You can’t do everything at once

I’ve thrown some daunting-ass figures at you, and perhaps muddied the water of what exactly your task is as an author.

Here is a short example of how I better identified/quantified my task as a writer.

I’ve become interested in science fiction of late, though it’s the genre that I find the toughest to write in. I’ve just never been sure exactly how much science I’m supposed to know, or use, or how realistic my stories are supposed to be.

Is the reader to believe this is possible, or are they happy for a non-existent premise if it reveals something new about the human condition?

(It’s a spectrum, is the answer—but I had limited knowledge of what that spectrum looked like!)

I started off by reading The Best Science Fiction of the Year. As I did, I thought about films and books I’d read growing up, and realised that my favourite type of science fiction was near-future, on Earth, and soft: Ballard, Lem, Clarke, Dick, Le Guin, Ellison, Delany.

(Very straight white American and male for sure, but we are talking the history of sci-fi lit…)

Having figured this out, I Googled “What life will look like in the year 2040.”

Surprise surprise, I’m far from the first person to have wanted to know the answer to this. There are whole societies dedicated to predicting technological advances and the like. They’re also willing to explain, through articles and videos, how these new concepts would work.

Finally, the more science fiction I read, the more I noticed technologies and concepts repeated by authors, and even between authors. They borrowed ideas from themselves and one another!

To summarize what I learned, then:

  • It isn’t my task, when I write science fiction, to invent every kind of future—rather, to imagine a particular type.
  • It isn’t my task, when I write science fiction, to invent every new technology that appears in the world or is made use of. Given the wealth of science fiction stories out there, of every variety, it’s very unlikely that I would even be able to do this, or have to. Rather, focusing on a small subset of technologies and how they influence the world (number depending on story length—one is fine for a short story), and introducing the rest as “window dressing” for world-building purposes, is the best way to go.
  • It isn’t my task when writing in any genre to even know how to explain that genre to someone else. Each original story, if it’s any good, will sufficiently redefine the genre that it works in. That takes a strong authorial voice, which knows its shit, demonstrates a wide breadth of reading. But not all-encompassing, because that’s impossible.

Somehow I wanted my task to be tougher than it is. In my weakest moments, I have a predilection for unnecessary suffering (nothing more pointless or less brave.)

It was/remains important for my own writing that I define the curriculum I use to learn what I want and need to know. Writers are much like PhD students in that respect—just as lacking in reward for our daily work, except with less chance of achieving something at the end.

I still need to be imaginative, of course—but not quite as imaginative as I thought I had to. Had I embarked upon the task without having done my research, it would’ve been more painful, and I would have been incorrect about how inventive I had been.

Writing to some extent is constant improvisation. It’s “Yes, and”—ing the material that already exists. To pretend otherwise is to be deliberately uninformed. The existing body of literature doesn’t go away just because you pretend it will.

This idea of using pre-existing conventions applies to literature in many other ways. For example, read litmags and you will find a plethora of three-act structured stories, list-based stories, multiple choice stories and, on occasion, those that seem to proceed with entirely their own logic. (Like “The Metal Bowl” by Miranda July. She’s clearly a genius.)

There are many, many successful writers out there who never deviate from traditional story structures. You might think that’s safe of them, but it can be just as tough to adhere to a traditional structure as it is to use one of your own

Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick and Morty, uses his own narrative model that he created from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell formulated the hero’s journey narrative from his extensive research into mythologies from around the globe. The reason people keep using these structures is because they work. (Traditional structure is not the same as predictable. Or maybe the predictability of form is advised where wilder content is to be presented. Rick and Morty’s pretty wild, right?)

Decisions in writing, and life incidentally, are like a set of principles: there are actions that, if taken, will work over 90% of the time. That means you will mostly find yourself using them, but not always. But if you don’t use them, you need a reason not to.

You may know what that reason is or you may not. If you don’t, you’re rolling the dice and saying “I will implement Choice 4 here!” Where a master of the craft, in the same scenario, might say, “Based on my extensive storytelling skillset, I have devised that Choice 4 is the best way to proceed here.”

(You and the master came to the same conclusion in this example—but you got lucky! The odds are against you, and not her, next time!)

I’ve come very close to getting into exclusive mags a handful of times. But even when I submitted something else to the same mags, there was never a guarantee that the next story would fare as well. (Quite the opposite in most cases!) That may mean subjectivity blah blah, but what it probably means is, I haven’t always known what I did right.

Over time, I’ve accrued more acceptances and more rejections with added “please think of us for your next story.” I’ve been rolling the dice less and using my skillset more. It doesn’t mean I’ll ever necessarily be published by any particular venue, but it does mean I’m maximizing my chances of that happening.

Stay (blog equivalent of) tuned for a new harsh truth asap!!