Go to https://redd.it/9j1p00 to ask me about my novels, writing process, and life.
Even if you cannot attend, I hope you’ll take your chance to get to know me better.
Here’s the link to the conversation.
While reading ‘The Performance Cortex’ about motor skill and intelligence, it occurred to me that writing skill is also hard to define. And yet, there seems to be value in trying to lay these skills out so as to understand the landscape and also to develop a path to attain those skills. Here’s what I have so far:
What are the skills of writing?
-grammar of the language within which one is writing
-how to form a sentence
-how to build a paragraph
-an understanding of how to express an action
-an understanding of how to express an idea
-a theory of how to portray an emotion
-vocabulary pertaining to one’s subject matter
-the ability to maintain either a flow-state of composition (the choosing of words) or a diligence in filtering one’s consciousness to
-story and archetype
-elements of story: character, setting, exposition, dialogue, conflict
and micro-elements of each element of story
-observation (in the real world)
-awareness of mental states separate from one’s own
-the perceiving of various points of view (including authorial and reader)
-editing (while in composition)
-developmental / copy-edit / proofread -level editing
Clearly, this list is partial.
As hinted at above, I’m interested in developing a theory about how to improve as a writer across the next few years and decades. It seems evident that writing, for me, will be a lifelong journey (as it has been for many), and yet where possible I don’t want to over-flounder in the dark, but balance a shadow and light approach to improving the writing and storytelling.
“Erik grew up in the U.S., Gabon, Indonesia, and China. With his diverse exposure, Erik brings an empathetic multi-cultural perspective to the writing of his debut fantasy novel.”
Interviewer: Hello. Welcome to “What We Do,” a podcast about artists and how they do what they do. Welcome to “What We Do.” We’re here today with Erik Van Mechelen. Welcome, Erik.
Erik: Thanks. Glad to be here.
Interviewer: Erik, what do you do?
Erik: I am a fiction writer, and I’m currently working on my debut novel.
Interviewer: So what other writing have you done in the past?
Erik: I’ve done some short stories, you know, starting all the way back when I was young, in grade school, and done well in some contests. But now fiction is the main focus. I do some hobby blogging here and there. You’ll see me around online if you look on places like, Quora, which is, like, the social network of writing, medium.com, which is a new blogging platform where I primarily write about the process of writing fiction. But the core, you know, the core game for me right now is getting this first novel out there.
Interviewer: Can you tell me where you grew up and how you were educated?
Erik: So I have a pretty interesting background in terms of where I’ve lived. I grew up mostly in Asia as a result of my dad’s work and business. My younger years were spent in places like Gabon in West Africa and Indonesia. I graduated high school in China. I think that, in part, led to one of the core focuses of my fiction right now, which is, like, my intense focus in bringing more people into the “In” group.
So I’m very interested in cultural empathy. You know, we can get into more of that, but that was…you can certainly tie those dots and tie the thread back to growing up in Asia and Africa.
Interviewer: What did your father do?
Erik: He was in the oil business, so he was in oil exploration. He kicked off his work in the Middle East, did some work in Africa and then Asia. And we got to tag along throughout that journey.
Interviewer: And what kind of schooling did you have in those different locations?
Erik: Yeah. I mean, the education was fascinating. I always tell people that’s one of my unfair advantages because the educational models, well certainly on the economic side, teachers are just paid better at these international schools that I attended, to begin with. But the curriculums are also structured in such a way you have the IB programs, which is International Baccalaureate, which is the AP equivalent internationally, which is a very strong program. But on top of, like, the quality of teaching and the level of, like, student-teacher, which you usually hear about in undergrad programs, but had pretty intense teachers that cared a lot about, you know, us learning how to think at the high school level.
But even more than that was growing up in classrooms where there’s 50, 55 nationalities of students every day such that, you know, my best friends, you know, weren’t from the states, which is my home country. And they were from Taiwan, or they were from Germany. And that was a pretty unique thing that growing up as a teenager was just part of my life. And I learned an incredible amount just by osmosis, day to day, going through that and being part of that international community.
English was what was taught in terms of instruction. However, they often encouraged other languages. So when I was very young in Gabon, French was spoken. But I left Gabon when I was six, spent a little bit of time in the U.S. And by the time we got to Indonesia when I was nine, and I was there for seven years, I studied both French and Indonesian in school in addition to English. And similarly, in Beijing, where I graduated high school, I studied some Chinese as well. Certainly interacting with my friends and locals, I was able to pick up a little bit of those languages along the way.
Interviewer: Do you have a country that you resonate with?
Erik: I really love Southeast Asia, like, the culture, the people, the music, the food. And that’s where I grew up. I mean, I was there for 9 years old to 15, 16 years old. Like, I had talked about, in a way it’s an unfair advantage, but in a way, like, everyone has their own background that you, sort of, don’t get to decide. And that was where I grew up.
Interviewer: When did you decide to become a writer? Or was it a decision even?
Erik: Yeah. You know, it really was. I had always in grade school written short stories. I really was passionate about it, and teachers would tell my mom this. In the parent-teacher conferences, they’d tell her about how whenever there was a short story or some kind of imaginative assignment given that that’s when I would really light up. And so certainly there.
I think that probably stemmed from just being introduced to fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi and the imaginative types of work when I was quite young. I started reading “The Lord of the Rings” when I was in the fourth grade. So that’s, you know, normally something you read a little bit later, but I stole it off my brother’s bookshelf and started reading it.
So, like, those little things got me interested early on. I mean, for me, once I was introduced to like, these amazing fictional places… And by the way, like, I was living in some, like, extraordinary places. I mean, Jakarta, Indonesia is a fascinating, like, vibrant city, you know, very multi-cultural, especially in the school environment that I grew up in. Yet, like, these fictional environments were so enticing to me. And then, I think it’s only natural, like, you wanna see if you can do it yourself.
So I think at an early age, that’s what started it off. Although, some time has passed before I decided, about two years ago, to really go all in on this full-time. So a few things happened in between, you know, reading “The Lord of the Rings” and this decision. But I feel better and better about it each day.
Interviewer: So would you consider it an ongoing passion that you had?
