Why Write Anything?

by Matthew Lowes


If we’re going to make something, let’s make the things we want to see exist in this world. If you’re writing a story, whatever the genre, write the story you want to read, drawing from the deepest motivations you can find. This is the best way I can imagine of both insuring some measure of originality and significance to your work, as well as an ongoing enthusiasm for doing it. And really, anything else is short changing yourself and everyone else as well.

In this age of social media, online reviews, sales rankings, marketing platforms, focus groups, and target audiences, not to mention a widespread obsession with social status and material success, it’s perhaps all too easy to lose track of why we would write something to begin with. So ask yourself: why do you want to write this? Really get into it, with whatever current project you are on. If you find a really good answer that doesn’t draw on thoughts of success, I guarantee that work will become more interesting.

Not that social media, markets, and reviews and all that are inherently bad. It can all be useful, and careful use can maybe help you make a buck from this crazy racket. But their best use, I would argue, is not in your creative process. Someone who writes a book about vampires because vampire books are selling well, is only writing a book about book selling and nothing else. Forgetting all that, and the fact that vampires were more a thing of the ’90s, if you have an idea for a vampire story you really want to read, then I say go for it, especially if you have an even deeper reason for wanting to write it.

Of course, most writers would like their stories to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience. Whether this is a touch of narcissism or not I don’t know, but either way I think the desire is ennobled by a pure creative spirit. Sure I want to be entertained, but I also want to read stories with a vision beyond sales, by writers who had some motivation deeper than popularity, broader than recognition, and more profound than success.

The Fiction of Reality

By Matthew Lowes


Photograph by Matthew Lowes

As writers of fiction we are always trying to project some sense of reality into our stories. We praise the vivid setting when it feels as if we’ve been there. We thrill at events when we can see them happening. And we love the character who seems to walk off the page, fully fleshed, and yes, real. But how does it happen?

The irony is that actual people experience their lives through a variety of thoughts that start to look a lot like fiction. We are, along with everyone around us, constantly telling ourselves who we are, what we’re like, what type of person we are, what we believe, where we come from, the kind of world we live in, and on and on and on. And very little of it has anything to do with what’s really happening right now. We are creating these self-fictions out of the perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and memories that arise in consciousness moment to moment.

Since this is happening in the minds of people all the time, seeing the operation of these self-fictions and understanding how they create conflict could be a great insight into creating fiction that seems real. In short, good fiction must contain the self-fictions of the characters within it. In other words, it must contain characters who have fictional views on the fictional world they inhabit. These views lie at the heart of all internal conflict, and one might say all possible conflicts.

Let’s look closer at what self-fictions are, how they form, and how they come into conflict with each other, with the self-fictions of other people, and with reality itself. A self-fiction is a story you tell yourself about yourself and/or the world. “I am a writer,” is a self-fiction. “I am a good writer”; “I am a bad writer”; “I am a lazy writer”; “I spent 20 years honing the craft of writing only to find out it’s not enough.” These are all self-fictions, and I think you can see, especially if you are a writer, that they are all self-fictions a single person could have. You can probably also see how these thoughts, if believed, will conflict with each other and with various happenings in that person’s life.

I am an American, a Mexican, a Muslim, or a Buddhist; I am a faithful husband, a loving wife, an angry person, a damaged person. Birth is a blessing; life is suffering; death is a bummer. The world is a beautiful place full of good people; the world is a nasty place full of selfish people; the world is made of stuff guided by physical laws; the world is an illusion; the world is God’s creation. And on and on and on. There are enough examples to fill an entire universe. Even something as ordinary as a tree can be a self-fiction. And in most cases, what people experience as reality may simply be a projection of these self-fictions in consciousness.

Such a situation is created through a repetition of thoughts. Every time a thought arises it may become a self-fiction if the mind grasps hold and believes it. The more it repeats the more grasping occurs, and the more real and binding its contents will seem. At this point the self-fiction takes root in the person, and it will continue to seem real and binding even if present experience or new thoughts come into conflict with it. Because all things change, and new experiences and thoughts always arise, conflict with these self-fictions is inevitable. Even the most seemingly accurate and objective self-fiction cannot be right at all times, in all places, and in all situations.

