Writing Tips

Panic Attack: Understanding Your Work Cycles

Jeff VanderMeer • February 28th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Sometime in the past month or so I must admit that I had a kind of panic attack, one that had me stressed and depressed at first—especially in the context of so many writers producing a novel a year. Although I’ve never thought this was necessarily a good idea for me, except career-wise, it still exerts a kind of pressure if you start thinking about it too much.

My panic attack occurred while I was looking through a copy of my last novel, Finch, which came out in 2009 in the US and 2010 in the UK. I suddenly realized that I was still months away from completing my next novel. How could I have let that happen? What in the heck had I been doing the last few years?

The answer was that I’d done a lot of anthologies, like The Weird, which is after all like producing about seven anthos in terms of word length. Not to mention the nonfiction book The Steampunk Bible. Between The Weird, The Steampunk Bible, and our Lambshead Cabinet anthology, I along with Ann (and on the Bible, SJ Chambers) had dealt with over 800 creators, which is in itself a kind of crazy time-suck. Getting our ebook imprint Cheeky Frawg off the ground had taken more time, as had creating Weirdfictionreview.com and doing a lot of work for the Shared Worlds teen writing camp (a recurring, annual time commitment).

So, I told myself, with some sense of relief if not a bit of sadness at perhaps losing sight of my priorities, I had a great excuse. All of these other projects had taken up my time. That was the simplest explanation. It’s not healthy to beat yourself up for not being able to do everything simultaneously.

But then I took stock again after looking at what I did have in the works fiction-wise—and a different picture started to emerge. There had been a lot of time spent on a long film treatment entitled Jonathan Lambshead and the Golden Sphere that had taken a whole summer (and may still bear fruit). More time had been spent on conceptualizing a space opera trilogy, another project for the future. More importantly, I realized I had written about two-thirds of a novel entitled Borne, about three-fourths of a novel entitled The Journals of Doctor Mormeck (serialized on this blog), and another twenty-thousand words of another novel which we’ll just call Mainstream Novel #1 for now.

Seeing the amount of fiction I’d actually produced, even if most of it wasn’t finished, made me look back at the previous “cycle” of novels: Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and Finch. I realized that there had been significant overlap between those books, in terms of partial rough drafts. Veniss had lain dormant with about half of it done while I worked on much of City of Saints and Madmen (the first of my Ambergris novels), then come to life again. Shriek had been conceived of while writing the last parts of City of Saints—I had a 12-page summary of sorts—and a very early section of what became Finch was sparked by the original illuminated manuscript cover of City of Saints. I had about seven thousand words of proto-Finch well before finishing the extended City of Saints. While working on Shriek, additional ideas for Finch accrued over a period of years. Shriek itself took several years of work, although no one noticed the gap because Veniss was published after City of Saints.

Even though Veniss stands alone, it partakes of the same aesthetic as the beginning of the Ambergris Cycle. The two books speak to one another in some ways, and then Shriek and Finch, although written in different styles, are pursuing and following up on themes and issues first brought up in City of Saints. Thus, coming to the end of Finch was like coming to the end of the first part of my career.

People think I’m prolific, but part of that is simply that I initially had so much trouble finding publishers for my work and thus I had a back-log. So I think I’m only just beginning to see the complete outline of my long-term work cycle, obscured in part by the pattern of publication, not creation, of my prior novels. It may seem odd to not have recognized this, considering I’m 43 and been writing for three decades, but sometimes you need to take a step back to really see everything clearly.

Now I feel that I’m at the beginning of another cycle, one that’s more various despite certain connections between Borne and The Journals of Doctor Mormeck. And to some extent the process is similar: stops and starts on the novels prior to publication, overlap in writing parts of each of them, and a slow inching toward completion. At this point, I’m not entirely sure which novel will be finished first, because I’m equally passionate about each of them. What I do know is that they will be finished, especially because in each case I have a good idea of the overall structure and an image in my mind that corresponds to a rough understanding of the ending of each novel.

I’ve come to recognize that it’s important for me to realize that after living in Ambergris for so long it was natural that there be a break before the next book—and to give myself a break about that. It’s even more important to realize I’ve actually made significant process over the past couple of years—enough so that if I had just been working on one novel, it would have been completed and turned in. Understanding that this is part of my process, remembering that I’ve worked on multiple books in the past, is now helping me relax into this next phase of finishing the novels. I just have to be patient and ignore the idea of turning in a novel a year. Right now, apparently, I’m working simultaneously on the novels that I’ll have published over the next few years.