Erik: Yeah. I would think so. I read so much fiction in middle school, particularly. I remember really feeling good about comments that my eighth grade English teacher gave me on a short story project that I did. He even joked that, “This feels a little bit Hobbittesque,” you know, because you start with what you can imitate. And then you build and you learn what is there, and then you can create your own later. But I remember getting really energized by that.
And so there were a number of other periods. Once I got into college, I remember when I was filling out my National Merit Scholar information. Before they give you money, they say, “Hey. What do you think you’re gonna study in school?” And I didn’t know, so I just put creative writing because that seemed the most interesting to me at the time.
I didn’t end up majoring in creative writing or English, although I did declare English. I ended up majoring in Econ. But all throughout that time, I think every year, I took at least one creative writing course, whether it was fiction, or poetry, or screenwriting, and made sure that I was just keeping with it. And one of my short stories, which I almost submitted you could say on a whim as an Econ major, was one of the top four within my school and went off to a short story contest called “The Nick Adams, ACM, Associated Colleges of the Midwest Contest.” And actually, I was a finalist.
So I heard from one of my girlfriend’s friends at the time, who worked in the English department, that professors were asking, like, “Who is this guy from the Econ department who submitted this story? Like, why isn’t he in any of our classes?” So those were a couple of the moments that kept me going. But then I worked four and a half years in merchandising and then in software development at Target Corp before I decided I really wanna, like, now…
Interviewer: That’s enough to drive anybody to creative writing.
Erik: Yeah. I mean, truly, once you see what the other options are and how unappealing they were at the time for me.
Interviewer: Through your love of reading, you developed the desire to imitate. And you were, at some level at least, continuously reinforced by teachers who saw that. Although you ended up choosing economics, the desire…was there doubt about choosing your path as creative writing earlier at the college level?
Erik: At the time, I certainly was still considering it, like, in my freshman year, for instance. By the way, I like how you summarized. That was perfect. I think that describes it really well. I think there was some hesitance, you know, as an 18, 19-year-old trying to decide, you know, how am I gonna make the most of this next four years, to the degree that I was even thinking that, which then led to, first, me engaging more in international relations.
One of the professors that actually got me interested in going to St. Olaf, here in Minnesota, was one of the international relations professors who actually spoke to me over the phone when I was in Beijing. And that’s where I went first, then pragmatically speaking, or in addition to international relations, took a few Econ courses. And I was interested by that and decided that might be a way to make a bit of money right out of school, versus, like, creative writing.
Interviewer: So you made the decision…
Erik: Because I do tend to be somewhat pragmatic, like, I do think one of my strengths is that I am able to take risks. So the idea of trying to get a debut novel out there seemed possible. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about, you know, creative writing professors really hammering, you know, “You’re not gonna make it. It’s really difficult.” And there’s enough people that will tell you that. And, you know, maybe it’s the duty of the creative writing professor to tell you that. Maybe it’s not. Maybe they should be the one that’s lighting the fire. Fortunately, I didn’t run into too much of that.
So yeah, about two years ago, I started entertaining this idea because I was writing what amounted to half novella or novella-length work on the side of my corporate work. And then I realized I don’t know anything about the business side. I need to understand a little bit about that before I really dive in and start building this first book.
So I actually set up a really short interview series, and I interviewed about 15 authors, some in Minnesota, some out of state, some overseas. I remember getting up in the morning at 5:30 one morning to talk to someone in England, just to get a sense of a few different paths that people had taken, that real people had taken. Because you can find, you know, many stories online about what to do.
But then I felt comfortable that it was at least possible. It might not work for me right away, and it probably won’t. The odds are definitely against everyone who tries to make it strictly from fiction writing. But I felt, like, there was enough of a chance for me to really get going on it and I owe it to myself to get started right away.
Interviewer: So what were… Can you summarize a little bit what you take away from those interviews?
Erik: Yeah. I mean, there’s, like, thousands of ways to do it. And so then it became more of an internal process. Like, I’ve been on this massive self-awareness kick lately, like, what do I really suck at? Like, what are my weaknesses? At Target we called them opportunities. But, like, no. Like, what do you suck at? But then on the flip-side, like, what do you, like, intensely excel in and love to do?
And so for me, like, they’re pretty simple, like, I love communicating. I love connecting. We talked about the empathy, about the cross-cultural empathy. I feel, like, I’m a great listener and I can get people wherever they’re from. And that’s mostly been a case of practice, too. Once you engage with people from many places, you just naturally can do that a bit better. But also enjoy doing that. So that adds to me improving on that, so the communication and, like, connecting with people or the listening.
But then I also have an insane…I believe I have an insane, like, perseverance. And I think those three things actually work well with the interest of fiction. So having gone through that process, I felt, like, I had the internal and the mental tools that would allow me to succeed as well.
Interviewer: You mentioned earlier that you have the ability to take risks. Where do you think that comes from?
Erik: You know, that’s really tricky. I think some of it comes back to just having seen a lot of different ways of living having grown up overseas. And this is probably a different podcast, but I spent about eight years playing online poker as well. And you sort of have to, like, understand risk and reward and the mathematics, and have like, the mental fortitude to do something like that and be successful. So I think that played into at least training my risk, you know, speedometer if you will.
Face to face and online are probably two different beasts. Like I love… By the way, like, I’ve actually quit playing poker. Like, I will only play if it’s for a charity or if it’s with buddies and I don’t have any money on the line.
Erik: Because this is why I mentioned this. It might be a different podcast, but I’m happy to get into it now because it’s, kind of, insanely interesting to me and I think relevant to a lot of people in different ways. I was effectively addicted to poker, to playing online poker. The tricky part was I was actually good at it too.
So there are…I guess there’s, kind of, three levels of players. There’s someone who’s great at it and not addicted, so those are…generally a lot of pros fall into that category. And then you have people that are… I mean, I guess being addicted or not addicted to the game has nothing to do with your success level. But for me, I found myself, in some of my hard moments in life, turning to poker. Whereas in other moments, it was just pizza and beer money. I would also turn to it when I shouldn’t be playing to, kind of, distract myself from things that weren’t going well for me.
And so that was about, like, an eight-year, like, kinda off and on thing. You’ll hear people in addiction talk about how you relapse, like, six or seven times before you can finally get over it. So that certainly happened. And I was playing, like, all throughout college. And even when I was working at Target, I would supplement my income, you know, by playing, you know, poker on the side.
