Jules Verne and the Stress Volcano

I’ve got a few different things for you today.

First up – yesterday was Jules Verne’s birthday. You’ll have heard of him. Verne’s wrote in French (of course) but he is (I am told) the second most translated author after Shakespeare, so plenty of readers in English and other languages have experienced his work. There aren’t many writers who have created stories as enduring as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or Around the World in 80 Days.

Verne is sometimes (and apparently was during his life) praised for being a predictor of the future, and future science in particular. I learned yesterday, and found it very interesting, that he apparently wasn’t very comfortable with the label, protesting that he never intended to predict anything, never claimed to be a scientist, and was mostly writing about things of interest in his present, albeit using fantastic means to do so.

I guess I found that striking because SF writers continue to get called ‘prophets’ and discussed in terms of their work predicting the future of science or society, or not. Sometimes older works of SF will be criticised for failing to accurately predict how things would develop. One of my very favorite authors, William Gibson, often gets written (and spoken) about along these lines; for his books having accurately predicted technological advances or societal changes to come.

A couple years ago now I heard Gibson talk about this very issue and he said the same thing that Verne did – it’s never been his intention to predict the future. His most famous book, Neuromancer, wasn’t meant to be about the future at all; it is about the 1980s, viewed through a fantastic lens. Obviously two is a pretty small sample, but the parallel is pretty neat.

I’m not sure why we (as readers) seem to want SF to be a prediction of the future, and are sometimes disappointed when it isn’t, especially since it seems as though that’s not often the intent of the author. I guess to some extent if you write a book set in times yet to come, it isn’t a great surprise if people want to check your work, as it were – but why do we seem to start with the expectation that something fantastic should also end up being true to real life?

I know there are some writers who do (and have) deliberately tried to predict the future with their writing. I’m not really convinced that that is what most SF writers are trying to do though – I think in general they’re trying to tell a cool story. It’s of course an interesting question as to why one might choose the future as a way to express the story you’re trying to tell, but that’s a long discussion and one I’m not sure I even have an answer for.

I find I’m happiest as a reader when I just enjoy the vision an author is presenting and take the imaginary world on its own terms, rather than fact-checking it as we go along. If it’s a good story, I’m in for the duration. I think when you’ve created characters like Captain Nemo, still popular 150 years after they were created, and ideas like the balloon race around the world (even though not that much of Around the World actually takes place in the balloons), that have endured similarly you’ve done pretty darn well along those lines.

(I know much of that is my personal taste)

In any case, a happy (slightly late) birthday to Jules Verne – I hope his stories continue to delight readers for many generations more.

———-

I also learned yesterday, via Ken Liu’s Twitter, about an app that is meant to help writers’ productivity (I guess). It works like this – you punch in a length of time that you want to write for, and the app puts you into a fullscreen writing mode. If you exit before the time you set, anything you wrote is erased. If you stop writing for more than five seconds, everything you’ve written to that point is deleted.

This sounds more like a torture method than something that will help a writer to me. My immediate reaction (also on Twitter) was that it would turn my head into a stress volcano. I guess there may be a very specific type of person who would find this sort of thing useful to their process, but I’m guessing it’s a small number.

The app, by the way, costs $14.99 and that’s my main concern with it – this seems like a pretty expensive gimmick that will be marketed telling writers that it will help them work, and then probably won’t. I’ve been amazed at the amount of very expensive stuff that is advertised to people who want to write telling them that they need this app or expensive online training session or writing retreat or whatever else if they’re going to succeed in their goals, and most of it seems like chaff to me.

I guess as long as there are lots of people who want to be writers, there will be people trying to make money off that desire, just as with a million other things. I don’t really like to think of people getting scammed with things that probably won’t do much but empty their bank accounts when one of the glorious things about writing is that you can just do it. Sit down at the computer or with pen and paper and write stuff. Show it to people and ask what they think. That’s how you get better as far as I can see.

Now, making money at being a writer is (as I continue to learn) not easy, but I don’t really think a $15 app that will make your eyes explode with stress is really going to help with that either. There’s lots of good advice out there, almost all of it free, on how to market your work if that’s what you want to do.

It’s probably not entirely fair, but I feel as though as soon as someone starts asking for money, you should at least consider running very fast in the other direction.

——

Ok, so process. I’m going to talk a little about mine. If you read the blog regularly you’ll know that I’ve been working on the sequel to The King in Darkness, and may even remember some optimistic forecasts about it being done for the end of November and such. As I said last week, it isn’t exactly done.

(It’s not done)

I’m trying not to kick myself too hard about this – I think it may still be possible to have the book out by fall, if all goes well – but as much as I hesitate to give any advice (I’m not sure I know what I’m doing well enough to do that) I thought it might be helpful to talk about a particular thing that I realized had happened the other day.

Without getting into too many intricacies of a book you haven’t read yet, a while ago I was working on the thing and realized there was a pretty big yawning hole in the middle of things that I wasn’t sure how to fill. At all. So I thought about it for a while, didn’t have an answer, and so I put the work aside. Sometimes this is a good thing to do because you can come back when you do have an idea and are less discouraged.

The problem is that I kept it put aside for a good long while. I did other things – I wrote on some other projects, I cleaned the house, I went to the gym. All arguably worthwhile things, but now I hadn’t worked on the manuscript in long enough that not having worked on it was A Thing and the project had acquired a kind of inertia, sitting there unworked-upon.

All of which to say that over the last week or so I made myself start chipping away at the problem again (having been startled by January turning into February), and I now know how to fill the hole in the middle of the thing, and feel pretty optimistic about getting the book finished relatively quickly.

I’m not sure what perverse part of my brain (and perhaps, other people’s brains) makes me decide that the best way to deal with a problem that I’m not sure how to solve is to put it away and leave it unsolved. I suppose it relieves the stress of not having a solution, but it doesn’t (ever) move one towards solving the problem.

I know it works much better if I keep trying to do at least small amounts of work on something that I’m finding difficult (with writing or otherwise) than putting it aside completely. I keep trying to remind myself of that, and perhaps writing this will help imprint the concept on the sludge of my mind. Maybe it will be useful to other writers.

Keep plugging at it. Your work is good. Don’t put it away just because you’re struggling now.

The book, by the way, will be called Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I really am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Once I finish writing it.

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