I Go Through a Lot of Pants

A number of years ago— I’m hazy on the details— I made the online acquaintance of one Henry Gee, author of numerous science and fake science books and an editor at Nature. Maybe it was through his role as the wrangler for “Futures”, the series of SF supershorts that finish off each issue in that otherwise august journal— and to which I’ve made a couple of sales myself, hopefully to the chagrin of all those former colleagues who turned up their noses when I left academia to write about ray guns and talking squids in outer space (and who then spent endless years trying desperately to get a paper into Nature). Maybe it was over an early draft of Henry’s Siege of Stars, an SF novel combining some terrific ideas with some rookie mistakes (the latter of which seem to have since been fixed, given all the Big Names lining up to praise the published version). Maybe it started with that interview Nature did with biologists who write science fiction.

They were good times, all of them; I just can’t remember which one came first.

Anyhow, a couple weeks back Henry tagged me in something called “The Writing Process Blog Tour“. It’s kind of an authorial chain letter. An author receives a series of questions (presumably of interest to the reading public); answers them on their blog; passes them on in turn to three other authors downstream.  It’s a geometric progression which, if accommodated by all tagged targets, would rapidly swamp every cat picture on the internet.

Reluctant to be part of such a fission reaction, I asked Henry if I could maybe just pass the questions on to one other writer when I was done with them, to keep the proliferation cone a bit narrower. Henry had no problem with that; the rules are neither hard nor fast, and besides, I never signed anything.

So here they are.

What Am I Working On?

I can’t tell you.  Really. It might not even go anywhere.  But I just started, and it’s unconventional.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In Its Genre?

It is significantly more insecure, emotionally. Scarred by a past life in academia, I feel compelled to try and cover my ass against any manner of nitpickers. You may have noticed my habit of sticking lengthy technical appendices on the end of my novels. You may have even admired me for the effort, thinking I do this to Educate the Masses or to Share My Excitement about Real Science.

Wrong.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

Because nobody wanted to buy my children’s novel, Pancake, Snookums, and the Balance of Nature— in which the eponymous leopard frog and garter snake, trapped in the same terrarium, work together to effect their escape.  (Then Snookums eats Pancake.)

Denied my dream of writing Children’s Literature, I’ve settled for a sandbox big enough to explore the ideas that interest me. That’s science fiction, almost by definition. I suppose that technically it would be possible to explore the relationship between Theology and Digital Physics in a western or a historical romance, but that would take someone with considerably greater skill than I have.

How Does My Writing Process Work?

By cutting corners. For example, should I be presented with a question in a Blog Tour that’s identical to a question I’ve already answered in a previous interviews, I’m likely to just cut-and-paste in order to save time. Here comes an example right now:

Something gives me an idea: Hey, if that’s true, then what would happen if…?  (Or sometimes:  what utter bullshit. If that were true, then…)

I sketch out a plan to embed that question in a story. There follows a variable period spent writing and cursing, from which emerges a product that looks like a half-assed Rubik’s Cube badly wrapped in pages taped together from a paperback novel.  Then I go running, to give my subconscious time to crunch the numbers and serve up a fix. If that doesn’t work I go drinking with friends or take a shower with my wife, and use them as sounding boards to whinge about all the parts that won’t fit. I listen for ideas to steal, rewrite until the wrapping looks prettier and put it away, vaguely unsatisfied but resigned.

Three days before deadline I wake up in the middle of the night with a whole new angle fully-formed in my head. I throw out most of what I’ve done prior and start from scratch; I am frequently unaware of the passage of time at this point, even though time is now most pressing.

I hand it in.

The whole process generally consumes 30-60 hours for a short story. With novels you can stretch that out over a year or more, and bolt a detailed outline onto the front end (20-40 single-spaced pages— Cory Doctorow once described them as “not so much outlines as novels without dialog”).  Then, at the two-thirds mark, insert the sudden realization that some element I hadn’t considered in the outline totally destroys the plot logic of everything I’ve written, which forces me to go back, throw away the outline, and write by the seat of my pants after all.

I go through a lot of pants.

 

So now I get to stick someone else with these questions— and the person I tag is Caitlin Sweet, even though I know her answers to some of them. I tag her because she has taught me so much about our shared craft (sparing the lot of you from more clunky writing than you’ll ever know, by the way), that I can’t imagine not learning something new when she sits down to hammer out her own answers. Also because she’s more likely to forgive me for sticking her with a chain letter.

Take it away, BUG.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday July 21 2014at 09:07 am , filed under interviews . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

16 Responses to “I Go Through a Lot of Pants”

  1. I think the least you could do is to release “Pancake and Snookums” as a free download on your website. This will help build a readership for the sequel, “Snookums: Seppuku”, in which the garter snake, tormented by guilt after having eaten his only friend, and haunted by the realization that he might be simply an emergent process in a simulation running on a massive cellular automata array composed of organic molecules floating in a gas cloud orbiting a neutron star, ties himself in a knot and strangles himself.

    Kids just eat that kind of stuff up.

  2. Pancake and Snookums, or Peter Watts Explains How Life Works. Glad I wasn’t drinking coffee when I read that.

    Yeah, think we generally hate Facebook, but consider this a “Like.”

  3. Thanks to you, Peter, I can now come out of my authorial closet. I shall throw off the shackles of serious, semi-serious and fictional science and write ‘Sparkle The Unicorn’s Busy Day’.

