Friday 15 November 2013

The singularity of experience

This is one of the things that keep cropping up, and Ruthie Knox wrote very well about it, too.

You don't have to like it. Follow the link. Seriously.

And it totally applies here. I sometimes joke that there's a huge amount of readers who measure everything I do, write and say against Special Forces. When I read a review, some small part of me always, always, always expects to read: "That was quite nice, but it wasn't Special Forces." I've read that sentence so often, I'm now conditioned to expect it. There are some people who seem to sum me up as "the guy who wrote Special Forces and then mysteriously didn't stop writing."

I've made my peace with Special Forces. I honestly am pleased when people tell me how much they loved it.

But I've moved on. Way, way on. I won't write Special Forces again, nor anything like it (I have too many ideas to focus on any one project for 2.5-5 years). I've done it once, and I don't like repeating myself. After one million words, I'm done with the characters. And, almost more importantly, they are done with me. Vadim's at peace and good for the ocassional fan-service cameo appearance. It's been five years. Seven, almost eight since I started.

There's a cool TED talk video featuring Elizabeth Gilbert. If I remember it correctly, she talks about how it feels to have a bestseller and then people asking her "Aren't you scared you won't be able to top that?" and how destructive that is to her creativity.

Of course artists are scared. Above all, we are in competition with ourselves. I do want to write better than the Aleksandr Voinov of six months ago. That's my goal when I write. Not to "beat" Special Forces with whatever I'm working on. The people that book was meant for read it and loved it - and there's nothing I can do to make them love anything else or more. Maybe that's the only thing of mine they'll ever love. It's entirely possible.

Some will always sigh and say about any character, "oh, he's so like Vadim" (when he's really, really not, but happens to be blond and efficient, or quite alpha, or quite in conflict with himself), and if any of my characters shave (which is hugely symbolic of "taming" and "civilising", and maybe I have a straight-razor kink), it's going to be "oh, that's just like the shave scene in Special Forces", and if I write anything gritty, it's "oh, it's just like Soldiers". Personally, I'm trying to not see that as a snub against my new work - like it's a cheap copy of this momentous work.

I now try to see it as home-sickness. They read Special Forces and it was a big experience and then they try to find something just like it. But they can't, and I-the-author have moved on, and am not writing the same thing again and again and again. (That's the old publishing model, where bestseller authors were basically forced to keep repeating themselves in the name of their "brand" - you know EXACTLY what book you're getting when you pick up the next, say, John Grisham. It's safe. And it's something that would kill my will to live. I'm not a traditional-publishing kind of guy. I write to entertain and challenge myself, and I almost never re-watch or re-read anything.)

One of the most tragic truths in life is: we can never go back home. We can never read our favourite book again for the first time. Whatever it was that gave us that "OMG I LOVE MY LIFE AND EVERYTHING IS PERFECT" buzz, it likely can't be repeated. A book or film can blow our minds only once exactly like it did that first time.

I remember perfect days from my childhood. They are over. I remember living in a house I loved so much, and it's been gone for 30 years, as in, my parents sold it and other people live there now (and may they be happy). I remember being slack-jawed with wonder at seeing things in nature, I remember that first, terrifying, delirious falling-in-love thing. All done, all gone, can't be repeated.

I think sometimes we might end up resenting artists because they can't help us repeat that emotional experience, although we know they were capable of giving it to us that first time. It feels like they are withholding it from us. Why would they! WHY WOULD ANYBODY!

Judas Priest only made one Painkiller album. Their fans fucking HATED Ripper Owens, even though he was a very, very strong replacement for a legend. How many of us thought that Anne Rice had completely jumped the shark with Memnoch the Devil? We wanted more Interview with a Vampire or The Vampire Lestat. I think it might be one of the reasons why so many hardcore Tolkienites hate the Hobbit movies or even the LOTR movies - what they really want is to read those books again for the first time and get exactly the same emotional kick. How much hatred did JK Rowling get when it was very clear she would actually not be writing about Harry Potter for the rest of her life?

I've called that "entitlement" (and mind you, I'm not free from it) - I now reframe it in my mind as home-sickness. We can never go back gome, and memory is a pretty poor substitute. There's not the same amount of endorphins/serotonin/adrenalin in the memory. It's the memory of a taste. We can all remember what a steak tastes like. We'd still prefer to actually eat it than just remember eating it. In a way we know where that steak "lives" and that somebody has the power to give it to us, and we're waiting and salivating for it (apologies to every vegetarian reading this).

And they don't. There's a fundamental injustice in that, a power imbalance.

I once had a partner whose policy it was to "control every resource he depended upon". One of those resources was me, as I was important for his emotional wellbeing. It's a natural instinct, and it's fucking scary when you are the resource getting controlled and manipulated. It also taught me a lot of valuable lessons about power and control, so it was totally worthwhile. At the end of the day, I resent control and the harder people push me, the harder I push back. It's a bit of a reflex and one of the key themes of my life.

It's taught me to say "fuck it" and do only things I believe in. It's also taught me to run like hell from people trying to control me - whatever it might cost me. My 12-year relationship is largely working because we're equal partners with a LOT of freedom and space between us.

So, yeah. It's a complex issue, but it boils down to the fact that there are authors who can repeat the same thing over and over, and this author can't. Some readers want new stuff, and some readers want to repeat the same thing they loved.

I wonder how much of the success of "formulaic" and "predictable" writing is really just about giving the reader exactly the same emotional experience and this is why it's so successful. And people who can do it can get away with anything - weak writing, bad editing, cliched characters. Because they deliver that feeling of coming home.


  1. Honestly? I prefer your books of today. As a reader, I can see how much you keep growing as a writer, which is what a good writer should do. Special Forces is epic and powerful, but I found Dark Soul even more powerful. It grabbed me, and pulled me in and wouldn't let me go until the last word. I left off Special Forces just after Vadim and Dan got back from Thailand - for me, that just felt like a good place for me to leave them (not for any other reason that I felt content to say goodbye to them there). Scorpion was amazing. Full of interesting and complex characters. I'm eagerly looking forward to reading Scorpion 2. People may discuss Special Forces as if everything else you've written is being measured up to it, but for most of us it was the introduction to your stories and many hold a special place for it as such, but it's more like a first love and not the be all, end all. So keep on finding your new stories to tell and tell them the way they need to be told because they do stand on their own worthy merit. And thank you for writing such diverse and fascinating works.

  2. Anne Rice refuses editing. "I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself,'' she wrote. "I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.'' In "Violin" she wrote about hot chocolate for pages and pages. It was awful. I've enjoyed reading works of yours from multiple genres. The only thing I would ever ask of you is to get your work professionally edited. I think of you Aas more than merely Vadim's creator.

    Poor Ripper Owens. If it's not Halford singing something from British Steel it's just not Judas Priest. Of course it's possible I feel that way as I've got grey eyes and no soul, but I doubt it.

  3. Confirmation, affirmation, and a couple of swift kicks- a bit of heaven on earth, I say. You are the objectivity I never have had.