Better Storytelling Secrets
Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors. Today, I’m joined by, Steven Erikson, the author of the epic fantasy series, “The Malazan Book of the Fallen,” which begins with the novel, “The Gardens of the Moon.”
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
A: In my early twenties, while at university, I worked for a time writing on a faculty newspaper, which was good fun; but I was primarily involved as an illustrator, doing editorial cartoons and a couple strips. Increasingly, I found that the narrative implicit in my art began to override the drawing element. I then took an elective course in Creative Writing, and that set me on my way.
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
A: Hard to say. I worked a lot of other jobs, but never stopped writing, never stopped trying to crack the publishing wall. Even doing archaeology, which I loved, was never quite as fulfilling as writing. As with most writers, I suspect, it’s all down to doing as much writing as possible, and never giving up. So, what ‘it takes’ is nothing more than stubbornness.
Where do you get your ideas from?
A: Most early works in an author’s career possess autobiographical elements (this is often why a first novel makes a serious impact, only for subsequent novels to struggle, as the author mines him or herself out). I made full use of my archaeology/travel experiences when writing my first collection, and a subsequent novel was a coming of age story drawn heavily from my own youth. That said, there was always a wild side to my writing, an urge to push a story into outrageous realms, so I did a fair bit of what’s normally called ‘Magic Realism’ but which were, for me, more tall tales than anything else. I think you have to leave your own backyard (inspiration-wise) as quickly as possible.
Ideas are easy – what one needs to learn is to be ruthless in weighing their worth, before plunging into an enormous exercise in writing them out. For beginning writers, this is very much a hit or miss exercise, but I would always advise a beginning writer to go easy on themselves, should an idea not pan out. The effort has value, and some aspect of all that you have done will show up later, in some other work, like a last piece to a jigsaw puzzle. The important thing is to keep writing, keep hammering away at the craft of narrative – most discoveries are initially stumbled upon, and that’s fine and very much part of the process. The whole cliché of being one’s own harshest critic is one of dubious worth: sure, you need to have a clear eye when looking upon your own stuff, but pay attention to what that clear eye achieves. If you lock into a pattern of trashing yourself after every line, every paragraph, every page or every story, what is that inner critic achieving? Does it leave you depressed? Ready to quit? Does it crash your self-esteem? If so, then the critic has ulterior motives which have nothing to do with writing: it plays mind-game that digs a deep rut and likes cycling you through bouts of sheer misery. Well, that critic is not your friend, does not have your best interest at heart, and is only out to prove you’re not good enough and never will be.
Conversely, if that critic says ‘all right, it’s okay, I suppose, but you can do better, and here’s how,’ then you have with you a most valuable friend. If being harsh drives you to work harder, perfect. That’s a direction with value.
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
A: I look for resonance in an idea. If it makes ripples on deep water, if it offers up mystery and only the barest hints of what that mystery might be; if it’s daunting, audacious; if it’s challenging to my own cherished set of beliefs and attitudes; if it rears up to challenge all my assumptions – about how the world works, about how people are; if it looks me in the eye and calls me a damned liar, and then sets out to prove it. That’s my notion of a decent idea.
So, how to develop it into a story? Throw people at it. By that, I mean, characters. Characters who are prepared to challenge the idea, sometimes on your behalf, sometimes just to spite you by being the devil’s advocate – both types need to be in there, otherwise you are at risk of writing propaganda (if every line of your story comforts you, you’re in trouble; if you write to convince yourself and presumably many others, of the truth of your opinions, then you’re being dishonest, not just to your readers, but also to yourself).
Ideas need lots of room (rather, the best ones do). They need to be ornery, cussing creatures, as likely to snarl at you as smile (and never trust the smile). They should feel too big, too heavy, so you totter and stumble with it in your arms. It should scare the crap out of you, and keep scaring you till the very end. Small ideas? Really, why bother? Go for the biggest throat you can wrap your hands around, and start squeezing.
