Interviewer: How do you know when you’re finished with a painting?
Jackson Pollock: How do you know when you’re finished making love?
Penis (aside): I puke and pass out.
Because Phasmatia is basically just a mash-up of all the world’s great religious traditions, writing about it involved a fair bit of research on my part. Actually, that investigation technically started a few years earlier when I was writing about how the title character in my novel, Flam Grub, takes a Comparative Religion course. While the myriad religious traditions I researched were only a comparatively small part of the plot of that book – which was actually written first but will soon be published second – it started the longer journey that eventually led to skyfisher.
Now, clearly, the more you know about a subject, the better a job you’ll do writing about it. And even though there’s an amazing wealth of information now available online that has made research even easier, just reading about something is not really enough. A writer should try to visit the locations described in a book, interview appropriate subjects, learn about professions or lifestyles being described, and generally smell, taste, and feel their setting and characters, so that they come alive with vivid detail on the page – even if most of what you learn ends up getting relegated to a back story.
That’s not to say that writers can’t write about unfamiliar things. After all, Arthur C. Clarke never flew to Jupiter, and I sincerely doubt that Stephanie Meyer or Ann Rice ever interviewed a vampire. I’m not saying those writers didn’t likely research their butts off, but they were all also able to successfully fantasize worlds without direct first-hand experience. It’s called imagination, and it too is part of a writer’s toolkit.
Research is one of those black holes that a fiction writer has to be careful not to fall into. (Actually, my research told me recently that there may be no such thing as black holes, and they are probably black stars … but that’s another story). I certainly could have spent much more time and effort in my religious research, including actually reading every one of the major scared texts from cover to gilded cover. If I had really wanted to go gonzo in my research I could have trekked to a Tibetan lamasery, attended a Catholic exorcism, taken part in a Taoist temple ritual, greeted the summer solstice sunrise with the Wiccans, had my foreskin lopped off by a Mohel, got blitzed on bhang and taken part in a holi water fight, or done a Hajj to Mecca. But, given the total number of major and minor religions here on Sol III, it would have taken decades, if not a lifetime, of study and research to become totally steeped in them all – and meanwhile skyfisher would not have been getting written. And there’s the rub. Sooner or later you have to push your book out the door and move on.
Certainly, the “when is it done?” question can weigh on you, even after you’ve stopped consciously researching your opus. I can only speak for myself, but I have never finished writing a book and felt like it was perfect, complete, and untouchable – and, hell, that’s before the editor and I start our tango. A well-constructed novel is an intricate, multilayered tapestry of plot, character, setting, dialogue, and language, and it would not be hard to tinker with it indefinitely, getting bedeviled by the details.
Nevertheless, polishing aside, somehow in terms of the big picture I’ve always instinctively known when I’m done. Of course, it’s possible that I’m just sick of the thing I’ve spent a couple of years labouring over, and my subconscious is offering me an excuse to run off to the next project. Ultimately, though, you just have to ask yourself, did I tell a good story that the reader will like? If the answer is yes, put a stake through its heart and proceed.
Even after all that aforementioned religious research, one of the most engaging tenets to stay with me is one I learned as a boy. It is Christ’s Golden Rule as cited in Luke 6:31 “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” As a reader I know the type of stories that move, engage, and entertain me – and they come in many styles and genres. So, in the end, all I can do as a writer is strive to create the same positive experience for my readers. Amen.