Archive for category Worldcon
You don’t want to build a house from my blueprints. The house would not stand. You would not want to write a novel from my outline, because I am a gardener.
During his interview at Worldcon last week, George R. R. Martin gave us something to think and talk about as respects a writer’s process. Alec Nevala-Lee blogged on it earlier this week. You should read that post here for what Martin said, and what Alec says, to get the context:
The gardener/architect contrast was brought up several times in various panels, and it seems to me all but Alec identified as a gardener. Is no one else brave enough to identify as an architect? Does it seem less artsy or cool to build your story in a linear fashion, brick by carefully considered brick, than to toss a ton of seeds onto your bed, stand back, and hope something beautiful flourishes?
Whether Martin made all the gardener-writers feel suddenly more cool is unimportant, but knowing who you are is of the utmost. I do know being a gardener is not all that much fun. We can’t-write-an-outline folks are branded early on, in school. We are taught outlining, and are expected to be able to do one, and then write a paper based on the outline. Like one Chicon panelist, whose name I can’t recall, I too wrote the report first, and then did the outline, and then turned in the paper. Yeah, I got the grade, but I also got the sense of being different, of being fundamentally flawed, because of my inability to do something so simple as to create in a linear fashion.
Many of us humans have the tendency to do this very thing: model the format that is against our nature, because we are given to understand that it is the “right” way. When the “right” way doesn’t turn out so well, we feel the failure. We can freeze up and get blocked.
I prefer–my brain prefers–to construct a story by coming up with a situation. A bit of contemplation, and I have a beginning. I may know a bit of the ending; at least, I decide if it’s mostly happy, or mostly sad. The tone of the ending is clearly contained in the beginning, although the details may be fuzzy. The middle is a dense fog that will not burn off for quite a while. My first-draft middles are usually hideous. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. The characters all flatten to two dimensions, and perform stupid, pointless, completely uncharacteristic tasks. Then, suddenly, they come alive and have a satisfying ending.
When I’m writing a short story, I can get through this okay. I only have to slog though thirty pages or so, and when I go back and reread that first draft (an excruciating experience), I can nonetheless find one or two paragraphs in the middle that don’t suck. Little tiny bits that are true, and not dreck. I build on those. Somewhere around the third draft, I get the flash, the revelation, of what the story is really about. The fog lifts from the middle. By the with or sixth draft, I’m good to go.
The process, scary enough in short story form, becomes an author-killer at novel length. I lose track of the tertiary characters. I am unsure enough of the main plot; subplots are therefore impossible to conceive. My main characters go all bland about chapter 5. Secondary characters threaten to take over, as it is clear the author isn’t doing her job. The middle third of the first draft is more than bad; it is unreadable, even by me.
Over the years, and by this method, I have watched my pile of unfinished novels grow and mock me.
I am determined not to die like this, and I believe I have stumbled on the solution. None of us can expect to work in ways against our nature. On the other hand, none of us can be 100% gardener, or 100% architect.
When I redesigned our back yard, I measured out three rectangular raised beds vaguely reminiscent of cloister gardens I had admired. Cloister gardens tend to be square, and our yard was a flat rectangle, but so what. No need to be literal here. I measured badly, and then I brought a contractor in to measure properly and build it. Those rectangular beds were my structure. Within those beds, I planted whatever I wanted. I placed a few rocks here and there, and a few garden ornaments. I knew I wanted roses for color, succulents for form and texture, and perennial herbs for background and hummingbirds. That was it. I loved the result. The trick was that I needed structure, but only the simplest plan I could get away with.
When it comes to the novel I’m working on, I finally realized, after decades of despair, that I needed to measure, however badly, however simply. I needed to take my situation and guess at what kind of plot structure it sounded like. I have a convent in a space habitat. Hey, that could be a closed door mystery, where we get to know the vicim a bit, the victim dies, an investigator is brought in and finds the situation to be quite confusing and the witnesses/suspects difficult. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to break through. I had found my three rectangular raised beds.
Left brain/Right brain is another way of saying Architect/Gardener. We can place ourselves on one side or the other, but we can’t be all one way. We need both sides of the brain. I will be mindful to respect both my sides in the hopes that both, working together, will serve me and my project well.
Now that I’ve submitted my Hugo votes, now that I’ve said all I have to say about this year’s nominees, I wish to revisit my basic discomfort with awards.
We have to have them, I think. They are a way for fans and professional organizations to celebrate the work that gives us all so much joy and meaning in our lives. They spur us to read stuff/see stuff/ listen to stuff we might not otherwise. For the authors, a nomination or award becomes a tag they can attach to themselves forever, which will further their success. And there’s the drama of the event itself, who’s going to win, and how excited are they. Awards are fun.
Then there are the problems. For instance, the apples-and-oranges problem.
