A Creative Hunger

Greetings, readers. Today I’m going to take you down the tunnel of a thought experiment that applies to all writers, even those folks over in contemporary fiction who remain incredibly sane and outstandingly plain.

There are pages published and digitalized on the idea of a creative hunger, of the itch to write when you’ve gone too long without it. You have to interact with the real world and go people watching and cultivate your mind’s garden, etc., all that good stuff. But how do you satisfy the hunger for the weird, the strange, the supernatural when your life does not discreetly have those elements in it?

A writer takes a new job, packing their schedule from morning to late afternoon of sitting at a desk in an office, surrounded by paperwork and paperclips and paper airplanes he imagines throwing to their boss’ office. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. It is steady, secure, mundane work, that has them swinging between an optimistic Mad (Wo)man and the drones from Office Space.

Why did the writer take this job? And to expand the question, why do we inject our lives with not just the ordinary, but the mundane?

Is it because we need money to eat and keep the lights on and for gas? God, no. The writer does this– we do this– because we hunger. Let us go further and say the writer doesn’t have writer’s block. S/he is perfectly content with the words they are able to hammer out when they get home, and their creative output before taking the job was satisfactory.

The short, easy answer is to say that Stephen King was struck when he was out walking. Chaos and destruction did not find him at home as it did to Will Ferrell’s character in Stranger Than Fiction (highly recommended). He was out in the world, doing that whole ‘living’ thing. It was his regular exercise. But that’s the easy answer, so I’ll go into detail.

You’ll never be struck by anything- inspiration, the solution to that latest itch, a minivian– if you aren’t out there. But the writer sits at a desk and works all day because s/he knows of the hunger. The hunger will find them easily if s/he starts walking and living and people watching, things s/he (maybe) actually wants to do.

But to be a prisoner of the paycheck, to be a drone of the office where you are only partially permitted your mind? That is what the hunger truly is. Not fresh air or social interactions or the “weekend” drink- that’s what the hunger needs. What the hunger is, is that creative energy you find in dark places, when all other lights go out. (Yes I just hammered a Pirates of the Caribbean paraphrasing with a LOTR quote; I do not apologize).

The creative hunger is a muscle that develops when your body and mind are doing all those uncreative thing. It’s not just the spark that makes you want to carry a notebook everywhere, that’s not so spectacular. This hunger is something that must be satisfied, a void that must be filled. But that void needs to be knotted up with nowhere to go, with nothing to do but grow.

For some people, finding that hunger is going to be as simple as having a full-time job and being, always, too exhausted to write, at which point starvation will call upon them and they will, as every expert advisor gives, Make time to write. For others, the hunger bleeds into you and becomes such a part of you that even as that office drone, you are a writer.

Ultimately, and the reason I write this article, I call your attention to the hunger because it’s the writer part of you, no matter your genre, that will find you if you let it, if you stop looking for it and let it fester and gnaw and starve, until that day you master it, learn to feed it, and it becomes all that you are.

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The Weight

The one piece of advice you’ll find from successful authors is: Read. It’s one of the surprisingly few agreed-upon mantras; you gotta read as much as you can.

This always intimidated me because a) I do not read very fast and b) all these successful authors always talk about how they “devoured every book they could get their hands on”. That wasn’t me, and I think that anxiety can carry over to today’s spec fic writer when it comes to keeping up on your own genre.

I picked up How to Write Tales of Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, partially because it’s such an old text and I was curious. While Bradbury’s “Thing at the Top of the Stairs” is always good, many of the articles collected are showing their age.

Today’s writers know they live in a constantly shifting market. Genres are visiting one another more often these days. They’re interbreeding and creating adorable little monstrosities with Fantasy’s face but obviously Horror’s eye color. We are enjoying what I would call an unprecedented mixture of genre, where the ghost of the horror story can freely walk into urban fantasy or even sci-fi and feel welcome.

And then, of course, it’s that much harder to stay sharp, stay relevant. What’s the best balance for all the weight? For all the reading you must have to do? This has been one of my largest personal demons in my effort to commit myself to writing, and I imagine other people struggle with it, too.

