I almost always know the ending to something I’m writing. It usually occurs to me early on, if not right away. I think good endings are important. You want to look back over the book or story and think about what led you there, and you want the important things to have been surprising when they happened but inevitable in restrospect.
Knowing the ending helps me enormously. Besides giving me a target of drama, emotion, and event (and these are not necessarily the same ending, yunnerstand), it lets me plant seeds along the way that will bear fruit later on. It gives me foreshadowing and turns of phrase and the kinds of details that mean something new and different on rereading. I like to think that people who reread my work will get more out of it on the next go-round.
The need to know the ending in advance has generally been so important to me that I have often been unable to finish something if I didn’t know the ending. I think I interpret not knowing it as a sign that the book isn’t on rails, bound for some inexorable destination, and that I will be doing some narrative casting-about until I find it.
As it seems intent on doing with virtually all of my writing habits and rituals, AVALON BURNING is proving an exception. I know very clearly what I want to have happened by the end of the book — who ends up where, and for what reasons — but the mechanics of it, the specifics of it, are not there yet. This is in direct contrast most of major scenes and details of the book already existing in my mind. (Plus, I admit, some that get added along the way as events suggest them.)
I often wonder if I should talk about this kind of stuff. It does give readers a certain latitude to raise a hand at some panel and ask me, “So how come the ending of AVALON BURNING sucked so major hard?” But writing isn’t magic, it’s work and a continuously revising process of invention. Maybe revealing it as such takes away from some imagined mystique, or makes it hard to maintain some poetic image of an impassioned artist in a garret working as a conduit for the gods. And you know, sometimes it really is that. But sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you head down blind alleys. Ultimately what counts is the final product, and having the sense to know when it is the final product and when it isn’t.
For me the fun of writing AVALON BURNING is how different from my usual methods all of this has been. I have a lot of faith in the writer part of me, and I’m not especially worried about him ending the novel in any way but what it should be. Meantime, the newness of my approach on this book has freed me to sit back and enjoy the writing of it more than usual. I’m having fun.
I should hit the ostensible halfway mark on AVALON BURNING in the next week or so. Writing every day isn’t new to me by any means but writing at this pace and in such immersion every day (except Monday, which is Podcast Day) is something I haven’t tried before in any structured way. I’m enjoying the hell out of it and I’m learning some interesting and surprising things:
Abandoning my usual deliberateness and constant on-the-fly revision I find that my style doesn’t really seem to change. My phrasing and rhythm and idiosyncrasies are in the marrow now it seems and not some affectation layered with deliberate forethought or slathered on after the fact. I find this reassuring, as it simply verifies for me that this is how I write now.
I find that despite the stated goal of pushing on I still need to stop a few times a week to reread what I’ve done so that I don’t lose sight of details or continuity, foreshadowing and momentum.
I’m startled how much of the novel really is there the first time out. Subtext, planted themes and imagery, hints and payoffs. It’s gratifying and a little creepy that the book entire really does seem to be already lodged in my head.
I did take the time to do some research on hyenas. Lions can kiss my ass. Hyenas friggin rock.
Some weird details and surprises that have emerged in the narrative:
I am about to make downtown Los Angeles one scary-ass place to be (can we take the “it already is” comments as read?)
I am in love with Avy. (She was a minor character in ELEGY BEACH and is the protagonist of AVALON BURNING.)
I am heading down to Los Angeles this weekend to visit friends. Part of my mission is to run around Universal City Walk with a camera and a legal pad and take my usual frantic and maniacal notes. It’s gonna be fun to Change-ify City Walk because I just hate the place. I used to teach there. Perhaps the most surreal thing about it is that there’s a UCLA Extension campus there, fergodsake.
I have usually gone through periods of feast or famine in my writing (well, in my life, too, but that’s another story — isn’t it?). I would work sporadically on a project at the beginning, nudging it around, sniffing out its edges, figuring out what sort of beast it wanted to be. At some point the thing would either not become something and I would move on, or it would find itself and take hold, and I would work more diligently.
My pattern for many years has been to go to a coffee shop with a pen and a yellow legal pad and write a few pages. I would come home and transcribe them into the computer (I am a staunch WordPerfect user and believe MS Word is a hideous infection foisted upon an ignorant world eager to settle for crap so long as it is free crap; I say this not out of blind loyalty but as someone who earned a living as a professional word processor for lawyers, doctors, and universities for a very long time). I’d revise the handwritten draft as I typed it in and then I’d print it out. Next day I’d bring those pages to the coffee shop, revise them, write new stuff on a yellow legal pad, and then come home, enter the revisions and the new stuff in the computer, and repeat the process. I tried to do this every day but of course life gets in the way.