Still, I have to say that the part of me that requires instant gratification is thankful for finally returning to short fiction. It was a weird feeling to realize that a story I finished last month, “No Breather in the World But Thee,” was only the third story of any kind I had finished since Finch, the others being “The Quickening” in my collection The Third Bear and a story for a Vance tribute antho. (Not including, of course, meta-fiction for Steampunk Reloaded and the Lambshead Cabinet and something set in the Halo universe).

Now I’m working on another story entitled “The Last Redoubt” and a long novella entitled “Annihilation” and I’m excited about completing both. But I’m no longer stressed about the situation with the novels. I know I’ll finish them eventually and I’m confident that my organic approach to them is the right one. The fact is, your career has to follow and fit your fiction and the rhythms and cycles of that fiction—the needs of a career can’t dictate those things. Not if you want to remain sane and retain whatever makes you unique as a writer.

Staying in Touch with Your Writing

Jeff VanderMeer • February 26th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Sometimes I think writers, on their blogs and when giving advice, over-emphasize word count. It’s certainly important for writers to understand that discipline is important and that no work exists without getting butt in seat and words on the page. But there’s a wider context to writing that sometimes gets lost.

That context? Thinking about writing is vital, and staying in touch with your characters and story can be as important as the actual writing. Words on the page created without finding the time to exist fully in the world of the story often means a writer misses possibilities that would deepen a work of fiction. I don’t like hard-and-fast rules, but if I had to lay one down, it would be to set aside the time to live with your fiction, not just write it. Sometimes a compulsion to not sit in front of the computer and type isn’t laziness—it’s the subconscious saying you’ve missed something, that you haven’t gone far enough, that you haven’t made all the connections you need to make. So to some extent the continuous living within the fictive dream of the narrative is more important than a continuous physical act of writing.

Every writer is different in how s/he approaches the act of creation, and that has to be kept in mind at all times, including while reading this post. But for me, it tends to take the form of a kind of circling and layering. I will write for three straight days and then take a day or two off. But I’m not really taking those days off. I’m writing down ideas and fragments as they occur to me and I’m continually re-living the scenes I have down on paper and imbuing them with additional life and nuance. On those “off” days, I’m staying in touch with the material, and the material often changes in surprising ways as a result. Without this slowing of the process, without this “work-avoidance,” the stories suffer, and I find myself with much more revision on the back-end—and sometimes the sense that what I’ve accomplished at the end is more of a “patch” than an organic edit.

These notes and fragments also develop a life of their own. They start as scribbling on torn pieces of paper and then I type them up into a Notes document, and in typing them up much of it gets fleshed out and I suddenly have little mini-scenes and additional impulses or connections created with the actual partial draft document. And in finding where these mini-scenes and snippets fit, the partial draft changes once again.

This thinking about the fiction is especially important given the Age of Fragmentation we live in. It’s extremely important to do this thinking away from the internet and away from mobile devices. Distractions of this kind—multi-tasking distractions—tend to dull our ability to really think deeply about what we’re working on. And then, our brains lacerated by so many other voices, through social media, blogs, etc., we turn to the actual writing without having had the time to live in the fictive dream ahead of time.

The imagination is a muscle, and like any muscle, you get out what you put in. If you neglect a muscle in your work-out or you only intermittently pay attention to it, it begins to lose mass; it begins to atrophy.

I also think that thinking about writing is a form of meditation: it’s restorative to peace of mind. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of writing—the sense of excitement as connections form you didn’t know existed, as characters take on texture and depth you hadn’t suspected. As you push it further and farther than you would have otherwise.

It’s in this context that word count matters: with the proper undivided attention having been devoted to the writing beforehand.

The Situation: Analyzing Story from a Writer’s Point of View

Jeff VanderMeer • February 14th, 2012 • Writing Tips

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Having recently come back from Trinity Prep School in Orlando, where the students were reading my short story “The Situation,” available at GeekDad, as well as its web-comic adaptation on Tor.com, I thought I’d post some of my notes about the story. This examination is a work in progress, and although it contains sub-sections, there’s a bit of bleed between topics still. There’s an emphasis on beginnings because for certain works of the surreal how the text teaches you to read it is extremely important. I may not have time to talk about the transition from text to comic this week, but I’ll return to it next week. And, in the meantime, you can, as noted, read both the text and comic online.

