It's time to support your local Insecure Writers Support Group, once again without the benefit of James Garner or Harry Morgan. (We writers live dangerous lives. That's why we're so insecure.)
This post is not really about my recent release, Pale Moonlight, but it was directly inspired by the book's first review. It was a terrible review. Made me wonder all over again if I'm crazy.
Except I started thinking, remembering why I write the way I write, and maybe it's not so crazy after all. There is, after all, a method to the madness. And if there's a method, maybe it's not madness after all...
The thing about Pale Moonlight is that it's a vampire story that's not really like any other vampire story you've read. I like to say that if you're not writing like you, you're not really writing at all. You're just filling a page with words. My style, my intent, is necessarily uniquely my own, but it isn't without precedent, or perhaps what they call inspiration.
I call my style, when I call it anything, deep map fiction. I borrow the term "deep map" from William Least Heat-Moon, one of the better-known travel writers, responsible for Blue Highways and various other books. The one I take the phrase from is PrairyErth, in which he explores an entire Kansas county on foot, or in other words taking a "deep map" of the territory. What he does is learn as much as possible about something, and then reports his findings.
That's what I try to do with my stories. I can't write a story simply connecting events to events. I take a deep map of character motivation and whatever resonance seems to be relevant at the time, whether in history or in thought, to try and explore the story the way readers are subsequently asked to interpret it. I'm a reader who believes a story isn't just a sequence of events, either, but something that's only worth anything if I take something positive from it. I don't read just to read. And so I don't write just to write, either. I want to present a challenge to the reader, not a puzzle but something to think about. And the way mystery writers leave clues all over the place, I try and start the thought process by beginning it within the story itself.
And I like to have a little fun. I love to make associations. Hopefully, anyone who's read my blogging knows that much. I got the idea to do this in fiction by Neil Gaiman's Sandman, one of the most mythology-rich comics ever written, and subsequently one of those classic hard-to-translate challenges filmmakers have been attempting to solve for years. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the most recent brave soul to tackle it. Wish him luck!)
But the thing is, I hadn't read Sandman by the time I wrote Pale Moonlight, except for a few random issues. It was a challenge I knew I wanted to take, but needed time to prepare for it. I'm still only about twenty issues in, and can see how challenging Gaiman really made it. His lead character most often appears as a supporting character. Of any work of fiction I've encountered to date, it's Gaiman's opus that comes closest to the kind of work I hope to accomplish as a writer.
(I am not saying I am Gaiman's equal. That is for others to decide!)
Other experiences helped lead the way. Douglas Adams packed his Hitchhiker's books with asides from the title fictional cosmic encyclopedia, for instance, and although they don't really have anything to do with Arthur Dent's adventures, they are an essential element to their enjoyment. Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes presented every facet of childhood exactly the way a child experiences it, which meant reading the comic strip was itself a master class of wildly different approaches week to week.
I also drew a lot of formatting ideas from television. TV is a uniquely modern form of storytelling, more often than not episodic, in that the story from week to week may not be directly related but taken as a whole there is clearly a common thread throughout a series. Some of the more ambitious shows I've enjoyed, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Boomtown being completed by the time I started writing novel manuscripts, were particularly influential. I have the feeling that drawing such inspiration from TV will become more and more apparent as future generations of writers emerge.
Lost was another major source of inspiration. When I began writing The Cloak of Shrouded Men, the show had only just begun, but when I finished the story that became my first book, the series had by then reached its third season, with more than ample demonstration of its unique approach to TV storytelling. I consider it an honor to admit that I took writing advice from Lost.
The idea of writing not so much a straight narrative but looking around the corners, I saw this as a natural fit for my interests, and by the time I tackled the manuscript for Pale Moonlight, I found it more and more impossible to do anything but what interested me as a writer, putting aside preconceived notions on what storytelling is supposed to do. The funny part is, as esoteric as Pale Moonlight is, it's still easier to understand, I think, than where I took the ending of Shrouded Men. In that sense, I'm following in the speculative footsteps of Christopher Nolan, another creative source who had wowed me with Memento and its less-known predecessor Following before I began my writing career in earnest.
But that review got me questioning this approach all over again. Did I write it like that because I was incapable of writing something more traditional? If I took out a given set of material, would that make it better, or simply easier to read? As writers, we're often told to edit our material, or completely rewrite. I consider a certain amount of that to be artistic compromise. In a collaborative medium like movies or TV, that can and probably should happen all the time. But writing a book? Particularly a story that plays by its own rules? It would be one thing if the author realizes it doesn't work. But is it okay for someone else to say it doesn't? Who's right?
Some of that has to do with the business of commercial value. I personally don't look at indy publishing as a commercial business. I'd love to make money from it, but that's not really why I do it.
So I guess what I'm saying this month is, my insecurity is also my greatest strength. I risk everything in hopes of gaining everything. And maybe some money, too.