Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • What's this "I don't read/ play games/ etc" thing about? (Definitive answer.)
    So some folks accept my creative process - that I absolutely have to stay one side of the consumer/creator line or the other - even if they don’t understand it, and some refuse to accept it can possibly be. It really pisses some people off that I volunteer the information that I don’t read novels or play games*, as if they can even know from what I write that I don’t, or as if it’s somehow part of the deal the writer has with audience. Because it isn’t. My only deal with you is that I give you the best possible audience experience in everything I do, and how I achieve that is my business alone.

    But how can I explain this in practice? I can either say: “Well, you wouldn’t guess from my work that I don’t read/ play games/ whatever if I hadn’t bothered to tell you, so face aft and salute...” Or I can look for a realtime example and try to convey just what a critical line this is for me, and why it has to be there. An editor I know would call it a meta thing. I’d say it’s a cognitive issue. But when I need a vivid example, I can never recall one.

    But I had a perfect example this morning. A worrying one, too.

    I can’t tell you what the scene is, obviously, because the book isn’t done. But I had a scene playing out in my head, and it was heavy stuff. And then I saw that scene in the context of the game, actually playing the game for a moment, with all the expectations and in-jokes. I’d stepped across that forbidden line. And the scene made me laugh my arse off.

    But it wasn’t funny at all. In fact, it was one of the most potentially harrowing events I’ve written. It was horrible. I had to shove myself back across that line where the story has to be born, and use my grounding technique: imagine this is a real world, happening to real people, and imagine what’s going on their minds as this is happening to them. Imagine you heard it on the news. Imagine how much it would upset you as a normal human being hearing something awful like that. And then I was back in the world where I have to operate creatively: where I have to live through those fictional events as if the characters are real, living, breathing, feeling, human beings, and experience what they experience, and describe it.

    Because if I don’t feel it that intensely, then I can’t convey that to you as vividly as I do. For you to feel it through the filter of paper or pixels or game, then it has to be a high concentration of reality and feeling to make it into your mind and put you in the character’s moment. This is how I can make you laugh or cry or believe for a while that you’re pinned down under heavy fire.

    I can’t do that if I step outside into the external world where it’s just fiction that can be put down and forgotten.

    Writing for me is like having a self-generated waking dream or nightmare, overlaid with dissociating from my own personality. I opt to step into that state, that out-of-body and out-of-psyche thing. I opt to lie to my conscious mind, the bit that’s actually me, and make my brain believe that I’m someone else, thinking someone else’s thoughts, and having things really happen to me. Like a dream - or nightmare - you know it’s unreal at an intellectual level, but you still wake up sweating and scared, and take a while to shake off that feeling. I have to live that event and then come back and tell you exactly what it’s like so that you can live it too.

    So you can see that for me, writing isn’t just words on a page, or an actor reading lines, or an exquisitely realistic cinematic playing out. That’s the output, the manifestation. It’s just a way to convey what I felt on behalf of a character who doesn’t exist outside of a strange unspoken agreement between you and me to believe they’re real for a few hours. This is why I prefer to use the word storytelling. Or reporting, because that's what I still am at my core: a reporter. The real act of writing, of creation, is in my endocrine system, in my brain chemistry, in the spark that leaps across the synaptic gap and makes me sweat when I become - very briefly - someone who’s facing the end of their world.

    And then I shake it off and I’m me again. If that wall wasn’t there, my work wouldn’t be what it is. It would be superficial and thin, all style, no substance. It has to come from my gut, and this is the only way I know to consistently walk through into that parallel world.

    (* The only exception is comics, and even then I have to steer well clear of the subject areas I work in. In terms of the medium, my ability to process it was laid down in my very early childhood, and long term memory and recollection of emotion seems to be “ring fenced” from recent memory.)