Chops

Way back, before I started all this, I had ideas aplenty but never could get far when trying to write them down. It’s a mighty frustrating place to be. You get the feeling that you’re chock full of the good stuff, that you need to get it out of you and into the world, and yet when you do you find, to your amazement, you are quite mute.

Huh?

I’m quite convinced this is the biggest obstacle to so many who try to write. In some quote I cannot seem to find online, Hunter S. Thompson once described it as a fear of the infinity in a blank page, pure and uninterested in every other thing you may have written. All the worse, then, if you’ve not. Starting is a nightmare. It’s white page after white page, all the way down. You might have thought you had a solid idea, but when actually sitting there, right at the face of the beginning of your work, well, you’ll have doubts, all right.

You’ve got to earn your chops.

There’s a great cycle to life and art and creativity. In a certain vital sense, some things really are born again every single day. We all start at the beginning so many times throughout our lives we’re quite oblivious to the pattern. Sure, there’s a difference between making art and brushing your teeth, but both of them work better once you’ve learned. And both of them need done tomorrow, no matter what you do today.

For someone who hasn’t published any one thing I can point to, quite yet, I’ve written a fair old lot of words. Most of them suck. Most of everything sucks. And, the cause behind the problem, you can never quite tell which ones, not when they’re still up close. My memory is strong, and I’m blinded by the vision still alive and well that I was trying to write, the experience of writing rather than what I actually did. You’re sold, always sold, on what you’ve just made. Yet that is the way to crap out a dull old turd. To get above the rubbish, you’ve got to kill the things you’ve made. They’ll only get better when you try.

That’s why I’m relieved to take a little summer break from Alpha. I kicked it off pretty good back in January, and went at just about the clip I intended for the first month or so. Even then, I knew that the pieces weren’t perfectly matched. I could feel the wobbles and creaks of the way I wrote my characters, and the jolts from scene to scene. But it didn’t matter. I kept going, as is the only way, and I finished it in July. I had written them, my characters and worlds were alive! These citizens of my mind, free at last, for me to see their flaws and mine.

First draft is a wonderful, god awful thing. There is no more pure creative experience than the first. That’s the one where you put your skills to their most brutal test. You’re navigating, trying to find the path from place to place you always thought you knew, until now. You’re bringing things into existence, straight from scratch, regardless of the pictures and the notes you made, and all the things you thought were research for this act. You’re naked, you really are, right before the blank. That’s all there is. That’s all you need. And it’s all you have. First draft is the place where you swing from high and low, tumbling around with your work like an adolescent tryst, at once warring and romantic. First draft is first love.

I know that Alpha’s draft is rough. So it should be. I bit off more than I ever should have done with this tale. Some forgiving part of me sees all the clearer now why it took so long for me to face it, and make it real. There’s a book in there. An imperfect, downright broken one, but it is there. For as much of a catalogue of notes is worth, this is better. First draft is the best ingredient there is for second draft, and third. Just add blood, sweat and tears, right?

In truth, I’ve no idea how many drafts there are between me and publishing this book of mine. But I shan’t skimp them. In fact, I’ll need to learn to appreciate that new pain for what it is: another kind of chops.

My plan for Alpha, when I get back to it in some months, isn’t just a spruce up. I’ll be cutting words — whole scenes I suspect, and enjoying the fact — but Venus doesn’t lie waiting in that rock. There’s whole things I’ve forgotten. Pieces of the story, tastes of the environment, and likely even characters quite entire, remain to be made right. Remain to be made in the first place! I’ll be messing with the whole thing in a pretty big way, I think. Certainly, that’s what I feel needs done. I know I can do better than what I sense I have. And I know nothing’s ever right on the first attempt, not when you can take a second.

Daunting, sure, but I am also looking forward to it. All the better than playing god is playing god’s director!

If I’d been better prepared, Proteus would be first draft complete as well. Surely I had no sense it would take longer than the story proper! Anyway, there’s quite a lot to its draft already, and I’m torn between taking Marie’s pen and pushing forth with it, or going back and practicing my rework skills before they come to Alpha.

