In this post:
- Lots of updates to the site.
This one goes out to all the obsessives out there.
I am informed that your muse is a thing you can talk to, like a person. Anecdotally I’ve found this can sometimes yield results. However writers engaging in this practice often live alone because ceaseless mutterings from behind a locked door do not belong in a share house in Fitzroy, they belong in a John Carpenter film.
“I know there’s something you want to say, but I can’t make it happen if you don’t tell me” is how one person put it, and right away I thought it sounded like an abusive relationship. But the technique does work. Or, rather, it can work. However if you accept that the muse can be reasoned with, coaxed, soothed, wooed, conversed with… then you’re pretty much accepting that it’s a person. Or at least a personality. And that means you’ve got a relationship with it. And that means it can all go horribly wrong.
Which brings me to Fateless.
If you know me personally you’re probably having some sort of reaction.
Fateless is a book that started life in 1993 as notes for a novel entitled John. I’d rented Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch on luminous VHS and it set off a chain of unrelated ideas that I quickly noted down. That was the start of an 18-year relationship with a novel that would later be called The Needing Kind, until in 2001 it settled on calling itself Fateless. It would be written, by me, from start to finish, no less than three consecutive times over that 18-year period. That included a few years where I didn’t look at it, but between 2003 and 2010 it was always there.
When a person has cancer they’re basically pregnant with it. Their energy, their cells, go toward creating this thing that, if not caught early enough, will be their undoing. That was Fateless. With cancer it’s often something pleasant that kicks it off, like sunshine or smoking. With Fateless it was the fact that it was a very good story.
What triggered metastasis was that I lacked the craft to write it.
Almost immediately I had decided this was the novel I needed to become an author in order to see published. If I achieved that and subsequently, some bright Spring morning, was hit by a bus… that’d be okay. I would die happy.
Basically I became a host organism.
The evolving complexity of the novel kept pace, horrifyingly, with my advances as a writer – perpetually one length ahead, always out of reach. Giggling, prancing, and probably voiced by Andy Serkis. That’s how I wound up writing it three times, determined to do the whole thing justice, determined to get it right.
If we were talking about an abusive relationship between two human beings that line, right there, is the equivalent of But I still love her.
Over the course of living with the novel I did manage to get Nicholas and the Chronoporter published with Penguin and The Music of Razors saw print in Australia and the US. Fateless was intended to be the follow-up to The Music of Razors. Instead it became the thing that almost single-handedly destroyed any desire I had to write at all, ever again.
Three things you’ll discover if you nurture something way past its time are these: 1). that your creative well becomes so dry it actually hurts like cracked, inflamed skin, 2). that you’re certain you’ll never have an original idea again, and 3). that Sunk Cost Fallacy is a real thing and you’ve suddenly become the poster child for it.
Any bad relationship worth the name will condition you by stealth to accept the most absurd things as reasonable. By any standard, then, Fateless was riding me like a pony.
The closer I got to finishing it the more entrenched the stasis became, in almost the same way that eternally halving the distance between you and your destination means you’ll never, ever, quite make it.
Work on something long enough and you’ll never again see the forest for all of those upright brown and green things between you and it. For eighteen months I was working on a book that was essentially complete, but short of reading it from start to finish every week (and, before long, despite it) I had no objective topographical grasp of how it read, what details needed reinforcing, what needed foreshadowing, what foreshadowing no longer went anywhere, what subplots were required, what subplots needed removing, what characters had faded, who needed more page time, how it flowed, where it sagged, what themes were clear and what weren’t. I’d hit a point of autocannibalism where the crucial objectivity and feedback of others only built a hungrier autocannibal. Fateless worked in pieces but not as a whole, and the five years sunk into that third version only meant I’d never see it for what it was, which left me stunningly unqualified to finish it.
Most people who attempt to write a novel will never get to that point. I’m not sure one-percent would be in danger of it. I think I fell into that (if I may be purple for a moment) Sisyphean purgatory out of laziness, a reluctance to surrender the investment, and largely by being a gormless noob intimidated by the idea of an extremely American agent waiting for the thing… and then having to admit that I was abandoning the 99.999-recurring-percent complete book he was waiting for and starting something new.
But there is an upside. Fateless contains some of my best work. Just as it cannibalised me for a few years I’m now returning the favour by using it for parts. One character and setpiece have already found a better home in Falling. There’ll be places for the rest.
Since writing Fateless a few films have laid claim to similar ideas. In the late Nineties I finished the novel for the second time and, that afternoon, took myself to the flicks as a reward. I went to a showing of The Matrix. I lasted five minutes before screaming “Fuuuck!” in a packed theatre.
When I was in Helsinki last July I saw the trailer for The Adjustment Bureau, and in that minute-long clip I saw a few things that I’d used in the novel. Dmetri saw the same clip last week and texted to say the same thing, so it’s not just me. The manuscript has been read by a few writers and editors. Some understood the abandonment, a few fought me on it. Had to be done, though.
I have to say that I remain enormously grateful to everyone who read Fateless and offered feedback, and I look forward to returning the favour in spades.
There’s an outside chance I may pick it up again, at some point, for a total reboot and one last dance but I’m no longer convinced it’ll blow minds the way I’d hoped it would when we first met at the tender age of 21. I think people are becoming familiar with clever and lateral existential contrivances in speculative fiction… although there is at least one element to Fateless that I haven’t seen elsewhere. At least, not yet. And at the end of the day it’s still a ripping good story purely on its own merits; devices and themes and everything else be damned. The first two acts rock, the third could still really work and the device that underpins the entire story has never been used as far as I know…
God, I believed in it.
Even if it was never going to work letting go was the hardest thing. But I did, and I got a novel done from start to finish in six months. I can breathe again.
Life goes on.
But I still love her.
Updates to the site:
A bunch of pages and content have been added:
- An ‘Articles’ page with three published pieces. 3.3 Seconds was written in the year 2000 by a younger, drunker me late one night on the subject of an absent friend. On Heroes does what it says on the can, written as an afterword to Christian Read’s graphic novel The Witch King. Postcard from Leipzig is all about one day and night in that city, during the Wave Gotik Treffen festival.
- The ‘Logo’ page has a little info on the Coyote Crest you’ve seen at the foot of each blog post. It was drawn by Trudy Cooper. You should really check out Platinum Grit and Oglaf if you don’t already. You’ll find links to them under ‘Comics’ in the sidebar.
- ‘Photos’ – small photo albums. Travel and promo stuff mainly.
- ‘Press’ contains links to interviews.
- ‘Store’ – right now it’s a good place to get a copy of The Music of Razors, but I plan to expand it to include the rest of my catalogue, as well as a few other things, in the near future.
- ‘The Music of Razors – Free Chapters’ contains the first two chapters of the novel, readable online. There’s a link to a page containing some of the good word the book’s received. In the near future I’ll be putting up a sampler from Nicholas and the Chronoporter, and possibly Falling. I may post a chapter or two from Fateless for the hell of it.
- Added a Tip Jar if you felt like kicking a few bucks our way. All funds go toward getting me off this island regularly enough that I can put in appearances at cons and the like Stateside.
In closing I’ll leave you with this: it’s a music video from Michael Hutchence’s side project Max Q, circa 1989. One album, a couple of great songs but the CD is almost impossible to find nowadays. A friend described them as a cyberpunk kind of band, and I agree: they were cyberpunk in a way that’s not really communicable to anyone who doesn’t remember what that word meant and how it felt at the end of the Eighties. I love this track, it still chokes me up a little, and it’s still relevant.