Every year, the field of speculative fiction widens. It’s beyond science fiction and fantasy; it’s alternate history, and urban fantasy, and epic fantasy, and steampunk, and military sf, and near-future dystopia, and so on and so forth, every one of which has its own aesthetics, tropes, and flavor. In the Hugo Best Novel category, we have 1) A coming-of-age fantasy, 2) The fourth book in a six-book epic fantasy series, 3) The second book in a zombie trilogy 4) A far-future, end-of-the galaxy, political/anthropological/sociological sf novel, and 5) a nearer future science fiction novel of a more traditional sort. It is difficult to compare any of the two in absolute terms, because they are truly five different sub genres. They may be among the best examples of their respective sub genres, but they are not easy to compare.
I could say to myself, “Is this book a superior example of a coming-of-age fantasy/fourth book of epic fantasy series/second book of trilogy/etc.?” And, “Is this a better second book in a zombie trilogy than that is a far-future, end of the galaxy, political/anthropological etc., etc.?”
I could do that, or I could just vote for what I like. In this case I like (and was predisposed to like) numbers 2 and 4 the best. Number 4, the political/anthropological/sociological sf novel is my favorite genre-within-a-genre. Number 2 is not normally my thing, but I’ve seen the TV show, and I’d read the first three books, and the epic had its hooks in me. Number 4 did get my first-place vote, but Number 2 was further down the list, because I did not feel the fourth book ranked as high as some of the previous volumes in the series. (Yes, George R. R. Martin was in competition with himself, as well as with the others.) But I still loved it.
At the other end of the spectrum, Number 5 could not pull me in at all. It’s not my favorite type of sf, I was already tired from all my intensive reading, and I just wasn’t in the mood for something I didn’t feel drawn to. It must be said, this is not the fault of the book. I don’t think it’s an unworthy book, only that it’s not my thing, and in my less-than-open frame of mind, it could not seduce me.
In the end, my ranking came out of my sincere attempt at best apple vs. best orange analysis, combined with “Oh man, I loved this best, I really did.” I feel honest and fair about my efforts. I also got through the novellas, novelettes, short stories, and fancasts. I actually feel almost “hip,” and “with it,” rather than “square,” and “out-of-it!”
I am ready to see who wins, and to get into possibly passionate discussions about the results.
When I read the first chapter of Mira Grant’s Feed, I thought I had wandered into a YA novel. I asked my daughter (age 22), who had recommended it, if that’s what it was. She said no, just wait. Not that there’s anything wrong with a YA; I was only asking.
Feed‘s protagonists are brother and sister team of Shaun and Georgia Mason who, in chapter one, are chasing after zombies. We learn that they are online journalists, bloggers. Although they are in their twenties, they still live at home with their parents, who treat them very much like children.
Now, I’ve been mostly unimpressed with zombie novels in the past. Too many mad car chases, exploding heads, and flying viscera; not enough character development, zombie raison d’être, or depth. My daughter promised me this one would be different, and she was right.
Shortly into the novel, our protagonists are picked to join the presidential campaign of Republican Senator Peter Ryman, who is pitted against Republican Governor Tate for the nomination. At this point, the novel takes a huge u-turn, and we are not in young adult territory any longer. Also, by this time, we are given to understand the zombies, the rising of the dead, are not the result of supernatural forces, but the viral disease Kellis-Amberlee, inadvertently created by good-faith and successful efforts to cure both cancer and the common cold. Governor Tate believes the answer to the zombie problem is for America to get back to fundamental morality, kind of a get-tough-on-the-undead approach.
A couple years ago, I might have looked upon Tate as something of a cardboard villain. Alas, Tate would fit in quite comfortably with several of our current presidential candidates. Perhaps that’s because they seem like cardboard villains, too, although with the unfortunate added quality of being horribly real.
In this story, the monsters are not the zombies. The zombies are victims. The monsters are the humans. And this is the first zombie novel I have read in which the reader is acutely aware of the zombies as former human beings, family, friends, and loved ones, as the walking dead. That awareness is one of two elements that elevates this story from the run-of-the-mill zombie tale.
The other element is in the plot itself, and I’ll say nothing of the details so as not to spoil it. I’ll say only that it is quite well-plotted, and that it is gutsily plotted, in that Grant is willing to take her story to a place most authors won’t.
I have a few quibbles. One is that the decade of the 2030’s, as depicted here, doesn’t seem quite futuristic enough. My daughter and I disagree on this point. She feels the zombie uprising perhaps retarded technological and societal development. Maybe so. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but cringe when one candidate spoke disparagingly about the poor Thursday evening television lineup. I can’t see people talking about nightly TV that way in twenty years…we barely talk that way about it now. But these are quibbles, not real problems.
It is all satisfying enough for me to move on to Deadline, the next book in the series, which my daughter tells me is even better.
*****TIME LAPSE WARNING*****
Since writing the above, I and my daughter have attended Renovation, and several panels/events there featuring Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant). She is funny, smart, and seems very unconceited. She can sing, too; she and her band did a mini-concert there. In the Lou Grant I-hate-spunk vein, I wish I could say I really hate people who are multi-talented and not even conceited about it, but alas, I can only admire and look forward to reading Deadline.