Knowing what you write

I’m deep into edits on The Pagan Night. I have this problem that I’ve run into with each of my books, and that’s that I write it in the wrong order. Somehow when the first draft is complete and I go back and read it, I find that I’ve put a lot of rising action at the beginning of the book, and background information in the middle, and my points of climax are scattered throughout. So I have to go back and make corrections and generally rearrange things so it all makes sense. That’s where I am with this book right now. It’s a strange process to rearrange all of the chapters and then read slowly through, making sure you’ve got the continuity right, and trying to keep track of characters and where they are and what they’ve done and what they know. It’s tricky.

The point is that I’m so deeply embedded in The Pagan Night right now that it’s probably the last thing I want to talk about. I was planning to continue my series on the world of the book, but I don’t think I could muster an interesting paragraph on Tenebros, not when I’ve spent the last few days trying to remember who has Malcolm’s spear.

Instead I’m going to talk about religion. You may have noticed that all of my books feature religion pretty prominently. This is natural for me. I was raised in a religious family, and while I’ve given up that aspect of my life, my background has prepared me to take up the subject at the drop of a hat. I can deploy false theologies faster than Chicago weather can change, and usually with just as awesome results. It’s a skill that I’ve honed, and that I’ve learned to appreciate.

When I first started writing, though, I did not appreciate this at all. In fact, when I was struggling to finish my first short stories, and trying to produce characters that were believable or worlds that could hold the reader’s attention, I bemoaned my lack of broader knowledge. An enormous amount of my education as a child had gone into religious studies, and because of that I really didn’t know as much about other subjects as I would have liked. I grew up sheltered, both physically and socially, and so wasn’t that great at weaving believable environments. Pretty much everything I knew about the world came from books, and very select books, at that. It was a bad situation.

My early writing reflected this. I’ve often said that it took years for me to get the sound of William Gibson out of my voice. That’s part of the process of finding your own writing style, but it’s also an artifact of my upbringing. I knew more about The Sprawl than I did about the real world, and so even my non-SF/Fnal writing had a bit of Count Zero in it. (CZ was the first Gibson book I ever read, and remains one of my favorites) I simply didn’t have much experience to draw on.

I raged against this. I was really frustrated that so much of my knowledge base was worthless to me. I had no use for religion in my life, and therefore no use for it in my writing. And my writing was suffering for it.

The thing that broke that cycle was a little story called The Algorithm. By the time I wrote it, I had managed to sell a handful of short stories, and an agent was looking at a manuscript for a YA portal novel. Things were looking up, but I still didn’t feel like I had found anything distinctive in my own work. I was just a very good craftsman who was still fumbling around the edges of his own art.

When I wrote The Algorithm, I called it the best story I had ever written. While that’s probably not true, it was certainly the most important story to my development as a writer. Because in it, I approached my ideas about religion, and my feelings about belief and truth and understanding. It’s kind of a crude story, now that I look back on it.

The central idea of the story is that there’s this monastery built on the banks of a river. These barrels come down the river, filled with strange things, and the monks fish the barrels out and open them up and make things with the strange stuff they find inside. Most of it is clockwork, cogs and camshafts and various weighted pendulums, and the monks are trying to rebuild the machine that the clockwork came from, but they don’t have the plans or any clue what the machine originally did, so they’re just figuring it out as they go along. Whole schools of thought have been formed around these barrels, and each new delivery brings insight into what’s come before, or destroys notions of how the machine is supposed to work, and so forth. And sometimes things come down the river and they make no sense at all.

Like I said, it’s a pretty crude metaphor, but it opened up in my head a clear understanding of how I thought about my own life and the things that had been so terribly important to me when I was younger. And I really didn’t know I was doing that. I was just trying to write a cool story.

Ever since then, religion has been the thing I write about. I wrap it in the very real relationships of the people in the story, and try to dress it up in thrilling plot and beautiful world creation, but the core of each story is faith, belief, and understanding.

Or, more importantly, the strange things that happen that we don’t understand, and accepting that not knowing is okay, it’s normal, it’s right.

The point, gentle reader, is this: We must all find the thing that matters to us, no matter how difficult it is to talk about, no matter who else is already talking about it or in spite of the fact that no one else seems to care, and we need to write about that. It might not be relevant to all of the readers out there, but it will find the hearts of some of them. And those people? They’re your readers.

Don’t keep them waiting.

Comments are closed.