Guest Post with Carolyn Ives Gilman: “Writing the Book That Wants to be Written”

How many times can a book be given up for dead, and still survive? If my book Dark Orbit were a person, it would be interviewed on TV for having survived so many near-death experiences. I first started it over 20 years ago. When it didn’t gel, I cannibalized it, and used the viewpoint character in a different book. In the late 1990s I started over, writing an entire new first draft, then threw it all out. The feeling that there was something worth saving kept nagging at me. Then, a few years ago, my thoughts started coalescing around a new set of ideas related to cognition and the brain, and I realized that Dark Orbit would be the perfect story for exploring them. At a writers’ retreat in Madison, after attending Wiscon, I spread out all my notes in a bed and breakfast, and re-plotted the entire novel. I had to take my main character and lop her apart into two different people, and invent a civilization of the blind—not because I wanted to, but because that was the logic of the story. I have always felt that, however hard it is, an author is obliged to take the story where it wants to go, not where it is convenient or easy to go.

Maybe the hardest thing I had to do was to reject the conventional wisdom that you can’t fit too many ideas into one story. This book has always been dense with ideas. Editors and agents over the years have told me that the proportion of sex and violence to ideas has to be pretty high to succeed. I always suspected they were underestimating the science fiction audience, but I tried to follow their advice. It killed the story. In the end, the only thing that made it possible for me to finish was deciding to forget commercial motives, and simply follow the story in the most interesting directions. Strangely, once I let myself write the book that wanted to be written, it turned out to have quite a high proportion of adventure to idea. It even had some sex and violence.

Because Dark Orbit has survived so many resurrections, it is impossible for me to answer the question everyone asks—what inspired it. It is partly an exploration adventure inspired by all the classic science fiction of my childhood. It is also inspired by cutting-edge science on the nature of space and dimensionality, by research into how sight works, and by the intersection between quantum physics and mysticism. Even my colleagues at work inspired it with their quirky personalities and obsessions. It never wanted to be quite like any other book, and I am happy that I let it be itself.

CAROLYN IVES GILMAN is a Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated writer of science fiction and fantasy. Her novels include Halfway Human and the two-volume novel Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles. Her short fiction appears in many Best of the Year collections and has been translated into seven languages. She lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the National Museum of the American Indian.

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