Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: February 2008

Should You Give The People What They Want?

No matter what the Kinks say, it’s not a good rule for writers unless you’re writing on a contract. If you’re writing for your own pleasure, or writing stories you want to tell, at least, then mostly you need to keep in mind that you’re the one you have to please.

However, it’s not a bad idea to keep in mind what your target audience wants. In general, the ideal situation is that what’s interesting to you is also going to be interesting to them, so you can happily scribble down all the stuff you like, and they’ll be just as satisfied.

There are times, of course, when opinions diverge. They, for instance, want the same characters in the same stories (thinly disguised as requests for sequels); you want to explore new ground. Or maybe you want to write the same characters, but moving on to new problems that make them less the characters your readers liked. There may also be times–and these are the tough ones–where you’ll know that a scene doesn’t belong in your story from a structural standpoint, but you’ll also know that the people who like your work will really like that scene.

Say, for example, you have a character whose dry, cynical wit is what you (and others) love about her. You’ve got her in this scene at a restaurant and have come up with some absolutely terrific zingers for her to fire at the slovenly waiter about the underdone food. It really shows off her character and will make everyone smile. But alas, the restaurant scene does really nothing else for the purposes of your story.

So what do you do there? If it’s something extraneous that you really should cut to move the plot along, but it highlights a part of the character that you like, and your readers will like, do you keep it? Try to work it into the plot a little more? Rework some of the more critical plot scenes to fill the same niche?

My answer, and it varies by situation, is that I try to get that scene to be more integrated into the plot. Failing that, I’m inclined to leave it. It adds color to the story, and if it’s got enough entertainment value, people won’t mind that it doesn’t move things along. You’re making the story fun to read and fun to write, and in the end, that’s what matters.

When you can do all that AND make it integral to the plot AND have a significant message AND do it in a fresh new way … well, that’s what we’re working towards, isn’t it?

Truth = Beauty

I love Wondermark. Especially this one. Authors, take heed!

O Say, Coen You See

One of the interesting things about the Coen Brothers’ movies is the variety of reaction they elicit from their fans. People who claim to be fans of Coppola generally have the same set of favorite movies (perhaps re-ordering them a bit). Spielberg fans don’t say they love “Schindler’s List” but hated “E.T.” But ask a dozen Coen Brothers fans what their best movie is, and you’ll get six different answers. Not only that, you’ll inevitably get someone in the list who hated someone else’s favorite.

Lance Mannion, for example, in a very interesting post on their movies, writes, “The Hudsucker Proxy is a failure, and The Man Who Wasn’t There is a bad movie.”

The Hudsucker Proxy might be my favorite Coen Brothers movie, or The Big Lebowski might be, though I like O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country For Old Men. Lance loves The Big Lebowski and O Brother. He also likes Intolerable Cruelty, which I’ve mostly heard panned (haven’t seen it), and Raising Arizona, which is the Coen Brothers movie most people seem to agree on as “good” (and, oddly, I don’t have much affection for).

He doesn’t mention The Ladykillers, wisely. That might be the one most people agree on as “bad.”

I liked The Man Who Wasn’t There, personally, except for the odd space alien subplot. I thought Billy Bob Thornton was pretty effective, and the movie itself strangely touching. And I have a co-worker who hated The Big Lebowski. So who knows?

The interesting thing about all this is that I think Lance is right when he says they are cartoons, but the effect of that is that the characters become templates (tying into my last posting about characters) and we can project easily onto them. The Coens tell stories and create characters that people read a lot of themselves into, that they take very personally. They’re exaggerated enough that we can take their exaggerated traits and apply them to ourselves, or people we know. So people will say, “I can appreciate that No Country For Old Men was a good film, but I hated it.”

I don’t know whether there’s a conclusion to all this. Certainly the cartoonish aspects of the Coens’ characters is one of the main appeals of their movies (the others being the writing and the stunning way they immerse each movie in its own world). They’ve forged a successful career out of creating specifically unreal characters. Whether that’s something you want to do is your call, but you should remember at least that most memorable characters have some exaggeration or cartoonishness about them.

I think you should be decisive

The lovely Nancy Nall writes about hedging your bets. She’s talking about journalism, but everyone does it. “I think the way to go is…” “I’m no expert, but…” In our workshop group, we’ve gotten eleven stories submitted so far, and six could be said to be science fiction, or at least magical realism. And yet, when people comment on them, we hear over and over, “I’m not a science fiction reader, but…” or “I’m not familiar with science fiction, but…” All this even though the piece was submitted to the workshop specifically to get their opinion! Just tell me what you think and let me judge whether it fits into the conventions of SF or not.

Nancy’s point is a good one. There are cases in which you have to qualify your opinion. I promise you that they are far fewer than you think they are. Be decisive. As my eleventh-grade English teacher said, “Who cares about being careful? We just want to be right!”

[I don’t know if he actually said that, but doesn’t it sound better to say he did? And what’s the harm?]

What is a story?

At WonderCon this weekend, I had someone asking me when there’d be a sequel to “Common and Precious,” and it got me thinking about this.

Our screenwriting teacher has a saying that no character in a movie represents a person. Every character represents a message, or a belief system: a way to live. Even in biographies, most characters are tailored to show a message of some kind through the story of their lives.

