Sean Williams

Writing the Impossible

posted on 24 Oct 2017 at 11:19 pm

[tl;dr: My novella “Impossible Music” has just been published, and it’s different from anything I’ve ever written before.]

As anyone who’s confronted the void of a blank page will know: there’s nothing more awful than an open brief.

Telling an artist they can do anything they want, literally anything, is like hitting a deer with headlights: nothing kills the creative urge quicker. Whereas, in my experience, constraints channel the creative urge into places I might never have explored otherwise.

Tell me to write anything, in other words, and I’ll eventually come up with something, probably after months of thought. Tell me to write a story about Brussels sprouts in space, and I’ll have it for you by next week.

What’s the difference, some might object. It’s not a race. And isn’t finding your own way more authentic than following someone else’s instructions?

I would argue that no artist is complete unconstrained. Even when left to our own devices, we are influenced by the giants who came before us, by our mentors and by our peers, who naturally shape our own tastes.

Those constraints are unique to each writer, but constraints they remain, and finding out what they are by trial and error is not necessarily a better process than accepting constraints from someone else. After all, we choose commissions, we don’t just accept them blindly.

This is a very long way of saying that I’m at a point in my career that I never, ever thought I would reach.

Have Sword, Will Travel, the first in a new series co-written with Garth Nix, is coming out later this year. It will be my fiftieth book—which is a pretty exciting number. Inside, I’m still the eight-year-old writing stories about ghosts and giant ants because that’s the kind of story I loved. My inner eight-year-old will never get tired of doing that even as my outer 49-year-old is constantly amazed, and very grateful, that I get to do it for a living. I hope I can keep it up forever.

You don’t write fifty books without hope like that. Or love. Or fear. Or stubbornness—what Garth Nix likes to call “being too stupid to give up”. All those things.

You also don’t get to fifty books without occasionally wondering “What’s left to write about?” I don’t mean in general: there’s an infinite number of stories left out there. But me personally.

How do I get to fifty-one without repeating myself?

The truth is, everyone repeats themselves sometimes. And not only is that okay, it’s sometimes a very good thing.

Every artist creates something that at a later point in their career they realize they can do better. I’m no exception. If you look through my back-catalogue, you’ll see many, many moments where I’ve cannibalised my own work in order to make something new.

For instance, I recently released a series of small novella-sized collections under an old pseudonym, “E. W. Story”. I revived this pseudonym (Story was my grandmother’s maiden name) in order to bring into the light a bunch of stories and novellas that never quite made it to print, but did serve as inspirations for later works.

If you read the short story “In Defence of the Megascopic” (in The Future Trap), and the novellas “Cloveleaf” (Strange Ways) and “Sleeping Boys” (Sleeping Boys), you’ll see a large chunk of what would later become the Geodesica diptych. Plus a bunch of other stuff, of course, such as Greg Bear’s Eon, a dare to make my next science fiction novel a romance, and a desire to explore what people in the future might really fight over, such as the right to define what it means to be human.

Geodesica Ascent & Descent e-book - largeThus, a mess of self-imposed and external constraints combined with a certain amount of creative freedom plus a willingness to repeat myself—but not indiscriminately, only the good stuff—resulted in something that didn’t exist before. Something as new to me as it was to readers.

If you wanted to be gruesome about it, you might call this process of creative pruning and recycling “Killing our Darlings & Eating our Young.”

I’ve repeated this process many times throughout my career, and usually readers would never know. Most of the recycled ideas appear very different to their original execution. They’re shuffled and rearranged and added together until they work, and that’s when they surface. When they don’t, they stay in the wings, endlessly waiting their chance.

You could argue that only at the very beginning of a career, when a writer has no older material to draw on, is their artistic vision most pure. Uncluttered by the detritus of recycled ideas.

That said, rushing into stories without giving them enough thought is what led me to write so many bad ones when I was starting out. Or to write good ones badly.

Anyway, fifty books in and I’ve hit an entirely new problem. It’s a problem some people hit two books in. Or ten. Or a hundred.

What happens when you’ve killed all your darlings and run out of young? What do you do then?

