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Friday, August 3, 2012

Steven Brust: Literary Role Model

Two books worth reading.  And rereading.

The more I search the Internet, the more I find young authors who are eschewing traditional publishers.  Perhaps they’ve grown tired of accumulating rejection letters. Perhaps they like the idea of owning the entire publication process.  Their efforts are fueled by youthful energy, and dreams of building their own literary empires.  A common promise is that their novels are revolutionary and groundbreaking. 

Recently, it’s struck me how, in some ways, I chose inappropriate literary role models early in my career.  At first, I bought any books on writing I found in the bookstore, and subscribed to “Writers Digest” magazine.  But I didn’t take any of my favorite novels off the shelf and study how the authors had constructed their narratives.  Nor did I study the market to understand what publishers were currently offering.  Sure, I bought books from the authors whose work I had enjoyed in the past, but that’s different from perusing the bookstores, taking notes on popular authors, assessing trends, and learning which publishers were buying what kind of stories. 

I simply assumed that the story I was burning to write would find a home somewhere.  And of course, my novel would not only be revolutionary and groundbreaking, but most assuredly a bestseller.

Only after I finally finished my first effort, a sprawling Space Opera, did I study the market.  Doing so helped me realize that the approach I had taken, and the segment of the market I intended to revolutionize, had moved on from the kind of novels I fell in love with in my youth.  Had I done this homework earlier, I might not have lavished so much time and effort on my first novel.  Eventually, I decided it would take more work to salvage that novel than to write another the correct way.  As unbridled optimism had failed me, I opted for what seemed the smartest course, and studied the recent Hugo and Nebula award winning novels.  I now view that as my second mistake. 

While I discovered great authors such as Dan Simmons and Kim Stanley Robinson, it didn’t occur to me that they had honed and refined their skills over time.  As an aspiring author, with one failed attempt behind me, I was hardly ready to aim that high.  So, for my next novel, I did tons of research.  I constructed elaborate charts on my characters, worlds, and plots.  Yet, despite all the preparation, I grew overwhelmed with the enormity of the task I had laid out for myself.  And so, at a certain point, I abandoned that project.  “I’m not ready to write this novel,” I reasoned.  “I’ll start another, a simpler one, one I’m capable of finishing.  Then I’ll come back to this one and finish it.”  But I didn’t alter this new methodology, or lower my sites.

Consequently, my office is full of research notes and abandoned novels.

Last year, I lowered my sites.  I decided to abandon all the elaborate preparation work that some authors utilize, but seems to overwhelm me.  And I decided to model my efforts on those of Steven Brust.  His Vlad Taltos novels resonate with me, and are a curious fusion of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He labors carefully over his prose, injecting each sentence with style and wit.  This not only makes reading his books easy and enjoyable, but also helps them resonate with me emotionally. He doesn’t set unachievable targets in regards to bettering himself, such as my foolish attempts to master Hard Science issues that require a solid grounding in Physics to even begin to understand.  Nor does he push himself beyond his limits in the unending, unreasoning desire to produce more, more, more.  Instead, he takes his time: he writes a page or two a day, and invests all his energies in the flow of words, sentences, and yes, most importantly, his characters.  

Steven Brust pours all the vagaries of humanity into his characters, which helps me identify with them.  Especially Vlad.  It never ceases to amaze me how much I identify with Vlad Taltos, given that I don’t usually get on with antiheroes.  And while he evolves on his journey through life, during those early years, and in those early novels, Vlad is very much that, the most difficult kind of character to write well: the antihero. 

Reading his work, and trying to adopt a similar mindset, has helped me become more prolific.  I’ve grown more comfortable with my capabilities.  I no longer aim to win awards, write groundbreaking, blockbuster novels, or revolutionize the field.  While such dreams were understandable, given the enthusiasm of youth, I’ve sought to uncouple them from my literary efforts.  In the process, I’ve rediscovered the simple pleasures of writing, which, somewhere along the way, I had forgotten. 

I’m so glad I discovered Steven Brust, and decided to model my writing on his.  I may never achieve his level of greatness, but of all the authors I’ve studied, his approach seems…wise.

It goes without saying that if you’ve not yet found a published author to model yourself on, I can make a suggestion.

At peace with my capabilities,
Dragon Dave

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