Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How A Grain of Irritation Builds A Pearl of Story

So, as I mentioned way back when I first started this blog, I'm going to have occasional posts where I get up on my soap box and talk about how I do things. This is one of those posts. So instead of trying to offer general advice on craft and industry, today I'm going to share some information about how my personal process works. So if you've been curious about that for one reason or another, then today is your lucky day.

Let me show you how I make these.

A Lifetime of Literature

In order to be a good writer, you have to do a lot of reading. That's a truism that we all know, and it's one I took to heart early on in life. I checked out whole shelves of the library, bought anything I could get my hands on, and traded for pulps, paperbacks, and even a few classics before all the used bookstores shuttered their doors. I always have a book on CD in my car, and I finish them with some regularity between errands, conventions, and other appointments. In addition to books, though, I am an avid lover of genre films. Sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and others have made up a lot of my entertainment diet over the years.

I've consumed a huge amount of media, popular, obscure, and otherwise. Some of that media has been great, and it's shaped me as both an author, and as a person. Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are two titles that come to mind right off the bat. Other stories, though... they weren't so great. In fact, some of them were downright awful. Poorly thought out, badly constructed, rushed, hacky meals that, if someone had physically asked me to eat them, I would have sent it back to the kitchen and demanded something fit for human consumption.

I'm sure you all have a book or two you could think of.
However, while I might learn important lessons in craft from reading books I love, I gain inspiration from books I don't like. Because nothing makes me want to roll up my sleeves and write a good story than seeing someone who did it in a way that stuck its thumb in my eye.

My Brain is An Oyster

Do you know how pearls are made? Well, it all starts with a tiny irritant. A piece of sand, or a chunk of rock, gets pulled inside an oyster, and gets stuck. The meat inside an oyster is sensitive, so it starts excreting a defensive coating. The irritant is coated repeatedly, until it's smooth, and can no longer cause the oyster any pain. By the time it's done, though, the irritant has turned from a worthless, painful speck, into a beautiful work of art.

That's kind of how my creative process works.

I sense you're looking for an example?
If you haven't read The Big Bad II, you really should. Because in addition to a bunch of other great stories, you'll come across a dark little piece I wrote called Little Gods. The basic premise is that Richard Blackheart, warlock for hire, has his services paid for by a woman called the Sterile Saint. She's trying to take the mantle from the Hook Man, Chicago's little god of murder, and she needs help. A mercenary to his core, Blackheart takes the job... but he does it in his own way, and for his own reasons.

This story takes place in what I refer to as my Chicago Strange setting, and a lot of the elements of that setting came from things that frustrated me about the urban fantasy novels that made up the rest of the genre at time of writing. The biggest issue I kept running into as a reader was the way so many authors felt the need to bring in pagan gods, but then to have them act just like any other character, or to put them there for nothing more than name-drop purposes before going back to the (now less interesting) main character. Neil Gaiman's American Gods managed to strike the balance between beings who possessed immense power, and who were also very vulnerable, and very mortal despite that power. That novel made other attempts at turning gods into side characters, from the Dresden Files to the Iron Druid series, stick in my craw. After a while, I'd actually shut books who started name dropping gods if the plot wasn't actually about those gods, and what they were doing.

Why did I do this? Unanswered questions, mostly. For example, if the author declares certain gods exist, then which ones are real and which ones are fake? In worlds where the Abrahamic god is real, and pagan gods are also real, where does the power of one end, and the other begin? If these deities are walking the world, then are they getting involved with things? Does it matter how much someone believes in them, or is that irrelevant to their existence? Why couldn't you think of a deus ex machina that was a little less literal?

So many questions, and so little attention to them, annoyed me. That annoyance got into my head, and made me examine the setting I was putting together. There should be some kind of divine force for this dirty little noir world I'd made, but I didn't just want to rip off real-world religions. The more famous Neil had already done it far better than I thought I could. So I created something different.

I made the Little Gods.

Who are the Little Gods? They're the whispers on the street corners, the legends in the back alleys, and the stories you tell around the campfire. They're the bloody faces who come through your mirrors, the maniacs that prowl lovers' lane, and the lost souls who walk weeping through the streets under full moons. The little gods of the city, as some call them, are urban legends. The patrons of murder, death, sorrow, and luck, all of them waiting and listening as their stories are spread just a little bit further through the cracks of the concrete grapevine.

The Little Gods are not permanent, though. Their mantles can be stolen, and their stories changed. The Hook Man is the little god of murder, it's true, but there were others before him. Bloody Jake, Kate Hatchet, Raw Head Bloody Bones, the Wendigo, and others. The pantheon of this city is ever new, ever changing, and when something grows too old, or too corrupt, it will be torn down by a younger, hungrier rival who wants its place at the top of the heap.

Don't Complain, If You Aren't Willing To Do Better

That's just one example of how my brain sees an idea that irritates something sensitive in my head, until my creative process coats it in enough layers that I have my own version. The irritation I dealt with while attempting to read The Space Wolves Omnibus (I made it 100 pages before I gave it up) led me to pen my story Heart of The Myrmidon, for example, because I wanted to see what would happen if the gigantic super soldiers still had emotions, and could suffer existential crises. I wrote New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam because so much steampunk that I saw was either saccharine, or involved the authors just sticking some gears and brass on modern machinery, and calling it good enough. It wasn't, so I tried to write something better.

The list goes on, and I have a ton of other projects coming down the way that grew out of a single irritant that just got lodged in my eye. But, by the time I've coated, and dissected, and planned, and written, you know something? Not only do I have a new story (or in some cases a full-on manuscript), but the original irritant no longer pains me. I still won't like the place it came from, but I will no longer feel the need to lash out at it.

Because I already created something that soothes my frustration, which I think will give readers a new take on this idea. And that is the best answer a writer can give to something they don't like.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helped some folks out there, and even if it didn't, that you found this look into my head to be entertaining. If you'd like to support me, and help me keep the blog going, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. Pledge at least $1 a month and you'll buy not only my everlasting gratitude, but some sweet swag as well! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

No comments:

Post a Comment