Monday, February 23, 2009

The Undiscovered Country

Sometimes, two vastly different things can converge in your mind to bring you to one idea. It happened to me this past weekend.

I live in Houston, born and bred here. Out in west Houston, there is a reservoir. It's part of George H. W. Bush park. An earthen dam borders the east side of the park and it runs along one of the major north/south roads in Houston. The dam is not large but it is large enough to keep the park hidden from the passing cars and the drivers from the park visitors. That is to say, a passing motorist might look at the hill and wonder what's on the other side. To find out, you have to park, get out, and walk up the dam and look over.

I did that on Sunday, arguably for the first time in my life (or, at least, my adult life). I was surprised. Intellectually, I knew what was probably on the other side: trees, water, grass. But I never really knew for sure. I took my bike and wove in and around the trails. A couple of large ponds allow us city folk to practice our casting, couples can sit on benches and just be together, and birds are everywhere. I saw cranes and woodpeckers to name but two. There are a few places, deep amid the leafless trees where the sounds of traffic can still be heard but not seen. The sky was cloudless and the only thing above me was air and space.

What does all this have to do with writing? Everything, really. As I peddled up the dam, it was like a movie, with the reveal slowing expanding before my eyes. Before yesterday, I never knew what was over the dam. It took me getting out of my car, on my bike, and me peddling up and over to know what was there. One of my first thoughts was "How come I've never been here before?"

I’ve been pondering if the books I like to read are really the books I like to write. Still working on that answer. But one of the things I always think about is the business aspect of it. Not to disparage romance novels (aren’t they always the butt of jokes?) but a friend of mine and I agreed once that if we could make a living writing romance novels, we’d do it in a heartbeat. We love the writing life.

There’s a part of me that wants to write only those books I know has a good chance at selling: romance novels, easy-going mysteries, taut thrillers. But I read hard-boiled stuff, noir novels, and a rediscovered love of SF. Heck, I’ve even written my first western short story and I think it turned out okay. It was good enough that I, as the writer and first reader, want to know more. But it's all become discombobulated in my head. There is so much that I want to write that I find myself paralyzed about where to go first. (This is true of my current to-read stack but that's another blog entirely.)

Last thread before I get to the point: I read Dan Simmons’ writings on his blog. Recently, he’s discussed a how-to writing book, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I have not read any how-to books other than Stephen King’s On Writing. Part of me thinks I can learn a lot by reading and writing and having my work critiqued by my writing group. But in the excerpts Simmons quotes and in my own short reading of Wood’s book, I wonder if there isn’t more I can learn. I don’t want to spend my time reading about how to write. That’s not productive. But I think I can learn from a few how-to books.

One of the things Simmons points out in his latest “Writing Well” essay is just how difficult the craft of writing really is, to say nothing of the business side. He points out some genre cliches that many successful authors use and that I’ve found myself using. Why? Because they’re easy. Simmons’ claim is that many modern readers have become lazy and writers have adjusted to this laziness. The end result is sloppy writing and sloppy reading, the literary equivalent of a eating a candy bar when you’re really hungry. Pretty soon, it’s like you never even ate the candy bar because you’re still hungry.

I’ve always had a clear-eyed acknowledgment of what a writing life would be like. It ain’t all muses and inspiration and stuff. It’s work. I learned that when I wrote my first book. Later, when a friend of mine complained that she got some negative reviews of her book, I would look at her, straight-faced, and say “But they bought the book. Who cares what they think?” Sure, you’d like for them to like the book enough to come back for the next and the next but that’s ultimately out of our control as writers. Basically, I thought, write pablum if the masses want pablum. As long as they buy it, who cares?

After reading Simmons’ essay and a few excerpts from Wood’s book, I stopped and realized something: I care. Why settle if I don’t have to? Whose to say that me or any of my fellow not-yet-published bloggers aren’t the next Dickens, Leonard, or Chabon? No one, other than ourselves. Up until now with my writing, I’ve been like the driver who never gets out of his car to walk up the dam and see what’s on the other side. Why not walk up that hill and see what’s on the other side? Why not strive to put the best on paper and see what comes of it?