  4. Unconventional, you?
    I am shocked, sir. Shocked!

  5. AngusM: “Snookums: Seppuku”, in which the garter snake, tormented by guilt after having eaten his only friend, and haunted by the realization that he might be simply an emergent process in a simulation running on a massive cellular automata array composed of organic molecules floating in a gas cloud orbiting a neutron star, ties himself in a knot and strangles himself.

    Dammit, I told you I couldn’t talk about what I was working on next…

    cromercrox:
    Thanks to you, Peter, I can now come out of my authorial closet. I shall throw off the shackles of serious, semi-serious and fictional science and write ‘Sparkle The Unicorn’s Busy Day’.

    Yeah, well that still won’t hold a candle to my collaboration with Caitlin: “Nelly the Nephron”, about a free-spirited kidney cell who decides she doesn’t want to spend her whole life filtering urine and strikes out for the horizon. Except she actually isn’t built for anything except filtering urine, so after a series of hilarious adventures (getting pissed out of the body and ingested by a golden-showers aficionado, trying to impersonate a neuron, etc) she finally settles down and reintegrates with her fellow nephrons. And the moral of the story is “Know Your Place”.

    I don’t know if the kids will eat it up, but as long as the Harper administration is in power up here, we’re confident that it’ll be mandatory reading in the public school system. After all, they need something to fill the spot where Science and Media Studies used to be.

  6. AngusM:
    This will help build a readership for the sequel, “Snookums: Seppuku”, in which the garter snake, tormented by guilt after having eaten his only friend, and haunted by the realization that he might be simply an emergent process in a simulation running on a massive cellular automata array composed of organic molecules floating in a gas cloud orbiting a neutron star, ties himself in a knot and strangles himself.

    I’m disturbed that this sentence made complete sense to me.

  7. Yeah, well that still won’t hold a candle to my collaboration with Caitlin: “Nelly the Nephron”, about a free-spirited kidney cell ..


    Now I’m confused…

  8. Y.: Now I’m confused…

    Yeah, well, that was one of Nelly’s hilarious misadventures.

  9. Sorry to veer off topic, Mr Watts. I just wanted to say, Blindsight was one of the finest novels I have ever read. My mission is to devour all your other novels. Have you read Tau Zero and This Thing of Darkness? They’re two other neat books; you might enjoy them. Take care

    - a new fan.

  10. Im well into my rereading of blindsight. It is still fucking sweet. Cant wait for echopraxia. I had one of my coworkers read repeating the past at work yesterday and hopefully have another convert to the legion of the squid.

  11. Forgive me if this is old news or I’m repeating a discovery of someone else, but… I remember you posting the text of the speech, but on YouTube I stumbled across the video of your “Burn it to the Ground” speech to the IAPP, and I don’t BELIEVE anyone’s ever provided the link (at the very least, I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch it, which I know I would have): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLihNlDhu_E

  12. I don’t suppose there’s any news (unconventional or otherwise) about your involvement within the video game industry?

  13. Tor posted an excerpt from Echopraxia on their website yesterday:

    http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/07/echopraxia-excerpt-peter-watts

  14. Jeremy C:
    Tor posted an excerpt from Echopraxia on their website yesterday:
    http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/07/echopraxia-excerpt-peter-watts

    That’s not the excerpt we were looking for. Been posted here..

    Still, I re-read it.

    Are we ever going to see any vortex engines in real life? That crazy canuck engineer who came up with the idea years ago… where’s some sort of implementation?

    As I understand it, those things out, at the very least, make very good chimneys. Yet, years have passed and.. nothing? Not many publications, no more prototypes..

    Ah. Finally something ..

  15. They posted a significantly longer one on Amazon and B&N. With all the spatial formatting stripped away. Looks like shit.

    Thanks for that link. I’ve been wondering where the tech went myself— but it was such a cool Old-Testament power supply that I just had to use it anyway…

  16. @Peter Watts, who wrote in-part:

    Then, at the two-thirds mark, insert the sudden realization that some element I hadn’t considered in the outline totally destroys the plot logic of everything I’ve written, which forces me to go back, throw away the outline, and write by the seat of my pants after all.

    This may be a lot more common than most folks believe. I know that back when I was trying to write, I didn’t even really try to use actual plot-outlines. I just tried to keep in mind the general theme and what I was trying to get across, and then let the work write itself, so to speak. Sometimes I tried writing character studies rather than plot outlines, thinking that as long as I stuck to the character, it would evolve more or less like a role-playing game. The result? Surreality, but a surreality consistent with characterization. Somehow I rediscovered that bit of existentialism wherein more-or-less reasonable people find themselves in situations of utter absurdity.

    The thing is, with a lot of your stuff, you have that same condition; more-or-less reasonable but often deeply-damaged people find themselves in a situation that is inevitable given the history of their world. Yet however much that world might be a consequence of the logic of that history, in real life as well as in your novels, absurdity can be as easily the logical outcome as it could be an outcome of illogic, human perversity, or natural catastrophe. By modern standards, the world we see in “Blindsight” (for example) is technologically very advanced but also pretty absurd… yet it follows inexorably from the initial conditions you posit into the (fictional) history. To me, some of the greatest “magic” is that you can not merely develop that world, but people who seem to be totally at home in it. And whether or not the plot outlines survive the creative process, the characters seem to remain true. For me as a reader, that’s worth all of your worn-out pants. Cheers,