So you can, kind of, tell yourself a lot of interesting things when you have this addiction. And one thing you often hear people say, and I said the same thing to myself is, “Well, I can quit anytime because I’m not addicted.” And then the day when you realize that that’s…the day you realize you’re lying to yourself is when you realize that’s kinda the first step is, like, being aware of that kind of lie that you’re telling. And then you have to start working to get over it.
The thing with novels is while you usually can tell a core thread, you have the ability…and I’m writing what would be classified as fantasy, you have the ability to create an entire world. That requires a lot of world-building, cultural elements, setting elements, that because you’re this, kind of, architect/inventor, your subconscious will tend to pull in things that you’ve been surrounding yourself with.
So for the most part, I just go towards media that I’m interested in. And, you know, once in a while, I’ll try to go outside the box and, you know, read about Japanese gardening or about cars, because I don’t know much about cars, you know, and things like this. And then sometimes that will twist the subconscious in such a way that proves interesting later.
You know, I’ve also found just reading other people’s work, like, other writers that I’ve engaged with and found online. I have a small writer’s group that I have strictly online. And we share stuff with each other too, and that’s kind of fun as well to see what they’re up to and get their perspectives.
But in terms of, like, actual, tangible, like, how I keep track of this, so I actually did… I have this evolving view of memory. A memory is so many different things. I actually was, like, intensely interested in memory and learning right around two years ago as well. Probably two and a half or three years ago, I prepared for and participated in the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2014 in New York.
Your listeners might have heard of Joshua Foer. He wrote “Moonwalking with Einstein” back in 2006, and he won the U.S.A. Memory Championship back then, right. So I was, like, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.” And I did an online contest and took fifth internationally, like, in the world, on this site for beginner mnemonic [SP], like, memory athletes.
And then he actually hit me up on Twitter. He was like, “Hey, you should check out the U.S.A. Memory Championships since you had such a good time.” And then I trained, practiced six months and then did pretty well. I took 18th overall out of 75 participants in my first effort. So that competition is really about…is, like, really niche, short-term using associations, using mnemonic techniques to remember like, pretty stuff like names and faces, strings of numbers, playing cards, poetry. I was awful at the poetry for some reason just thinking back to that.
So that was really focused on, like, really tactile things, objects in terms of memory. But as I think about, like, how do I build stories, I try to do it in a less organized manner. Like, I’d rather it be organic. Of course, once you get to plotting a novel, your novel, whether you want to or not, will have a plot, even if you’re a discovery writer versus, kind of, architect/outliner.
Like, your novel will have a plot, but I love the idea of letting, you know, the biology that I was given, that I happen to have, and whatever my mind wants to take in and put out there on the page, I prefer that versus being very, very diligent about recording every little, tiny thing that I see. Because I can get excited about a lot, like, really easily.
So that’s the mode that I’m taking now versus four years ago. I mean, my Evernote account online has over 6,000 notes on it, you know, things that I’ve snipped from the web, things that I’ve written down. I also have stacks of notebooks, you know, that I’ve filled up, and now I really look at them. So the utility of these things versus just using my intuition, I’m starting to realize, like, we are all amazing at remembering the stuff that we’re interested in. So let me just focus on the things that I’m interested in and it’ll be fine.
Interviewer: Do you find, after training for the memory competitions, that you use any of those techniques in your creative writing?
Erik: Maybe tangentially. So this comes back to, like, what we were talking about earlier. Like, what did you learn from…? You asked me, “What did you learn when you were talking to these 15 authors on the podcast?” And that there’s, you know, a thousand different ways to approach this. And right now, I’m just talking about being, you know, a novelist, let’s say.
Some people will tell you…some authors will tell you, like, published successful authors will say, “You need to have, like, a really detailed outline written down.” But I can remember, like, and the way that I can test this is if I can imagine each scene happening, then I already have it, like, I already have the story. And if this scene isn’t powerful enough, there’s not enough imagery, not enough emotion in it that I can remember, and this is the story that I’m working on every day, then it’s not powerful enough and I need to work harder on those sections. And so, like, the outline is in my head in a sense.
Interviewer: So one of the guides for you of exceptional writing, it has an impact on you emotionally. Is that true?
Erik: Absolutely. I responded really well to one of the main writers on “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story,” and he said, you know, you need to make people care, whether that’s aesthetically, intellectually, emotionally. And so those are some of the things that I look at, like, is it really striking my imagination?
Interviewer: Now you talked about a difference between being an architect and a discovery writer. How do you classify yourself?
Erik: Yeah. I’m a discovery writer. I really wanted to be an architect because I thought that, like, that sounds pretty cool to be an architect. I always laugh because I think about, like, George Constanza in “Seinfeld” and he’s always wanted to be an architect. I’m like, yeah, you know it sounds…like, not only would you get to design buildings and things like this, but you know, you get to call yourself an architect as well. So it’s, like, it sounds really cool. It’s a cool word. I’m, like, a word geek, so I love how things sound as well. And that’s just one of those.
No. I’m a discovery writer for sure. Like, the key thing for me is as I’m going, I will make short synopses. So, like, while I do wanna have it in my head too, I’ll make short synopses of the scenes as I progress. So, in a sense, I’m creating the outline as I go. And now when I get the end, I can see here are the problems with the outline and I can address that later.
George R. R. Martin, “Game of Thrones,” he talks about being a gardener. So he has an idea of, like, when you plant your garden, you have an idea of where you’re gonna be going, like, you have a plot of space to work with. You know what you want to get to, you want to plant this variety of vegetables, have this output. But how you arrive there can vary.
Interviewer: Do you find that most things that percolate in your imagination conform to the general item that you’re writing? Or is that a matter of time and involvement with the story as you work on it, or…?
Erik: Yeah. It can change. Like, that’s actually been one of the fascinating things for me. Like, I didn’t understand, like… This came up in my author interviews again is although things can change as you write a novel, sort of to some degree, partly the point is that it can evolve and you should be open to that because it is such a long form. If you could write an essay, you should just write an essay, you know. If you’re gonna write a novel, then be open to that.
