Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

The Thief and the Soloist: A Very Brief Taxonomy of Writers

This started out as a bullet point from yesterday’s post about how the new book was coming. But then I got too interested in it, and it broke free and took on a hideous life of its own.

As far as I can tell there are two kinds of fiction writers: those who read no fiction while they write, and those who constantly read fiction while they write. Let’s have cute names for them. We’ll call them Soloists and Thieves.

I’m the second kind. I can’t function as a writer unless I’m reading somebody else — somebody better than me — and stripping off parts and reverse-engineering special effects and so on as I go. Maybe I need somebody to compete with, or just somebody to remind me that things that seem impossible are in fact possible (for other people).

Maybe it’s an Oedipal thing a la Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence — I need that primal conflict with a father-in-art in order to be productive.

A more charitable friend — and fellow Thief — calls those other books “sponsor texts.” I just think of them as companions-in-arms. They fight beside you, loyally, and then when things get tough you wait till they fall asleep and then you mug them and roll them for whatever they’ve got.

I don’t understand how the Soloists do it. It’s like they’re sailing across the Atlantic without instruments — coolly, no map, no reference points, just navigating by the feel of the tiller. The Soloists I know avoid other novels like the plague when they’re writing. It’s like reading them will pollute their pure bloodlines or something.

As a Thief, I don’t have that need for purity. But I would give anything for that sense of absolute direction. Like perfect pitch — Soloists don’t need to tune to anything. To go back to the navigation metaphor, I’m constantly checking my GPS and taking sextant readings and heaving the log and shooting azimuths and God knows what else, just to make sure I haven’t wandered off the map into some bizarre territory where I’ve forgotten that sentences are supposed to have verbs in them or something.

So for example, the works I’m currently stealing from for The Magician King are:

— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash. What I’m stealing: the style — his effortless no-bullshit humor and his sheer raw verbal intelligence and precision. Compared to Stephenson everybody else is using blunt instruments, and he’s got a molecular scalpel. Or maybe he’s got a glass knife. I can’t do what he does, but just watching him play raises my game.

— Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely. What I’m stealing: the voice, the hot dames (Anne Riordan = sexiest private-eye client ever) and the work ethic — that guy just flat-out refused to write a boring sentence. But most of all I’m stealing the plotting. I don’t think anybody in the history of literature plotted like Chandler. One beat leads smoothly and seamlessly into the next, but at a slightly funny angle, so that you think you’ve been going in a straight line, but then you look around and you realize that somehow you’re miles out of town in some dry canyon you’ve never seen before, it’s late at night, the moon is out, and someone’s sapping you expertly in the back of the head.

— C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader What I’m stealing: the pure wonder. I don’t know what Lewis’s connection was, but it must have been bad-ass. I only get stuff that’s been diluted and adulterated and stepped on eight times with baking soda. But Lewis? He got his fix straight from the source.

— Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. What I’m stealing: again, the style. Remember when I said that about Stephenson? I lied. Franzen’s another guy with a molecular scalpel, plus Franzen’s got some-kind of extremely high-resolution mind-reading MRI machine. (And I find Franzen and Stephenson extra-useful because they write with about the same pacing as me, and in close-third-person, which is what I use. So basically I can steal from them directly, with no touching-up required.)

There’s others, of course. I’m always taking nips from Waugh and Rowling and Pullman and T.H. White as I go. And the funny thing is? Sometimes I steal from myself, from my own earlier work. Which now, after it’s done, reads to me like the work of a confident, sure-footed, easy-riding Soloist.

But I know that guy. And that guy’s a Thief.

33 comments on “The Thief and the Soloist: A Very Brief Taxonomy of Writers

  1. Church says:

    You’ve got it wrong. It’s not Thieves and Soloists, it’s Cows and Camels.

    Cows need to graze constantly, while Camels can store it up for long periods of time. They’re both consuming and regurgitating, it’s just the timeframe of how long they can do the latter before they have to repeat the former that differs.

    Lev, you’re a Cow.

