Once upon a time I was writing a science fiction novel.
It was my first major piece of fiction of any kind, and I rather liked how the first few chapters shaped up. I noticed, though, that my characters dwell too much upon the idiosyncrasies of their world. It was an unusual kind of a scifi world (why write a book that’s not unusual, anyway?), so I couldn’t get away with reusing tropes and cliches of the genre as much as some other writers do. I had to build — explain — everything from scratch.
And these explanations and infodumps were really getting in the way of plot and character development. I struggled to make them brief and unstrained, to inscribe them into conversations naturally, but that didn’t feel right. When something worked as part of a scene, it didn’t work as a world annotation — and vice versa. Narration and worldbuilding refused to mix. (In fact I can’t name any SF book where they would mix entirely satisfactorily.)
Eventually I decided to cull all those footnotes and in-text expositions and collect them in a glossary appendix. Back then I planned to spend a few weeks on that glossary, use it to flesh out my understanding of my own world (at that moment rather vague), then — armed with this understanding — continue with the novel.
Instead, something unexpected happened. The glossary just kept growing — wider, deeper, more complex. It totally immersed me. I had to admit I was having much more fun writing it than a conventional novel.
At some point I realized that the glossary was the book that really wanted to be written. It was the book I had always yearned to read myself — the book whose glimpses and echoes I had been catching all across art and philosophy and science but which I never knew could exist.
I abandoned my novel and never looked back.
It took me five years just to plow it to the end. During this time, the world of Everday underwent several deep transformations. The text was getting progressively denser and more hermetic as I struggled with it. Most entries had to be rewritten, almost from scratch, multiple times.
Admittedly it didn’t take that long only because it’s big and complex. I was being lazy; I was being distracted by all kinds of unrelated projects, not to mention having to earn bread for myself and family; above all, I didn’t find the right scope, style, tone until well into the book (so its first half was especially hardly hit with rewriting). I wasn’t much of a writer when I started it; I may not be much of a writer now but at least I learned something about how this particular kind of book needs to be written.
Finally, in 2013 I distributed a first version of the complete text — and got some encouraging feedback. At the same time, however, I could finally see the text as a whole myself and realized how painfully unready it was. Clumsy, pretentious, naive (in a non-cute way). I started what I though was a final copyediting pass — but which turned out the first of many, many copyediting passes that would take me three more years to finish.
Also in 2013, a friend suggested that my text needs some kind of a gentle introduction — that without it, the cliff is just too high for the reader to jump. So I condensed and developed some ideas I had into a prologue.
It explained a lot about Everday to myself.
The prologue is like an SF short story on its own; the rest of the book, however, is very different. It’s an alphabetic list of entries — an encyclopedia of customs, inventions, words, ideas, places and times, fears and joys: tersely written, full of weird notions, idiosyncratic vocabulary, and cross-links. The world it portrays can perhaps be labeled a utopia, though I worked hard to eliminate a tone of self-conceited soapiness; it is utopian in that most of the urgent-but-obvious problems we’re currently facing have been long resolved — so the really hard and important problems can stand out. The book tries to look at what will be troubling us after we no longer kill each other or pollute the environment.
It’s an image of a civilization that has largely stabilized. My book eschews most of the standard SF plot devices (no wars, no apocalypse, even no aliens) not because I consider them unlikely but because I felt it more interesting to look at what might happen if everything just “turns out okay.” It’s a future in which humankind has nothing and no one to face except itself — and no questions to answer except those it asks itself. Whether the outcome is inspiring, scary, or just bleak and muddled is for the reader to decide.
All I can say is, I really enjoyed writing it. That’s my world.
Now it’s yours, too.
Here are the three rules I set for myself early on:
- Write only about things that move you. No filler.
- No cliches. Keep rewriting until the text jumps to life and surprises itself.
- Imply instead of describing. Describe instead of teaching. Teach instead of sermonizing.
