My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome Max Gladstone to talk about how the power of Oblivion relates to Full Fathom Five.
My writer superpower is Oblivion.
Obliviousness to surrounding conditions may seem more a liability than a superpower — the kind of “gift” that gets you pancaked by a city bus because you tried to read a Buzzfeed listicle and cross the road at the same time. Obliviousness leads to working through lunch and dinner because you didn’t realize it was 7pm already, to bad plays in poker and go (oh, I didn’t realize there were two kings on the board), to sleep deprivation and household mess (what dust bunnies in which corners, now?).
But it does help the writing.
See, distraction is an enemy of word count. You know how the Force connects all things, carrying impulses and emotions from one end of the galaxy to the other? Imagine being a Jedi — I mean, a fully-realized one like Obi-Wan in A New Hope or Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, so in tune with the Force that it’s a state of being, not an ability you turn on and off. Walk down a street, as a Jedi, and emotions overwhelm you. Imagine trying to get anything done in that environment! Sure, Yoda and Obi-Wan lived on barren colony worlds to hide from Imperial death squads, but it’s quite possible that a peaceful remote hermitage is just plain more comfortable for folks with low-level always-on psionics.
We live in an echo of that world now. My phone feeds me a steady stream of stuff it thinks I should care about. Sure, I can turn off the phone, but since publishers no longer accept manuscripts handwritten on the backs of Anna’s Taqueria napkins, sooner or later I’ll have to sit down at a computer, and once I do, the floodgates open.
And that only covers digital distractions! The analogue variety are, if anything, worse. My desk hosts a gargoyle, a tiny water-starved terrarium, several microphones, assorted opened mail, assorted unopened mail, pens, pewter knights in dully shining armor, and odd snaking little cords which go to something, I’m sure. Engaging with any of these items is a distraction; cleaning my desk to remove them is itself a distraction. And then there’s the sheer number of books I have in this apartment, strewn about horizontal surfaces as highwaymen strew caltrops across forest paths.
(What’s the present tense of strewn, anyway? — and there’s another potential distraction, because that way lies the OED, and in the OED lies madness. Figurative as well as literal.)
Distractions haunt writers even in coffee shops, which in addition to baked goods offer a steady stream of goobers taking conference calls on the free WiFi. “Hello, this is Steve from NebbishSys, who else is on the line?” There’s only so much even good headphones can do.
So: my superpower. More or less at will, though with varying degrees of efficacy depending on recent sleep and hangover quotient, I can slide into an oblivious groove in front of a page (real or virtual). The distractions remain; the internet is keystrokes away, the phone’s in my pocket. There’s a sidewalk full of people outside the window. But when the power’s on, I can just go, dammit. Godzilla could stomp down the street, Zombie Emma Goldman could lead the Zombie Worker’s Movement on a revolutionary march through Davis Square, and I’d still sit, writing.
Like any X-Man, I use tools to augment my power. Headphones and a good supply of wordless music are clutch. A chair at a high counter lets me alternate between sitting and standing without breaking flow. Fullscreen mode on Scrivener (and, these days, in Word) means never having to glance down at your wordcount meter, or up at all those wonderful useless font choices.
Tricks supplement the tools. For example, the little notebook at the bottom of a standard Word window, the one with a pencil moving across a page, where if you stop writing the pencil turns into an angry red X? If I just watch that pencil as I write, the words move in the way they should, and the only question is how far my mind can outpace them. When I write longhand, I lose myself in the trail of wet and shining ink on the page. The little pencil icon is a poor substitute, but that’s life.
Of course, X-Men Powers come with X-Men limitations. The hyper-focus gives me tunnel vision. I need to work extra hard in my civilian identity (and in my writer identity too!) to notice the world around me. It’s easy, if I indulge my superpower, to miss both trees and forest for the mountain I know lies on the forest’s other side. I have to force myself to stop and appreciate a detail — a flower or a particular impression of light through trees. At the same time, I have to consciously deactivate hyper-focus to notice larger, systemic problems, ranging from the personal (house is a disaster) to the global (deep-seated injustice reigns).
Full Fathom Five, my new book, is a product of my superpower and of my attempts to fight against that superpower. Super-focus let me sit down and damn well write this book in the months after publishing my first novel — a heady and insane time full of distractions both internal and net-borne. But there’s a lot in this book that wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t fought against the superpower — innumerable small details, yes, but also larger thematic issues of diversity, culture clash, activism and gender and rebellion.
It’s good to have superpowers. But you still have to do the work.
Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published his most recent novel, Full Fathom Five, in July 2014. The first two books in the Craft sequence are Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. He’s also on Twitter as @maxgladstone.
Book Description for Full Fathom Five:
On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren’t conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods—perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World.
When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she’s grievously injured—then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear—which will crush her, if Kai can’t stop it first.
Read the first five chapters here!