This is all pretty abstract though, so let’s create a more elaborate example. A man and a woman fall madly in love. The man thinks, he could never love anyone more than he loves her. They are made for each other, two people sharing the same love, the same life, the same being. Eventually he asks her to marry him. She says “yes!” and a whole new level of love opens up to them based on the depth, the sincerity, and the promise of this commitment. Of course, he has moments of doubt. Can he really be satisfied with this one person for the rest of his life? Why did she get so angry about the wedding cake? What if she turns out to be like her domineering her mother? They are just little thoughts in conflict with the established self-fiction of their relationship. But, he says to himself, they are in love and love perseveres. Marriage is for life and he is the kind of guy that can stick with someone through thick and thin. So the wedding happens and they start their life together.

Maybe you can see how this goes already, even without the details. While so far they have been sharing a wonderfully pleasant self-fiction, each has other self-fictions. She envisions a house in the suburbs, three children, and traveling the world. He envisions life in the city, no children, and a romance without end. Or whatever. The point being, things change. They argue about moving. She get pregnant but miscarries. His father dies. The stock market crashes. She gets a job that keeps her traveling all the time. A thousand other stories interact with their lives and every one starts to seem in conflict with the others and especially with the one in which they are in love. He starts to think about other women, but he could never have an affair. He’s not that type of person. Only he keeps thinking about it. Maybe if the situation came up … hell, maybe he is that type of person. Maybe everybody is! Maybe that’s just the kind of world it is. And one day, he find himself in a hotel bar with a woman he works with, and in that moment ….

This can go on and on, but it’s just playing various self-fictions against each other. It’s all self-fictions, all the way down. And the more the self-fictions conflict with each other and the situation itself, the more real and interesting the characters and situations seem. That’s because anybody with a modicum of experience knows intuitively that’s exactly what it’s like. That’s exactly what happens. And if the conflict increases enough, some kind of crisis will occur, and things will change. Some self-fictions will crumble, and others take over. And perhaps, if in an instant one sees through it all, the whole thing will collapse like a house of cards. Then what?

If you look at things this way, maybe you can consciously manipulate the self-fictions underlying your writing. That may mean both the self-fictions of your characters, as well as your own. In fiction, as in real life, these self-fictions can be obvious or incredibly subtle and deceptive. Every protagonist is a conglomeration of self-fictions that will come into conflict with each other and the world. Every villain has a conflict generating mass of self-fictions guiding their actions. Every POV character presents the setting and events of a story through the lenses of their own self-fictions.

In fact, if one gets right down to it, there may be little difference between real life self-fictions and fictional self-fictions in the mind of a reader, since real life self-fictions are themselves imaginary in some sense. Which means fictional places, characters, and events may seem real by being, in actuality, just as real as the self-fictions through which the human mind usually perceives reality. Indeed, every aspect of fiction can be examined and manipulated as a projection of self-fictions in conflict, precisely because this real life function of the mind may be what fundamentally makes fiction possible, present, interesting, and hopefully entertaining.

Writing Between the Lines

by Matthew Lowes

between the lines

Photograph by Helgi Halldorsson

Description is boring … or so people say. Few people want to read page after page detailing the intricacies of a landscape or a room, or cataloging the attributes of character, however interesting they may be. But how then do good writers convey their settings and characters so well that we feel as if we were there, or that we knew exactly what a character looks like? It helps to change your perspective on what is really going on.

If you think of description as something that happens only within the lines of your text, and that only that which is included will be experienced by the reader, you are missing the point. The text is only a signpost used to orient the reader’s imagination, and allow it to engage properly. The real magic is happening between the lines. So it helps to think of description not as description, but as evocation. The words are like a spell creating the dream image of a place or a person in the imagination of the reader. Too many words and the dream will collapse, too few, or not the right ones, and the dream will not arise.

So the trick is not to describe a setting or character, but to evoke the setting or character. Just by changing the way you think about this, you will likely discover, all on your own, new effective ways of doing this. With just a short line of dialogue an entire character can be evoked. With a few choice details an entire setting can be evoked. You can’t describe everything, but you can evoke everything if you write not just for what’s in the lines, but what’s between the lines.

When you’ve got nothing …

by Matthew Lowes


Nothing is a blank page, an empty mind, too little sleep, and a present deadline. But the value of nothing is generally underrated. What use is a bowl without the emptiness inside? What use is a door without a hole to walk through? So here I go, wandering here and there among the words, like a hermit wanders among the woods, noticing this and that, aimless and happy.

