Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Writing Process

I've been invited by M. R. Cosby to take part in a Writing Process blog chain. James Everington will be posting his comments on the same day.

I'll have more to say about these writers in just a moment; but first, here are the questions and my replies.

1) Why do I write what I do?

I write because too many details of life can slip away before we understand their importance.

Impressions pop into our heads and fade before we can touch them; dreams evaporate in the morning light; emotions rise and pass by, to leave only tremors in their wake. I write because I hate to lose these beautiful, terrifying moments, and because I feel moved by their fragility.

One example: when I was nine years old, I dreamt that I had entered the mind of a non-human creature that had just been born from nothing.  It was not much taller than a grass blade, and I could see from its perspective on the forest floor; I could feel the autumn wind, and sense the overwhelming pressure of the night. Somehow, I understood that this tiny thing was vastly more intelligent than I was, and that its limited lifespan would end long before daylight. Within just a few seconds, it came to understand more about itself and its place in the world than I would ever gain from a human lifetime, but it would die before that knowledge could be shared.

As a child, I was haunted by this dream, and many others; I wanted to share this inner life. I drew pictures of the dreams, I described them to anyone who might listen, but I learned quickly that people had no interest in the stuff that cluttered my head.

By the time I was ten years old, I was already a book addict. Stories by H. G. Wells and Clark Ashton Smith made me realize that I could use fiction to share my dreams. This would be a challenge. I wrote for years and years, I studied, I read and re-read, but I would have to wait until I was nearing thirty before I could begin to write stories that captured the mood of my dreams. In everything, I've always been a late bloomer.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I'd like to believe that my stories belong, in spirit if not in quality, to many traditions: Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, L. P. Hartley, Walter de la Mare, J. G. Ballard in the United Kingdom; Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, Avram Davidson in the United States; Marcel Brion, Marcel Schwob in France; Bruno Schulz, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Michel de Ghelderode, and so on.

One minor difference is that I have no belief in the supernatural or the spiritual, and so I tell stories about mental breakdowns, hallucinations, bizarre psychological states, paranoia. The irrational.

Although I can't use ideas or imagery from other writers, I do my best to apply their methods. For example, I like to think of "Who Would Remain" as my Clark Ashton Smith, R. A. Lafferty, M. R. James, Leigh Brackett, and Ronald Firbank story, because their techniques influenced the way I thought about the writing.

To show you what I mean:

Clark Ashton Smith would maintain the steady pace of a story by having his characters notice details of setting or scenery as they moved through them; there was nothing static in his visual descriptions. Ronald Firbank would strip down his prose to give his pages energy and speed, but would then shift gear for startling moments of painful emotion. Leigh Brackett would link a specific detail of the landscape to some looming, terrible event, so that any description of this place would become a reminder, an enforcer, of that anticipated threat. M. R. James would turn the arrival of his ghosts into subjective, psychological states, by describing almost dreamlike moments of perception. R. A. Lafferty would hold a wild or plotless narrative together by using repeated phrases as guide-rails or anchors for the readers to hold onto. And so on.

The beauty of technique is that it can be applied to any kind of story, and to even the most personal material.

This comes in handy, because I base my stories on things I've seen, people and places I've known, moments of personal dread or confusion, and above all, on my dreams. I have no choice: when I invent, my stories lie there on the page, dead; when I remember, they spring to life. For that reason, the only stories I've shared are the ones based directly on my own experience. The other stories have ended up in boxes or in woodstoves. Rest in peace.

I write dream and nightmare stories; that's my genre.

Still, I chafe under these limitations, and would love to extend my writing beyond them, but I've not yet found a way to do this with any good result. When I read someone like Anton Chekhov or Katherine Mansfield, I'm astonished that they can turn the simplest, most ordinary moments of life into something heart-breaking and powerful. It's beautifully mysterious to me, but for now, beyond my reach.

3) How does my writing process work?

I write every day, and aim for at least 1200 words, but that's no guarantee that I can type anything useful. I have boxes and boxes and boxes of stories that went nowhere, that failed to live up to my hopes, that tempted me to strangle them before they left the keyboard. Yet all the same, I had to write them: it was the only way to learn.

Because my stories are based for the most part on dreams,  I find it hard to hammer them into shape, to the point where they could make sense to the reader. Sometimes a story can take years to complete. For that reason, I work on several at once; I piece them together as if they were jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces; I type notes to myself and play around with plotting. When a story begins to click into place, I give it my full attention.

Sometimes I hit a vein of good luck, and I can finish several stories in a row. For instance, I completed "The Weight of Its Awareness" and then started immediately on "The Vast Impatience of the Night." That was a wonderful month!

In most cases, I have no idea where a story will go until I finish the first draft, and so I have to spend as much if not more time on revision. I'm glad for this, because I love to clear away the scaffolding and polish the floorboards: it's quiet, relaxing fun.

I also believe that every sentence, every paragraph, should be as clear as I can make it. If someone were to say, "In your story, I don't understand why this happened," I would reply that the story is like a dream, and for that reason, mysterious. But if someone were to say, "I don't understand your sentence, here," then the failure is mine. I revise to avoid that failure.

At the same time, I revise to compress: I try to convey as much as I can in the fewest words. Yet even though I love the effect, I'm still not sure of its wisdom. How do readers respond to density on the page? I won't know until they tell me.

On the rare occasions when I know from the start how a story should end (as I did with "All Roads Lead to Winter," one of the most autobiographical things I've written and therefore the most clear in advance), I like to revise as I write: every day when I sit down to begin, I revise from the start to the point where I had stopped on the previous day, and then I keep writing. This helps to maintain the tone, and it leaves me with less work to do once I'm finished; but I rarely have the chance to do this. Instead, I have to write to discover what I'm going to write.

4) What am I working on?

Right now, I have a pile of uncompleted stories; I always do. I'll see where the dreams take them.

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M. R. Cosby's new collection will be published in April. James Everington's latest is available from both Amazon and Smashwords.

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