So that was fascinating because we talk about the emotional elements that really hit. You know, there are a variety of, like, types of stories, right? Like, let’s get away from genre, like, fantasy, sci-fi. You just sort of, like, design outlines, you know, versus, like, your romance, realistic fiction, mystery. But there are sort of, like, emotional, like, core elements as well, like wonder and relationships, or an idea, or adventure. These are sort of, like, emotions that pull us, like, make us excited about stories, at least for me.
And so what I didn’t know, and what I found out through the discovery process, is oh, my story focuses on the sense of wonder. It focuses on this idea of empathy and panpsychism. And over here, it focuses on adventure. So I have these, like, three emotional cores that are threading throughout the piece. But I didn’t know that when I started.
When I started, I was, like, “I wanna write a story about this boy who gets rescued from a prison, where he’s unaware that he’s actually in a prison, and then finds out he’s even more trapped than he was before. And then go from there.” But those three elements, the wonder, idea, and adventure became, like, the core emotional pieces that I latch onto as I write.
I got to the end of my first draft after only two months of, sort of, monkeyishly [SP] working this thing for as many hours as I could. At that time, I had just quit my work at Target because I was like, “I gotta go all in on this.” And circumstances allowed me to do that financially. But I wanted to do it as quickly as possible, especially since, like, coming out of the software world, I had these ideas around, like, get into a minimum viable product quickly. So I was like, “Let me get to the end of this first draft and see what happens.”
So I just wrote, like, day and night and, like, as many hours as I could. And my friends would ask me what I was up to. And I was like, “Sorry, I’m writing,” you know, like, on a Friday and Saturday night. And so that was November to December, I had this idea I would finish it before the holiday. And I managed to do that in terms of a first draft.
And then in a year, you know, in the year since then, the story has changed probably three significant times as a result of this discovery writing process. You get to the end of that first draft, and there’s an idea of what you’re writing, but you actually look at what you wrote and you can now see the outline of the story, characters, plot, settings. You can see how it went it down and then realize, “Okay, that’s the story I told. This is what I thought I was doing.”
But the third question then is, “Well, do either of those two, like, fit what I want to do, what I feel compelled to do right now with my second draft?” And in my case, I’ve gone through two major story switches, just call them, like, almost complete rewrites in a sense, to try to hone in on those elements that I’ve talked about before.
Interviewer: Sure. What is that process like? What kind of dialogue takes place internally for you in trying to resolve and decide where you’re going next?
Erik: Coming back to, like, my willingness to take risk, I think that allowed me to say, “You know what? I just wrote a 400-page first draft, and 300 of the pages, like, they’re just gonna have to go.” That was difficult at first because I had some kind of internal, external pressure to get the first book out there. Let me just self-publish it if necessary. With my current debut, I’m planning to go to an agent and go through the traditional publishing process because I wanna be validated that it is good, or at least to some degree for some people, some readers.
But that was really difficult in the beginning. But the exciting part about it was, I even feel more self-aware about this now is that I’m so I’m so…like, I’m so early and I know so little. Like, every day I learn more and more, but I learn more and more about how little I know about more and more. And I’m really fascinated about, like, we talked about words before. Like, language is, kind of, built into us, but writing, like, we don’t come out of the womb with the ability to write. And so it’s something you have to, kind of, learn, but yet it’s connected to one of the ways that we can transfer ideas to each other most effectively. And we can transfer, like, our imaginations and thoughts to someone else.
And so I’m, like, really fascinated by that, like, evolutionary speaking in terms of human to human connection. But also, like, in practical terms, you know, this story-telling space, specifically around novels, is evolving too with technology coming on.
And I just know that on several different levels I’m at the very beginning. So learning how to get published, learning how to write a story, a full-length novel, learning how to self-edit as I go so I don’t have to re-write my book three times before it’s decent, getting published, learning how to write, learning how to self-edit. And then what I found later is building a community of readers and engaging with them, and building on top of the stories I’ve already written.
So, like, the way I look at is I’m trying to most strategically learn as I go, without being taught by an MFA program, how to write a story. I’m trying to do it to some degree by myself, but taking on the advice that makes sense to me as I go along to.
Interviewer: How do you write? Do you pencil and paper? Pen? On a keyboard? Do you use any particular software?
Erik: A little of both. It depends on what I’m doing. In the current novel, I’ve done some of it in a notebook with a pen. And then that’s pretty nice because you get to transfer it over and you kinda have a version 1.5 of it as you’re transferring it in, as you type it out, which is it nice, especially for alpha readers. Like, I can pretty quickly make that transition to the alpha readers by making that shift, forcing myself to look at it a second time. So that’s something I’m really interested in doing for my next book.
Interviewer: And alpha readers, you mean first reads?
Erik: Yeah, first reads. So I have a close group, includes, like, my younger brother who reads all… He’s read all the classics and he reads all of the current fantasy and stays up on it even more than myself just because he, like, really loves that genre. And so he’s one of those people that he…like, I can write something tonight and he’ll read it tomorrow morning, which is awesome. Like, that’s invaluable. So building that team, reading and editing team is something I’m learning and probably should add that into the list of three things that I had earlier about things I’m learning.
So yeah. Some pen to paper. Mostly on the computer. Software-wise, like, many writers now are using Scrivener, which is just robust. It gives you a lot of flexibility. An interesting one though that I’ve had some fun with is called ilys, I Love Your Story dot com, ilys.com. And it basically just blanks your screen out. And, well, you set a word count for yourself, and it just blanks your screen out and you type. So I kinda like that because…
Their marketing is that you get in touch with your self-conscious and flow and all these things. But it’s actually kinda useful because you don’t self-edit as much. You just have to type…like, you actually can’t even press backspace. So that’s kinda neat. And if you’re in a coffee shop too, people can’t see what you’re working on. So if you are worried about…that’s something to consider.
But I wrote using that program. I wrote 40,000 words in five days using that program exclusively, which is, like, 30,000 words roughly is about 100 pages. So I just cranked out, because I could never press backspace. So those are some of the tools I use.
Interviewer: So when you were writing this, did you rewrite the same idea multiple times? Or do you have some kind of rules for yourself that you formed in the process of using that program?
Erik: With that program, specifically, I was doing an experiment that went pretty well such that I continued it. So I had the thought to do a rewrite of part of the story in the first-person. The story now is third-person, close to character. So you’re really close to the thoughts of the character, but it’s still in third-person. I decided to try it out in first, and so I wrote, like, 2, 3, 4,000 words and I was enjoying it and so I just kept going. And so over… Yeah, it was basically over a weekend plus a couple of days that I did that.