I would have long spells where I got stuck. I’d painted myself into a corner, or I required something in the book about which I was ignorant and I’d stop and do a ton of research and then go on. Sometimes I would be surprised to find I was simply not emotionally or experientially ready for some undertaking. I stopped Elegy Beach for six months when I hit the latter sections with Pete, because I just wasn’t ready for it. The writer part of me had been rubbing its hands and eager to get hold of this chewy stuff, and I was startled to realize my heart was not yet up to it.
This process gets books done but not terribly quickly. Add to that an ambivalence about writing that grew over the years. It temporarily resolved when I stopped writing for five years, but it came back — not when I returned to writing (because that was fun) but when I returned to trying to publish what I wrote.
(Aside: I am constantly confronted with misinformation and assumptions about my career and biography. The easy public perception is that I published two novels and then quit for twenty-five years but felt that somehow the world needed a sequel to Ariel and so returned to writing. The truth is more complex and more interesting: I stopped my career dead in 1986 in my mid-20s by buying back a novel from a publisher in a dispute (The Geography of Dreams, which was to be the continuation of The Architect of Sleep, about which do not email me). This was a dramatic, triumphant, and idiotic move that fairly cost me my career. More victories like that and you lose the war. I continued writing all kinds of things, and during this supposed dry stretch I wrote ten novels, four feature screenplays, comic books for Marvel, and I don’t know what else. I did not even begin learning to DJ until about 2000; the bio detail that I left publishing to pursue it, which I continually encounter in reviews and online, somehow manages to avoid that 14-year gap between 1986 and 2000. It’s just that people don’t see you on the one shelf in their bookstore that they look for you in, and therefore you must have fled or quit. Harlan Ellison once told me I’d had the damnedest career. I’m sure he meant the pun.)
Okay, so what about now? What about all this change?
When my Acer recently went kerflooey (see previous post) and I used the opportunity to repair it and make it my standalone music station, I bought a nice new Core i5 tower and a very nice monitor and upgraded from XP Pro to Win 7 and looked at the tabula rasa of that hard drive and though about the opportunity it presented to build from a new foundation. I didn’t realize that I was wanting this in ways that had nothing to do with computers. And after I dialed in the new PC I resumed working on Avalon Burning, the new Change novel, pretty much as I had always done.
I reread what I’d done and liked it a lot but had no idea where I was going with it. This is very unusual for me. Once I get going I just know the book. It’s written in my head and the rest is a kind of transcription. I become amanuensis to myself. It’s weird but hardly unique. But here I was with this book underway and not only did I not know its destination, I wasn’t even sure what kind of vessel I was on.
Then one day I was at the coffee shop and staring at the pages and it just opened up. The whole thing expanded and organized and established itself, bedrock, framework, walls, and decorations. I couldn’t believe it. It was like buying an empty lot and staring at it until a house inflated from the ground. It was one of the happiest days I’d had in a long time.
I decided to try to write it in a month.
That means ten pages a day, every day, and that’s for a novel about 25% shorter than I usually write. That means no coffee shops, no stopping for massive research. It means damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. It means being perfectly willing to write embarrassingly bad prose and laughably ignorant facts. It means not indulging myself the way I usually do by taking trips to depicted places and making notes and taking pictures and immersing myself. In the case of Avalon Burning this isn’t a problem because I’m pretty familiar with the places I’m writing about.
The thing is, writing is important, but revision is crucial. In many cases it’s where the real artistry emerges. The flow of events, the meter of sentences, trimming down excess, tightening structure, maintaining continuity, interspersing lines and images and events that maintain themes. I love revision, and I’ve even taught classes about how to revise. It helps writers to know that it’s okay to suck on your first draft. No one will read it. No one has to see you flopping around in your underwear and Godzilla slippers. You’re gonna take those pages to the gym and get them in shape and put them in good clothes and take them somewhere nice. But first you have to have the pages to work with.
I’ve fantasized all my career about writing a book in a ridiculously short time. It just has a speed-driven, burned-at-the-edges, fanatical obsessive impassioned appeal. It’s romantic and stupid but there it is. Kerouac did it, Phil Dick did it constantly, Dave Schow used to tell me it was fun to challenge himself to do it. So hellwiddit.
