Sunday, April 17, 2005

Why Write?

(WARNING. LONG, SELF-INDULGENT, SEMI-RANT AHEAD. If you're not in the mood, the post that follows this is about the protests in Zhejiang last week...)


I love mystery novels. I tell myself that I should read more "literary" fiction, and I do try. But I frequently find that mysteries are a more satisfying reading experience. Too many times I've finished a well-reviewed literary novel and wondered what it was really about - not in a confusing, too much magical realism sense, but just that big themes and well-constructed plots seemed largely absent, that the endings frequently felt arbitrary (Why does it end here? Well...just because. It's over, that's why). Sure, a lot of the writing is nice, but there's only so much nourishment one can get from a bunch of pretty sentences. I'll read a novel whose author is attempting to respond to some of these criticisms - Franzen's The Corrections, for example, and still...okay, he's trying to write about Big Things. About the American psyche at the turn of the millennium through the crumbling lives of a "typical" American family, etc. But what was that whole subplot in Lithuania supposed to be about? You can't tell me the author has ever been to Lithuania; Franzen's Lithuania was about as convincing as when they do Lithuania on an episode of Alias or something.

Mysteries, on the other hand, tend to have a certain narrative logic and coherent structure by the nature of the genre. Someone gets murdered. By the end, you find out who did it, and why. Within these confines, quality varies widely, of course. There are plenty of unreadable hacks writing mysteries (Carolyn Hart. Why, Lord, oh why?). But the best writers are really creating literature, not just genre fiction. And when they're not creating literature, they are at least giving us a book that's satisfying to read, and you know why it ends where it ends, for the most part (he did it. And here's why).

So I was interested to read the Ian Rankin interview on the Powell's Books website. Rankin is a Scottish author whose Inspector Rebus series is consistently best-selling and well-reviewed. I've actually only just discovered Rankin and have only read one of his books. Though I can't yet say if he'll become one of my favorites, I liked what I read and was curious to find out more.

What interested me the most was Rankin's revelation that though he has a story in mind he wants to tell and researches it thoroughly, when he starts writing, he generally has no idea how the book is going to end. New characters, subplots, tangents, these things come up in the course of the writing, not through some carefully worked out plot. Says Rankin:
You'd be surprised. People think that crime fiction is very structured, that it has the puzzle element, that it has got a very strong sense of beginning, middle and end. The crime happens, then you get the investigation, then you get the resolution at the end. And it all looks very structured. But an awful lot of crime writers make it up as they go along. I always say "If I knew what was going to happen, why would I need to write the book?"

"If I knew what was going to happen, why would I need to write the book?"

Of all the things I've read about writing and the process of writing, this sentence really resonated with me.

I've written, at this point...well...a lot...many, many pages. Novels, screenplays, teleplays (with no notable commercial success, though I've made a small amount of money here and there). The first few long projects I tackled, when I was trying to get a handle on the process, I rewrote so many times that I couldn't even guess how many drafts I did. Let's just say forests died so that I might learn how to better craft a plot and turn a phrase.

You know all those writers who whine about how hard it is to write? How miserable writing makes them? I am not one of them. I mean, why write if it isn't fun? Which is not to say that I don't procrastinate (for example: tonight I watched an entire evening of trashy TV and then mindlessly web-surfed and am only getting around to writing this at 12:46 AM), or that the writing always goes well or that I don't every once in a while get myself into projects that are, well, frankly miserable for me to do and make me put a metaphoric gun to my head every night in order to do them, but overall, hey, I love to write. Few things feel better to me than coming up with that perfect line to nail some moment, the immense feeling of satisfaction I get at the end of the night when I look at what I've accomplished and think, hey, that ain't half bad. Figuring out some difficult plot point, watching the pages pile up as I make my way through a project - you know, it's fun. If it's not fun, why do it?

Well, I work in the film/television industry, and I guess I can answer my own question to some extent. A lot of people are in it for the potential money, that big six figure spec screenplay they're going to sell which will totally change their lives. A lot of people are taken with the idea of being a writer, of being considered a creative person. They want to have that identity. They just don't want to do the work all that much.

I was as guilty of the material success motivation as anyone, I guess. I moved to Los Angeles with the notion that I would either become a rock star or a successful screenwriter. Either one would do.

But if it was really success I was after, I picked a strange and somewhat perverse way to pursue it. The projects I tackled were generally uncommercial and eccentric. I kept telling myself next time I would write that incredibly commercial screenplay spec, but I never quite got around to it. I was having so much more fun writing my strange television series - and of course, writers with no standing in the industry just don't sell TV series, and I knew that - but it was so much fun to do. Seven episodes. I could have done more but finally managed to make myself stop. Now I would write that spec screenplay. If I could only think of what it should be about.

In the meantime, I decided I would work on a novel. I'd written an opening chapter to one years ago, and I'd always kind of liked the idea. Why not go ahead and write it until I came up with a killer concept for that commercial feature? But since I knew the novel was basically another uncommercial proposition, I devised a series of rules to make the project go faster. I would write every night from 10 PM to midnight. I would produce at least two pages a night. Once I finished a chapter, I would not go back and revise it. Outline? I didn't need no stinkin' outline. Though I had some plot points and scenes in mind, I'd make it up as I went along. The idea was not to get hung up on anything, not to judge, not to critique myself into creative paralysis. I christened my project, "the Trashy Novel," another way of deflecting my internal critic. I wasn't aiming to be brilliant here. I was just going to write, keep up my chops as it were. Because writing, really, is just like playing a musical instrument - you have to practice. And when it's time to do the work, you have to perform.