The interesting thing that did happen, coming back to, like, being open to things changing, is that I found out a few things about some side characters and was able to explore more of the setting. So I’m really happy with where my setting is at this point. The setting has, like, the vibrancy and the color that I want for this piece. That experiment, which was again, like, a lot of work potentially wasted if you looked at it from, you know, a cost-benefit or if you looked at, like, how many words have you written and how many you’re gonna end up using, it doesn’t make sense. But I found out some really key things as well from doing that.
Interviewer: Are you character-driven? Are you first setting-driven? Do some things come easier to you?
Erik: I’m trying to be more character-driven now because that’s what’s interesting to me. And the novel can do that better, I feel than most other mediums because you have introspection. It’s like a natural part of it. Like, very few movies, like, are you gonna hear what someone’s thinking. “Dune” the movie, so “Dune” is, like, a just amazing sci-fi piece. “Dune” the movie, the book is omniscient. So you actually hear the characters thinking, like, throughout the movie, which is kind of weird, like, because you just don’t see that in movies.
So I’m trying to be more character-driven. My tendency though is to think of ideas, like, really interesting ideas. Those don’t matter as much it seems. Like, and the more I read lately, I find myself attaching myself to a character. Like, it’s so difficult, coming back to memory, to remember what you read, to begin with, or what you’ve seen, like, if it’s over a year ago. But I can remember the characters. And so that seems to be the most important part, and so that’s become the focus.
I love fantasy because you can do all these really interesting things, sci-fi and fantasy, that, you know, aren’t real life, which adds a lot of color and interest and flair. And you can build some ideas into that, which I love. And that will be a massive part of the book, but the character needs to be at the center. And so that’s been a major learning process and even, like, the last three months is, like, figuring out how are these authors making me care about this character? And so I’ve learned a few things, like, well, they need to be active, they need to be competent, they need to be likable in some way. They can be likable in a dislikable way, right, you know? But something about the character makes us really vouch for them.
So I mentioned one of the ideas in my story is around…and this more a part of the world and the setting, is around the idea that everything has some sort of consciousness. So it’s not to say that, like, the light…like the photon of light is, like, getting angst because it’s buzzing around the universe too quickly and it can’t stop and smell the roses. But the animals and the creatures and the beasts and even the rocks, like, are able to express some kind of consciousness within my world.
And one of the characters, one of his talents is that he slowly begins to sense whatever consciousness is expressed as emotions for himself. And so this is the beginning of him realizing that he can communicate with things that he didn’t believe that he could before. So it does, kind of, playback, like, I mean, like, maybe that’s what I was doing, you know, is that.
Because I always tell people, like, because people have commented like, “Oh, you’re really gregarious and you’re able to talk with people really easily.” But it’s only because I’m, like, intimidated by very few people, to begin with, but also because I have that curiosity to, like, learn what they’re about.
Like, I asked myself a question one time. I was sitting at my parents’ place and looking at…I was mowing the grass or something. And I saw a rock there, and I was like, “If a rock could talk to me, how would it do that?” And that’s what started the thought process and building that idea. And I realized, like, emotions are pretty interesting, so let me have this character be able to experience these things as emotions.
Interviewer: Do you have a typical writing day?
Erik: Some days I stay up pretty late writing. So then, you know, my morning is gonna start later in the day than most people’s. But I also love writing in the morning because I’m pretty fresh. So my morning might be 10 a.m. or noon, but when I am feeling really fresh, I wanna hit it too. On the flip-side, it’s also important I believe, and I’m trying to be as professional about this as possible because if I want to write something that’s worthwhile, it’s probably not gonna get there by accident. So I need to be putting in the craftsman approach and working at it.
So there are many times, and this is I think a strength of mine, is that I have the discipline when things aren’t going well, I can stay at the computer. My work day is probably 3 to 6 hours of, like, pretty intense writing, and then the balance of, like, the 8 to 12 hours that I might work in a day is playing with scenes and maybe doing some revisions on scenes that I just wrote. It depends on what stage in the project I am. That’s the general theme. And I balance that with some exercise and getting food and staying alive too.
Interviewer: When you say, “Pretty intense,” what does that intensity involve?
Erik: It means that I’m tolerating no distractions. So as close to 100% of my mental focus is on the scene at hand. And that allows me to create the space that then allows my, you know, fingers to tell the story. I think when I decide to do something, and sometimes I seem a little haphazard if you’re looking at the outside because I try a lot of experiments. Like, I even spent a year with some buddies making an iPhone game, like, while I was at Target on the side. So, like, I do a lot of these little experiments, website building, things like this.
But when I decide to do something like the memory, the poker certainly, I mean, I spent 3,000 to 4,000 hours playing or thinking about the game. So I got… You know, I was essentially a semi-pro in that. And, you know, I could play 14 hours at a time, no problem. How well is one thing, but to do anything for 14 hours requires something.
And I think that transfers into writing too. Like, I have the perseverance, which for novel writing, it’s a little different like for poets. Like poets, they’re looking for, like, the shape, and the contour, and the sound, the pitch, the rhythm of the words. And it doesn’t have to be long, it just needs to really catch you in that way. And it can take a poet a long time to find that. And they are craftsmen too. But novel writing, just because of the length, requires a level of perseverance too. Like you have to. Like Neil Gaiman talks about, like, you just have to write the scenes even if you’re not excited about them right now. You, sort of, have to plow through that 10-page stretch, and then you’re gonna get back to the exciting part.
So I think the perseverance and the curiosity and the willingness to learn something new has really helped me, especially now that I’m finding, like, there are so many nuances about fiction writing that I didn’t know about. Like, I could’ve interviewed 100 more authors and I wouldn’t found these out, which is one of the things I’m patting myself on the back for is that I just jumped in.
Interviewer: And you have some, kind of, current working timeline for yourself?
Erik: Yes. The immediate goal… So we’re recording towards the end of January. So the immediate goal is to have a fresh draft that I can work with an editor since I’m still considering myself pre-edit, that I can work with an editor, and a group of beta readers that I’ve already assembled, to then be polished by July of 2016, to go to an agent and begin pitching. So that’s a pretty tight timeline from where I am, but I’m excited to get it out there too.
