(This is the second Stumbling into Publishing post.)
If it looks like I have focus, that’s just because every hour, every minute, every second of every day, I feel lost.
I eye the world seeking sense and finding patterns in the same way a man on a sinking ship eyes the horizon desperately for sight of land.
I’d like to call it curiosity but it really is more than that; deeper and more obsessive. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned how to direct my fixations a little bit better, but I still sometimes fixate on a trivial subject and end up spending a weekend researching what is known about the Antarctic climate during the Paleocene for absolutely no reason whatsoever instead of doing whatever it is normal people do on weekends. (I wouldn’t know. Haven’t met a normal person in years except in passing. No idea what they actually do on weekends. Wouldn’t know where to start. I’m assuming there are social rituals involved as well as misdirected sexual anxiety. There always are.)
Still, I’m not as bad as I was ten years ago; one time I lost a couple of weeks fixating on the subject of dyspraxia for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
One tactic that has always worked well for me, to direct my focus and to work my way through by obsessions, is to write about them. It’s a way of processing. Sometimes that writing is non-fiction. Sometimes it isn’t. (The other thing, doncha know?) Sometimes that writing goes onto a blog somewhere. Mostly, over the past year, that writing hasn’t gone anywhere, just stayed in my Dropbox drafts folder.
I hope to make the reasons for that clear over the course of this series of blog posts and, by writing about it, process them, and learn.
The beginning is never where it starts. It’s in the instincts of most writers to begin where the story starts. Because you have a clear picture of the course of events—the progression of fact A to fact B all the way to fact Z—your instinct is to present everything to the reader so that they can see the beauty of the whole like you do.
But they won’t. They never will. They never see the beauty because they don’t care like you do. You see how glorious it is, the intricacies, and you feel in your bones how much it matters, because you care. You have to make them care. And that’s why you never begin where it starts. You begin where it gets interesting, where the emotions of the story are clear. You begin at the point when everything that is at stake can be taken in at a glance. They might not understand it all yet, but they can see it, like a grand emotional snapshot of the story’s landscape.
Only then, after you’ve drawn them in, after they have bought into the stakes—been touched by the emotions—only then can you show them how it all started.
And with that, everything unfolds in their mind. They see it like you do. They feel it like you do. They care like you do. The story has become a part of their world and they can’t breath without finding out, like you do, why it matters.
Back in 2009 before I had published my first blog post on baldurbjarnason.com—a year earlier—I began work on a plan to self-publish a series of novellas. I hadn’t decided what to publish; I just knew I would never publish any of the fiction I’d written before 2009. I decided I’d have to start from scratch with new stories and a new world. I’d have to figure out all of the details about how everything works in ebook publishing and production. I needed a lens, an angle that would let me approach, understand, and process what was going on in digital publishing. The project did that.
A project’s failure is found in its genesis. If it can’t be traced to a fundamental part of the project’s initial design then you can still find hints of it mixed in with the scattered and random jottings and outline that served as the first vestiges of a plan—like a haunting vision serving to onlookers and in your hindsight as foreshadowing.
All of my projects fail. Not necessarily because they are bad. Nor do they always fail to meet what I and others expect of them. Actually, they usually meet expectations.
(Have I told you that I have a reputation for pessimism?)
They fail because at the end of it, I know better. I can see all the incorrect turns, all the mistakes, all of the things that were simply wrong, even though I can’t articulate exactly why. They just are. I’ve found the patterns I’m looking for and they are irregular, broken, uneven, and so utterly human. All I can do after that is accept failure and aim to do better.
Hence this series of blog posts. They’ll be sporadic—mixed in with posts on other subjects—and it’ll probably be a long while before I feel done with the issue. I plan to go over what I learned over the last four years writing and preparing a series of novellas, self-publishing them, the mistakes I made, the emotional roadblocks I hit, the wrong turns that caused me to burn out on posting things on the web, the gaps that put me in a holding pattern, and the realisations that finally brought the sight of land on the horizon into focus.