The title of this post indicates it’s from a writer’s point of view, but it’s also therefore from a creative writing teacher’s point of view in some sense.

This post contains massive spoilers with regard to “The Situation,” by the way. – Jeff

Situation Bear comic--analysis
(Art by Eric Orchard)

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Writers: I Highly Recommend Woodchuck Groundhog Target Paper

Jeff VanderMeer • January 20th, 2012 • Writing Tips

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Woodchuck Groundhog target paper—the blank side–is great for writing longhand. The grain of the paper is just right to catch and hold the pen and the ink without being either too smooth or too rough. The pads hinge on the right, so it’s also perfect for left-handers like myself.

The Squirrel target paper appears identical, but isn’t as classy.

Enjoy your Friday!

Story and Novel VanderMeer Critique Service: Now With Gift Wrap!

Jeff VanderMeer • January 19th, 2012 • News, Writing Tips

The VanderMeer Critique Service
(This image of the editor at a burnt-out desk in a quarry may not accurately portray his critique style…)

I’m extending my critique service for a bit. Just email me at vanderworld at hotmail.com for details. In addition to my writing career, I have 25 years of experience as an editor and have won several awards for it, including the World Fantasy Award. I’ve also taught workshops all over the world, worked for publishers, run a publishing company, been an agent, etc. Stories, novellas, and novels in just about every category (no Westerns) welcome. The unique rate system and form-fitting approach to your particular manuscript are meant to give the most useful feedback.

You can also now buy a critique for the writer in your life–for no extra charge I will send a hand-written card, illustrated, with certificate for critique. A few people have asked for this, and it’s gone over well, so I’ve decided to offer it publicly.

As you may know, we fund a lot of fiction translations and other efforts with a risky rate of return. Critique work helps to offset the risk. Thanks!

Writers and Their Literary Estates: Story Reprints

Jeff VanderMeer • January 19th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Since the early 1990s, my wife Ann and I have edited or co-edited more than sixteen anthologies containing somewhere shy of three millions words of fiction. Some of those anthologies have collected original fiction, but about half have been reprint anthologies, including the massive 750,000-word The Weird, our most recent effort. Based on these projects, we would suggest that writers think carefully about their wills and their literary estates. This same thought should apply to representation while living, if the writer does not directly control reprint rights to stories, or is not the person an anthologist must contact to acquire those rights. The following thoughts are also offered in the context that about 75 percent of the time, negotiations are conducted in a professional and timely manner.

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Things I Know?

Jeff VanderMeer • January 18th, 2012 • Writing Tips

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After 25-plus years in the book world, I will admit I don’t know as much as I should, I suppose. In a way, I don’t want to have Things I Know, because the terrain shifts and you spend some portion of your time adjusting to the current even as you try also think strategically about how you can find the space and opportunity to create what’s most personal to you—and make it a success career-wise.

But I do know a few things from simply being immersed in this world for so long. They tend to apply generally, and I make no claims for them being unique…I just know I sometimes need to remember even what might seem very basic, especially at the start of a new year.

If you survive and your enemy survives, then over time, your enemy may well become your friend, or at least your cordial colleague. Because so many writers, reviewers, editors tend to fall away over the years, there is a kind of respect that you build up with those in the field who you may have been at odds with, and they with you the longer you’re both around. Don’t under-estimate this effect, and recognize that the reason you may have butted heads in the first place (and survived) is because you share personality traits and other commonalities not at first apparent. I also find that sometimes there is a false impression of intent—for example, a writer who for 10 years thought I hated his writing, even though this was not the case.

Holding a grudge is counterproductive and has a ripple effect. I know writers who still won’t talk to someone else because of a perceived insult from 20 years ago. The grudge has not only closed them off from a potential friend or a former close friend but also influenced their dealings with others perceived as allies of the other party. I can’t pretend to understand this behavior—there are only four people on my sh*tlist after 25 years and all four did things comparable to putting babies on spikes, but for anything below that threshold…forgiveness is something that can be difficult because it requires swallowing your pride, but it’s important—again, in part because of the ripple effect (even inadvertent punishment of others is wrong) and because people aren’t just one thing. More than once, I’ve found, for example, that crapulous behavior occurred during a time of great stress that the other party wasn’t willing to admit. (Misunderstandings seem to have gotten worse because of the internet, as well.)