What am I really saying? With my writing, I’m going to walk up the hill and see what’s on the other side. Unlike the hill I climbed on Sunday with its nice, smooth paved walkway, I don’t see my writing hill as smooth. It’s rocky, sandy, grassy, and, if it rains, slippery as hell. I’ll fall. I’ll slip. I’ll get muddy and discouraged. But I’m going to keep climbing and I’ll do it with my best work (my take on Dickens or Leonard or Chabon or _____). I'm going to look over the hill and see something I've never seen before.

Those of you still reading might start questioning my sanity: “Why *wouldn’t* I put my best work forward?” Well, if it isn’t called for, why go through the effort? I think I’ve realized that the effort is what makes writing a worthwhile craft. Leonard put forth the effort, Dickens, too, and all the others. How the heck can I stand with them if I don’t do likewise?

I never considered myself great. I’m no Dickens or Leonard or Chabon or _____. But I’ve never tried to be so how the heck do I really know? I don’t.

And I want to find out.


David Cranmer said...

My scattered thoughts: I started out wanting to write Chandler style novels (and who doesn't) and have since discovered westerns is where my heart is at. I'm 15,000 words into this rough draft and I'm feeling good that maybe I have a winner... I hope you don't mind me saying but the story you submitted to BTAP is excellent and I hope you'll decide to write more in this genre... Doesn't the undiscovered country from Shakespeare mean death :) Be careful.

Scott Parker said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I'm looking forward to discovering what I'm truly to write.

And as to the title, I was going more for the Kirk/Star Trek thing over the Shakespeare thing. And a little Sarah Orne Jewett with the country part. Like Kirk, he didn't want to go where the Federation was going. In the end, he went. That's where I want to get to: to see where the landscape of my writing is and start writing. To paraphrase Billy Crystal in "When Harry Met Sally..." when you find the type of writing you want to spend the rest of your life writing, you want the rest of your life to begin as soon as possible.

Doug Warren said...

Good to have you back in the saddle again. This post was good for ruminating on.

sandra seamans said...

One of the joys of writing short stories is the ability to experiment in many different genres. It was in a humorous short that poked fun of the hard-boiled PI's that I found a love for the crime genre and was pushed to learn more about it, helping me discover that I really enjoy writing this type of story.

I think the worst part of this business is being labeled so you're forced to write the same type of book or story over and over again. I think writers would experiment more if they were allowed the freedom to do so by their agents and editors instead of being made to play it safe with something that will sell.

Scott Parker said...

Doug - as always, thanks for being there.

Sandra - I can't help but wonder if pen names are the way to go. Since most of us are not Dan Simmons (i.e., he writes whatever he wants and we readers follow or don't), I think pen names are the way we can write multiple genres and still have fun and try different things. At least, that's the way I look at it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Having watched my daughter go through all of this, I see that at first you think, if I just get an agent, I'll be happy. Then if I just get a publisher. Then if I just get reviewed. Then if I just see the book in libraries and bookstores. Then if I just sell a few books. The bar for what constitutes success continues to rise unfortunately. It's a very hard business to feel successful in, I'm afraid. Especially in these hard times.

eejut said...

very interesting thoughts in the blog and the comments. Thanks to everyone who's contributed so far because it's been a good read.

There are people in the industry, a select few, who approach it as ad men. They are designing a product to a formula, they make their money and stay happy.

At the same time, and for the vast majority, i think the same thing that drives us to write is the very element that keeps us questioning ourselves and others. If we ever became truly satisfied, we'd have no reason to write.

In my work i rarely come across people who read for fun, and never speak to anyone who writes. One of the questions i get asked most is why i write. Now, since i dont do it professionally, i cant say 'for money'.

I tend to say that i write because there are books i want to read that haven't been written yet.