Interviewer: Do you have an editor in mind now?
Erik: Yeah. I do have one lined up. So it’s someone that I worked… She was in the English department at St. Olaf. And she’s done one other novel before mine, so I feel like her energy is right. The price is right. Like, we communicate really well. And she gets what I’m trying to do too. So, yeah, I have nothing but, you know, positive energy on that. And she’s looked at, you know, what I’ve worked on so far to this point, just to make sure that we’re on the same page. Like, getting into the project will be pretty fun once we really get into the editing process.
Interviewer: That sounds exciting, for sure.
Erik: Yeah. And that will be… And I’m sure there will be some things to learn there too, but I’m excited to take on those challenges as well.
Interviewer: When you’re working do you find that there’s some places you won’t go in your imagination?
Erik: I had such an interesting conversation last week with someone who had read so much sci-fi fantasy. And we got into a deep discussion around coming back to these emotional places that really spark. And she was talking about feeling threatened. And when she feels threatened by fiction, that’s what really hits her the most.
That made me think. And it’s having me re-tool, even in my current draft, a few things to make myself get, you know, a little more uncomfortable than I was, to look at some of those emotions. And I know, like, what the core of the story is, but even adding small pieces of that at the right times is helpful. And we all have, sort of, felt threatened at one point.
So, actually, that conversation led me to some introspection around, like, when have I been fearful of something? Since that’s a really powerful emotion, you know, balanced with some of the more positive ones like love. And that I realized was something that I was avoiding, actually, was not thinking about really putting… And so we talked about relating to the character earlier, being character-driven. If the character feels threatened, that’s a good thing because the reader is gonna be able to, you know, connect with the character because they’ll feel for the character’s safety, for instance.
That conversation was very serendipitous, it seems, in the sense, I’m in these later stages of revision and I can make those tweaks within the context and structure I’ve already built, was a real eye-opener for me and something I’ll definitely be taking into account in the next job too.
Interviewer: Do you have ambition beyond the current project at all?
Erik: Right now, I am still intensely interested about what I’m writing, which I think is a really important thing. This is probably different for everyone. But I’ve been on this project almost a year and a half, right? And that’s what I’ve been doing 80% of the time, you know, and balancing with, you know, some editing work and a couple of other things. But fortunately, I’ve been able to retain, like, an intense interest in it. And I think the moment I start to not would be when I need to really consider wrapping it up and getting it shipped out. Fortunately, my timeline is sharp anyway.
But absolutely, like, from a larger, like, career and life context, I haven’t found… And like I mentioned, I’ve been fortunate to try, like, a few different things. Like, I tried the game development. I tried these memory competitions. I worked at a couple of different roles in a corporate environment, saw what that looked like. I haven’t found anything outside of writing fiction that gives me that feeling. So…
Interviewer: What is that feeling?
Erik: It’s gonna sound, like, pretentious, I guess, a little bit at first, but I’ll explain. Like, I feel most alive when I’m writing. It gives me such a range of emotions. You know, you can’t have the contentment without the suffering. And so I get everything in between as well. And talking about our human evolution and, like, our place as, you know, biological creatures, it’s quite fascinating to think that maybe I’m just responding in some way to that urge to, like, have this spectrum of experiences, even within something that seems as simple as writing words on a page.
And I feel, like, I have that range of emotion and experience, even though it’s all in my head. But on top of that, it’s just fun. Like, it’s fun and fortunately, there’s a marketplace out there. You know, people are reading and consuming. And in that way, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to, like, pursue what a lot of people would call, you know, my passion and have the, like, mental fortitude to build a skill set to eventually deliver that product to the audience that’s there. Like, that’s I feel incredibly fortunate for that to have, you know, to happen, you know, here in 2016. Whenever I’m feeling… That’s by the way whenever I’m feeling…like on a bad day when I’m struggling to, like, stay at the keyboard, that’s the kind of self-talk that I’ll give myself.
Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Erik: I guess the self-talk is, like, partially pragmatic and partially idealistic. So, like, on one hand, it’s like I have this runway financially. And I have the shot at, you know, creating something that’s sellable right now. And that just engenders urgency.
And then on the second part, it’s like I have this ability, like you said, to share something with other people and really engage with people emotionally on these levels that I’m engaging with myself as I write it. And with luck, with people that I haven’t even met before, which is just really, like, a really neat thing like, to be able to put something out into the universe and people are there to receive it and then talk about it too. I would love to be sitting here in, like, a year from now and, like, we’re talking about the book coming out.
Interviewer: [crosstalk 00:47:58] Do you have some tasks that you find more difficult than others?
Interviewer: And then if you need to give yourself self-talk, what kind of things are you saying to yourself?
Erik: So by the way, like, sometimes, like, I might not… Like, recognizing it is, like, the most important thing. Like, if you’re recognizing that you’re struggling, then you can’t do anything about it, obviously. Sometimes I’ll just, like, I won’t know what it is. And usually, that’s when my intuition is failing, like, I’m starting to question my intuition and starting to over-analyze.
So, like, I also have a very analytical mind. But when I’m writing fiction, like, it’s usually better if I turn it off. Like, I always dial it down a little bit and use my intuition. We talked about, like, just with the memory, just taking it and going.
So sometimes I won’t know what it is, and I’ll just get up and I’ll do some push-ups. Like, we talked about the mind, body thing, like just get the body moving again. But I haven’t, like, taken myself out necessarily of that attention because I’m still, like, on the carpet next to my computer. I haven’t opened up my social media or checked my e-mail. I’m still there. I’m doing the push-ups. I’m like, “Okay. What’s going on?” And sometimes just asking me those questions will help.
Oh, but, like, in terms of what I’ll tell myself really simple things like, I’m building. You gotta keep building, just lay the next brick. Things like this. I have a tendency, when I’m flustered, to try to think too long-term. So let me focus on the short-term. These are the things I’ll tell myself. Stretch out, do the push-ups.