Buying into a personal mythology of hierarchical status can harm your career. It’s one thing to expect respect for your work and experience. It’s quite another to expect demonstrations of your status or to make pronouncements like “I will not attend any conventions at which I am not a guest of honor.” Such pronouncements or ideas are, ironically enough, more likely in writers who have achieved some cult status, whereby they receive daily affirmation from a small but devoted group of fans, which distorts their view of themselves over time. This is also a way of closing off communication and connection, and it winds up harming you. (Excluded from this, of course, are commercial superstars who receive so many invites that there’s no time to do anything else!)

Buying into the idea of achieving mastery harms your writing. Mastery is an illusion because writing is multi-directional. You can reasonably assume you will over time, if you’re a good writer, achieve “mastery” in certain areas, types of stories, techniques…but even though it could be argued there are a finite number of stories to tell, there are an infinite number of combinations of elements and approaches to create a story. Generally, if a writer thinks they’ve achieved mastery, they’ve simply achieved some success within one area of fiction, which may or may not even signify “mastery” of some element anyway. The point being that every writer eventually enters a decaying orbit, and satisfaction with one’s mastery of writing is one sign of that process reaching its end stages. At the very least, a plateau may have been reached. (For some, there’s no harm in this–some writers basically tell the same story their entire lives, and throughout their careers they are simply seeking to tell that story more and more perfectly.)

Fear and taking the short-term view will harm not just your career but your creativity. Conversely, taking chances while keeping the long-term in mind will often reward you. But the important thing here is beating the fear. Even writing itself is often about beating the fear–evading the fear that comes with the editorial mind-set, which can rob you of the confidence to write. In the broader sense, it’s fear that makes us not push outside of our comfort zones. It’s fear that tells us we’re not worthy of an opportunity. It’s fear that tells us this new thing isn’t something we can actually accomplish. Jumping in with both feet while being aware of the long-term effects of what you’re doing is so important. Saying yes is so important. As important? Don’t fall into patterns of paranoia and bitterness. Something is always going to go wrong in your career. There’s no getting around that. You can lose yourself in circles of why that turn your world into a place where you only see the negative. This just feeds the fear more, and gives you more excuses to not do something.

Friendship is more important than career advancement. Even beyond the obvious reasons why you shouldn’t screw over your friends, the practical, cynical truth is that very few things that seem important at the time will turn out to be important over time. (I’m not someone who screws over friends anyway—it’s more that I get so busy, I wind up not having time for old friends as much as I should.)

Friendship is not as important as doing the right thing. As in most fields, writers tend to be friends with fellow writers and editors, among others connected to the book field. You’re not doing your friend any favors by sugar-coating a critique, favoring them without due cause in a reviewing or during awards season, or any other situation, etc.

Paying it forward and being open with information is important for the long-term health of the book culture. It’s a myth that anyone makes it on their own. You may make it despite the odds, but you still had help along the way—people sympathetic to what you wanted to do. The most positive thing you can do is return is help other people when you can. The impulse to hoard information or to not be of use usually comes from the impression that you yourself may be ill-served by doing so. But in actual fact, this is rarely so. The connectivity and communication you engage in usually results in all kinds of creative collaborations and opportunities over time. And I don’t mean in a cynical “you owe me way,” but just naturally as a result of being willing to be open.

A sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd are a huge plus. Without a sense of humor, I’m not sure how a writer survives, given that humor is so important to taking a long-view approach (time plus tragedy equals humor). A healthy appreciation for the absurd is an additional survival attribute that helps to put things in perspective.

Blurb: Definition

Jeff VanderMeer • January 10th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Blurb, meaning words of praise on the back of a book, is a pathetic word that quickly devolves into an almost existential meaninglessness, not a shout into the void but a soft round brick shoring up nothingness. Blurb—rolly-polly already in its sound and to be taken as seriously as a beach ball or a random burble or a bubble; of air, of oil, of nothing that contains any sustenance. But the emptiness of a blurb is not truly empty: in that space exists a corruption self-aware with the horror of collusion: the blurb is attached parasitically to a book, sucking out all of the originality in favor of a comfortable banality and too-fulsome over-compensating injections of pus-like praise. This pus explodes all over the reader, who is influenced by this literary ectoplasmic spew in their perception of the text before reading a single page for themselves. A blurb is usually birthed bud-like by a fellow writer also feeding at the half-rotted hog-trough of publishing who hopes to benefit by association (another parasitical relationship) with the book at hand, and, long-term, to receive a foetid blurb in return. The blurb thus starts with a back scratch and ends with a mutual, world-encompassing reach-around, but it’s the reader who gets screwed. It is not enough that the reader is subjecting him- or herself to the stupidity found in one’s average book, but must also be inundated by stupidity on the outside. Biopsy a blurb and you find not just the stinking corruption of word-pus, you also find a grotesque yet accurate metaphor for distortion, warping, and group-think. In a way, a blurb is the essence of the worst of the literary world in concentrated, soul-deadening form.