Proteus was my backstory that went quite awry. I’m only very vaguely aware of where it’s heading, as you may well tell by giving it a read. (A task I must make easier with an index, as I made for Alpha’s first draft.) Marie’s first person perspective was a great little trick to get me started, but I took her place too literally and have written too much detail as a result. Proteus is quite a tale in its own right, as I discovered in its craft, and I need to pull the reins on it to have a chance to reach the end. I had that unnerving sense as Alpha’s Act IV slid askew when I met it, and for quite the same reason. Much to gain, then, in practicing this kind of repair work.

I can sit here and listen to Kira Neris all I want, writing about writing as I so often do. But it’s this fearful work that counts. This liberating slog, this beautiful mess, and, in the end, the very best thing that I do. I’ve a ton of work to make good on yet. And I welcome it, just as much as I wriggle away. It’ll show, and that’s all the reason I need.

If it comes too cheap, it ain’t chops.


Second Draft Introduction

Andala is that second world we find out there.

It happened in 2169. Generations into our exploration of the stars. Life eluded us, no matter where we looked. Instead, we had to bring our own, by garden ship and global genesis.

Until that moment.

The remotest four of us there had ever been. They were the ones who found it. More than we could remember to dream. Our sister. The first life in all our searches, and so similar to ours that we didn’t even realise.

Until we saw what they could do.

That’s the back story. The book I’m writing starts a while down the line, 2301 in fact, once we’ve had a while to get to know each other. It kicks off on the day when our two worlds will meet again, as our meaning, and our threat to one another, is redefined.

Until that point, Andala was a great mystery, safely far away. But history has chapters, and our shared age of innocence ends there and then. I call that story Alpha. Or The Book of Princes. And it shall soon enough begin.


Made of Practice

Use it or lose it. The golden rule of exercise. I’ve seen its effects myself, in the years I’ve been doing my necessary sojourns on a bike. Strength and stamina don’t just build themselves. Yet, in a sense, they truly do. So long as you put in the effort.

I believe the same is true for everything.

The line of writing I have chosen for my work is fiction. But how much of that do you see here? I write the occasional thing, of course, like Marie Chen’s account of Proteus. In fact I’ve quite surprised myself by how far that has gone; given its intention. But for the most part, my writing here reads like a journal of my own experience, rather than the draft of my creation. Instead of writing Andala, I’m writing about Andala. It’s writing about writing! It’s meta work in lieu of the work itself.

I won’t surprise you one bit with the fact that my private notes read just the same way, and did long before the public Project Andala ever started.

There’s some necessity to all that. But I could go on like this for an individual’s measure of eternity. And I’d still be just beginning! That’s no way to write. Not exclusively. I really ought to turn this tale around.

You build your habits. And your habits then build you.

The writing I haven’t done is exactly the stuff I mean the most to do. The fiction! The drafting proper. The book. Why’s it such a fight? Well, my mental muscles aren’t primed for it. I could do far worse than exercise.

And so the thought occurred to me, while riding past Hound Point, that there’s only one way to change this. I’ve got to build the habit. I’ve got to write not only the very thing you see here, but fiction proper, on a routine basis. I’ve got to earn my chops.

But how to do that without stirring up a keen resistance?

Here’s the new bit. I realised that I needed to write non-critical fiction. Little things that aren’t make or break for the entire story. The kind of writing where I don’t get tangled up in a myriad of dependencies the minute I begin. Just what kind of fiction is that, though, given the world I’m building and my evidently maniacal desire for every last piece to fit?

There is just one way I can picture: to escape the canon completely.

One way to do that would be to jump ship to another project entirely. Not something I’d like to do, or think I could for long. Besides, the problem would remain, just in different clothing. No, I’m not looking for another macrocosm; but the opposite.