I couldn’t imagine having full-time college, a full-time job, and still manage to read dozens of blogs every morning, get my hands on new SF/F anthologies, read up on the new trends in spec fic, and still scratch out some time to pen words down. Never mind dealing with other creative people!

But that’s okay. It’s a process. Especially for science fiction in fantasy, I think, the growth, the gestation period, is crucial. So I’ll share the concept that allowed me to alleviate the stress that came from the inability to devour all the books.*

When I was in therapy in my younger days, I told my psychologist I wanted to be a writer, and he was practically delighted, because he said, and this sticks with me every time I sit down at my keyboard: “Writers are singularly gifted in that they draw from everything, all the time, to create entirely new things that only they can produce.”

It really blew my mind. I still wonder if he was waiting for a patient of his to be a writer so he could bust that one out. Look at it; it’s a lovely sliver of dialogue. Savor it, digest it, print it, pin it, frame it, you’re welcome. But, yeah, I think it’s advice worth following.

If you feel like the Weight is an alien concept to you, or you are only worrying about all you need to read because I just mentioned it now (sorry!), then relax. Finding your pace as a reader will help you forge your path as a writer. Do you have to put the time in? Absolutely. Do you have to break your comfort zone and do research and make the time to write? Yup.

But you still have a pace, and you still have that singular gift of a unique voice. One that no one else has heard before, that no one will hear after you. Sure, when you start out it may sound like a mod of your favorite authors, but keep at it.

The voice of the speculative fiction author is one that uses comfortable words and a familiar hand to bring us to exhilarating, mystical, and quite often terrifying new places. And that’s all kinds o’ fantastic.

*sidenote: I would still take the superpower of being able to read a book by touching its cover. Would totally be the coolest thing in the world.

 

When Characters Speak

‘You mean that thing called dialogue?’ Nope! Not this time.

One of the earliest– and most confusing– pieces of advice I was given about writing was, “Listen to your characters.” My view of the craft was at such a meta point that this idea was barely fathomable to me. I could maybe understand it, sure, but it seemed either too figurative to be helpful, or just straight-up counterintuitive.

Worldbuilding and consistency are what give your characters a real voice. You don’t have to go full-tilt Tolkien or even full-tilt Rothfuss to get this voice, but it helps. When you as the author have an idea of geography, technology/magic/religion, some sociocultural quirks, you’re establishing an identity.

This identity, then, gives voice to your characters, and you have to listen to them.

Even when I started writing I didn’t feel like I could “hear” them. I was still in control, guiding the story and directing the plot just how I wanted it. Sure, I was discovering it (as opposed to outlining everything), and that’s a fun creative process. But I was still holding the strings.

So what does it mean? How do you listen to the people you want someone else to care about?

Part of it is realism; addressing all the concerns, being aware of the questions your reader will have.

It’s being aware of when your characters say, “Why can’t we just do X to solve this plot issue?” A firm grasp of the situation, and a solid, realistic portrayal of whatever your conflict is, will lead you to some situations where your characters will straight-up ask you the simplest, most direct questions.

And the only response would be, “Well… you could.” And then there’s no conflict.

But you also listen to them to avoid falling into the trap of over-written dialogue. The biggest examples of this can be found in movies. Characters speak for the sole purpose of setting up a dramatic line (usually in the form of “Then what are these things?”). Christopher Nolan is currently my favorite director, but he’s guilty of this a lot. The character drops out of their three dimensional space and becomes a flat rebounding board for someone else– typically the hero– to say something cool and succinct.

It might work, and it gives the narrative that “punch”, but when you’re really listening to your characters’ needs and concerns, you start to hear different dialogue. You hear something more natural.

We know that real life speak, perfectly transcribed, isn’t real dialogue. There’s fiction dialogue, and it’s its own ballgame. Making it work and making it sound natural is tricky. But, if you can listen to your characters, the benefit is that you get that perfect middle ground between ‘Fiction Dialogue’ and ‘What a real person would actually say’.

But tapping into character– the most important element for making your story interesting in real– will allow you to hear them. And if you listen, the other elements fall into place.