So a story, being the movement of characters through a plot, is actually a debate between different beliefs or responses to a problem. The resolution of the story is the success (or failure!) of one of the belief systems to resolve the problem.

Of course, this doesn’t mean your characters don’t have to be believable. It just means that in addition to being believable characters, they have to be consistent (“on message” in business-speak) throughout the story, or they have to have a reason to change. They have to be believable so that the reader believes that their solution to the problem at hand is a valid one. Otherwise, as Slartibartfast would say, “that’s where it all falls apart.”

So when I write a story with some characters I enjoy, I don’t automatically write a sequel. Sometimes I do, if I feel that the story didn’t really resolve. More often, the reason to write another story with the same characters is that you’re trying to illuminate another kind of problem, and the character’s approach to the problem matches a character you’ve already written. Which is why I am gratified to have people demand sequels of stories with the same characters, but I’m always unsure how to respond to it. It’s not that I don’t *like* the characters. It’s more that I just don’t have anything more to write about them. There has to be a story; I can’t just do a “what’s next.”

Now, all of the above is very clinical. And certainly, I don’t sit down to write a story and think, “Hm. This is an interesting problem. I wonder which belief systems I can use to illuminate my preferred solution, and how to create characters out of them.” But, to paraphrase my screenwriting teacher again, those concepts are at the foundation of any good writing, and although very few people actually work from the concepts out to the story, they are the underpinnings you need to be aware of when you are constructing your story.

Which is why, when someone wants to know what happens to the characters next, they are actually looking at the characters in somewhat the wrong way. The character has nothing to do without a problem to solve. And that is also why I find myself really interested in secondary characters, to the point of giving them their own stories on occasion. Their problems have not only not been solved, they’ve often not even been explored. I’d much rather do a story on them than another story with characters whose story has played out.

(And in fact, I am working–slowly–on a Night and Bright story, which a couple people have also requested. I like them too–not their belief systems, but the wrapper around them. They’re fun to write. And that, more than anything I just spent half an hour typing, is what determines whether another story gets written. :)

Critiquing

One of the benefits of participating in so many workshops has been getting practice at critiquing. I’ve always been good at criticizing others, but not necessarily in a way that they can take as positive. So it’s good to practice shaping your criticisms in a way that will not be taken as “you stink” and will also give the recipient a direction in which to focus his or her editing.

The latest round of stories I read for our fiction workshop were really good, and so they were easy to critique. In all the cases, there were only one or two things that stood out as being rough, so I had no trouble saying “great job, try to polish it here and here.” One of the things I saw is something I tend to do a lot myself, perhaps worthy of another post sometime, and that’s just writing something that sounds good without thinking about exactly what it means. There are a few phrases that are not quite cliches, but are familiar enough that they spring to mind when you’re just trying to get the next words out, like “he tried to figure out where it had all gone wrong,” or “for whatever reason…”

I also had to write critiques for the latest round of New Fables rejections, and those were pretty hard, because in some cases the stories were pretty good, just not what I was looking for. So I had to explain what I was looking for and then point out that the author might not want to change the story in that direction. But that’s their choice; it’s my magazine and I have a pretty clear idea of what kind of story I want for it, even if it is occasionally frustratingly difficult to communicate that to others. Anyway, in at least two or three of the cases, the author responded and indicated that the feedback was helpful, so I feel good about taking the time to do that.

Yet another reason to go out and join a workshop, if you’re not in one now! Practice critiquing; it makes you a better writer as well as a better reader.

Financial Advice for Writers

John Scalzi of SFWA writes about writers managing their finances (h/t Wyrdsmiths). My favorite paragraph:

2. Don’t quit your day job.

Lots of wanna-be writers wax rhapsodic about how great it would be to ditch the day job and just spend all their time clickety-clack typing away. These folks are idiots. Look, people: someone is paying you money and giving you benefits, both of which can support your writing career, and all you have to do is show up, do work that an unsupervised monkey could do, and pretend to care. What a scam! You’re sticking it to The Man, dude, because you’re taking that paycheck and turning it into art. And you know how The Man hates that. You’re supposed to be buying a big-screen TV with that paycheck! Instead, you’re subverting the dominant paradigm better than an entire battalion of college socialists. Well done, you. Well done, indeed.

Award Nominations!

Hey, the Ursa Major Awards, recognizing the finest work in anthropomorphic fiction, have their nominations open ’til the end of February, and my novel and short story and journal are eligible. The way it works is like this: You go to their nominations page and enroll. They’ll send you a key you can use to log in and submit your ballot. Sometime in March, the final nominees will be announced, and then you can use your same key to log in and cast your final vote.

For the nominations, you just write in the works you want to nominate. I’ve helpfully written out my three below, so you can just cut and paste. :)

Best Novel
Common and Precious, by Tim Susman. (Sofawolf Press, January)

Best Short Fiction

The Shifting Sands, by Tim Susman. (in New Fables, Summer 2007, Sofawolf Press, July)

Best Fanzine
New Fables (#1, Sofawolf Press, Summer)

I encourage you to vote, even if it’s not for me. The Ursas are a great way to recognize the fiction you love and find worthwhile fiction in this genre. But of course, if you liked my stuff, please do vote for me. :)