obsessive

Sometimes, I teach creative writing to the youths of the nation (high school kids) and the advice I always give them, no matter what, is to write your obsessions. To give into them. To chase them. To follow where they lead. Because whatever you’re obsessed with or consumed by will come out in your fiction eventually, whether it’s sex or pokemon or baking or art deco or frayed jeans, and it will make your fiction better.

It’s something that held me back for a long time. I thought I needed to write a certain way, and about certain things. I grew up on SFF, but then fell deep into experimental and avant garde literature, and that meant writing in certain modes and about certain things. But even when I was deep into this stuff, my heart was still with SFF. It’s why even my most experimental novels involve invented cultures and peoples and mythologies.

Like a lot of arrogant and angry young men, I thought that art had to be a specific thing. I thought, as an artist, that I had to be a specific kind of artist. Those things mostly held me back, and they led me to discourage my own impulses and obsessions, which made my writing worse.

Since coming home to the genres that defined and shaped me, I’ve felt much freer and just better. I mean, me being a better writer isn’t just because of the genres I now write, but it’s helped. I’ve written in dozens of genres and styles, but I think my home is in the fantastic and surreal.

Anyrate, I think about my obsessions a lot, because they repeatedly come out in my fiction, even when I was actively trying to bury them.

Things like dust and wolves are everywhere. Ravens too, and a recurring dream I had for about a decade. Then there are all the people missing a hand, missing an eye, and all the characters who just never say a single word.

But the bigger ones are totalitarianism,  systemic violence, cultural clashes, shared stories, theology, Taoism, and cooking.

Most of those have always been present, to one degree or another, but cooking is a new one. I love cooking. It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. And it’s recently found it’s way into my fiction. Three of the last four novel(la)s I’ve written have cooking as a major component. Two of them involve the invention of boardgames, like chess or go.

Weirdly, these little things are making my fiction better.

The big themes are fine, and the small details are good too. But what I’ve found is that specificity adds a lot. At least, this is something I’ve found from my own reading. A character in a novel can be working a loom, and while I have no interest in such things, it’s really obvious how much the author cares. And that level of care and all that specificity just makes the utterly mundane utterly fascinating.

And so I suppose that’s what I really mean about chasing your obsessions. It’s no good to just list things you enjoy doing. You need to dig into the meat until you’re grinding on bones, breaking through to the marrow. If you want to make the reader care about the mundane things your character does, you need to really care about those things.

A scene about cooking is worthless if you don’t care about cooking, and your ambivalence will come through. Too, why would you write a scene about something you don’t care about?

It’s something that I think fantasy does better than literary fiction. Literary fiction is generally less plot driven, but I also often find the characters weaker. And it comes down to these obsessions. If your characters aren’t obsessed with something, then they feel weirdly alien. Inhuman. And while fantasy gets derided for favoring plot over character (which I generally disagree with), I’ve found that fantasy is often lethargically paced (why else would it take three or ten books to tell a story?) but that it remains a page turner, whereas the literary genre is just a slog.

There are a lot of reasons for such things and unbelievably numerous generalizations to make, but I’ve found that genre fiction tends to allow their characters to be obsessed. To have them dig into the minutia of things.

Like, I just read Lonesome Dove, which is often considered the best western ever written (for good reason!), and so many of the characters are just obsessed with…something. Horses, guns, drowning, gambling, whoring–it really doesn’t matter.

Obsessions are good.

But, yeah, follow your obsessions.

Luckily for me, mine change often, so I always have something new to write about.

Right now, it’s extinction and witches and blacksmithing, which will reveal themselves in my next two novellas.

I guess I could’ve captured all of this just by saying that obsessions are good.

on writing like yourself

I’ve been writing for a long time. I started trying to get published at the very end of 2008 and was pretty consistently published through 2009 and 2010 in various journals. Back then I thought what mattered was being out there, no matter where it was. This is obviously untrue, especially since many of the places I was once published are no longer even websites.

