This past week or so I’ve been struggling to start UNREAL CITY, and finding that the confidence I’d garnered upon finishing CRUDE SUNLIGHT was rapidly eroding away. Writing CS had been a formative experience; it was the first serious novel I had ever typed, coming in at 90,000 words, had undergone five major edits, and taken me about two years to write. Surely I was better prepared for my second book, armed with knowledge hard earned, experience and wisdom! I was a seasoned veteran now, I thought, no longer the green and naive journeyman about to embark on his first major undertaking!
Like I said, this confidence didn’t last very long. Neil Gaiman wrote in his blog:
Gene Wolfe pointed out to me, five years ago, when I proudly told him, at the end of the first draft of American Gods, that I thought I’d figured out how to write a novel, that you never learn how to write a novel. You merely learn how to write the novel you’re on. He’s right, of course. The paradox is that by the time you’ve figured out how to do it, you’ve done it. And the next one, if it’s going to satisfy the urge to create something new, is probably going to be so different that you may as well be starting from scratch, with the alphabet.
And that’s exactly how I feel. UNREAL CITY has nothing to do with CRUDE SUNLIGHT. The first was a tale of suspense, horror, was very character driven, told from the POV of one person and was written with almost no research what so ever. UNREAL CITY is a different beast, having been researched extensively these past four months, with my reading on everything from WW1 to nanotech, from Google Clouds to the tunnels beneath New York. It’s going to be told from the POV of about five characters, is more a pulp combination of science fiction, diesel punk and adventure than anything else, and is driven by a series of events that characters have to react to, not that they’ve instigated.
So. I sat down and thought and wondered and imagined and frowned and wrote a paragraph or two and deleted them. I searched for the right music to play, leaned back in my chair, researched all sorts of details I didn’t really need to know on the internet. I wrote emails, brainstormed later parts of the novel, squinted at the screen, sighed in frustration.
The reason it was so hard? First, I had all this research I’d done that threatened to bog down the actual story. How adrenaline is down-regulated, and how an artificial monitoring system might duplicate that effect to keep somebody calm. The complex components behind a vast artificial intelligence, how it was all put together, by whom, where it was housed, who had built it, why, with what funding. What communication might be like eighty years from now, and how to represent that as a system the character and the reader would find intuitive, natural. A thousand things that should inform the story, but not dominate it, but which loaded down my prose and made it clunky and ungainly and awful.
Argh! And I realized I had forgotten something absolutely essential, that working through all those drafts, striving for elusive perfection had inculcated in me an intolerance for half measures, quick fixes, dirty prose and sprints toward the end of the chapter. The first draft is meant to be a hodge podge of half baked ideas, clunky dialog, crude characterizations and base metaphors! You’re supposed to race through it all like a salivating, half starved dog sprinting through a butchers, unable to stop for any one cut, always drawn deeper by the allure of promised steaks and slabs and sausages and–
Okay, I’m not sure a starving dog would race on and ever on. He’d probably just stop and eat the first steak, but you get what I mean.
So, yes. Monday night I said screw it and just started writing. And it does seem flat, superficial, poor in description and with overly simple characters. But I finished the prologue. And then last night I finished Chapter One, in which, I think, the writing was better, but no action happened. Almost I deleted it to rewrite the scene, maybe through in a gang of zombie skateboarders or something to spice it up, but no–ever on I must go. Full steam ahead! Today, Chapter 2 (these chapters are quite short, another big change). I’m just going to tear haphazardly toward the end, and when I’m finished, huffing and puffing and red in the face, I’ll look back at the manuscript, roll up my sleeve, and get to work on sorting it all out.