Okay, so, if you don’t know RJB here, he’s basically one of the most amazing writers out there. Years from now, when humanity has been reduced to its barest cinder after some self-made cataclysm or another, the remnants of this world will find his books and elevate them to the religion they deserve to be. He’s also one of the most batshit Twitterers (tweeters? twatters?) around. Anyway — his newest is out today, and you should read this, and then go get a copy. Or stick around and grab a free one in the giveaway below.
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Last week my wife did something that I suspect counts as a transgression to most writers: she pulled out an audiobook of a novel of mine from 2011 and put it into our home stereo system. Suddenly I was hearing words I’d written three or four years ago echoing throughout the house, and I was unable to escape them.
The book was The Company Man, and I feel like most writers have a leery relationship with anything of theirs that’s over two or three years old. Reading your own old novel is essentially like looking at a photograph as yourself when were a kid: you immediately spot all the juvenile, ridiculous affectations and gimmicks that you were stupid enough to think might work back then. Only it’s, “I can’t believe I didn’t realize that was the passive voice!” versus, “I can’t believe I thought overalls were actually cool back then!”
But I had a special animosity for The Company Man. Sure, some people like it, and yeah, it did win an Edgar Award.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I fucking hated writing that book.
Why? Well, some of it was bad timing. It was my sophomore effort, which is a tricky place to be in. When you’ve got one book going out and you’re working away on a second, it feels like everyone’s asking you, “You did it once, kid. Can you do it again? What kind of a writer are you actually going to be?” You have to prove you weren’t a fluke. You have to do the second thing better, bigger – and it can’t be the same thing you did before. Yet it feels sure to disappoint. The sophomore slump, as they call it, feels inevitable.
So I had that hanging around my neck. But the real problem was that I wasn’t really sure what I could or couldn’t do in a book.
Every choice I made in writing my second effort felt totally ridiculous. My first book had some SFF elements, but not nearly as many as I was putting into The Company Man. I’d write a chapter, sit back and read it, and think, “This isn’t going to fly. None of this is going to fly.”
Let’s go ahead and run down the list of the stuff I was doing in there:
Psychic detective. Steampunk-ish 1920’s. Alternate history that completely rewrites the history of Washington (a state I’d never visited, at the time). Apocalyptic visions. And spycraft and convoluted conspiracy stuff out the wazoo.
I’d go to bed at night and lay awake thinking, “I am writing the biggest piece of shit that has ever been put on paper. This is going to get published, and I’ll get tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail.”
So it was with an intense, unspeakable dread that I started doing laundry the other week with The Company Man in my ear…
…and to my complete and utter shock, it didn’t completely suck.
Now, I’m not saying that it was, like, fuckin’ Margaret Atwood level brilliant, but it was pretty decent stuff, I thought, especially considering a 23 year old wrote it. (Especially a 23-year-old-me, which is a dumber than normal version of a 23 year old.) The characters had interesting dialogue, and the atmosphere of the setting worked pretty well, and so on.
But here’s the thing: the stuff that worked the best, from what I heard, was the super pulpy, genre stuff that I jammed in there at the last minute, thinking all the while that I was putting the final nail in its coffin of suck. I remember thinking, “It’s too pulpy! It’s too ridiculous! It’s too unbelievable!”
But that was just what the book needed. It needed to embrace what it really was, a super pulpy genre romp. And I think I knew that, somewhere in my brain: my instincts were telling me, “Stop trying to write a realist noir story! Go full genre!” but I was doubting them and fighting them every step of the way. “I can’t do crazy genre! I’ve never done that before, and my last book wasn’t like that at all!” But in all honesty, the book could have used some more genre elements, the wackier the better.
Instincts are some of the hardest things to hone when you’re first writing. Instincts thrive on experience, on constant immersion in the conflict inherent in writing: trying to realize abstraction, to take an idea and make it solid. The best metaphor I’ve heard for instincts is that it’s like a sculptor sitting down with a block of stone, and just knowing the shape of the sculpture waiting inside, understanding that there is a thing waiting inside of this raw material, and it wants you to carve away the excess. The unrealized work has a definitive self-identity: your job is simply to take all the stuff that it isn’t and remove it, to separate chaff from wheat.
But instincts are often torpedoed by doubt, especially at the start of your career. Your instincts will propose what feels like a completely arbitrary leap – Let’s throw in some homeless prophets! – and you’ll think, “Well that obviously came out of nowhere and could never work,” while not realizing that, actually, it didn’t come from nowhere. Some subconscious part of your brain has been doing your work for you, and you ignore its advice at your peril.
I’m currently writing a sequel to my fifth book that’s coming out in September, City of Stairs. Its sequel, currently titled City of Blades, originally had a device in it that fundamentally functioned as an obstacle: the main character had to run a difficult intelligence operation in an impoverished region where a massive construction project was taking place. The overseer of this construction project was primarily going to work in opposition to the MC: in other words, both the project and this particular character would exist to make the MC’s job harder, and otherwise did very little else.
I wrote a third of the book, and stopped for a while. And I realized my instincts were telling me, “This isn’t working. No one will want to read about a character and a place whose sole purposes are to make the main character’s life harder.”
And then I realized my instincts were telling me something else: this construction project and this character could operate on a much, much broader thematic level. What was being built in this region – a massive harbor and shipping channel , bringing wealth and resources to a place that desperately needed it – had the opportunity to literally change the world, to upend global economies, to bring a better future.
So my instincts were telling me: “Why the fuck are you staging this as just a problem?! These things aren’t obstacles, they’re the promise of innovation, the opportunity of the new!”
So I went back and essentially rewrote the entire first third of the book. And I’m really glad I did, because now all the characters are much, much clearer, the plot is much more streamlined, and I’m pretty sure I just shortened the book by 10,000 words. It’s clicking along merrily now, whereas before I felt like I was just hacking away.
I’m glad I listened to my instincts, who knew all along that there was a shape waiting in the stone. All I needed to do was to stop telling the unrealized work what I thought it was and listen, because it knew what it wanted to be all along.
Win A Copy Of The Book!
Time to give away a copy of this bad-ass book.
Comment below with a fantasy book you read and loved.
We’ll pick a random commenter tomorrow morning (US only, I’m afraid) and get you a free copy of City of Stairs. It couldn’t be easier. Well. I guess it could? SHUT UP THIS IS EASY.
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Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson Award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, won a Special Citation of Excellence from the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, has topped many “Best of 2012” lists, including that of Publishers Weekly. His fourth novel, American Elsewhere, won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. His fifth, City of Stairs, is out now.
He lives in Austin with his wife and son.