As you might imagine, I’m not one for modest little stories, not one for the barest whiff of epiphany – all that stuff the literary critics cream over. Sure, subtle is good, but not for its own sake – there needs to be resonance, reverberations that can, potentially, reach through to the soul. Your soul, as writer, first; then the soul of the reader, and you can’t achieve the latter without first achieving the former.
I recall fighting against the tide when at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: that attitude that sniffed and said ‘drama? Hmph, melodrama, you mean!’ As if the two were synonymous. They aren’t, and the former is damned hard to achieve (which is why the trend was veering away from it in literature at the time. Maybe still is – I admit to having stopped paying much attention to that genre these days).
The idea has to haunt you. Writing is the art of grappling with it, and not letting go until at least one of you is down on the ground, gasping, exhausted, worn out.
What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?
A: You can’t have stories without characters, and for me, it’s in characters that I draw the most pleasure. The plot has function – it is the machine that propels those characters – but it is there for context, for physical manifestations of what matters to the characters (and, by extension, to the writer her or himself). If a writer ends up manipulating characters to serve the plot, they’ve ended up on the wrong end of the beast. You devise a plot to manipulate the characters, to drive them ever forward.
So, what I love the most is forcing characters into impossible situations (not impossible plot-wise, but impossible emotionally, spiritually, intellectually), and then watch them fight their way out. This is the human condition, and the sole purpose for writing anything is to explore the human condition. There are all kinds of triumph, after all: and some of them feel like defeat, like utter failure. Some of them can be reduced to merely surviving, pressing on, not giving up.
In a way, every fictional character is recreating the author’s own struggle for meaning, and worth, and fiction is the exercise whereby authors find new and ever-fascinating ways of tracking that spiritual journey. Readers, witnessing this, come away with a sense of recognition (even if unpleasantly so for some characters, for some paths revealed by the story), and this is at the core of the dialogue between writer and reader: the only honest dialogue available to us (since usually writer and reader are complete strangers to each other, and likely will never meet).
People often ask me if, in the writing of tragic or emotionally charged scenes, I feel the same distress that they did when reading them. I have always answered that I as the author have to go through the wringer as well – if I don’t, then why would I ever expect my reader to? All writing is, in this narrative sense, is the author going through hell one step in front of the reader. Whatever you feel as writer, chances are the reader will feel the same. Use this as a guiding principle. Even when you set out to mess with the reader’s head, you have to mess with your own first.
Is it all worth it? Who knows. But then, does that question even matter?
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
A: I leave genre distinctions to critics, academics and whoever else finds the distinctions important. Though I write Fantasy, and Epic Fantasy at that, I make use of many other genres in the process (mystery, horror, romance, comedy, tragedy, literary, etc). I’ve done some Science Fiction and enjoyed it, so I may do more, someday.
Do you work from an outline?
A: My outlines are works-in-progress throughout the period in which I’m writing. I adjust as I go along, although I usually have a fair idea of where it all ends, and where certain characters need to be, and the things that need to happen on the way there. But I’m not obsessive about outlines – they’re notes for guidance, and always malleable. Characters can take charge of scenes and they need to be free to do so – in a novel you can always steer them back eventually. In a short story, less so, but the idea behind the story needs to remain protean anyway, so a character taking up the pace and running off the track might be a sign that the idea you thought you were working with isn’t the idea exploding on the page in front of you. Humbling, but always enlightening.
How do you build your story?
A: I have closing scenes, and I work them in my head until they haunt me day and night, and writing is just the task of getting my characters to those closing scenes: and the more care I take in precisely how they get there, the more emotional impact I should achieve when those scenes finally arrive. This notion can be extended across very big novels, and indeed, across an entire series. The key, for me, is to not rush things, because without all that groundwork laid out before those final scenes, the emotional impact would be less, even non-existent.