As writers, we tend to think writing is a big deal. The more serious we are about it, the bigger a deal it must be. How else will we lend weight to our words? Even, how else will we give purpose to our lives? But all our thoughts are only thoughts. All our words are only words. In the very next moment or in ten billion years they will all amount to nothing. And life is beautiful without any purpose whatsoever.

So if you’re facing a blank page and you’ve got nothing. Don’t despair. In fact, empty yourself even more! Forget the writer you imagine yourself to be or not be. Wipe away all the memories of an ancient past. Discard all predictions of an uncertain future. Beneath your left heel stomp out fear, and beneath your right heel crush all hope. Empty yourself completely. Become nothing … a blank page. And you will see: it is from this nothing, and nothing else, that all things have their origin.

Look around.
The world itself is made of poetry.
Just notice, and transcribe.

Writing at the Limit

Or What I Learned about Writing from Ayrton Senna

by Matthew Lowes


Image by Gabriele, CC-By-2.0

In the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix qualifiers, Ayrton Senna drove what is widely regarded as the greatest lap in the history of Formula 1 racing. Watching Senna drive his McLaren-Honda MP4/4 through the winding streets of Monaco with 1200 horsepower of turbocharged fury screaming behind his back, one has the sense of seeing something extraordinary happen. And this thing, whatever it is — maybe it’s art — could only happen because of one man’s obsession not just with winning, but with driving at the very limit of what’s possible, with pushing himself into realms unknown.

Anyone who has sat in a chair and stared at a blank page knows writing isn’t nearly as visceral as race car driving. Nevertheless, there are real challenges, and there are physical, emotional, temporal, and technical limits. One must also consider genre and linguistic conventions, internal logic, story structure, characterization, conception, design, and deadlines, all of which present various types of limits within the creative effort. And these limits are not just there to make your life difficult. They are there to present you with incredible opportunities.

We often think of limitations as impediment to our goals, but limits are really the prelude to genius. Without them there is nothing to push against, nothing to strive for in our creative work. In fact, when you consider it, the imagination itself may be a tool evolved to overcome limitations. The ability for creative invention is stimulated by challenges and obstacles. And perhaps only at the limit can we discover the truest and deepest potential of our endeavors.

On race day at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna extended his lead over teammate Alain Prost so far that team managers were telling him on the radio to slow down. But he didn’t slow down. He kept driving as fast as possible, faster than anybody thought possible. Ultimately, he made a mistake, ran into a wall, and lost the race. Some people look at that and say he threw the race away, and sure he was devastated, but when you listen to Senna talk about his experiences you hear a different story. It’s clear that weekend, driving at the absolute limit, he discovered something far greater than winning a race could ever be.

Without any limitations, we might gaze eternally in beatific wonder at the splendor of an undivided universe. Unaware of any limitations we might sit on the sofa and do nothing at all. Neither one will get your novel written, or short story, or whatever it is you’re working on. After all, “the end” is a limit just waiting to be reached. So find some limits — create them if you must — and push against them! Push against them hard enough for long enough, and something extraordinary might happen. Because while writing may not be as visceral as driving the Monaco circuit in an MP4/4, anybody who has felt the wonder of seeing a story come together at their hands, knows it can be just as thrilling.


Hear Senna talk about his experience at the Monaco Grand Prix:



Three Questions

by Matthew Lowes

2016-02-03 17.46.31I thought I would follow up my post from last month on some of the influences for my story “A Darkquick Sky”, which appeared in ShadowSpinners, A Collection of Dark Tales, by attempting to answer a few questions related to my work in general.

What book do you feel has had the most influence on you as a writer?

If I had to pick one, I’d say The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, because reading it, in between my sophomore and junior year in high school, really inspired me to want to write fiction. But many many books have influenced me as a writer, both from before and after that time. As a kid my favorite reading materials included The Savage Sword of Conan, which I acquired with my saved allowance after walking several miles to a drugstore where they sold comic books, and A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, which I found on my parents’ bookshelf. As an adult, all the books that have blown me away or changed my life, regardless of genre, are a constant inspiration and influence. Here’s a few favorites off the top of this constantly evolving list:

Narrow Road to the Interior – Basho
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Tarzan of the Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs
Middlemarch – George Elliot
Mona Lisa Overdrive – William Gibson
The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
Victoria – Knut Hamsun
Beowulf – tr. Seamus Heaney
Dune – Frank Herbert
Against Nature – J.K. Huysmans
Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
West with the Night – Beryl Markham
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind – Hayao Miyazaki
Gateway – Frederik Pohl
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Perfume – Patrick Suskind
Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Aeneid – Virgil
The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

Of your own work, what is your favorite?

