Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

I wasn't myself at the time: a theory

Where did the year go? It’s been another long hiatus, I admit. Black Run is nearing the end of the editing process, and I’m still learning lessons about why it’s taken me more than a year (or two) to do what I used to do in six to twelve weeks on the previous twenty-odd books. Some switches don’t reset as fast as others, and I think it’s related to the subject of this blog today: getting into characters’ heads so profoundly that you aren’t yourself for the duration of the writing process. I haven’t been able to do that properly over the last couple of years because of real life events, and the amount of revision that’s been needed to fix “non-immersed” writing has been extraordinary.

Anyway, thanks to a question on Twitter from a reader – was I interested in what had happened to franchise stories I’d worked on in the past? – I started thinking again about why I can close the door and move on immediately from a project without a backward glance.

And I do. The moment I stop working on something, it’s almost like it never happened. I just move on to the next job, and it’s not even because I’m not getting paid. In a very short time, I forget most of the story, and not long after that, if I have to read what I wrote, it feels like a stranger’s work. On occasions, I’ve actually been convinced that it was edited and that I didn’t notice, but when I check it against the manuscript, it’s all my own words.

I used to think it was just a habit picked up from decades in journalism, where moving on is the only way to work, but while thinking about what this reader had said, I realised it was something different. The cognitive process wasn’t the same. Any journo worth their salt doesn’t forget a story. It just sits on the back burner indefinitely. You think you’ve forgotten it, but as soon as something relevant triggers the memory, you’re on it again like a rat up a drainpipe. You might not recognise your copy when you pull the cuttings from the archive (and in many cases, that’s because the subs cut it or merged it with another reporter’s story) but you’re back on the case. It’s yours.

So what was happening with me and fiction? It was a very different experience. The story never “came back” like it did when I was reporting. Then the penny dropped and I realised it was an inevitable part of the dissociation process I use to write characters. You’ve seen me blog before on how I write characters, that I stop being me and see the world entirely through the characters’ eyes so much that I’m in someone else’s mind, which is often a pretty uncomfortable feeling when you step out of it. There’s no authorial overview in any of my books. My novels are a jigsaw composed wholly of each character’s personal experience of events.

It should have been obvious that I didn’t recognise my own writing because it wasn’t me “talking.” It was the characters. When I’m back to being me, I really am reading what a stranger wrote, or to be more accurate, what a stranger said and thought. It’s not my heart that’s in the book; it’s theirs. And, of course, the ability to step in and out of multiple characters is essential when you write the way I do – very tight third person point of view for a cast of six, seven, or more characters. That adds to the tendency to walk away from something I’ve been immersed in and not think about it again. If I couldn’t do that, my tight third person technique would lock me into doing something akin to first person, the world seen through one set of eyes instead of many.

I feel better knowing that it’s not my memory playing up. (That starts to be more of a concern as you get older, believe me.) I simply wasn’t experiencing the events of the book at the time – it was the character I’d immersed in who was living it. The real me would now have to make an effort to think myself back into that character’s mind, which I’d only do if I had to.

Mystery solved, thanks to a reader.