  2. I guess by this measure I’m a soloist, since I avoid reading other novels while writing my own stories. I find that they distract me from writing rather than lend motivation to sit down and pound the keys.

    But I think that the secret is that we’re not really navigating without compass or chart, but rather we memorized our directions before we left home. No well-read person is ever truly alone at the typewriter. We have every writer we’ve ever read peeking over our shoulders, kibitzing and poking and muttering “That’s not how I’d do it…”

  3. Leigh says:

    Is there such a thing as TRUE soloist, though? Aren’t we ALL influenced by the works that we read as kids, or as young adults, or even last week? I’m kinda a solo-ninja-thief. I don’t have companions-in-arms simply because they don’t know I exist, but I’ve always got my eye on them. If I find what I’m reading is too intense, I may put it down so it doesn’t interfere, but overall I can’t possibly separate what I’m writing from things I’ve read. And I wouldn’t want to.

  4. Ann says:

    For soloists, it may not be about purity (good lord) but time–will I spend the next 30 minutes (that will grow to 90 if I get engrossed) on reading or writing? The reading would be fun, but if I don’t type at some point the book will never get finished.

    On second thought, yes, let’s call this purity (instead of ADD, lack of discipline, any of the other motivations that have been suggested). 😉

  5. A great piece, with a great choice of thief up top, too. I’m like you, but only to a point. I read fiction when I’m writing fiction, but it’s usually pretty far removed from what I’m working on. Right now, I’m writing a space opera short, for example, so I’m reading William Gibson and straight-up fantasy and shorts from other genres. I see it as spicing the stew, I guess. When I want to add flavor, I don’t add more beef, you know?

  6. Hmmm…. there’s a middle road.

    I read (and steal) as I write. But I work really hard to NOT read things that might sound like my own book. I don’t want to steal too directly from something that resembles my work. So, when I’m working on a middle-grade novel (especially when first-drafting) I read adult novels and poems. (this is how one ends up writing middle grade novels with snippets of famous poems in them, or lines accidentally taken from, say, Stegner)

    And then, when I’m working on poems, I read books for kids, or maybe Agatha Christie novels. Something I’m allowed to “borrow” from for a poem.

  7. Jaimie says:

    I used to be a soloist, but lately while writing I’ve been reading autobiographies (Julie Andrews), nonfiction essay works (David Sedaris), or non-fantasy literary things (The Help, Everything Is Illuminated). Or candy (Eat, Pray, Love).

    Anything not fantasy.

  8. dennitzio says:

    I’m a divakleptomaniac – meaning I believe that I’m a genius soloist but my unconscious constantly steals every damn thing I hear. You ask me to write this after listening to Stephen Fry you’ll get something VERY different from if I just heard David Mamet. Of course, I have yet to be distant enough from other voices long enough to find out if I even have my own…

  9. Matt says:

    I’m a soloist by this breakdown though, like others, I feel that I can’t help being influenced by–and stealing from–other things I’ve read, however long ago. Granted, the more recent the read, the fresher in my mind it is, but lots of it makes its way, intentionally or not, onto the page.

    Besides, I wonder how you’d know to pick a specific book or story to help you with a particular craft element. Unless you turn to fellow readers and say, for example, “Hey, I’m working on a story with an unreliable narrator. Know of any I can steal–er, draw from?”

  10. nicole says:

    thank you for introducing me to neal stephenson.

  11. M says:

    i wish i had commenter like Church
    but then again i dont write anything of substance

    one of our favorite things to say in high school was “if you steal from one person it’s plagiarism if you steal from many it’s research….”

    um, yeah, tell that to my History teacher, my cold war internal assessment was pure research…

    but, some music recommendations are due

    The Arkells: a cute Canadian band, mostly angry, not a lot of cute

    that is all

  12. Liam K says:

    I rob the crap out of Gaiman and Susanna Clarke’s obscure folklore references, if I can swing it. Also pretty much copying Raymond Chandler’s voice from ‘The Long Goodbye.’

  13. Leverus says:

    @Liam I steal from Gaiman/Clarke too. I guess the ones I REALLY rob I don’t want to cop to in the main post.

