Writing Novels One Novel at a Time

Elizabeth Bear expounds on the oft-quoted idea (most frequently attributed to Gene Wolfe) that when you write a novel, you’re not learning to write novels, you’re learning to write that novel. As she’s on her 15th novel at the moment, you can imagine she has some thoughts on the matter.

I think whether writing a novel gets easier or harder as you go along depends on what you’re trying to do as a writer. I think if you’re content to bang out books that are fundamentally indistinguishable from one another — which, in itself, is not a bad thing, especially if your initial standard of competence is high — what you take from writing one novel will get applied easily to others. If you try to do substantially different things each time out, what you’ve learned in earlier work might not translate over. I think most authors — including me — inhabit a space between those two extremes when they do from one book to the next; you want to do things you know (and that you know you do well), but you want to use some of the credit you’ve been extended from earlier work to fiddle with the forms.

In my particular case, thanks to writing four other novels, I don’t actually doubt that I can write novels. But with each of the novels I’ve done so far, I’ve attempted something new to me. With Agent to the Stars, I was trying to see if I could write a novel. With Old Man’s War, I wanted to see if I could write a novel I could sell. With The Android’s Dream, I wanted to see if I could write in 3rd person. With The Ghost Brigades, I was looking to see if I could create a continuation of a universe without it being a direct sequel. Now with The Last Colony I’m wrestling the mechanics of putting a bow on an entire created universe. And a little further out, the Secret Book Project Which I Don’t Talk About will, in fact, present what I expect is my most daunting writing challenge yet.

Each of the novels I’ve written has created a foundation of story and writing skills that I used for the next novel, and has also allowed me to do a bit of stretching, and to try something new (or, at least, new to me as a writer). To put it in video game terms, I’m constantly in the process of leveling up the skills. I’m pretty sure there will come a time in which not every novel I write will present a new and major skills challenge, but in the short term, at least, I don’t see this happening. I’ll hopefully be expanding my writing toolbox for a long time.

At the same time, however, I don’t necessarily see me taking a huge leap away from what I know I know how to do to attempt something wholly unconventional, or entirely new to me. There are reasons for this. One is that I like using the writing skills I have; I think they lend themselves to telling interesting and accessible stories, which is nice because those are the kinds of stories I like myself. Another is that I like to sell books, which is to say that I like writing stories I think people are going to like to read, and I’m not averse to throttling back a bit so that I don’t lose the audience who has come around to hear a tale.

This last bit can irritate the folks who like to posit the whole “are you an artist or are you an entertainer” false dichotomy debate, but you know, screw them. There’s nothing wrong with taking your readers into deeper water one step at a time. The Beatles didn’t go directly from Please Please Me to the White Album, and if they had, we’d remember them, if we remembered them at all, as that funny band from the 60s who blew their second album and now all work at various cheese shops around Liverpool.

(Please don’t read this to suggest I am as good a novelist as Lennon/McCartney were songwriters. It’s just an example of a larger point.)

Also, of course, the other practical reason not to go nuts as a novelist is that sailing out into uncharted waters makes your publishers nervous; they don’t want you to screw with a good thing. If you’re lucky you get a publisher who encourages to continue to expand your repetoire of writing skills but also reminds you to dance with those what brung you, i.e., they’re paying attention to your needs as a writer and also your needs as someone who wants to pay your bills with writing income. To date, Tor has been really good with this (you’ll see just how good with this they’ve been when the Secret Project hits the shelves), and that’s allowed me to feel pretty secure in continuing to grow as a novelist at the right pace for me. I think it also helps that we’re both aiming toward the same thing in this regard.

In the end I think the optimal novel-writing experience is the one in which you feel the novel you have just written was written as well as you could write it, you’ve gained a new skill for future novels, and you have a desire to attempt something with your next novel that may be just ever-so-slightly beyond what you’ve tried before. That’s generally the experience I’ve had so far, and hope to keep having.