I advise inhuman patience as a virtue to strive towards, as a writer. That, and serious cagey-ness – a reluctance to reveal too much of anything, an aversion to explaining too much, either in expositional narrative or through the mouths of characters. Every scene needs a sense of mystery, of things barely in focus on the edge of peripheral vision, things just off-stage (this all relates to resonance that ripples right off the page, floating around the head of writer and the head of reader both). So, what does that inhuman patience achieve?
Pressure. You want to build pressure, in you as writer, and in everyone who reads. You as writer want to lead the reader along a cliff’s edge, skirting it, edging along as if you were both blindfolded. You whisper to your friend, ‘Trust me,’ but even you aren’t sure that’s a wise thing to do (though you’d never admit as much to anyone). There’s a frisson of frustration to build in that reader, kept barely appeased by doling out tidbits along the way, just enough to get by on, until it’s time to step into those final, killer scenes.
For you, what makes a great hero?
A: heroism is a theme I explored at length in my Fantasy novels, posing the question: if someone does something heroic, is it heroic if no-one else sees it? Is not heroism a value judgement? Does it not require a witness? An audience? Is not fiction the presentation of deeds, imagined deeds, to an invisible audience? An audience the characters cannot be aware of? Or, do people imagine an audience – invisible, godly – in every act they do, in every gesture they make? What of the godless? The non-believer? The person who must face the notion of true, absolute, solitude? Solitude in an indifferent world?
The notion of heroism obsesses me, because something about it is relentless, and so terribly human – in a sad, piteous way, and in a stunning, breathtakingly beautiful way. If it has a secret, that secret lies in the gesture made – by character, by author (perhaps), by the reader: by the fusion of all three.
In a way I cannot answer your question, because I’m still exploring the notion, and I might continue exploring it, in my fiction, until I tap out my last word. For me, however, and off the cuff, I would suggest there can be no hero, no heroic act, without the risk of failure. Which makes Superman a ridiculous hero, in my mind (and why they needed to create Green Kryptonite). And so, if one thinks of the two notions intertwined: heroism and failure, then it should become clear, eventually, that in this world or in any other, there is no shortage of heroes in the world. Which I find heartening.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
A: “That manipulative, vicious bastard.”
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
A: I read nonfiction, of all sorts, and so the ‘research’ is kind of ongoing, kind of amorphic (A word my computer doesn’t recognise, but sod it, I won’t bow to a damned machine), and potentially random.
What settings would you like to explore in the future?
A: Well, they’re all internal in the end, aren’t they? I can’t predict or even iterate the next setting I’ll stumble into.
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
A: Yes, and I use those themes to unify the story, via the language, imagery, tone and so on. That said, from what I’ve been told by other writers, my approach is kind of uncommon. Most people, writers and otherwise, have only a vague sense of theme as an integral element of narrative structure. In writing-workshops worldwide teachers and students both will often run for the hills at the mere mention of the word. Others hold it to be sacrosanct, as if to invoke the word will send the muse flying away never to return. To my mind, this is all nonsense. What is more often the case (and I see this when I teach writing), the author of a certain work is woefully unaware of whatever theme they happen to be exploring in their piece. It’s not down to ‘what’s at stake?’ either. Theme courses like blood in the veins and arteries of the work. It’s always implicit, and only erroneously made explicit. But just because it hides under the skin of the story, doesn’t mean it’s somehow sacred, or vulnerable, or even hand’s off when it comes to analysis and critique. So: theme is nothing more than some aspect of the human condition unified by a story. And good stories can hold more than one, like feeder roots reaching out from the tap-root.
A writer should be prepared to be challenged on their themes – it’s all fair game. Accordingly, it’s probably a good idea for the writer to a) be able to identify the themes their work is exploring; b) have already thought through the theme/themes and its/their implications (what exactly is it that you’re saying about humanity?); and c) be prepared to defend those positions (aesthetically and/or ethically).
