I've been in a writing slump lately.
Health issues starting in November have put me out of the habit of regular writing, and I've not made much progress on the books I was working on. Auckland Allies 4 still needs a polish-up before it's ready to be published, and although I'm 20,000 words into the first book in my new Arcanists setting, it's tough going, and I'm not really feeling it. I think I've taken the wrong direction with it somewhere.
I've been questioning where my writing is going in general, in fact. I celebrated a million words of published long-form fiction last year, and just as we often reassess our lives around milestone birthdays, I feel that a milestone like that calls for some reflection.
I recently read a book on Roger Zelazny (link is to my review on Goodreads; it won't be published until May) that got me thinking. Zelazny is one of my favourite authors, and a direct inspiration for some of my own fiction, including several short stories that are among my most successful and that I'm most proud of. The book outlines how he had a brilliant, award-winning early career and was hailed (rightly) as an exciting and surprising new author with great potential, and then, once he became a full-time writer, was accused of having become "too commercial" and knocking out books with not enough development to explore his ideas to the full.
That's not how he saw it, by the way. One reason, I think, that his books are so compact is that he decided early on that he wouldn't overwrite or overexplain, that once he'd shown the reader something he wouldn't go on talking about it but would move on to the next thing. To me, that makes his books concentrated, rich despite their typically short length. He also talks, in an interview included in the book, about how each book he wrote experimented with something that he considered a weakness, but that he tried to put in enough of what he knew he did well that even if the experiment failed, the book itself should still be able to succeed.
Anyway, all of this got me thinking about what I want to achieve with my writing. I've always wanted to produce something - whether books or otherwise - that will be of lasting value. A lot of the work I do in my day job is with technology that will be replaced within a few years; it's likely, if I live a decent length of time after I retire, that none of the work I did in IT will survive me. I've come to terms with that recently, and decided that it can still be the case that things are worth doing even if they don't last and aren't remembered; they had worth at the time. (The fact that I've got into cooking, which is inherently short-term in its usefulness but is definitely useful while it lasts, has a lot to do with this shift in philosophy.) Nevertheless, I would like to write books that aren't just things of the moment, that people will still be reading after I'm gone.
Now, there are a couple of different kinds of books that are "of the moment" but don't last. One is purely commercial, what I sometimes refer to as "extruded fiction product"; produced to meet a market demand, just like thousands of other books, with nothing about it that distinguishes it or gives it longevity. The other is the kind of book that wins acclaim and awards at the time it's published, because it captures the zeitgeist so well; but because it captures the zeitgeist so well, if it doesn't have anything else going for it, it dates rapidly and falls out of fashion.
You only have to look at old bestseller lists and awards lists to encounter dozens of both types. I personally feel that a lot of books that are winning awards at the moment are of the second type. People are tremendously excited about them because they fit so absolutely perfectly into this moment's (particularly US) political landscape, but when that landscape inevitably shifts, there won't be much else to keep them in favour. It's like what I often say about books that are marketed as humourous: if the joke falls flat, you still need to be telling a good story with well-rounded characters, not just ringmastering a trope parade with a bunch of silly names. So, for example, I think Ann Leckie's work will endure, because even though it does mesh so strongly into current politics, it also tells a powerful story and tells it in excellent prose. Other books, which I'll refrain from calling out by name, will be forgotten as quickly as they became celebrated, because really the only thing they have going for them is that people see themselves in them who are not used to seeing themselves in books. And, I sincerely hope, they will go on to see themselves in plenty more books that also have a lot more than that going for them, and then they'll look back on these ones with a nostalgic pang but see, in retrospect, that they were hollow chocolate bunnies.
I'm self-published. I'm not selling a lot of books, because honestly I'm terrible at marketing and I don't enjoy it (plus what I write is in neither the current commercial mainstream nor the current critical mainstream); but that means that I can do anything I like, pretty much. I don't have a publishing house to tell me I can't, and I don't have a big, vocal fanbase demanding that I produce a specific type of book or be lambasted. That kind of freedom is dangerous - I could easily fall into self-indulgent tripe that only I like - but it's also powerful. I can experiment. I can try new things that I might fail at. If I realize that I've failed, I don't need to release it; it's not under contract, and I won't drop off the Amazon charts and lose a huge income if I don't constantly release books. I don't make my living from writing.
So I can write something I care about, something that's difficult for me, something that resonates with universals of humanity, something that is like the books I most like myself: a propulsive plot, characters with depth who are doing the right thing against the odds, some reflection to provoke thought (without preaching), a fresh and fascinating setting.
That's inherently hard to do. I know that not only because I'm a writer and know how hard different writing things are, but also because I'm a reviewer, and of the many books I see, only a few of them manage it. I think it's a goal worth reaching for, though.
What I need is to figure out exactly how to do it and then execute it.
I've done project work of various kinds for nearly 30 years; I'm used to figuring out how to do hard things and then executing them. The trick will be to find something that draws me in enough that I'll stick with it through the difficult parts, because, as already noted, I don't have to do this. Nobody's making me.
So, concretely: I'm very close to finished with Auckland Allies 4, and I feel like it's sound. I plan to polish that up and release it during the first half of this year.
Next after that could well be Auckland Allies 5, which will finish the series. I think I can keep up the momentum and do that; I have an ending in mind, and it's a heist story, which I love. The characters are already full of useful complications and have clear, distinctive voices.
After that? I don't know. I may take a different tack and tell small, intimate, psychological stories for a while. I still feel that Hope and the Patient Man is one of my best books, if not the best, even though I wrote it years ago; it's primarily a love story, with engineering and politics going on mostly in the background. Despite my love of ensemble casts, it may be time to focus on one or two protagonists striving for something they really care about.
It's time, in fact, for me to be a protagonist, striving against the odds for something I care about: writing good books that mean something.
I hope I can.