Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: May 2006

Why we write

This is a huge topic, I know, so you have a long weekend to reflect. :) This question was sparked by an item in a Garrison Keillor column in Salon (registration may be required). I’ll excerpt the relevant paragraph here:

I came back to Benson School as the only boy in the sixth grade to have seen New York City. Enormous status. Royalty, almost. A girl asked me if it was true that trains ran underground and went fast, and I said, yes, it was true and I had ridden them. It was the first time I had original experience to offer to an audience. That’s how a writer is born. You went, you saw, and now you tell the others.

This isn’t quite what motivates me, and I suspect it’s not Mr. Keillor’s entire motivation, either, though you could extrapolate it and include journeys in your imagination. You have almost an obligation to report those, because nobody else can.

If I had to narrow down my motivation to write to one thing, though, it would be the characters that populate my imagination. They don’t usually spring up fully formed, like Pallas, but rather require some nurturing to reach maturity. On occasion, they continue to intrigue me. I want to write down their adventures so that they won’t be lost, and perhaps in that sense, my pack rat tendencies serve me well–I live in fear that the characters will fade from my mind, their hopes and dreams forever lost, the same way that my fear of forgetting what the date of the Joe Jackson concert was prevents me from throwing out a ticket stub.

Funny, I hadn’t thought that “why we write” was going to relate to hoarding, but I guess it kind of does. I just stumbled across a letter in Salon (that’s two mentions in one post) about a guy dealing with his wife’s hoarding tendencies. Cary Tennis, responding, linked to the children of hoarders site, which, to bring this post to a fitting and circular end, contains a number of affecting letters describing some interesting characters who really deserve their own stories.

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I think I’d better think it out again

Some of the stories I’m proudest of have come from a single idea so strong that I have no trouble keeping it in my head for the duration of the writing process. Those kinds of stories are typically pretty short, because although I might have a beautiful, strong idea for a novel, it’s difficult to sit down and write for the solid 250 hours necessary to get the physical typing done.

Then there are the other kind of stories, by which I mean most of them. There are stories that start not with an idea but with an image, or a character, where the story arc isn’t fully developed when you start writing. There are stories for which the original story arc proves insufficient to sustain the story. I’m in the middle of revising one such story now, the one I did for the Fabulist Fiction workshop, which started out being about friendship and is now more about morality and peer pressure. And ambition. Maybe.

The difficulty in writing a story like this is that the structure was built to accommodate a specific story arc, and then revised with something else in mind, and now resembles a messy hodgepodge of both. The original themes are not gone, just reduced to a secondary role, and so while certain elements of the story still belong, they do not need to be as prominent or as accented. How prominent do they need to be? When you’re in the middle of editing, head down in your forest of words, you can’t make those decisions, and it can be daunting and frustrating to have the niggling feeling that the story Isn’t Working, but the solution doesn’t seem to be apparent.

You need to step back and review: what is NOW the main character arc? What is the starting point, what is the ending point? What steps need to come in between? Write an outline (I find outlines are often more useful after I’ve written a draft than before). You’ll suddenly see scenes that aren’t necessary, and scenes that are missing and yet to be written. Go back. Don’t give up.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

The view is great, but there’s a long line…

Certainly I wouldn’t say it’s everyone’s goal to have their book be #1 on Amazon or the New York Times, but most writers wouldn’t mind that, if only for the doors it would open for future projects. For some people, that might be a goal, but with more and more books out there, it’s an increasingly fleeting goal these days. Now, there are still exceptions, like Harry Potter, but those tend to prove the rule.

Is that just because there are so many more books out there? One would think that even with a bigger selection, the ones that capture enough interest to be #1 bestsellers would do so over a long period of time. I have a feeling that this relates to a larger matter that we’ve discussed in the context of cable TV: if you can pick and choose channels specifically related to your interests, then the end result will be that there won’t be any one channel broad enough to capture everyone’s interest. The #1 channel will be something that edges out the others because 51% of the public like it, not because it’s of better quality than the rest, and when the margin of #1 is that slim, you’ll get a lot of change as the margin of error swings back and forth.

I think books are going in that direction. Not that there aren’t books that could appeal to everyone, but that there are so many with a more specific narrow appeal that people gravitate to those first. The Da Vinci Code has more legs than I would’ve thought possible; of course, it’s getting a bump now from the movie buzz. I can’t think of another book aside from Harry Potter that I’ve really seen everyone reading in the past five years.

Which, y’know, is reasonably good news for those of us who pander to specific narrow interests…if we can just broaden them a little bit, we could be #1, if only for a day.

What a Character!