I discovered that I really liked writing novels. And that in spite of the fact that I'd been a pretty prolific writer in the past, having a defined routine and set goals was just like what all the annoying grownups had always said - a very good idea. In about six months I'd finished a draft.

I did go back and rework chapters and edit and all that, of course. But it was a pretty good first draft. And having done it once, I thought, why not do it again? So I sat down and wrote Trashy Novel 2 (a sequel to Trashy Novel). This too was a tremendous amount of fun. I still hadn't started that commercial screenplay, of course. But I was coming around to the view that I didn't really want to. Though I'd really enjoyed writing television scripts (features not so much), the process of trying to sell them, with the attendant rejection, made me absolutely miserable. Reaching for the Prozac level depressed.

Why not just write novels because I enjoyed doing it? Maybe I'd never make a dime. Maybe I'd take the skills I'd acquired writing Trashy Novels 1 & 2 and use them to write something I might be able to sell, a mystery novel, perhaps. In the meantime, Trashy Novel 3 beckoned (there were some unresolved issues left over from 1 & 2).

And then something unexpected happened. I made contact with an editor at a major publishing house who agreed to read a sample of Trashy Novel 1.

Now, I have to say, this editor gives lie to every stereotype of the cold, rude, unresponsive gatekeeper in a creative industry. She is incredibly friendly, courteous, encouraging and best of all, fast. I've never gotten responses back from a person in her kind of position so quickly.

She liked the writing and the "voice" but had some criticisms. Mostly, the book was just too long for a first-time author - too hard to market. If I could cut, say, 100 pages (or was it 150? I forget), then she could seriously consider it.

Of course, I said I would try. Thinking as I typed the email, there was absolutely no way I would be able to cut that much and that I was almost surely wasting my time. But I had to make the attempt.

I worked all summer editing the book. It was a tedious, frustrating process, mainly because all the time I was taking to edit was time that I could not take to write. And I knew in my heart that all my hard work wasn't going to amount to anything. They'd never publish this book. In spite of this certainty, I still fantasized about getting published. About making a little money as a writer. About finally having achieved something I'd worked for and wanted for years.

I managed to cut about sixty pages, good cuts for the most part, though a few hurt. Anything more would have seriously compromised the book, I thought. When I finished, I sent off an email detailing my progress to the friendly editor and waited for the inevitable rejection.

To my surprise, it didn't happen then. The editor agreed to read the draft as I'd edited it. I told myself that this was enough, to actually get a full consideration of my work, for once.

Of course, it wasn't enough when the rejection came - a nice rejection to be sure, with an open-ended invitation to submit something else in the future that might meet their requirements (specifically, something shorter). Still, it hurt. A lot. As another writer friend of mine said, just because you tell yourself that you know something bad is going to happen doesn't mean that you don't feel like shit when it does.

I fell into the worst post-natal, post-rejection funk I'd had in years. The whole point of writing the novels had been to avoid this cycle, and I'd managed to get sucked right into it. I abandoned Trashy Novel 3 (to complaints from my small but loyal fan base, who had been following the series. Sorry, guys). I wasn't sure what I wanted to write. Maybe I didn't want to write at all. Maybe writing had become for me what playing music had become a few years back - something I'd done forever, something that I thought that defined me, that I thought I couldn't live without, but the funny thing was, I could. Once I finally gave up the band, it was kind of a relief. All that time, hassle, practice, nerves...

But I wasn't ready to give up writing, even if I wasn't feeling much like doing it. Sometimes maintaining your identity is about an assertion of will, rather than an expression of some kind of essential nature. I'll make myself write, and maybe, after a while, I'll actually feel like doing it again. Because after all, it's what we do that really makes us who we are, right? It's not the other way around...

Okay, so I lied at the beginning of this post. Sometimes writing isn't fun. Sometimes it really is haaarrrdddd. But one thing I have learned from years of going through this process is that sometimes you just have to slog through it. It's like running. You put on your shoes, you drag yourself outside, you jog and every step feels like you're fighting the entropy of the universe; it feels miserable, and why bother? But you told yourself that you were going to run, so you set off down the trail.

And eventually, maybe you are running down the trail, and the clouds lift and the colors sharpen, you smell the sage, and it's so incredibly beautiful that you can't take it in and you think the key to everything is somehow contained in this beauty, and yet it's still inpenetrable...but you feel good. Alive.

Oh yeah. That's right. This is fun.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This part of your Loyal fan base would still like you to finish Trashy Novel 3--I need to know what happens!

Other Lisa said...

I'm going to get around to it...really! Though I don't necessarily know what's going to happen any more than you do...

zhadi said...

I really like this particular posting. It definitely hits home as far as what are good reasons to write as opposed to reasons motivated by possible financial gain with no real attachment to the project...and as someone who views outlines as highly suspicious (I have never been able to make characters behave according to anything planned beforehand), I love Rankin's quote.


I agree with anonymous, btw...It's very unfair to leave us hanging on the fates of...well, those two characters that we've all become emotionally invested in.

Other Lisa said...

Thanks, I'm glad it resonates with you. I personally think that writing for any other basic motivation is a recipe for creatve block and depression...but perhaps that's just moi...