Then you asked, “What are the tough parts, usually?” So first drafts, I mentioned I did the first draft, like, a 400-page thing in two months. So first drafts I’m pretty good at. I’m pretty good at, like, a fresh thing. I like new things. So that’s been a really important thing, tactically, is to engage myself every time I sit down and excite myself every time. I’ll be like, “Okay, here’s why I’m excited about this scene,” and remind myself about that. And sometimes that’s mid-session. Sometimes that’s, like, as I’m getting up in the morning.
Trickier on the revision. So I’ve now written more first drafts than I’ve revised, in a sense. And revision is where, like, that’s where the magic is. You don’t hear as many authors talk about the revision process because it’s so individual. And they have their process that they worked out with their individual set of editors that get who they are.
And so in terms of just self-editing for myself, like, I’m working through a third, fourth, a fifth draft. That’s been most difficult because you don’t see the word count, right? Or you can’t count the number of scenes that you wrote that day. It’s just, “Well, I revised a couple of scenes, and I really don’t know if they’re gonna be better or worse until my alpha readers read them and give me some feedback.” And so you don’t have that hard metric to build off of. So you’re in this unknown space. And, fortunately, we talked about risk, like, I’m all right with uncertainty. But it’s still tough sometimes, for sure.
Interviewer: Our guest today was writer, Erik Van Mechelen. This has been a “What We Do” podcast. Thanks for listening and until next time, goodbye.
In the novel I put off reading for too long, Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe, the main character muses that falsehoods may become truths, that one’s reflections on past events might play a part in creating the present.
I tend to refer to this phenomenon as recontextualization of the past. In these moments of recognition, you might say, I see the past differently, and in some weaving of past and present the now changes. Suddenly, new potentialities emerge from that recognition. This is my best description of it, at least for the moment (why, pray, would I give you less than my best effort?).
I started actually writing my first novel when I was 16. In my godparents’ laundry and computer room. The reason for ‘actually writing’: novels, like most important decisions, lack a definitive starting point. Their life is like the life of the mind, continuously growing, taking on new shapes, experimenting, addressing novelty, swelling or shrinking with perceived victories and defeats. All this no matter what one’s position is on the Self, by the way.
So you can imagine, in Fall 2017, having turned 30 years of age (30 rotations around the Sun!), that I had some trepidation about what to think of that unfinished novel begun 14 years prior. I say ‘unfinished’ because many artists, myself included, claim a piece of art can scarcely ever be finished. You have to wrestle the thing away from me. I know it can be better. Upon reading you will have the chance to notice character moments you’d like explored in more depth, or the occasional plot hole, or the expedient use of the mental abilities the characters’ employ in efforts to solve the puzzle of their enprisonment.
But as of 2017, this novel was also unfinished in the sense that it was unread by anyone outside of my reading circle. And while the writing of fiction itself is meaningful to me, and so meaningful that I’ve done it for perhaps ten thousand hours without any monetary compensation, I also would love for readers to read the story. To me, books are always part of a conversation between the author and the reader and between readers.
Rise to the Rahz, then, needed finishing in that sense. Copious revision and editing (the book was reduced by half). Rounds of professional and unprofessional (but careful) proofreading. A cover design with easter eggs (you probably won’t notice the easter eggs until you read the first few chapters).
In a matter of weeks, the novel will be ready in print, published through Tablo.
The easiest way to be updated is by liking or following my Fb author page here: https://www.facebook.com/evmauthor/
If you can’t wait and must have the digital version as an ebook: https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Rahz-Erik-van-Mechelen-ebook/dp/B07D9CLCRD/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1527625806&sr=1-1
I invite you to ‘look inside’ and read the opening. Try before you buy.
Note: Once I thought there was little creativity in revision, or even copy-editing, but here there is creativity, as a brief character thought, pose, action, inflection of speech, might stamp, cement, alter, or transform the significant emotion transposed to the Reader, and how is this not creativity, when we writers adjust the emotional response to another in some future reading state?
Every word has the potential to change a life.
The world changes by what one person does or doesn’t read.
Then she will forget how well she raised her three sons.
If my mother gets Alzheimer’s
Then she will forget how well the café outside the tourist sites in Xian treated those three sons. (Consider the one-child policy in China.)
If my mother gets Alzheimer’s
Then she will forget the sacrifices she made, when she stopped teaching to raise the boys, when she did all their laundry and read to them every night, when she stayed with the youngest while Dad went to Iraq. (He wasn’t there for the war, but at one point ISIS troops were only 40 kilometers from Erbil.)
If my mother gets Alzheimer’s
Then she will forget the names of her grandchildren. (They are yet to be born, but my brothers and I intend to have children.)
If my mother gets Alzheimer’s
Then she will be like so many others who eventually took a path to dementia.
We are, the totality of us, forgetful of everything which we do not remember. And not all by choice. When I look at life in four dimensions, we seem to have forgotten how we will go out. That is, how we will die. We are embodied in this human structure, and there it is. Death outside of life. Death out of life.
It will be tragic, and I’m fairly certain I won’t be prepared. Writing this or even a novel about memory (which I’ve done) won’t. I do not want to pretend I have wisdom I have not yet earned.
But maybe in this preparation the tragic will not take me and my family down. And strength and a forging onward will result.
Or, if I am the one who gets Alzheimer’s (after all, this is genetic, and my grandmother was taken before I had a chance to know her), then with luck my own family will approach this end with resilience.
One of the reasons I think I admire authors like China Miéville, who demonstrate a desire and ability to play in various genres, is that they seem to be creative in a deeper sense than an author who stays in an established lane.
Who are other authors you’ve followed because of their intentional motivation to explore new territory? (Often foregoing book deals in the process.)
To me fantasy can (and should) continue to explore new territory and continue to show how it is indeed Art in the sense that it is exploration.
Now, I may have conflated what an author can do and what a genre can do, although of course what happens in a book and between authors and readers is always an ongoing conversation.
This would get us into another line of discussion, perhaps, around what we as Readers look for. Are we content within an orderly space where certain conventions work or are we willing to peek outside the garden walls from time to time? Where does a balance of order and chaos enter into our field of vision and desire as Readers?
I also asked this question on reddit.com/r/fantasy
Is there a flaw in this metaphor? This over-used aphorism. Try search-engining ‘business is marathon, not a sprint’ and see how many hits you get.
I was lucky. My mother instilled exercise into me like Gary Vaynerchuk’s mother instilled self-esteem.