    @M checking out the Arkells

    @church comment on M’s blog!

  14. Chris H says:

    Chandler stole from himself all the time, too -not just lines or scenes, but whole pulp. My favorite Chandler story involves him at a California party; he disappeared to go the bathroom and his wife found him later sitting on the guest room bed, reading one of his own novels that he’d found on the bedstand. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “What can I say? I love my work.”

  15. Karl Ruben says:

    Because of the generally gobsmacking quality of your comments I was almost intimidated out of commenting on this, since I wasn’t going to say anything more astute other than “thanks for stepping up the blogging lately; it’s always a treat to read your writing on process, and your perspective always makes me brain itch and my mouth smile. I’ll be a little sad if the posts dwindle when you return to your day job, but I’ll try not to be entitled, and just be grateful for the awesome Leverus words I get, whereever I get them.” I almost was, but obviously I wasn’t.

  16. K.M. Walton says:

    I learned a ton from reading John Green and Sherman Alexie. Maybe even two tons.

  17. -paul says:

    Would love to see a list of recent fiction you have enjoyed. listening to grace adieu, right now, but cant seem to get very deep into it.

  18. Narameh says:

    I feel a bit shy leaving a message here, it’s like being a little girl, pretending to be an active participant in the world of adults => I’m awed and overwhelmed ;). I started reading the Corrections after reading this blog, trying to shorten my perception of all time elapsing between now and the Magician King… Thank you so much for the tip, I’m loving it :).

  19. Anonymoose says:

    When are we gonna get a new update on the status of The Magician King? I was so excited when you were blogging more frequently, but now it’s come to an abrupt halt! I went to ny comicon a while back and half expected to see you there, since you attended those other cons, but sadly you were nowhere to be found 🙁

  20. Leverus says:

    I’m being a crap blogger. I’m in deep hibernation mode, trying to do my job and polish off chapters of The Magician King at the same time, and occasionally wave at my children from a distance. It’s making me no fun at all. I’ve turned in about 4/5 of it …

  21. Marilyn says:

    The only thing I don’t read while I’m writing is books about writing! Everything else goes “in the hopper” and whatever comes out – there it is!

  22. sean says:

    never quite understood this distinction. as a writer, i’m always ‘in the middle’ of something, whatever project i’m working on. so to not read books while i’m writing would be to not read books. which is unconscionable.

  23. Morgan says:

    I think this whole analysis of the production of a piece of writing is too focused on the writing as an extension of the writer. As an apendage which can not be seperated. In the same way it sees the previous works we have read as being permanently attached to their creators, and as such ourselves being permanently attached to those authors. We tend to seperate ourselves from the rest of the audience, not only where our own works are concerned, but also with the work of other authors. Unless our works are pieces of personal catharsis, can we not see our work as being for the audience purely as audience, and ignore the audience as writers?

  24. Lakin says:

    Love yr taxonomy, Lev – it sparked a whole blog post, the gist of which I basically thieved from you. ;-} (thanks!)

    @Marilyn…yes, I like that, “it all goes into the hopper”; authors can be like magpies, in that way.

    @Leverus .. left foot, right foot, as they say; it’s the march to completion.

  25. I’m absolutely with you. I don’t understand Soloists at all. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t keep from reading while I was writing. I’m addicted for one thing. But I also use other people’s writings for inspiration at all kinds of levels.

  26. Raj says:

    One of the main factors of Black Swan’s sucescs is the cast of Natalie Portman. She really worked hard for this movie, and knowing how hard she’s been working on it (six months ballet lesson and all) adds the tension to the movie. Aronofsky nailed it so well, it’s impossible for me not to like it, Portman fan or not.

  27. Drider says:

    My Dearest Amy & Billy, It is so wonderful to know all those folks at Carnegie Hall will find out what I have known for a good while now! Your tnelat, your stage persona, your tremendous vocal range will fill Carnegie Hall just as it has filled so many Venues previously. My congrats to you and so wonderful to know how many folks will leave that great Hall smiling because they heard you sing!!! See you upon return, Neal )

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