Writing Process: What If You Don’t Know What To Write?

A close friend recently texted me: Write what you know. It’s good advice, like Keep It Simple Stupid or Seize the Day. Then again, what if I stay in bed too long? Make it slightly complicated? And I just don’t know?

Army personnel at The Javits Center during the outbreak of Covid-19, New York, 2020

I’m writing a speculative trilogy about going to another planet, which is something that I know nothing about. But I do know about promise and failure. I know I think of my flaws as attributes. I know that there is a fine line between when to choose the sensible thing and the brave. I know that I am as self centered and mean spirited as the rest. And I know that I will be alone in the end.

Abandoned sign near Wall Street, New York, September 2020

And so it becomes jumbled. Yes, I know what I know. But I think I know too much of that. It might come clear in my dreams, but who wants to hear about that? I’ll tell you about my mother. Actually I think I already did.

So here’s the story: Guy writes a blog for eight years and then writes that one true thing that gets shared to every corner of the galaxy and becomes the soothsayer for all. Share that!

Research: The Best of Writing

“What’s a Qivittoq?” Dee was getting unbearably cold now, the chill entering her body like it would never leave. “What’s that?” (Extract from Anori)

Choosing the most effective word can be painfully tedious. Is she really unbearably cold? What about terribly cold? Desperately cold? What word translates the feeling for how cold she is? One word works and the other. It goes back and forth in the edit, until the word works as it should. Whatever that means.

A much more immediately satisfying part of writing is the research. Anori is speculative novel set in Greenland and so futuristic elements as well as aspects of Greenlandic culture are needed to develop the setting.

Aeriel view of icebergs outside of Ilulissat, Greenland

A Qivittoq is a mythological, often evil creature – akin to the Ojibway’s Wendigo – is derived from the custom of banished a person who violates the sacred codes of society.

Thule Air Base also came up in my research, a United States military camp where a B-52G Stratofortress loaded with nuclear weapons crashed in 1968. This led me to think that nuclear weapons might have created a Qivittoq or two.

Disko Island glacier

Other research for Anori included Earth-out-of-view Syndrome (a psychological disorder when one can no longer see Earth), O’Neil Cylinder (mining asteroids in space), Cave Swallows (birds in the Yucatan), dry dock (lifting boats out of the water for repairs) and cantilevers.

The cantilevered architecture of Jenny Polak’s Offshore (Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, New York)

The trick of effective research is not allowing it to completing distract the work at hand… unless a book on the trivia of research is to be launched. (Is there a market for that?)

The Impossible World of World Building

World building is writing hell. As incredible – even fun – as the idea might sound, it isn’t. By anything being possible, there is no place to start. Even if it seems like a matter of just picking and choosing and away you go, it isn’t. Not for me. While I might have the germ of an idea – such as using dark matter to fuel an inter-generational spaceship – fleshing that out is akin to chronic constipation. My writing practice is centered on the small things – an image or line of dialogue – and going out from there. It is an inductive approach to writing, finding the bits of evidence to create the whole, such as the serval image at the watering hole that begat My Bad Side.

Photo Credit: Michael Nichols, National Geographic

I didn’t know what that image meant at the time, but I knew it meant something and used it to find what might be next.

Building worlds demands the opposite to my approach to writing, a deductive method, going from the big picture to develop the small, focusing on time machines or warp drives, creating a story from those. This is what grinds my flow to a halt. If I can’t see where I am – the details of what it looks like to live on board a spaceship – I am perpetually stuck.

I got into the world of speculative fiction by accident. The protagonist in an earlier book, Dee Sinclair, stumbled ahead and wondered aloud if she might venture on to something else. As far-fetched as her world appeared at the time – a sex performer holed up with her pet serval – it was nothing compared to Greenland where she witnesses a fledgling world constructed before her eyes. This is the outset of Anori, the first book of The Cx Trilogy.

The crux of the speculative/sci-fi genre is world building, something beyond what we live in today. It isn’t just a matter of a propping up a couple of rocket ships and having characters walk about in space suits. Every detail has to be in tune. My most effective world building elements in Anori are Holoweb and Second Skin because they were simple to envision – a three-dimensional version of today’s internet and a spray-on fashion statement – and only a step ahead of what we have now.

I raised the world-building stakes in the second book of the trilogy, Aqaara, where Dee boards a generational spaceship bound for a planet light-years distant. Daily life aboard the spaceship took a long time to create, not just the details of the sleeping quarters and gatherings places but, more importantly, the mindset of leaving Earth to never return. I was in the Highlands of Scotland while mapping out this world, a far cry from outer space but at least isolated and quiet.

I planned the design of the ship while hiking, soaking wet, through the silence, but could not attain a genuine sense for what it felt like to live in this space, to sleep and eat, to lose all sense of time with a lunar or solar cycle, to see people every day – there was no day! – and to not know when, if ever, the journey might come to an end. That took another two drafts – in Puglia and then New York – to get it so it seemed like it really was so.

The final book, Mina, demands a literal new world. That’s where I am now. The temptation to settle for lunar landscapes and prehistoric beasts remains hard to resist. After all, what do I know about another planet’s flora and fauna? I have settled on a leopard seal/hedgehog hybrid as the creature atop of the food chain, as well as string of camera-stealing starlings. Who knows what the deep seas will offer? Something astonishing should happen soon.

My challenge with world building has given me pause. As transfixed as I can be in the fantastic landscapes of science fiction – where absolutely anything is possible – the writing craft must remain the focus. In other words, while the visions presented in this genre might be spell-binding, the characters, dialogue and construction of the narrative remain the foundation. My aim in writing The Cx Trilogy is to bridge the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction, and not just build worlds but build worlds where we can literally picture ourselves alive and wondering. We will see what Dee’s progeny find next.