophytes, they didn’t work at first. Later, they did, but not well.
But while I couldn’t tempt the muse to my door, I could do the work, endlessly, relentlessly.
And eventually I figured it out. Not totally, not perfectly, but well enough to get me started.
There is no magic key, but if you can’t stop believing there is one, then let it be this: Control what you can. Get your elbow off your forehead. Leave magic for magicians. You’re a laborer. Labor until your work bears fruit that matches your own imagination.
And then you can join me in the ultimate satisfaction, when that muse comes around. Smile at her, thank her politely.
And show her the door.
It’s as much of a magic key as I’ve got, and I hope it helps.
Now, lock it up and get to work.