Which perhaps can be compressed into a single commandment: Write for yourself. Write what you’ve always wanted to read. Expunge the notion that if others do something, you must do it too. You must not. (Unless you enjoy it — in which case, by all means, do it, don’t struggle to be original at any cost.)
And here are three metaphors that may give some idea of how I write.
Long before I attempt to write up a topic, I begin by gathering material. It’s an intentionally amorphous pile, a scattering of all sorts of scraps — disjointed words and terms that may or may not relate, random expressions that “ring the bell” or just impress, vague and hastily scribbled ideas, quotes and pseudoquotes (quasia), notes for myself to research this or that in detail. A lot of that looks terribly silly and out of place — but, at this stage, I don’t erase anything. I accumulate. I don’t impose any structure other than very roughly sorting the stuff into topics.
At some point, the critical mass is achieved — the solution is oversaturated — and the process of crystallization begins. Everything comes alive. Sentences and concepts get lifted, shuffled, sliced and trimmed, fitted into each other; new ideas pop up, words snap into place, deep connections reveal themselves. After the flurry — often surprisingly brief — is over, what I’m left with is a solid, if still very rough, piece of writing (plus some unused bits to be moved to other places or dropped).
- Scaffolding removal
You need to clear the scaffolding once the building is erect — so its true beauty (or ugliness) becomes visible. The problem, of course, is recognizing what is and isn’t scaffolding. As I reread my text, I realize that some parts of it were only useful for myself — were but rungs that helped me climb, auxiliary lemmas that got me to the main result but added little value of their own. So I go ahead and remove them — and oh, what a difference that often makes! So much more elegant, airy, impressive… sometimes the text seems positively smarter than its author.
After the first draft, the character count of a text I’m working on generally only goes down, never up: I edit by removing much more than by adding. (One danger is removing too much, of course: an intelligent reader should still be able to get to the top somehow.) It won’t be a stretch to say that I have written two interwoven Everdays only to disentangle and erase the weaker one.
- Zone melting
Zone melting is the best metaphor I could find for the way I do copyediting. It’s hard work but it has to be done. Even if it may, at first blush, appear like it’s finished, careful reading reveals just how messy the text still is. Clumsy, unclear, or just overlong expressions, unnecessary technicalities, nonobvious connections, accidental tautologies, slips of tone and attitude, unnoticed bits of scaffolding — all these are impurities that need to be driven away.
So I go through each chapter dismantling — melting — sentence after sentence: I doubt every word, test lots of alternatives, sift, sort, and eventually recrystallize again. As with real zone melting, I often end up with some dangling bits that, while nice by themselves, just felt out of place wherever I tried to fit them; this contaminated end of the crystal needs to be cut off and discarded — mercilessly.
Everday is a kind of book that really couldn’t have been written the old way — on paper. With the amount of editing it took, the freedom of electronic text was crucial. It’s one of those cases where quantitative convenience adds up to a new quality.
It’s also a metabook: many of its ideas — quasia, science art, nostalgia, even movable type — apply to the book itself as well as the world in it. Everday-the-book, of course, has entries on Everday and on books.
One key notion that goes through most of the book is evolution. The deceivingly simple recipe — randomize, select, repeat — underlies a lot of Everday concepts and entities. It’s a world where evolve is more often a transitive verb — where the intelligent beings finally have sufficient breadth of perspective, computing resources, and time to really look into what works and what doesn’t: to guide complexities instead of simply enjoying them.
I honestly didn’t set out to write a popularization of evolution — it kind of happened on its own. It, too, happened evolutionarily: evolution emerged as a winner from the pool of various other guiding ideas I had been playing with.
Because, you know, evolution is something that is known to work. It is a chunk of dry land in a world that’s anything but dry: in a fluid, relativized world with no governments, no universal ideologies, no material dearth — and no death. That’s a world where everything is imminently solvable, where so much is possible that you may skip doing it forever, where you know too much to be seduced into action by any single idea… but evolution is something worth spending an eternal life on: it is one of the very few things that can still surprise you.
Which, to me, is as noble a goal as anything.
My Everday surprised me. See if it can surprise you.