What Writing This Novel Has Taught Me

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

It’s official as of last night: the first draft of my novel The Flex and the Flux is complete.  102k words of drug-dealing magicians.
So let’s talk about what I discovered this time around.
I have written a lot of novels: eight of them, if I bothered to count.  Six were before I restarted my writing career at the Clarion Sci-Fi and Fantasy Workshop, so I don’t count them.  I’ve written two as what I’d tentatively call a “mature” writer – as in, “Ferrett is now aware of his flaws, knows his writing process well enough to squeeze the best work possibly out of himself, and has accepted that he requires heavy revisions to function.”  (There are people impressed by the mere fact of finishing a novel, but remember: my strength as a writer is tenacity.  I could spew out words at will, and regularly did.  For me, the trick was learning how to spew out the correct words.)
So.  Two novels.
…I don’t want to talk about the failed novel in between, but alas, I must.
If you followed me over the summer of 2012, you’d see me discussing my novel Sorry I Killed Your Boyfriend, which was pitched as “Pre-powers Buffy discovers her best friend is dating Edward.”  I spent about eight months wrestling with that idea, because it was such an insanely great idea to me – not from a marketing perspective, but from the clash of emotions that’d result when two best friends were separated by what was, in many ways, an attempted murder.  And I did my research: I read Twilight, re-watched some Buffy, found the town in Oregon this was set in, checked some medical tomes on ophthalmologic disasters (since one character was missing an eye).  There was a lot that went into that novel.
And yet no matter how I approached this rich trove of emotion, I couldn’t find its soul.
I probably should have been tipped off by Cat Valente’s reaction to the fact that I wasn’t keen on Labyrinth, when she expressed astonishment and I replied, “The husk of a dead thirteen-year-old girl rests inside my withered heart.”  Am I well-positioned to write about the travails of two adolescent teenaged girls, especially modern ones (for I hate books that act like AIM and texts and Facebook never existed, simply because the author wasn’t around when those were part and parcel of high school), one going through a flighty, Twilighty romance?
I wasn’t.  But it wasn’t because they were girls that I was repelled: it was the Twilight, inextricably wrapped around the core idea.
I coined the term Philosophical Allergy to discuss how I felt, reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  In many ways, Lev’s book is a gorgeously written adult take on Harry Potter, meticulously characterized, with many sharp and imaginative twists.  But the central core of The Magicians is alienation – the characters are all genius outcasts who, rather than band together in the face of loneliness, devise better excuses to create class divisions and emotional distance.  They’re all very real people, acting in very realistic ways; having grown up in rich Connecticut, I’ve known these people intimately, sometimes literally so.
I just loathed all of them.
And so, while reading it, I found myself rejecting some of the core tenets, and finishing the book became kind of a hair shirt for me.  It was a very good book on some levels, but on another, I’d found someone chronicling the precise opposite of what I hoped one day to write.  I could read it, but I could not ingest it.  I vomited out what it was attempting to do, even as I admired its technique.
So it was with Twilight.  (Which, if you’ll recall, I think is a very effective book at what it does.)  They say that much good writing is a dialogue, where one short story inspires another, and I believe that’s true.  A lot of my tales are me reading someone’s story and going, “Oh, that’s not how people react in a situation, let me show you how it goes.”  And for me, trying to hew close to the idea that one of the characters was having a Twilight romance with a vampire, I found myself ridiculing the idea.  Vampires are killers.  This adolescent love of Edward she has is compelling, even universal, but if you’re smart you get over that and walk away… and if you don’t, you find yourself constantly chasing new relationship energy, trying to build a love out of that first transitory rush.  The more I thought about the question, “Why would a century-old vampire find any seventeen-year-old girl appealing?” the creepier the answer became.
And I’m very clever, and very tenacious, so I spent a lot of time devising ideas why this could all hold together.  The problem is, those reasons weren’t convincing to me.  I was writing by the numbers, not invested in the characters to the depth I had to be to follow them through four hundred pages of adventures – and when I realized that I couldn’t justify the very things that needed to exist to make this novel tick, I immediately ragequit.
