Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#19: Brontosaurus Bones.

by Seanan McGuire

I realize that the title isn't entirely helpful, which is why we always have an expanded topic for discussion. (My personal shorthand for a lot of things is very, very strange. This is only one of those things.) Here's today's expanded, hopefully less-confusing topic:

Talk about writing exactly as much as you, personally, need to talk about writing. I suggest finding tolerant friends. When I talk about writing, I'm like a velociraptor gnawing on a brontosaurus bone -- it's going to take me a while to get my head all the way around things, and there's a whole lot to swallow. If I tried to work everything out in the privacy of my own head, I would explode, and nothing would ever get done. You may be on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is no wrong answer.

So that's where the dinosaurs come into things. (Also, yes, I'm aware that the paleontologists of the world have decided that there was never such a thing as the brontosaurus. Since I'm not actually a velociraptor, I really don't care.) This week, we're talking about talking about writing. A lot of people have said a lot of things about talking about writing, and now I'm going to say several more.

Ready? Excellent. Let's get started.

Do we really need to discuss this?


If you ask three writers 'how much do you talk about writing?', you're going to get three very different answers. Some authors refuse to even discuss the concepts that they're working on, fearing that exposure to the world will kill their delicate ideas. Other authors will cheerfully say 'oh, my next essay is about bronto bones,' but won't give details or allow first drafts to be viewed by any eyes but their own. Other authors will take your interest as permission to start talking about work, until you need to gnaw off your own leg to get away. None of these authors are wrong. All of them are talking about writing exactly as much as they, personally, need to talk about writing. Two of the three regard the third as completely insane. See how I didn't say which two? That's because any set of two authors, taken from that set of three, will view the third as nuts.

"He doesn't talk about his ideas at all?" scoffs the second writer, in regards to the first. "How does he know it's worth finishing?" cries the third, in regards to the second. The first, meanwhile, is viewing the second and third as unhinged chatterboxes, bludgeoning their work to death with words. And again, because it bears repeating: none of these authors are wrong.

Our three authors are extreme examples of types that genuinely exist. There are endless strata of variation amidst those three types, but the basic characteristics are common and easily determined. When you have a new project, do you:

A. Tell people you're going home to mess around?
B. Tell people 'oh, I have this neat new project, but it's not ready for prime-time' and leave them wanting more?
C. Need to be removed from your unfortunate conversational partner with a crowbar?

Odds are good that none of those answers is exactly what you'd say, but one of them seems less comic than the other two. That's fine! That's normal. I'm a type three author -- I want to talk about my projects, possibly more than I should, to the point that I have to watch myself carefully for spoilers. On a deep, instinctual level, I don't understand authors who don't want to talk about their writing; type one and two authors are very strange to me. When I run into people who work 'normal' jobs, they always want to talk about work, so why shouldn't I? Hey, we do the same job, why shouldn't we talk about work together? Where's the logic in keeping quiet?

Unfortunately, for some people, my approach is just as perplexing as their approaches are to me. And that's why this needs to be discussed at all.

So let's talk about writing.

Yes: let's talk about writing. Unless you're doing a project as a sort of parlor trick or publicity stunt -- both of which can be genuinely awesome things, as witness the success of the blog-a-thons, and the even more amazing success of the grandmaster of us all, Harlan Ellison, who wrote awesome short stories while sitting in a store window -- writing is essentially a private thing. I've heard it compared to both masturbation and going quietly insane for carefully controlled periods of time, and I can't argue either of those definitions. For me, the act of writing is intensely private, although, paradoxically, I can do it in very public places; when I'm actually putting words on paper, I don't want to talk to you, my agent, or anybody. I don't even want to talk to James Gunn when I'm actually writing.

Some people carry this privacy a little further, and treat discussion of the act of writing as being akin to discussion of blowing your nose. We all do it, we're all going to keep doing it, but no one really wants to hear about it. Unless you're Spider Jerusalem, nobody's going to be amused when you announce that your most recent bowel movement was so large that you had to kill it with a chair. All of which combines to mean that, of course, nobody's going to be amused when you announce that you just finished six pages of alphanumeric characters arranged in a hopefully pleasing manner.

(I have to say that for all that I adore talking about writing, I probably wouldn't find that statement terribly interesting. Unless it was delivered with genuine sincerity, in which case I would probably assume the speaker was a robot. Robots are always interesting.)

I will say that I find these people to be both right and wrong. There are folks who genuinely don't want to hear that writing has to happen. They want to believe that authors wave their hands over piles of paper, chant the magic words, and wind up with a finished draft of something amazing. These people fascinate me, in that whole 'wait, what?' sort of a way, and there's no way to interest them in discussion of the nuts and bolts of the craft. Just as I don't want to know exactly how the bus was put together, they don't want to know how your book was put together. That's fine. You can't make them care, so when you encounter them, let the subject drop and find something else to talk about.

There will also be people who really, really want to know how the process works from end to end. We're not even talking about story here: we're talking about the raw mechanics of the writing process. How do you structure your paragraphs? Really? That works for you? Do you ever start sentences with 'and,' even though your high school English teacher threatened to take you behind the woodshed if you didn't stop? What do you think of footnotes? Have you ever used the word 'concatenate' in a sentence? And so on. These people are awesome. A lot of them are working on books of their own, and really don't want to hear about your story. They have stories in their heads already. They just want to know how you're planning to tell the story. I challenge writers of all types to cultivate these people when they meet them. Even if you can't stand to discuss a story while you're still getting it down on paper, almost all of us can benefit from some serious discussion of craftsmanship.

It's talking about story that gets tricky.

What do you mean?

Every project has a story. For the purposes of this essay, we're calling your topic the story -- so even this has a story, the story of talking about stories. We're very recursive around here sometimes.

There are people who feel that talking about the story before it's fully-formed in your mind will cause other people's opinions and desires to change it, shaping it into something that isn't fully yours. Others feel that talking about the story before it's completely locked-down on paper will have the same result. Still others -- of which I admit, I am one -- find that the story requires discussion, requires people outside the author's limited frame of reference to ask questions and force the answers to arise. It all depends on how your specific brain works. This isn't something that can be taught, controlled, or changed. It just is.

There will always be people who want to tell you there's some 'right' amount of talking about a story, some 'right' degree of discussion. They are wrong. Your agent has the right to ask for an outline if you feel something is right for sale. If you're not comfortable with that, don't start trying to sell something until it's completely done and locked down. Your early readers have the right to ask questions about whatever draft you've handed them, and you have the right to tell them you're not comfortable with that discussion. 'I really don't feel comfortable discussing it yet' is a perfectly okay thing to say. So is 'oh, good, let me explain this plot twist in chapter three that's giving me trouble.' People who ask me about my projects have an unfortunate tendency to get a three-hour discussion of zombie virology or cryptid ecology dropped on their heads. Most people learn not to ask me unless they really want to know.

If you're wired to talk about writing, you're going to want to talk about writing. Find people you can trust to be the right kind of listeners, and talk to them. I have a list of tolerant friends who are willing to talk about writing and the story with me, and I treat them like the wonders they are, because dude, having me on your phone for two hours wailing about character motivations is really not pretty. Your people may be a writer's group, or a private online forum, or the person you have coffee with every Tuesday. It's all up to you, your needs, and your available resources.

The brontosaurus bone is yours. You can gnaw it until you get your head all the way around it, you can bury it in a pit and see what happens, or you can call all the other predators to come and help you. It's your decision, and nobody -- not me, not a helpful friend, not a creative writing teacher -- gets to tell you what you do with that bone.

Choose what's best for you.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.

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