Thursday, January 08, 2009

Choosing what to write

I'm never averse to stealing someone else's good idea and calling it "homage" (on a blog, "meme" does the trick as well). David Isaak posted recently on the pleasantly alliterative topic Why We Write What We Write - a thought-provoking question. It's one I'd never asked myself before, at least not in that form. I've got a pretty good idea why I write; on some level I've made my peace with the long lonely hours and performed the calculus that tells me it's worth it. But what I've never done is question why I've ended up in the particular genre I inhabit.

My intial lazy response when I read David's post was to say, "well, I write what I like to read". And as far as it goes, it's true enough. (It would be perverse, after all, to write what I didn't like to read: I'm not cut out for chick-lit). At the Macmillan New Writers soiree last year, it became apparent that I was about the only one who enjoyed re-reading my own work, so my knee-jerk reaction is perhaps not too far from the mark.

On the other hand, it's not the whole story. "Why Should I Read...?", my ongoing list of books I've loved and recommend to others, contains about 35 books. Of those, less than a third are ones you'd find on the Science-Fiction and Fantasy shelves of a bookshop. Only three are fantasies written primarily for adults. I don't, in fact, read that much fantasy: I'm at least as likely to read historical fiction, popular history, 19th century fiction, hard-boiled crime, and sports. But I've never written, or seriously aspired to write, in any of those fields.

So how did I end up writing in a genre which no longer makes up a large proportion of my reading? The cynic may suggest that all of the genres above require research, a structured activity to which I am largely averse; but so does fantasy, even if it doesn't require quite the adamantine rigour of historical novels.

In the end I arrive at two conclusions, neither of them especially flattering: programming and emulation. The first literature I really loved was speculative fiction: when I became a voracious reader, just before my teens, it was science-fiction and fantasy I devoured with indiscriminate relish. And somehow, that got hard-wired into me. Even though I can't read many of the books I loved then, speculative fiction became my default setting.

Which brings us to emulation. Because one of the writers I stumbled across in those early years was Jack Vance. From the day I first started to read Vance, he became the touchstone for literary excellence and, unlike anything else I read at that age, he remained there. So when I started to write seriously myself, the benchmark was Vance, even if it was not one which could be achieved.

In the end, then, the question has quite a simple answer. Why do I write what I write? Because somewhere, deep down, even now, I still want to be Jack Vance. And that doesn't seem such an unworthy ambition.

3 comments:

David Isaak said...

Not an unworthy ambition at all, and as good a reason to write as any.

I must say, though, that even though your world is an invented one, your historical bent also shows itself in Dog of the North. Except for the stage upon which the actions take place, it's all rather realistic.

Neil said...

Tim, I have no idea why I write such a large amount of fantasy and SF. I probably read a bit more of it than you do, but it still probably only makes up about thirty per cent of my reading material.

On the question of it being the lazy option, world-building probably takes as much effort as research, but perhaps suits a different character. As someone who's tried it several times, the fine-detail of world-building isn't something that seems to suit my temperament (I'm talking something on the Steven Erickson/China Mieville scale here), so from personal experience I know it's not easy to do well, although an awful lot of people do it rather badly. And from your blog it's obvious you do loads of research anyway (historical and military at least).

Tim Stretton said...

Kind of you to gratify my lazy reading as research, Neil!

As you say, it's a different kind of approach. I remember a conversation with a historical novelist where she outlined her relish at making sure the Vikings had the right kind of shoes. That sort of thing turns me off completely...