Geodesica was around twenty books ago. Since then I’ve written more space opera novels, and even as I was writing them I could feel myself starting to reach for newer ways to make that mode feel fresh to me, a process that actually began a long time before then.

When Shane Dix and I wrote our first space opera series, Evergence, the brief was simple: “Star Wars plus Blakes 7—go!”. We blew up a lot of space ships.

saturn compOur second series, Orphans, was a near-future New Space Opera. We blew up the Earth. In Geodesica, we blew up a gas giant. In Astropolis, I blew up the entire galaxy.

And that’s not all. I threw a whole bunch of things into Astropolis that had nothing to do with space opera, at first glance. Gothic novels—check. Noir murder mystery—check. A gender-bending main character who looks like someone out of anime—check. A character who only spoke in the lyrics of Gary Numan—check.

Of course, science fiction is THE genre for additive combinations. There’s practically nothing you can’t add to it that might work. Comedy, westerns, crime, satire . . . you name it.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with anything I put in Astropolis. I think all these things I’m listing totally earn their place.

I just became aware of a niggling thought that maybe, just maybe if I wanted to muck around with noir tropes, say, maybe I should write a straight-up noir mystery, or at least give space opera a rest for a bit.

So I did. I stopped writing space opera.

Since Astropolis, I’ve concentrated on books for young adult, middle grade and younger readers, none of them space operas. I’ve written novelisations of computer game scripts. I’ve worked with several new collaborators. Most importantly, I’ve begun to draw more heavily on one of the holy trinity of sources that every writer relies on: “Life, the Universe and Everything” (to evoke Douglas Adams).

Fifty books in and I’m realising that “the Universe and Everything” is a pretty good summary of my career so far. As well as space opera novels and the books since Astropolis, my back catalogue science fiction thrillers, fantasy for young adults and adults, and something that might be called New Weird (although I’ll never really know what The Crooked Letter is, only that it broke my brain). I’ve gone further down the rabbit hole of matter transmitters than anyone since Larry Niven, and maybe even further than him, since I now have a PhD on the subject. I’ve played with Australian landscapes and virtual heroes and aliens that travel backwards in time. I’ve created and destroyed intergalactic empires, invented religions, sent hapless kids to the Dimension of Evil and brought them home again, played in other people’s playgrounds, and blown up sufficient things to satisfy even my inner eight-year-old.

Recently I’ve stopped looking outward for stories and started looking inward, at that slippery thing called “Life”. Specifically, my life. Warts and all.

Which brings me at last to the books I’m working on at the moment. The books I’m editing, writing, and planning. The ones that have nothing to do with anything that came before. The ones in which I’m strip-mining my personal life for fun and profit, to coin another inelegant phrase.

Lightning 2The first of these projects is In My Mind, a book about a teenage girl who suffers from electrosensitivity so extreme she has to live in Loving County, Texas, the most isolated county in contiguous United States. Forget overhead power lines and microwaves. Her condition is so bad that the tiny amount of electricity in living things is enough to freak her out. Including her mother. Which is why she has to get away. But how can she escape when being in the modern world would drive her crazy?

I won’t spoil the story. You’ll hear a lot more about it in 2019, when it’s due to be published. Let me just say that the idea for Dani’s predicament came from wanting to write about my own experiences with panic attacks, agoraphobia, and chronic pain, all of which I’ve suffered from to varying degrees in my adult life. I’ve also been known to short out the odd light—something that happened with spooky frequency while I was working on the book.

In My Mind is my first first-person novel—and has been an incredible labour (of love, mainly, but some frustration too) to get right. I can’t for people to read it.

i am deaf andAnother book I’m halfway through is called Impossible Music. In some ways it’s slightly easier, in that it hasn’t forced me to unwind years of therapy, but it has required some considerable relearning. It’s about a musician who goes deaf. That’s it. No speculative elements at all. For the first time in my life, I’m writing mainstream, and while I’ll admit I’m loving it, I will add that it’s just the right kind of mainstream for me. It concerns subjects very close to my heart—particularly music, my other great love apart from stories. It works towards some slightly preposterous suggestions—one being that it’s possible to create music that deaf and hearing people can appreciate equally, i.e. designed never to be heard. And it’s set in Adelaide.