That is a difficult question. I think all writers must develop a fondness for their own stories … even the ones that didn’t pan out. But to say one doesn’t have favorites would be dodging the question I suppose. A story called “Waking the Forest” comes to mind, as it’s one of my more serious and perhaps literary stories. But there are many others, and I would be remiss not to mention the epic trilogy of fantasy novels I spent twelve years writing. A lot of sweat and love goes into such a long project, and I’d have to say above all it is my favorite.

What’s up next for you?

I have so many works in progress at the moment, and I’m very excited about all of them. I recently finished a hugely successful $23,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund a tabletop card game called Labyrinth of Souls, and I’ll be working on that intensively until we ship to our backers in June. I have a number of other game projects in various stages of development. I should have a new short story ebook coming out soon called “The Menace of Dupere”, and I’m working toward putting together a collection of my horror stories. I’m currently seeking an agent and/or publisher for my trilogy of fantasy novels, and I have a number of ideas for my next novel waiting in the wings. And at some point I’m going to finish that time traveling wizard story I started a few months back …

You can find out more about my work on my website: matthewlowes.com

A Darkquick Sky: Inspiration and Influences

by Matthew Lowes

a darkquick sky

If you trace the origins of any particular thought, idea, or feeling … or any work of art, you will find far reaching roots. The stories we tell have their origins in complex webs of experience and memory, as well as myriad conscious and subconscious inspirations and influences. To untangle that web completely is impossible, but we can peer into it and catch glimpses of at least some of the conscious raw materials of the creative process.

My story “A Darkquick Sky”, featured in the ShadowSpinners Anthology, A Collection of Dark Tales, is a science fiction horror story about the captain of an exploratory expedition that finds the remainder of a previous expedition marooned on an uncharted alien planet. It’s also about a man, far from his family, who is having an affair with a woman he works with.

When I set out to write this story, I was very conscious of wanting to write a somewhat hard science fiction story set among the distant stars. I wanted to portray space travel in a realistic but exciting way. And although I hand-waived faster than light travel, as even the hardest science fiction authors occasionally do, I wanted to get all the other physics and facts as right as I could. In this, my greatest inspirations were a lifelong love of science, the space program, the classic writers from the golden age of science fiction, and various stories of exploration. Some specific influences that come to mind are 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clark, Explorer by Douchan Gersi, Spacecraft 2000 to 2100 AD by Steward Cowley, and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, as well as the story of Magellan, the moon landing, and the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.


I also wanted to explore the idea of alien contact, and specifically the idea that any meaningful communication or understanding may be impossible with any truly alien entity. I wanted to create an alien so strange in its form, thoughts, and motivations that it was incomprehensible to the human mind. And for this idea my greatest inspiration and influence was the incredible and mind-bending science fiction novel Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. Of course, this is also a somewhat Lovecraftian theme, and I imagined the alien being as a kind of dark and terrible god in the minds of those it touches,  an elder thing who reaches into your dreams, and whose strange thoughts drive human beings to unspeakable violence and madness.

Some of the horror elements were definitely influenced by a variety of zombie and vampire stories, as well as classics like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Melville’s Benito Cereno. But the dramatic situation of a small crew isolated in an utterly remote location, surrounded by a hostile environment, and faced with a terrifying alien entity, is directly influenced by two of my favorite science fiction horror movies, Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, as well as the original story The Thing is based on, “Who Goes There” by John W. Campbell.

heart of darknessalienbenito cerenothe thing

These are just a few of the external inspirations and influences that were running through my mind while I was writing A Darkquick Sky. The underlying story of the protagonist, Mahendra Singh, his lust for adventure and his romance with the stars comes from something much deeper inside. It is a story of hope, horror, disillusionment, and reconciliation, with inspirations and influences not as easily pulled apart and identified. They are rooted more in personal experience, and the life of any human being is infinitely complex, a web of thoughts, memories, and emotions that are impossible to know in their entirety. And even the big obvious influences on a person’s psyche may require a lifetime of introspection to understand. And perhaps we never will fully understand … perhaps the full nature of our existence, its meaning, and its ramifications, will forever be as strange and unintelligible to us as a distant world and a darkquick sky.