Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hild: risk and reward

From: Anonymous
Actually, this has nothing to do with chive flowers or diet. I am curious how you had the guts/courage/ intestinal fortitude or whatever to basically spend years working on a book like Hild on spec, rather than having a pre-existing contract. That is against the modern grain. I imagine you could say you felt that confident about it and your skill, but could theoretically have had the much confidence back when you started it as well. It seems gutsy, which says a lot about you probably.
It didn't feel gutsy, just necessary.

Hild is the kind of novel that comes along once in a lifetime. It would have killed me to fuck it up.

To give myself a better chance of succeeding, I wanted to encyst the experience to the greatest possible degree, keep it private. I didn't want to have to justify some of my story choices (which, in places, are extreme) before I wrote them; it's much better to be able to show why they're the right choices than to explain laboriously. More importantly, I didn't want to make those choices--which one must in order to sketch out a plot, which in turn one needs to write an outline--until I was there with Hild, living and breathing and understanding every implication of the moment. And I couldn't do that until I'd written everything that goes before that moment--and all the other moments.

My best writing always comes from the process of discovery, the adventure through the unknown, the pure experience. It's my vice as a writer: I'm in love with Finding Out. I do need to know the final scene before I sit down, but then begin and simply head towards then ending and see what happens--and why and how.

Usually, I write the first fifteen or twenty thousand words, stop, read, and reach an understanding of how the novel will develop. Then I write the outline, bank the cheque, and settle in to write.

Hild is different. I knew I would have to invent so many things: the history, the relationships, the narrative techniques. I knew the actual work would be ten times better than any description of it could possibly be. No advance I'd be likely to get would match the final product. So I talked to Kelley, we counted our money, set up Sterling Editing, and said: Fuck it.

Financially, then, yes, it was a risk. Artistically, not so much.

That is, artistically the whole thing was such an enormous gamble that I couldn't even think about it in those terms; I just had to trust my expertise--and trust my hunger, my raw need to recreate this world and populate it with these people.

I can tell half a hundred stories about what, exactly, I was hoping for. They'd all be true. They'd also be less than true. For example, I've said often that before I began I wondered if this book was even possible. On the deepest level, that's rubbish. Deep down, I had no doubt before I even typed the open sentence that that I could create something extraordinary (part of my writing stance is psychotic self-belief). What I wondered was how I was going to do it. I had no clue.

This is not a think-your-way-through-it kind of problem. It requires faith--or madness, or bravado, or all of the above. So on the day I began, I laughed, thought, again, Fuck it! (and Watch this!) and leapt into the void. And the words I needed purled forth: flowing, vinous sentences that spanned with ease that gap between knowing and doing and pulled me to Hild and Hild to me: Hild and her time, her place, her people.

But with every novel I've written, between the first paragraph of the first draft and the final scene of the final rewrite, I have at least two crises of confidence. With Hild I've had several. Each time I simply fell back on my psychotic self-belief, my will: You're a writer. Just do it. And so I did.

As I've said before--as so many people have said, including Toni Morrison--If there's a book you want to read that doesn't exist, write it.

On some level it's that simple.



  1. I live on psychotic self-belief. Too much of what I come across that speaks of writing, specifically in terms of what is likely to get published and what isn't, so much of it is absolutely discouraging. Often making me think and feel like I will only have ended up wasting my time.

    If not for psychotic self-belief, I would have given up years ago when I first began seriously put in the effort of building a body of work.

    I'd still write, it's what I do what I HAVE to do, but it wouldn't have the same vibrance. It's the difference between peddling a bicycle down the sidewalk and cornering a motorcycle on the street.

    Psychotic self-belief keeps me going like nothing else can.

    1. Psychotic self-belief (PSB) is like air: writers can't live without it. But it's a tricky balance. When it's time to show the work to someone else, PSB has to defer to Listening Openly to Criticism (LOC). But you can't afford to go to LOC until the work is sturdy enough. And PSB must lurk--always--in the background.

      As I say, tricky, tricky balance...

    2. I've never really had a problem with Listening Openly to Criticism, in fact I love it.

      Back in 2009, I did one of the excercises you and Kelly had up at Sterling Editing. It was this one:


      Mine is 10 comments down.

      The exchange I had with Dianne Cameron and Kelly was a realy joy. Kelly's final correction on the story (31 comments down) was spot on and I really enjoyed the whole thing.

      So LOC, never a problem. I can easily set aside my ego because I think of it as a way to help me grow and get better. What you and Kelly do at Sterling Editing is great. Good constructive criticism is worth more than gold to me.

      . . . and I say that as someone who is regularly broke!

    3. Well, cool! It's good to know that what we put out there for free helps writers.

      Right now, time constraints make it difficult to do more on Sterling Editing than the weekly links roundup. But if things change, we'll get back to creating more craft posts.

    4. It is an incredible help. As a matter of fact, this post you wrote has been by far the most helpful thing I've ever read on dialogue:


      I've taken what I learned from that and apply it to everything I've written since. Said-bookisms and no one ever says anything in a way that ends with "ly" in any of my work.

      I adhere very strictly to "said" or (under only the most extreme and VERY RARE cases) "shouted" and "cried".

      I can't thank you or Kelly enough for what the both of you do at Sterling Editing. Much of it, and the hard work I did because of it, has made me a better writer. Thank you both.

  2. I was about to pout that writing comes way too easily to you, but then you pointed out your crises. So, thank goodness you are human! I sometimes think all I have is Psychotic Self-Delusion.

    1. The beauty of writing is that no matter how good one is, the work always demands more.

  3. "It's my vice as a writer: I'm in love with Finding Out."

    A while back you posted a question asking us to give you examples of the best sentences we had found in our readings, you may have moved into first place just above J. Kerouac' "Let them pick the story out of the house of your words, floor by floor, room by room." with the above.

    1. Hey, I'm glad you like it. The realisation just hit me as I was writing the post.

  4. I just finished a dance workshop with master teacher Skippy Blair. At one point during an evaluation she stopped my partner and I and asked "Richard, what are you doing?" Puzzled I could but reply, "Well, dancing." If I had had your post then I could have told her, "As a dancer, like you as a writer, I'm addicted to the finding out."