That was eight months of my life gone.  And so I was a little terrified to start a new novel.  I had all that tentative fear that a man gets on his first date after the divorce: am I really fit for this?  Especially since this new novel was inspired, once again, by another television show: what if Breaking Bad dealt with not drugs, but magic?
Yet this novel is successful.  Very successful, I think.  So what’s the difference?
In a way, the collapse of Sorry I Killed Your Boyfriend made me sensitive to what I needed to learn for this novel.  After all, if I wasn’t a big fan of The Magicians, then a novel based on Breaking Bad is probably not going to be warm and fuzzy.  Breaking Bad is about a chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-dealer – and it’s blacky funny in the beginning, when Walter is still learning his trade, but with each season Walter gets more efficient and less lovable.  The stated goal of the show is to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, and though the show isn’t quite done yet, they’ve very much succeeded.
So considering that I like to write about love and friendship, how do I reconcile that with the source material?
What I wrote was indeed about drug dealers, and a violent lifestyle, and a ‘mancy system that only springs from functionally-incapable, crazed-cat-lady-level obsessions. But even drug dealers feel affection towards each other, and drug usage has that lovely romance period where you’re both taking this drug, it’s awesome, the world is full of possibilities.  And this time, I treated the core of the idea that gestated this work as a mere suggestion, not a rail.  Whenever any of it conflicted with what I loved, what I loved thoroughly won.
In other words, I didn’t let someone else’s philosophy drive me.  I let mine.  And so, what in the hands of someone else would have been, well, Breaking Bad, instead turns into an extended musing on fatherhood (for the Walter-analogue here has a young daughter, who unlike in Breaking Bad features prominently), and how you deal with life-destroying trauma.  It’s a surprisingly warm and fuzzy book about outcasts who wreck the world with their reality-warping psychoses.
If I’d been smarter, dealing with my collapsed book, I would have realized soon on that the Edward-Bella love thing is really a philosophical allergy, and I would have not simply tried to adapt it, but I would have transformed it.  I wouldn’t have asked, “So why are they in love?”  I would have asked, “So what would I fear about that love?  What would I have been attracted to?”  And rather than constantly trying to wedge them into the plot that I’d devised, I would have found my own voice to respond to Stephenie Meyer’s take on NRE, treating it not as this thing to be transplanted into my novel, but rather my own relationships reflected in fiction.
My error was treating the idea as if I could respond to it by copying it.  You can’t do that.  You respond to another work of fiction by breathing it all in, then breathing it out as something so completely you that it’s no one else.  There are adolescent romances that I could write about – for, as has been noted, in many ways I move in constant tides of crushes, falling in love with strangers at the drop of a hat – but I’d have to write about the kind of vampire that I’d fall for, and not Stephenie Meyers and all her kin would.  And would that idea survive the first contact with my other concept of a Buffy-analogue wanting to kill the Edward?
I don’t know.  But now I’d be wise enough to understand that if it wouldn’t fit, then that darling should be the first to go.
Anyway, I’m rambling.  The point is that what I learned this time around is the most obvious point, which is really what writers do: we find the obvious advice everyone bandies about, and find the way to internalize it.  The point here is that novels – that fiction – is about your fears, your deepest desires, your internal kinks that pull you along… and anything that leads you away from that is blunting the strongest thing in your fiction, which is to say your passion and voice.
I lost mine.  I got it back.  And now I’ll spend the next several months re-passing this novel, deepening the themes and tuning the characters and making those emotional beats resonate.  Which I’m able to do because at some point, I went beyond just filing off the serial numbers and actually adopted it as all my own.

1 Comment

  1. Skennedy
    May 3, 2013

    This reminds me a bit of what I’ve always heard about martial arts – that you start with rote repetition, move to classic form styles, and eventually that all becomes a part of you, and from there you make your own choices and forms that work best for you.

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