The Sausage Factory, or: My writing process, a chain letter

The illustrious Carmen Machado (@carmenmmachado), one of my many talented classmates from Clarion 2012, invited me to participate in this blog tour, in which we talk about our writing processes (pronounce that with a long “e;” it sounds more sophisticated). She was invited by Sofia Samatar, who was invited by Daniel Jose Older, and so on.

At any rate, there are four probing questions I must answer, in order to have carried out my duty and forged my link in this blogging chain. They are, as follows:

1) What are you working on?
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
3) Why do you write?
4) How does your writing process work?

So, we’ll see if I can write a cohesive blog entry structured around that, or it it just devolves into rambles.

First thing’s first. What am I working on right now? Well, my colleague Sam J. Miller is also on this blog tour, and if I’m not mistaken, we’re posting on the same day, perhaps even about the same project. For the last six months (wow. Wow) we’ve been collaborating on a slipstream tragedy about World War I, poetry, love, medical experimentation, and time travel. It’s nearing completion. It’s one of the coolest projects I think I’ve ever worked on.

I also just wrapped up a sweeping political fantasy I’ve been pitching as Swordspoint meets Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If you haven’t read LeCarre, do it now. If you haven’t read Kushner, do it now. If you’re ambitious, read them at the same time.

Also, lots of short stories, usually involving historical figures. I love me some historical fiction. I like to explain the real events of history with magic, fairies, demons, numinous supernatural activity.

And maybe that is how my fiction differs from other fiction. I have a deep-seated anxiety about keeping things correct, doing them the right way. Even in the novel, which was set in a secondary world, I tried to keep things to a certain standard of…cohesiveness. The world was sort of analogous to the late 20s, early 30s, European-ish. Well, all right, superficially analogous European 20s/30s. But the veneer of vintage glam laid over the invented things was applied with unhealthy attention to detail.

I used to hate history; like many students with uninspiring teachers and smelly old textbooks, I thought it was boring. Reading and writing gaslight fantasy was the first thing that really got me into Ye Olde Tymes. A few years later a writer friend, complaining about the prevalence of Victorian and Regency-era speculative fiction, issued a few of our cohort a challenge: write a piece of historical fantasy set in ANY other period. So I started with the Boer war. And then things got really out of hand. With the help of two really awesome college professors, The Black Tie Guide, and several amazing writers, history became interesting.

I mention the Black Tie Guide because it started me on a long, lovely path of awesome menswear appreciation, and instilled in me a ferocious propensity to nitpick. In fact, it may be the source of all my anxiety and intensity pertaining to historical, sartorial, and ceremonial accuracy.

Perhaps because I have a background in/passion for theatre, I am in love with elaborate superficiality. With artifice. With scrims and masks and makeup. Fairy glamour. Aristocratic families on the verge of bankruptcy, barely keeping up appearances. Glamorous It girls coming home to tinned food and one-room flats. Evelyn Waugh’s bright young people and closeted Anglo-Catholics. Christopher Isherwood’s triple-blind semi-fictionalized memoirs. The lies we tell ourselves and others, and the truth beneath the mirrored surface.

Several of my Clarion classmates recommended Paul Fussell’s Class, a scathing description of/ironic guidebook to the American class system. I ate it up, possibly less ironically than Fussell intended. I find etiquette fascinating, and love the little ways people convey class to one another, accidentally or on purpose. Adding these little touches to characters in writing adds depth to their personalities, and also to the world in which you place them. Which is awesome when you’ve built a world from scratch and you’re really trying to convey it without slapping your readers upside the head with exposition.

Anyway, TL;DR: I write what I write because steampunk is cool, but the twenties were cooler. Also, avoid a collar gap at all costs.

And, after writing that, I went and looked back at the question, and realized it really only said “Why do you write?” PERIOD. And I’m not sure I can answer that in words. There’s some irony for you.

For me, it’s just…a need to turn things into stories. To make sense of the world. To observe and turn the observation into narrative, instead of random chaos. Creating an aesthetic and satisfying my nitpicks—Collar studs! High and tights! Everyone’s waistbands are covered!–is a perk.

As for the process…it’s changing every day. Since attending Clarion, I’ve been really focused on the WHY of stories. Nowadays, I don’t like to start anything until I know where it’s going, and how it’s going to get there, and why it’s headed in that direction at all. Saves on revision time, saves on the frustration of realizing your character has no motivation and doesn’t really change. I like to make a paragraph or two of plot/motivation/character breakdown before I start. Sometimes I even outline the scenes, and the motivations within them. Like figuring out the scenes in a play, when you’re acting out a character. What does that character want when they walk onstage? And do they get it before they walk off again. And how?

Except as a writer, you control ALL the characters. You are responsible for ALL of them. So I suppose, recently, my process has become much more mindful, thoughtful, considered. Even—dare I say it—nitpicky.

Thanks for sticking around for all of that. Next week, I’m passing the torch to Sarah Brand (an Alpha Workshop graduate and staff member, YA writer, all-around-awesome gal) and Chris Kammerud (Clarion 2012, reviewer for Strange Horizons, soon appearing in the Little Bird Publishing anthology Dark Heart Vol. II) . They’ll tell you all about their fiction writing foibles, and pass you on to two more people each.

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