In the Bardo

I’m in between books right now, recharging and gearing up to start something new. It’s a kind of limbo and if I let myself stay in it for too long, I know I’ll get cranky and difficult. Tibetans have a word for in-between states: bardo. Supposedly the bardo states, particularly the state between the end of one life and the beginning of the next, are times of great power and volatility when your intentions and the quality of your consciousness can have profound effects on what’s to come… if you dig reincarnation. And I would argue that all fiction writers practice reincarnation. We get to live many lives and see the world through many different pairs of eyes.

So I’m taking a few weeks off from writing to start exercising and meditating again. Grounding and focusing after letting too many months of desk time and social media make me fat and distracted. I’m also intentionally absorbing things that I would like to have influence the next book, but eventually I’ll have to commit to an idea and start writing.

Commitment is a bitch. Our family adopted a puppy a couple of weeks ago and we still can’t even commit to a name for him. But when you write a story, every character, every event, every paragraph, sentence, and word commits the tale to an increasingly narrow path.

I have a notebook full of outline scraps and what-ifs for a book that I tried to write a couple of years ago. A pile of research, a lot of jottings that start with “Maybe,” and even a chapter or three. It’s a dark urban fantasy that has been simmering in the back of my mind for a long time. I didn’t feel equipped to take it on right after Echo Lake, and then the idea for Steel Breeze grabbed me and I wrote that instead. Now I’m asking myself once again if I’m ready to write it. There’s a good chance that this high-concept thing that seems epic and mythic and super cool to me in vague outline will turn out to be vacant and lifeless when I finally grasp at the ether and try to pull down some actual story. But the thing is… you never know until you try.

I saw the following quote this morning on Facebook and it rang true:

“In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it. Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can’t be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.”
― Samuel R. Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction

Maps and outlines only get you so far, and in this case there’s also a need to visit some actual locations (not too far from home but far enough to make for some long weekends) to research the story. It’s a commitment, and I am tempted again to try an easier idea.

Is there a story worth telling in that notebook? Are there characters I want to spend a year of my life with in that story? Is it a journey I’m ready to take? The only way of knowing is by going.

A friend asked me recently, “How do you know when an idea is going to have a book in it?” Answer: you don’t. There are no guarantees when you start to tell a story. A writer looking at publishing deadlines, a writer whose family would like to know if the journey he’s embarking on will take him away into zones of obsession for weeks, months or years, is tempted to try to calculate in advance whether a particular story idea will be worth it. Will it have legs, will it delight and entertain… will it sell some books?

Truth is you just don’t know. It’s a leap of faith. Like the best things in life; like adopting a puppy, or asking a pretty girl for a date. You just don’t know how it will turn out. Maybe it’ll change your life. Maybe it’ll be a wreck. Maybe it’ll be the greatest adventure ever.


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