I gather that most writers, if they bother, tend to identify themes after the fact – by looking back on their story; as part, perhaps, of the editing process when they’re thinking in terms of symbols, foreshadowing, and subtle tinkering here and there. Oddly enough, I do the opposite: I think about it first. Not in terms of conclusions, or bold statements, or assertions or whatever, but in terms of ‘here’s what I want to explore … wonder what I’ll find?’ Once the seeds are lodged in my brain, I begin writing, knowing that what I write will in some way feed those notions; that the language I use, the rhythm, pacing, sentence structure, settings and so on, will all in some way hover round those thematic notions.
I suspect that this may be rather atypical. Or not.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
A: Well, dialogue is like the cocaine of writing – it can fall madly in love with itself, and is never aware of the moment when it becomes the most boorish guest at the party.
I don’t really look back at my stuff for the purpose of plucking out favourite lines: sensibilities change over time, and what might have worked then (for me, creatively) might not work now. I know that dialogue from my novels and novellas get quoted by fans, and all that, but even there it’s mostly the one-liners that get trotted out.
The dialogue that I have written that I remain pleased about is generally the tersest kind. The massive understatement. The line with a hundred volumes hiding under it, pages ready to explode but all, somehow, held back, contained. Exchanges where all parties skirt around what’s really going on. Evasions and the like.
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
A: I write in cafes, four hours a day, five or six days a week. I used to write to music but I don’t anymore (not sure why that is).
How do you deal with writer’s block?
A: I have no idea since I’ve never experienced it. I had enough obstacles getting in my way getting to this point, why would I invent a new one?
How do you go about fixing a story?
A: When I teach in workshops, I begin with listing and defining the terms of narrative structure (plot, setting, dialogue, exposition, pace, atmosphere, theme, tone, diction level, psychic distance, sentence rhythm, character, foreshadowing, subtext, point-of-view, style, voice…). And I go on to advise that, when composing, all these things need to be deliberately forgotten, as bearing them all in mind when composing will tie you up in knots. Instead, use your understanding of those terms whenever something goes wrong, when in the editing stage, or when reading someone else’s work (critically).
Seat-of-the-pants, gut-instinct writing is all very well, but if something goes wrong, you don’t know how to fix it. The elements of narrative structure will help you find out what went wrong, and will guide you toward fixing it. It will also, alas, alter your reading for the rest of your life, as long-held favourite works can suddenly pall on re-read (this has happened to me all too often). Once your eyes have been opened, you can’t close them again. Fair warning.
How do you know when to stop?
A: That’s a tough one. Make use of your inbuilt shit-detector.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
A: 1: Finish what you start.
2: When a scene drags, when it gets brutally hard to get out the next line, the next word; when blood starts beading on your forehead, don’t switch scenes, don’t shift characters, don’t do any of the running-away things you might be inclined to. Push through. Everything up to that point was the lead-up to this moment, and this moment is when you learn – you learn how to write, what it is to be a writer, and all the reasons you possess for being one. That tight, claustrophobic place, is your call to courage. Don’t evade, don’t back away, don’t shift laterally. Keep going, until it hurts.
3: Finish what you start.
So, what is YOUR plan for the zombie apocalypse?
A: Up and running at the moment. What, it hasn’t happened yet? That’s what you think, mate.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
A: The last thing I wrote. When that stops being the case, I’ll quit.
What are you working on now?
A: Stuff I can’t talk about (NDA). After that, the second book of the trilogy.
I’d like to thank today’s author, Steven Erikson for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing! The next published book could be yours.
– Mark O’Bannon
About the Author
Steven Erikson is the pen-name for Steve Lundin. Born in Toronto, he now lives in either Canada or the UK, depending on where he is in the Five Year Plan that seems to alternate between the two. He is the author of the ten-volume Fantasy series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, as well as numerous novellas. His next novel, Forge of Darkness, is the first in a new trilogy, and is out in August, 2012.
Essays on Writing: www.Lifeasahuman.com