Part of me is nervous that I’m being a genre traitor by side-stepping to the mainstream. Most of me is concentrating on writing the best book I can, about something that feels present and connected to me. A version of me that my readers have never seen before.

The third book, which is still in the planning stage, may be the most real of all. Its working title is Suspended, and it’s about a teenage boy undergoing group therapy for depression. There he meets a man with similar interests to him, with whom he develops a close bond—only to discover that this man is the father who abandoned his pregnant mother as a teenager. Furthermore, the father has an inheritable genetic defect that’s put him on a heart transplant waiting list, and might kill his teenage son too.

heartSo heart transplants, teen pregnancy, depression . . . if you were to pick a trifecta of the things that have most shaped my life, this would be it. As many know, I didn’t meet my genetic son until he was ten years old, and my father died on a heart transplant list. I’ve been wanting to write about them for years, but I’ve never felt ready to do it.

I’m not sure I’m ready now, but if In My Mind and Impossible Music don’t get me there, I’ll never be.

So . . . strip-mining the self. A bit terrifying, but it’s not as though I’ve never done this before. My first fantasy novel The Stone Mage & the Sea wouldn’t have existed had I not gone back to the landscapes of my childhood for inspiration. (You can see the difference between that book and the original novella, “The Prophet of the Change”, which is published as an exclusive bonus story in the E W Story omnibus.) And Geodesica, to go back to that example, draws on the emotional baggage from three bad break-ups that I’d been carrying around for years.

I’m not sure that writing about this kind of stuff has helped me personally very much, but it was fruitful territory, creatively. It’s taken me down paths I’ve not explored as thoroughly as I could have before, weighting character and style a little more heavily than world-building or plot, say.

There’s no right way to do this stuff: there’s just new ways, for me.

Nor will I ever entirely give up on “the Universe and Everything” part of the equation, either. My new series with Garth is a middle grade adventure featuring talking swords and dragons. You can’t get more fantastical than that.

I have other plans too—so many plans! Fans of the Books of the Change will be pleased to know that I’ve outlined a new book called The Bone Smith. I also have a new standalone fantasy novel, something totally new called Liminus that I’ve been tinkering with for years. Children of the Map is a novel set in the universe of my most-reprinted story, “A Map of the Mines of Barnath”. I have a space opera called Binary cowritten with Sean E Williams that I hope see the light one day. Then there’s the Antarctica project that recently took me way, way down south . . .

I could go on, but I shouldn’t. It’s too easy to talk about books that haven’t been written. There’s a good chance that many of them probably never will be. So many things stand between an idea and a finished book, not least the possibility that I might think of something even better.

One thing you can say about the void is that it’s potential is infinite.

But for now, and to finally reach the point of this blog post . . . Impossible Music

The opening chapter of the novel has just been published by Review of Australian Fiction. I thought about taking a leaf from Iain (M) Banks and using my middle initial to differentiate mainstream works from the fantastical, but in the end decided not to. Maybe the book will come out under a different name – until it finds a home there’s no way to guess.

I hope you enjoy this new glimpse of another me.

“Every something is an echo of nothing”—John Cage

[Note: this post is an abbreviated version of my GOH speech from Swancon 42, held in Perth 2017.]

Image: morguefile, morguefile, morguefile.

  1. Oh Sean,

    what a wonderful post! You probably won’t remember me but I help to organise Text Marks the Spot, the school’s day of the Bendigo Writers Festival.

    I had no idea you manage all those issues in your life. I too have to wrangle terrible panic attacks, and sadly this seems to have surfaced in two of my three sons. All power to you, they can be such debilitating and traumatising things.

    I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Impossible Music on the Rhianna Patrick ABC Radio show when it comes out.

    In the meantime – without sounding trivial and trite – thanks for sharing so openly your battles. The more of us that do it, hopefully the more it normalises it for those who haven’t quite known how to talk about it,



    • sean says:

      Thanks, Sarah. That means a lot coming from you! I do remember you and my time in Bendigo with great fondness. All the best to you and your sons. It’s good to talk about these things, even (especially) when it’s hard.

      I hope to catch up again one day. We’ll have lots to share!