But I don’t think I really took writing seriously until I finished my first novel about three and a half years ago. A lot’s changed since then, especially my style and goals, but I wanted to talk a little bit about the road between 2008 and now.

For a while there were a bunch of sites that told you who you wrote like. Probably there still are, but the point was to drop a bit of your writing or a whole giant chunk of it into this site and it’d tell you who you write like. I’ve done it a few times and always received surprising answers. I’ve also received a lot of surprising comparisons from people that have read my work.

Here’s a list of those I remember:

  • HP Lovecraft
  • James Joyce
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Edgar Allen Poe
  • Nick Cave
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Craig Clevenger
  • Joseph McElroy
  • Ursula K Le Guin
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Steve Erickson
  • Steven Erikson
  • Ian Irvine
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Franz Kafka
  • Norman Mailer

And I can’t remember who else. I agree with some and disagree pretty strongly with others, and then there are those I’ve never read, so there’s no way for me to really compare. I think it’s good to be told you sound like those you’ve never encountered and not so great to be told you sound like your favorite authors.

As much as I love a lot of people on that list, I have no intention of being them, or writing like them. It’s something I had to discover. Back in 2008 and 2009, I realised I was just aping my heroes, and that’s the worst possible feeling to have. To think that all your hard work was just bad copying or rehashing. And so I pushed myself away from who I was.

Almost every year I try to relearn how to write. I think this is essential. Of course reading is the best way to learn new ways to do things, but so is just trying to break yourself away from who you were. I look back at my first novels and I don’t know if I could write them again for a lot of different reasons. But I keep pushing to be a different version of me.

That’s the most important thing. People tell you to find your voice and sort of cling to it, but I think that’s actually pretty bad advice. You should always be looking for new voices, for new mouths to speak through, for new hands to feel with and new eyes to see with. Certainly there’re a lot of similarities between myself and myself, but I want every book to at least feel different, if not be completely different.

Which is a struggle for me, as I rely on multiplicity and polyphonic structures. I find it almost impossible to stick with a single narrator for longer than 10,000 words. I’ve done it several times, but it’s just not normal for me to do. I need to switch directions, juxtapose people and ideas. That’s why I set out to write a novel with 101 narrators, because I wanted to do polyphony as big as I could so I could just be done with it. And since I’ve still not finished that novel, I’m still writing multi-narrator novels, but I’m working past it. I moved to third person, which gives me some breathing room, as I narrate in a sort of closed floating way, like the camera in Gasper Noe’s Irreversible. And that gives me some freedom of form and style, but my third person style, because I put so many rules on it, sort of has the same feel across novels and stories, which is not ideal, but I think part of that is because other people don’t follow my rules and so they can talk about the internality of a character while still playing at third person narration. But this’ll get me into a whole thing about the rules I make and I don’t want to talk about that.

But maybe I should, in a general way.

Make rules for yourself. If you rely on something, such as multiple narrators or jumps in time, force yourself to write a single narrator in real time. That’s actually what my second novel is. It’s a failure, but it was 40,000 words of unbroken first person present tense narration. I achieved my goal. I didn’t write a very good novel, but I did what I set out to do, and I learnt a lot in doing so.

Constantly force yourself away from your habits and your comforts. If you only write realism, throw yourself into fantasy or science fiction. If you only write genre, shoot for something literary. I’m constantly trying to write in different genres, and though I often fail, I learn something on the way. Part of it, for me, at least, is that I don’t research a genre before I write it. I’ve been trying to write hardboiled noir for a while and I just can’t get there. I could learn a lot if I just read some books, but I want to find the genre in my own backwards way. I don’t want to walk through the front door everyone else walks through. I want to climb the tree and jump onto the roof, break open the window and climb into its bedroom.

So make yourself rules, and then break them.

Find your voice, and then disassemble it.

Know who you are as a writer, and then rewrite it.

I rarely give advice about writing because I think most advice is pointless, but I guess you can consider this my bit of writing advice.