Periscope Depth

fly me high through the starry skies, maybe to an astral plane

Ferrett has an entertaining post on the supposed magical aspects of writing that I got a chuckle out of:

There is a lot of magic in the art of storytelling – the writer sits down, furrows his or her brow, and a world spills from their fingers. People emerge who’d never been there before, and begin to have adventures. It’s a mysterious, unfathomable Process that cannot be fully explained to mere mortals.

Or so writers would tell you.

Look, I’ve done a fair amount of writing in my time, and yes, sometimes you wake up and the faeries have sprinkled dust in your ears and lo, a story springs onto the page.

But most of the time I’m sitting down to the keys after eight hours of work, tired but ready, and today I’m going to fix the awkward dialogue in this scene, and rework the characterization so that Penelope The Heroine doesn’t come off like a complete idiot. Most days I write not because my head is buzzing like a beehive with Ideas, but because I’m 3,500 words in and one more scene means I can call it a day.

This is certainly true.

Every writing instructor and every experienced author stresses the discipline of writing. The scutwork. The drudgery. Getting up early every morning or setting time aside before you go to bed to get your pages in. You do this on the days when it feels great and you do this on the days you have a head cold. You keep at it. And eventually a novel emerges.

Ferrett is right to say that this isn’t magical.

And yet there’s a reason people call it magical, and it’s not just because that helps writers get laid. For one thing, talking about my writing, even when I was on the market, has never helped me get laid, except insofar as speaking passionately over drinks about interests another person can enjoy did it. But you can do that much with skiing.

My theory is that we call writing “magical” simply because we don’t know where it comes from.

By way of example: just two days ago, I started a scene in the current novel where the protagonist and her nemesis finally catch up. The nemesis begins laying out the history that brought them to the current crisis. He does so in a very personal and humanizing way that I hadn’t expected at the time. It was obvious to me, as I was writing the scene, that it had to unfold in this direction; it was opaque to me, before I started writing the scene, how it would go.

(I apologize for talking so abstractly, but it’s near the end and I don’t want to spoil anything)

I know exactly how I got there: by writing every day, I accreted details about these characters and their relationship until I had an organic world from which this scene grew. But I don’t know exactly how I got there. I have the oven and the ingredients, but I don’t have the recipe. I just know that I spent hours mixing things and suddenly there’s a bundt cake.

I mentioned this in one of my inaccessible political rants, so I’m not hurt if you skipped it, but: there’s a difference between unplanned and random. Evolution is the best example of that. All species are the product of natural and sexual selection, just like a puddle is the product of the shape of the hole it’s in. But those forces do not have a grand genius behind them.

Similarly, there’s a difference between a story emerging unplanned and a story emerging by magic. If you show up to your computer every day and you build a world, detail by detail, then scenes will emerge that you did not anticipate. The result is not magical, anymore than penicillin in a petri dish is magical. But nobody predicted it.

Ferrett’s right to say that writing isn’t magical, but let’s not throw away all the metaphors yet. Let’s say instead that writing is not alchemical but chemical. Writers do not tap into Atlantean wisdom and brew potions to turn lead into gold. Instead, writers show up in the lab every day. They study a hundred different samples and jot down figures in a wilting marble notebook. Then, if they’re patient and they’re diligent and they don’t hurry to publish, they may just discover a miracle.

If you want to find out what two hundred hours in the lab gets you, then buy a copy of Too Close to Miss, the Boston suspense novel that readers are calling “richly evocative,” available on Kindle, Nook or iTunes.

If you’ve already read the book and didn’t get an allergic reaction, please let your friends know via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned word of mouth.

4 thoughts on “fly me high through the starry skies, maybe to an astral plane

  1. Sylvia

    “Let’s say instead that writing is not alchemical but chemical.”
    I really like this idea, and I think it can apply to other creative pursuits.

    Also, I love this sentence:
    “I just know that I spent hours mixing things and suddenly there’s a bundt cake.”