VanderMeer Critique Service: Open for December

Jeff VanderMeer • November 15th, 2011 • News, Writing Tips

I’ll be freed up for taking on more fiction critiques to commence December 1st. If you’re interested, contact me at vanderworld at hotmail.com for rates and more information. I’m equally at home with stories as with novels, and I also am experienced with all types of fiction except Westerns, so…

The full critique service provides you with handwritten specific comments on the manuscript itself and an email of comments that apply not only to your story or novel but also your writing in general. Usually, I provide a summation and then also a break-down into elements like Characterization, Dialogue, Setting, etc. My goal is not to get repeat business because I give you something comprehensive that carries forward into your future fiction.

For those coming here for the first time, I’m a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and writer who has edited several critically acclaimed anthologies and made the year’s best lists of Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, and more. I’ve taught several times at the Clarion Writers Workshops, once at Odyssey and at the Hugo House, Brisbane Writers Festival and other international events, and done mainstream literary workshops as well as focused on fantastical fiction.

The Booker Prize, “Fantasy,” and “Mainstream”

Jeff VanderMeer • October 19th, 2011 • Writing Tips

An interesting discussion here, based on this quote from China Mieville. I understand why this is a new concept to the interviewer—referencing “those utterly fascinating texts which contain not a single impossible element, and yet which read as if they were, somehow, fantastic”—but it’s not a new concept in the larger scheme of things (nor do I think China’s presenting it as such).

As I commented:

“It’s an important point China is making, but while it may be new to the interviewer, it’s not a new concept. It’s an argument I’ve been making, along with several other writers, for decades. It’s also something John Clute has explored to some extent in his criticism, and I think literary journals like Conjunctions have also explored it. The fact is, there are fantasy novelists who read like realists and supposedly mimetic novelists whose world view and approach make them read like fabulists. The importance of stressing this similarity/difference is that it gets us away from using the terminology of commodificaition of fiction and what are often just marketing terms that reflect “accidents of birth.” If you’re a Kafkaesque writer from Eastern Europe, you’re likely to be published in the mainstream. If you’re a US writer like Michael Cisco, you’re likely to be published through genre imprints. These arbitrary issues and contexts don’t really tell us much about the works themselves, or their complexities and contradictions…which is why “genre” vs “mainstream” is so pointless.”

I recognize I may be riffing off of only part of China’s quote, but it’s the part that most interests me and is most irritating in terms of how people tend to compartmentalize literature.

I was just revisiting this, taking a piece of the fantasy lecture I’ve been delivering since the late 1990s, and expanding on it for the Inspiration chapter in the writing book I’m working on for Abrams Image:

“But, conversely, does it really matter if the imaginative impulse results in the ‘fantastical’ in the sense of ‘containing an explicit fantastical event?’ Is it something a writer should worry about definitionally or practically? No. For a certain kind of writer a sense of fantastical play will always exist on the page. This is often what we really mean by the voice of the writer. Talking bears have moved in next door. Does the reality of whether they actually have matter more than the quality of the metaphor? Perhaps not. Consider Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale and his World War I novel A Soldier of the Great War. A Winter’s Tale includes a winged horse and other fantastical flourishes. A Soldier of the Great War contains no fantastical elements, and yet in its descriptions, its voice, Helprin’s animating imagination behind the story, this novel also reads as invested in the fantastical. The writer Rikki Ducornet can write as lyrically phantasmagorical a novel as Phosphor in Dreamland and an as intense yet fiercely realistic story collection as The Word Desire…and yet they exist in the same country, perhaps even come from the same area of that country. This is the power of one type of unusual imagination.”

The writing book is still in rough draft form, but it’s forcing me to close in on more precise terminology and an expansion of the idea, so we’ll see where it ends up in a couple of months…