She tricked me. My after school hours (and sometimes my before school hours) were spent in training.
For me, though, it was mostly fun. I was playing sports!
Games where I learned toughness and grit, winning and losing. How to collaborate, how to compete.
I say Amen when someone like Will Smith says he will die before a complete stranger goes longer on the treadmill than him. I say Amen when Richard Branson provides a three-word response to his success: “I work out.”
Collectively we have a fantasy of discipline. It would be nice if I could write a novel, run a marathon, bootstrap a business and actually contribute real economic value to society.
One of my mentors-from-afar, Andrew Warner, once ran a marathon around San Francisco. By himself.
Marathons can be run in a few hours.
We don’t need to run marathons. We need to run many of them. And do much harder things than simply run. But daily exercise is a start.
When I audited what I do, I discovered this. Exercise and writing are the only two things (apart from eating and sleeping) I do every day.
If you think it is hard to exercise daily, you’re right. Living a good life is. Would you want it any other way, though?
I was recently listening to this conversation between Sam Harris and Robin Hanson about hidden motives. We often don’t know the root of why we take actions or make a given choice.
When you strip away post-hoc narrative and causal links leading toward any action, it is hard to reason about where these motivations come from. I just seem to take actions. I eat. Get tired, sleep. Have an idea for a cool world, write.
Jordan Peterson has a practical psychological lens of aiming for an ideal and taking small steps toward it. Someone like Eliezer Yudkowsky might say, this feels like very simple goal establishment and progress toward a goal.
But we are still left with the question: Where do the goals come from?
This is where it gets interesting. Because we aren’t stuck yet.
Another of Jordan Peterson’s claims is that we are each traversing and climbing numerous games or competence hierarchies. If we do well across the set of these games or hierarchies, then we have better chances to attract a good mate, and to have a better life in general (a life wherein our personal responsibility, integrity, and toolkit allows us to avoid sinking into Hell when tragedy inevitably strikes).
Maybe, too, when doing well across many games, we are in positions to do meaningful things.
Where will I take this blog post next?
One avenue is along Reid Hoffman’s skills, desire, and marketplace triangulation. When we do something we’re good at that people want and that we like to do, we win. Loving what I do will allow me to persevere through the difficult bits that make one stronger, the antifragile periods of any valuable pursuit, where a bit of suffering gives insights and strength one didn’t have prior. I felt I’d gained something when I broke through and completed my first novel, and sent it to agents, a few weeks ago in March 2018.
As I considered what skills and experiences and accomplishments I have accumulated to date, writing is one. The craft of writing, in particular fiction writing, suggests a lifelong journey. Mastery wasn’t even claimed by many of the masters. Isn’t that fascinating?
But where to fit into the grand conversation of literature? An ongoing story from before we formally had writing systems?
For the moment, and, again, I don’t know where exactly this is coming from–even China Miéville recounts just liking trash when he was young (he now runs a magazine called ‘Salvage’, to which I subscribe)–I want to write in ways that make me feel and think strangely. I want emotional and intellectual discomfort. I want to not quite know what I’m doing. Peterson might say this is walking the narrow path between order and chaos. Darko Suvin, whose thesis China Miéville dissects in a dialectic in this talk at KU, whereby he criticizes Suvin’s position by maintaining extreme integrity within his position (a kind of auto-criticism). Suvin famously wrote about ‘cognitive estrangement’. Cognitive estrangement was what science fiction was about and what it was good for. It put you in places you were unfamiliar with. This, in Suvin’s position, differed from fantasy, which was (too generally) wish-fulfillment. (Later, Miéville challenges the idea that fantasy as we know it cannot by definition be estranging, too. You only have to read Perdido Street Station, which Miéville wrote when he was, gasp, 28, to see the author acting out this argument.)
I’ve also begun looking into the history of science fiction. There are many ways to do this, like watching this animated Extra Credits series (where I found Jules Verne’s first ever novel–unpublished till the late 20th century–called Paris in the 20th Century), or, here’s a novel idea, read some novels!
To keep myself publicly accountable, I’m keeping two lists on Goodreads:
a) Novels to prep for EOLIAN DUNES (currently in the 2nd draft of this project)
b) Novels to prep for ESTRANGEMENT (currently outlining this project)
(My first novel, SOUND OF STONE, is out with agents now.)
I just went to find some links and, wow, how quickly the train of thought is lost. But why must we insist on being on a ‘train’ to begin with? Maybe this is only for the benefit of the reader. Maybe this is what consciousness does. It removes noise. Gives signal. Signal of what?
I love G.C. Waldrep’s observation in ‘Testament’ about consciousness, somewhere around page 53, but it might be page 67.
I’m paraphrasing: Consciousness has a break-even aesthetic.
Imagine if consciousness didn’t have a breakeven aesthetic. (Actually, it seems like consciousness has an equilibrium of a slightly worse than break-even subjective score…pain feels worse than pleasure/contentment feels good. Let’s leave meaning aside for the moment, even though meaning seems much more important than pleasure.)
If we had a lopsided consciousness barometer in the negative direction, we might rather die (and some people, many people, do take their own lives).
If we were over-indexed toward contentment, we might not do anything.
As humans, we seem to be centered slightly below the frozen ice, aiming to escape from frigid waters, for air, light, but not entirely, we are pulled back in again and again. We are Sisyphus.
I like how Neitzsche said it. We are Sisyphus and we must enjoy it.
In the talk between Sam Harris and Robin Hanson, Robin talks about his goal:
“I want to find insights.”
He doesn’t care about fortune or fame, and although he is capable of bragging (when Sam asks him about a younger moment that defined him, in particular not applying to the best colleges available), Hanson often speaks plainly, without flair, with precision, with an eye for the things we are saying subtextually.
What are my hidden motives in writing this essay. In publishing it?
One thing is, having finished and put my first novel out to agents, for the first time in about four years have a surplus of attention to think. Sure, I’ve written a first draft of my next piece, but the mental load of the previous four years is slipping away, clearing and creating room in the sense that I love in Will Wright’s ‘possibility space’ model (theory?) of game design.
So many of us want things explained to us. To give what Peterson calls structure. Maybe order. Maybe control. Sure, I get that. I have a quiet life which gives me the chance to reach through the fiction. And so I must.