I am asked sometimes how I do it.
Write books, they mean. Or finish books. Or finish a trilogy, or jump from Miriam Black to Star Wars, or switch from novels to comics and back again.
And obviously the mechanical answer to that is, you sit and you fucking do it. You say, I’m going to fucking do this thing, and then that’s the thing you try very hard to do. As I said on Twitter today, the ditch ain’t dug till you dig the damn ditch. Beyond that, I can offer a bevy of other answers, many personal to the author and not entirely applicable to every other author, and those answers deal with how you prepare the work, how you outline, how you treat characters and embrace process and whether or not you listen to music while you write or whether or not you get gin-drunk and punch a bear before you write. Or, or, or. Everybody’s different. Everybody’s got their way up, down, or through the mountain. Writers aren’t precious snowflakes until they are.
But there’s a deeper truth going on that I find vital. And it’s this:
You’re always thisgoddamnclose to failing.
Now, the nice way to put it would be: writing means taking risks. Risks are — *bites lip, narrows eyes, smolders generally* — sexy. Nngh. Yeah. Take a risk with me, baby. Drive fast. Live loose. Eat raw cookie dough naked in the saddle of a galloping velociraptor. Boom. Risks. Yes.
But I don’t necessarily want this to be sexy.
I want you to understand, some of the best — and, likely, some of the worst — fiction was written by tap-dancing right on that line separating success and failure. Or, moreover, tap-dancing across the ombre gradient that shows the swiftly sliding scale that carries a work from mediocre to good to amazing to oh fuck it’s shit now, it’s all shit, it tried to jump across the widening chasm and it fell down into the fissure and was promptly eaten by cave lizards.
Let’s talk a little about cooking.
What? I know, shut up, just — just follow the bouncing ball.
You grill a steak, what happens? You apply intense heat very quickly — you want it just right, just perfect. You want it juicy and pink on the inside, tender as anything, but on the exterior you want some color, maybe a little char. Not crispy, but done right on the outside, while almost not at all on the inside. Tender, but not mushy. Thing is, that moment of perfection is about as long as an avocado’s window of ripeness — it’s like, a minute, maybe less. You cook that steak one minute too long, and you’ve lost it. You don’t cook it enough, and you never get to where you want it. (And by the way, if you’re one of those people who wants a steak well-done, just go and eat a shoe. A burned shoe. Do not waste your money on a good steak by charring it to the consistency of an asbestos roof shingle. You monster.) A perfect steak is a golden moment. Go beyond that moment, and its deliciousness swiftly dwindles toward utter disappointment.
Or, you’re making a soup, a stew, a chili, whatever. You add spices and salt and different flavor components — you give it a taste, okay, needs more, you taste again, needs more, still not right, so you try something. You add an unusual spice, or a little vinegar, or a mystic bezoar taken from the bile duct of a young chupacabra. It’s a risk. You can’t add it without potentially ruining it, but without it — ennngh, it just isn’t right. So, you march up to that line, you stare down into the bubbling broth, and you add the ingredient. You hope you didn’t just fuck it all up. Maybe you did. Or maybe you just elevated it to something sublime.
I’m not saying anything particularly new here. The cliche, true enough as many cliches are, is no risk, no reward. Just the same, what often marks some of the greatest fiction — or, put differently, some of your favorite fiction — is a willingness on the part of the creator to take those risks, to march into the gloom of uncertainty into a place where every step might lead to a sucking mire or a starveling beastie. Some of the best work is done when it’s done by an author who knows what they’re about to do is not precisely advisable, or entirely safe, and yet they say, fuck it, fuck this, fuck that shit, I’m doing it anyway, motherfuckers. They broke a rule. They took a thing long past its expected arc. They blew up a trope or juked right when everyone else would’ve gone left. They tried something new, and it either pays off or it fails spectacularly. And honestly I’d rather read something that fails spectacularly than something that just kind of… putters along in the manner of an elderly dachshund.
March right up to it. Always write as if you’re about to fall on your face. Add fire. Bring the char. Toss in a weird ingredient. I wrote several meh books before I finally hit with Blackbirds — and when I hit with Blackbirds, it was because I had lost the capacity to care about fucking up. I felt I had already tried everything safe, everything expected. I’d already walked all the paths and followed every map and I still wasn’t writing anything of substance, so I chugged some whiskey, bit a belt, and went hard into that story because I felt like I had nothing to lose. I no longer cared if I failed. That allowed me to no longer be hesitant, to dismiss the fear of failure because I certainly wasn’t succeeding — hard-charging into that unseen fog was liberating, and it produced not only a successful book, but one whose series continues today. Using present tense inside Star Wars was controversial, in part because tie-in-fiction tends to not go that way. Some hated that choice, some loved it, and that’s where I’d rather be. I’d rather be in a place where some people love the book and some people despise it instead of everyone saying, “It was fine, sure, it was a book, and I read it, and now I forget it.”
Just as the stakes for your characters should be raised and complicated, twisted and transformed, so should you view your own stakes as storyteller.
Write unafraid. Do not be tempted by the comfort of mediocrity. Yeah, you’re going to fuck it up sometimes. (Though mind that unlike with a steak or with a stew, the book can be revised and rewritten.) Yes, your efforts to do something that is uniquely you and totally untested will sometimes lead to a narrative car crash. That is as it should be. I’d rather you drive me, the reader, at top speed into a wall then slowly sputter down a quiet street at 25MPH.
Your best authorial self is always one about to ruin the story.
That sounds bad, but I don’t think that it is.
Take the risks.
Get ready to mess it all up.
Leap toward foolishness the way a stunt pilot plunges the plane toward the ground.
Always be leaning toward failure. Get ready to fall. Tell stories that are bold and strange. Make moves that feel dangerous and uncertain. Confidently assert your own chaos as you discard fucks over your shoulder like a cruel child plucking the legs from a captive centipede.
I want you to go for it.
Whatever it is you’re afraid of, go for it.
Whatever fears you have, step over them.
Whatever twists you can take, take them.
Sometimes this thing we do, it’s an act of closing your eyes and falling backward and hoping that the story reaches out with the hands of the audience and it catches you. And sometimes, that won’t happen. Sometimes you’ll crack your head like an egg on the pavement. But fuck it, fall anyway. Trust yourself. Enjoy the plunge.