Friday, August 2, 2013

Blowing Words

 Today's guest post comes courtesy of Jeffrey C. "Skywriter" Wells, fanfic author of note (and in any case, even if he weren't, his appearance as a guest columnist here would immediately rocket him to the upper echelons of writing-ness), who makes a rare plea: spend less time on your story.

Is that a pithy distortion of what he's actually saying?  Absolutely.  Want to know the details?  Find them after the break


A few days ago, on the wind-down from Everfree Northwest 2013, a friend and I stopped by the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington to watch a live glassblowing demonstration in the hot shop there.  I'd watched films of glassblowers at work before, but this was the first time I had seen anything of the sort in person.  The heat was astounding there on the shop floor, and the atmosphere was rough and convivial.  (That these heavy-suited men and women with a penchant for blowtorches and loud AC/DC music could create the works of delicate beauty we later saw displayed in the museum proper was a point of no small cognitive dissonance for me.)  Beyond all that, though, the thing that impressed me the most about these artists was their raw confidence and economy of movement.  Once that blazing white ball of hot glass got pulled from the crucible, there was not a shred of wasted time.  Working alone, or in pairs, they immediately engaged in a carefully choreographed ballet, rolling their little beacon-like blobs on a thick, flat piece of steel to cool the outside just a touch, then puffing air through the hollow pipe on which the glass had been gathered to create a cavity inside it, turning and spinning it all the while to maintain symmetry even as the glass constantly threatened to droop right off the end of the pipe.  It was absolutely mesmerizing.

The featured artist that day was working on a very intricate and complicated piece, a breadbox-sized sculpture of a bear.  Estimated time from first dip to final product?  Three hours.

I leaned over to my friend as we watched the craftspeople at work.  "Foxley," I said, "this is the kind of artist I want to be."  I didn't mean a glass artist, of course, though I have to admit that if I did have any skill in visual art I would probably gravitate towards shinier mediums like glass and neon.  What I meant was, "Foxley, I want the power to turn a shapeless entropic mass into a saleable sculpture in three hours.  I want to write like these people move."

Three hours.

What can I write in three hours?  Not a whole lot.  There have been times when I have spent approximately three hours staring at an empty word processor document, dithering over my opening paragraph.  While I'm doing that, this guy has completely finished his bear sculpture, has thrown it into the annealer to cool overnight, and is onto his next project.  The glassblower knows that dithering is equivalent to failure.  Time is wasting, the glass is cooling, and there's only so many times you're going to be able to chuck that thing back into the glory hole to get it soft enough to work with again before it starts looking a little weird.

Obviously, the bear sculpture takes more than three hours, total.  Not counting the time it has to spend in the slow-cooler, there's obviously the matter of preparation.  The tools must be laid out, the protective gear donned, and, most importantly, the actual piece must be thoroughly planned out before you even touch the glass.  This, also, is the kind of writer I think one should strive to be.  World-building is a drug like no other, and there's nothing quite like the feeling of knowing your characters so intimately that you can mock up impromptu conversations between them (and with them) in your head.

Once the groundwork has been laid, however, and you've made that first dip into the molten glass, I think there's something to be said for letting your instincts take over.  You've prepared well.  You know your craft.  You know your story.  You know your characters.  Now stop thinking and just do it.  The word processor has turned the written work into an infinitely revisable thing, but with this freedom comes a paralyzing fear, to wit:  if I can tinker with this manuscript line by line until it is perfect, there is no excuse for turning out anything less than perfection.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the fastest way to an absolutely crippling case of block.  You had best just get on with it and start throwing words at the page, because...

...because, well, this is the final lesson of the glassblower:  while it's true that nothing is perfect, there are some things that are definitely less perfect than others.  Sometimes you're going to turn out something lopsided, or irregular, or funny-looking.  Sometimes the piece itself is going to have a fundamental flaw buried so deep inside it that you can't get it out.  And sometimes, you'll be just about finished with the most beautiful story you've ever written and then you'll go and drop it on the floor in the final act and wreck the whole thing.  This doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad artist.  It may simply mean that you're dealing with a chaotic mess of molten words just like the glassblower is dealing with a chaotic mess of molten silica, and when you've got that much heat and fire and motion flying around, there are going to be times when the end product just doesn't look the way you intended it to.  Sometimes, this is a happy accident, and what you produce is, by chance, even more beautiful than the thing you started out intending to create.  And sometimes, you're going to turn out something that looks like the bastard love child of an amoeba and an ashtray.  And when the latter thing happens, you just throw it back into the crucible and start over again.  You can always start fresh, leaving no trace behind.  Just like the glassblower can.

So there's really no excuse, I suppose.  Go, make your plans, build your world; and then, when the time comes to gather up your ball of glass, your instincts will tell you exactly where you need to pull on it in order to create the beautiful shape you first envisioned.  And you won't have to spend even a moment thinking about it.

Which is just as well, because there's not a moment to lose.

Time is wasting.  The glass is cooling.


The funny thing about good advice is that it's still good advice even if it doesn't work for you.  This is definitely something I intend to try on for size when I get home.


  1. I definitely agree. The best things I've ever written were in class, in under an hour. Things I've spent months laboring over couldn't compare to those bursts of passion where I, under extreme time constraints, could write myself onto the page.

  2. I don't think I could ever do that. Write fast, maybe. I have done before. But I always spend ages agonising over things in editing, and even then it's usually not enough IMO. Those little details that you can change at any time matter way too much to me.

    But then again, I'm not a glassblower.

  3. I give myself:

    Ten days per chapter for Pony stories. Sometimes I finish a couple days early, sometimes I'm frantically editing right up to midnight on that tenth day, but I always like to have a deadline, and I always do my ding-dangedest to stick to it.


  4. This is escapist fantasy, not actionable advice. Here's how I read this article:

    1. Skywriter wishes he could write quickly and deftly, like the glassblower blows glass.

    2. Skywriter does not write quickly and deftly, but laboriously.

    Conclusion: I should not try to write quickly and deftly, because I aspire to write like Skywriter, and he has just told us he's unable to do that.

    Skywriter writes laboriously, and it WORKS. There's no evidence here that quick, deft, and instinctive works for fiction.

    1. You make a valid point. Though the way I see it, You do indeed want to fine tune your works as much as possible, but you don't want to spend forever doing so or you'll never get it done. A trap I've seen far too many people fall into. Like many things in life, one must find a good balance. And aside from that, you'll get more experience and likely "fame" from a large body of work rather than just a few good pieces.