Lest I spend too much time focusing on the minutiae of writing, I thought I would take a minute to talk about characters, as some comments on older works of mine mentioned that they thought the characters were a strong point.

I am a very character-focused writer and reader. I liked Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, but I never really wanted to read them again, and I think that’s because there were no characters that really grabbed me. The appeal of Foundation is the universe Asimov built and the ideas he was expanding on, and while I admired and enjoyed those, they didn’t engage me. By contrast, Tim Powers, whose work I recently wrote about, also creates a fascinating universe with interesting ideas, but he populates his universe with much more memorable characters.

In my own work, I find that my main characters tend to be less memorable, but I (apparently) create enjoyable secondary characters. Which is an interesting distinction. The main characters don’t have much personality, but they seem real. We see them through the focus of the events of the story and we judge them by their reaction to what happens. Okay, I misspoke a little. They do have personality, but it’s not a quirky memorable kind of personality. It’s the kind of personality that lets the reader identify with them. Whereas the secondary characters can be drawn in broader strokes. We view them through the perception of the main character, as they’re elements of his or her world. I think I wouldn’t want a main character that was TOO quirky, as that distracts from the experiences of the book, but maybe, as I think of it, that’s an artifact of the type of writing I gravitate to: single character focused. If I had a broader narrative that jumped between multiple characters, maybe they could all be more colorful without harming the story.

Colorful or not, it’s important to me that they seem real, and I’m always happy when I get feedback to that effect, as I did recently for one of my stories. And I can always tell when I haven’t spent enough time trying to get into a character’s head, because they come out flat on the page. For me, that’s the beginning and end of any story I write: start with a character going on a journey, and end with the knowledge that the character became real enough to me that the journey made sense and accomplished its goal.

Show vs. show telling

As part of one of my revisions, I’ve gone back to examine a scene in a story to see whether I can get a better effect by having one of the characters recount the events in the scene to another rather than showing them directly. More specifically: rather than showing a fight between a bunch of kids, I’m rewriting the scene to show one of the kids telling his father about the fight later. The difference is in what impact I want the scene to have. The fight itself doesn’t have much tension to begin with; it’s told in flashback anyway, so we know the kid survives and how things turn out with the other kids. The thing I really wanted to give a sense of is the disparity in social standing between our hero and the other kids, and I thought the fight did that well enough. By changing the scene to the kid telling his father, though, I get to show the kid’s perception of the other kids as well as the father’s perception, and as a bonus explore the relationship between the father and his kid, which is something I was trying to bring out more.

Replaying events through a character’s description can be a powerful device, giving you not only the details of the event but revelations about the character in showing what parts he or she chooses to emphasize, gloss over, or leave out. However, it does (of course) rob the scene of any narrative tension (unless, in this case, it’s whether the dad will give his kid a whuppin’ for fighting). It may also rob the scene of critical details, because people in retelling won’t have the narrator’s onmiscient eye, and giving them that eye ends up seeming contrived. “Oh, yeah, Dad, I noticed that their clothes all looked neatly pressed.”

In this case, I think I don’t need all the details (though I’ve already written them and I hate to toss ’em out), and I’d rather show the interaction between the kid and his father. So I hope this will work better.

Animal People

A recurring theme of this journal, no doubt, will be treatment of the anthropomorphic animal characters that tend to show up in my work. When presenting a story to an audience conditioned to expect and like that kind of character, fine, no explanation needed, except maybe enough to fit them into one of several archetypes: four-foot, two-foot, plantigrade, digitigrade. For an audience without those preconceptions, the process of explaining what the characters are has to be quick and painless, and therefore has to use images and concepts that exist in the mainstream. Again, if it’s just a smart/talking animal, not so much a problem. “Fluffy lounged in the afternoon sun, occasionally lifting her head to tell her pet, Carol, to open another can of cat food.” But if the characters are more humanoid, then what?

I think this relates to the big question: what element of the story requires a humanoid animal character? When bringing in those descriptions of the characters, be sure to relate it back to that part of the story as much as possible. If it’s the differences from humans that matter, emphasize those. If it’s more of a parable with furry critters subbing for different social classes, highlight the species differences.

And then you get into what to call them. “Anthropomorphic animals” is unwieldy and too vague, anyway, applying as it does equally to Hazel from “Watership Down” and Disney’s Robin Hood. The term I’ve come across most recently that I think works is “human-animal hybrids” (thank you, President Bush). That gives you a definite starting point that implies physical attributes of both humans and animals, and the most natural result is a humanoid creature with animal traits. The reader can then wait for you to fill in the animal traits.

I’m going to try that one out, but if anyone has other thoughts, I’d love to hear them.