I locked myself in my room and started banging out. Now let me be clear: I am not making my quota and am not going to get this book done in a month. First of all because it’s clear it’s going to be my usual 125,000-word length or so. Second because I do have to deal with other stuff, and the romance of sealing myself in a tower with a bottle of wine and a crusty baguette and a roll of butcher paper threaded through my Smith-Corona just isn’t realistic.
So maybe it’ll take me two months. I’m okay widdat.
I’m in the middle of it right now and I am having an absolute god damned blast.
I don’t usually talk much about books I’m working on (I have a bunch of reasons, but one of them is that they don’t always end up published, yuckity yuck yuck), but I think I will be reporting in on this one. Hope you enjoy the dispatches.
I have of late, but wherefore I know not, felt a growing hunger for change. Complacency is poison to me, which can be both motivating and detrimental. I simply don’t like to be still. I can do it, and enjoy it, but not for very long. I’m a lot of fun on the kind of hell-bent-for-leather vacations where you try to eat as much of some new place as you can in the time you have. But if you want to sit in a chair on a beach for five days, I am a nightmare. I don’t know what to do with myself.
My life recently had begun to feel like those five days on the beach. Now, I don’t expect anyone to say, oh, poor Steve, his life is a beach vacation, I bleed, I tell you. This is not an entry about comfort. This is an entry about how my mistrust of comfort leads me to do things. For better or worse, I’m one of those Type-A Captain Kirk people who thrive on challenge. Who produce their best work under adversity. And who do nothing but stew, bitch, and stir up trouble when things get quiet.
Things have been quiet. Well, not so much quiet. Things were too much the same. Not going anywhere. Maintaining. I don’t want a life of mere maintenance, even though that means dealing with more of what life throws you. I’m not an adrenaline junkie but I certainly prefer to take risks and fail than to simply … maintain.
Since my beloved Acer 9800 21″ dual-drive laptop went (temporarily) the way of all silicon when the video chip on the motherboard went cough-cough, I took advantage of the opportunity to get a newer Core i5 desktop and a wonderful 23″ monitor (the Acer had been a desktop replacement). Then I spent months combing the earth for parts to fix the Acer. Once that was done (and a Homeric task it was; big shoutout here to Laptop Rescuer in Santa Clara, CA), I repurposed the Acer as my all-in-one home studio hub. Before that I’d been using my cherished but ancient Shuttle XPC, which I customized to look something like an old radio. (I have a thing for trying to turn the machines on which I produce my creative work into creative works themselves.) I have produced Podrunner and Groovelectric and many of my compositions on the Shuttle for years, but software capabilities have passed it by, and the poor thing just couldn’t handle the functionality of newer music programs.
I was probably one of the last DJs to be using Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ Studio version 2.5.3, sophisticated as hell when it came out, but dated now. For a while now I have felt creatively frustrated, and have wanted the capability, flexibility, and innovation offered by the latest version, Traktor Pro, which offers four decks, a buttload of effects, and a four-band EQ. This changes the idea of mixing from simple transitions from one track to the next (and maybe some fancy cutovers and tricks) to literally remixing tracks and minutely sculpting the sound on the fly. I have tried the versions of Traktor subsequent to 2.5.3 but found them buggy, unstable, or simply unusable for my needs. But I’m delighted to say that, despite some reservations and a few complaints, the latest update of TPro seems to work for me.
So I upgraded to Traktor Pro and Windows 7 Ultimate, upgraded my post-production software (Sony Sound Forge Pro 10), put away my amazingly rare and wonderful Faderfox DJ1 MIDI controller, dug out my amazingly rare and wonderful Bitstream 3X MIDI controller, and spent literally a week listening to thousands of tracks to resupply my Podrunner and Groovelectric inventory.
Then I set out to learn. I complain, I pound, I make up swear words. And I learn.
And I immediately began producing some of the best stuff I’ve done in ages. And found my interest in DJing revitalized, my focus acute, and my enthusiasm for future mixes rekindled. The listener email has certainly reflected it; people have noticed the difference. I am taking things slowly and trying out new functions and possibilities a little bit at a time, but it already seems worth all the hassle.
So next I turned my attention to writing. Ohhhh yeah. More on that next post (and I promise it won’t be four months till then).