How about little fictions inside the Andala “universe” that I’ve already started? How about short stories contained within themselves, which needn’t define nor undermine the rules of the game? How about the legends presumed already extant on Andala, like Ayana’s myth? Or even just the backgrounds and day to day lives of the characters I’m making, without the need for vital moments in our future history? Ah, more tales within the tale. But short and sweet.

I doubt it’ll do me any harm. Or you, as I can always put the kibosh on publishing them. We’ll see. I just know I need to shake up my practice.


The Art of World Building

What I like to think sets my work aside from other superpower fantasies is its world. Andala is, very simply, an entire civilisation where everyone has their share of these abilities. Aner is not the special gift of a chosen few. It belongs to everyone.

Think about that for a second. Everyone can do it. All of them. Not just the mighty élite, but the lowest of the humdrum everyday ornery. And then we arrive.

My peculiar interest is in just this kind of culture shock. From its destructive effect on the traditional tribal lives of the Bushmen, to its broader impact on the very foundation of our global history: this stuff is right up my alley. What little I know of super heroes tells me what I’m doing is quite distinct from the norm. Where episodic adventures require a rhythm and a routine reset to the way things were before, I can explore a whole different horizon.

There’s something that really appeals to me in the idea that aner – that unsettling, uncanny, and essentially un-human power – is so perfectly natural on Andala. Marie’s described the first time that we saw it. Aner is startling, terrifying and baffling stuff; a veritable deus ex machina of course. And my hesitance to work on it is as just much a metaphor beyond the book. But there it lies. The focus and the magic.

The world, then, is where I see my best work. It’s a playground for my own games of consequence. There is one continuity in this story. One timeline! (And a relativistic one at that; as long as I can keep the details straight.) Everything the characters do is done for good. Change is eternal, as it is in reality. Anything less doesn’t feel the least bit right. Dodgy prequels and the like have torn the patience out of me!

But what’s a culture like when everyone is Superman? I’ve spent a good while wondering about this very question. Andala is my attempt at answering it. The only way you can: one piece at a time.

From out of those a world is made. No more, no less.


Forward March

Amongst the infinite dichotomies by which you can split man, lies the one about perseverance. There are those who stride ever onward, guided by goodness knows what, drawn in every step by a passion they themselves might not be able to describe, ever seeking the way of the future; and then there’s the rest of us.

I took up Jared Diamond’s epic answer to Yali’s Question as an exercise in broadening my own perspective. Oh, it worked all right. His book is rich with consequences for my own project. So much so, that I’ve found myself thrown back in introspection. I can take a while to digest what I read, but this is something else, and by no means any one else’s fault.

I’ve not given up on Andala. I’m not sure, after all the times it seems I’ve tried, that such a thing is possible as long as I am still around. But I do find myself in the midst of something of a breather. One of these things where it’s not my own initiative, but the realm of the unconscious muse.

Truth be told, I suppose it is the way I’m telling Proteus that’s at the heart of my doubt. That backstory has been out of control for as long as I can remember. I meant for it to be a fragmentary report of distant discovery, but it’s already about as long as I mean Alpha itself to be, and showing no sign of a conclusion. When I’m writing it, though, I do like Marie’s story. Coupled with my apparent inability to pull the reins and steer where she’s going, you get where I’ve been headed. The choice between it and the central story that I came here to tell is one I seem unable to take. Or in the right direction, at any rate.

All of which is to say that Guns, Germs and Steel isn’t at fault for my time off the keyboard. And, in fact, that I am well pleased for the most part by how suited my little fiction of a world matches the analysis Diamond wrote there. I haven’t thought at all of ancient man’s spread around our own planet, before the rise of farming and subsequently everything else, being drawn to Sumer for my inspiration more often than not. But now that he’s explained it, I see the implications of prehistory around us everywhere. For whatever reason, they’re more or less as snug on Andala. The details of which I’ve some reading yet until I can describe.

If you’re like me: you think in writing. Seems to be the only way. Just as music is to dream, and reading is to see.