When you think about it, writing fiction is quite a strange activity. It involves the creation and maintenance of a make-believe world that lives inside the writer’s head. Writers have to keep that world alive. Some people are lucky enough that they can switch it on or off, while others don’t have that choice. They carry it around with them all the time. There’s no off switch.
It takes time and energy to sustain a fictional world and to populate it with characters and a plot. The mundane, ordinary stuff of life can get in the way of that. If your make-believe world isn’t being nurtured, it can wither away. Sometimes it’s a challenge bringing it back to life.
Being obsessive about it can also be detrimental. Spending too much time in a fictional world can intrude on a writer’s ability to be fully present in their own life. That can produce creative fatigue and burnout. Ultimately, it can end up becoming solipsistic. So, it’s healthy to take regular breaks. As with most things in life, it’s a balancing act.
I know from my own experience that my creative process needs feeding. Being inspired by other people is an under-appreciated but critical part of the writing process.
Finding inspiration is necessary because it generates context, learning, excitement, and motivation. It’s important to see what other people are doing. It is also necessary to think critically, as a reader.
There’s a healthy balance between obsession and a lack of focus. Finding inspiration around me, and in other people’s work, plays a key role in maintaining that balance.
The trivial secrets of the editing process
I’m having a lot of fun with the editing process. I used to think that it involved some kind of big secret. But I’ve come to the conclusion that much of it comes down to focus and practice. The more you do it, the better you get, and the easier it becomes. I’ve learned the trivial secrets of the editing process.
Another revelation is how trivial things can make a significant difference. Psychology plays a important part in the process. Productivity has a reciprocal relationship with the writer’s state of mind. Morale is critical. The writer is a kind of athlete of the mind. Like a professional athlete, he or she has to get ‘into the zone’. There are two important factors. Focus, and delivering results. You need focus to deliver the results. Delivering the results has the knock-on effect of boosting your morale.
I suppose every writer has their own ‘tips and tricks’. How much of that is genuinely useful, or purely psychological, is hard to say.
I find it useful to edit a manuscript using separate files for each chapter. It’s incredibly daunting to edit a 100,000+ word manuscript in a long, single file. Yes, my theory might be bullshit, but having each chapter in a separate file works for me.
I have some even more ridiculously trivial ‘tricks’ that I use in the editing process. Where available, I switch on paragraph numbering. I find it motivating to know that I’m on paragraph 25 of a 150 paragraph chapter. 25 paragraphs in, I feel like I’ve made a dent. 75 paragraph’s in and I’m on the home stretch.
Another incredibly trivial thing I do is to have spaces between the paragraphs. This allows me to focus on one paragraph at a time.
I suppose it’s fair to say that every writer has his or her tricks of the trade. Most of them are probably more psychological than anything else. That said, editing a manuscript is, to some extent, a psychological game.
As writers, we’re often fascinated by other writers. We assume that our favourite authors have discovered a secret technique — and we’d love to get our hands on it. The reality is that their rites, rituals and work processes are effective for them. They won’t necessarily work for us. The answers that we’re looking for don’t come from other people — they come from within us.
I’m definitely a plot-driven, ‘soft science fiction’ writer — a speculative fiction writer (in the widest sense of whatever that means). Needless to say, it’s useful to have a look on the other side of the fence and see what’s there.
With this in mind, I’ve just finished a couple of hard science fiction novels. They’re books I feel I should have read by now, but haven’t.
Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is classic hard science fiction. Asimov’s three robot rules are inspired, but I wasn’t really engaged by it as much as I hoped. Reading it, I kept visualising Futurama, which didn’t help much. The novel is a classic, that’s for sure, but it’s very much a product of its time.
Children of Time
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was the other novel. It’s a clever and well written book, but I struggled with its hard sci-fi-ness. It spends a lot of time, almost in the style of a nature program, observing a bug-like life-form, the creature’s behaviour and society. The novel is structured with alternate human / bug-life focused chapters. I enjoyed the human focused sections but the bug-life sections felt a bit like being in a biology class.
The Electric State
Talking about inspiration, Simon Stålenhag’s work has resonated with me recently. His work, such as The Electric State uses an interesting format. It’s basically the art book format with a story. The pictures (along with the text) form a narrative. The story is led by the images. Each image is a masterful expression of fictional world building.
Stålenhag’s pictures are created digitally. They look like gouache paintings. They are evocative, atmospheric, and emotionally resonant. I’m reminded of art graphic novels, young adult fiction, film production drawings (from Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead), fables like Pinocchio, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant, and TV series like Stranger Things.
The paintings are essentially landscape artworks, the familiar juxtaposed with the unfamiliar. There are robots with human qualities, and VR helmeted people connected to machines. It’s a world strewn with rusting alien technology (during, or after an alien invasion). Thematically, it references childhood alienation, abandonment, cli-fy dystopias, ecological contamination and mutation, and retro-futurism.
Tales from the Loop was published in 2014, and later adapted for TV. The Electric State was published in 2017. The Labyrinth will be published in the UK in 2021.
I wrote about the disowned version of Dune in my now-defunct blog and also wrote about Jodorowsky’s Dune. Now we have Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021). There’s something about the aesthetics of the trailer that reminded me of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.
Denis Villeneuve directed Blade Runner 2049. I have mixed feelings about that film. It had incredible world building and cinematography, but I found the story a little slow and the ending felt unsatisfying. We spent most of the film with ‘K’, but it turned out that it wasn’t really his story.
Dune has been called ‘unfilmable’. It will be interesting to see what Denis Villeneuve makes of it. I remain optimistic.