Archive for category Writing
They come in various categories. Like, In an Unpleasant Place. Or, A Fascinating Person. Also, Based on a True Story, It Was All a Dream, Someone Says Something, and finally, Travel Tedium.
All of the above are triggers for stories. Unlike some writers, I don’t mind at all the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I think it’s fun to think about. Getting an idea–an idea that will work–is one of the great highs of writing. (Then comes the hard part, which is actually making it work.)
Travel Tedium is one of most reliable. Air travel, long car trips, plane trips, taxi rides–all provide a space when there is nothing to do but woolgather. Our ubiquitous digital devices have cut into this space a bit, but the space is still there. I recall a car trip home from Albuquerque with my husband and infant daughter. On the way, I noted the turnoff for Phoenix, and had a road-not-taken moment. What if we went to Phoenix? What might happen? Those questions turned into a time travel story in which the protagonists try to right a wrong, with unintended consequences. (Love those unintended consequences.)
Sometimes, Someone Says Something. In this case, someone said he was guest-editing the December issue of a magazine, and was looking for Christmas stories. “I don’t do Christmas stories,” I said. An hour later, I was riding back to my hotel, and in spite of the chattiness of the taxi driver, I started making up a Christmas story.
Another favorite is Based on a True Story, one of my favorite trailer lines for movies. A crack in the house’s concrete slab became a sentient miasma. A broken watch found in a restaurant became the means for career rejuvenation. A house, under construction, possibly never to be finished, became a window to the future for a young girl.
It Was All a Dream is the most difficult story trigger to work with. Dreams are long on emotion and short on linear logic. The lack of linear logic isn’t necessarily a problem, but the lack of story logic can be. Dreams–however they might knock us for a loop emotionally–tend to fall apart once examined for story logic. My success rate for It Was All a Dream (success meaning being able to craft the story into something with a point to it) is probably less than fifty percent.
Fascinating People, are always attractive as centers for a story. By “center,” I mean focus. Sometimes, this is the protagonist or narrator, but often not. Often not, because then the plot can center on the protagonist’s interactions with this Fascinating Person, who are often difficult to deal with. My favorite fascinating person-who-became-a-character was David, a local homeless person. I’ve also used a terrible pair of parents, a crazy old woman, and my dad (although I transformed him into an heroic alien). I’ve used Jesus no fewer than three times.
Finally, there’s the conflict-on-a-plate one is gifted with when one is In An Unpleasant Place. Undergoing medical treatment, or moving, or faced with a difficult task, or encountering an unpleasant person. I may hate every moment of it, but damn it, I’m going to get a story out of it!
Recently, I submitted a novella. The writer’s guidelines strongly hinted a preference for a female protagonist, without saying so explicitly. They also said the writer should feel free to submit as he or she saw fit.
My submission had a male first-person protagonist. It was promptly rejected. I don’t know if my male POV was why, if my synopsis made it sound too much like a “he” story, precipitating a quick rejection. I’m not all that curious about that, though. The editor has every right to decide whatever he or she decides, for whatever reason.
The rejection did make me think about writing from a female vs. a male POV, however. I employ a female POV a good deal of the time, but I use male protagonists too, as well as a few that aren’t one or the other. What’s more, the gender (or not) of my protagonist is one thing I don’t dither over. I know, right from the get-go, whose story it is, and where they fall on the gender spectrum.
Here are my personal statistics: Of a total of forty-five short stories (forty published) and two unpublished novellas, twenty-seven (57.4%) are written from a female point of view. Eleven (23.4%) are from a male point of view. Three are neither male nor female (6.4%), and six stories (12.8%) are from multiple points of view. Leaving out the “neither” and “multi” categories–in other words, when I chose either male or female–71% of my protagonists are female, and 29% are male.
My choosing a female protagonist/narrator is the most natural, the expected. Multiple points of view could be seen as a way of covering my bases. “Neither” points of view are kind of special, and quite specific. One of those was a non-gendered narrator commenting on the sex-based gaffes of gendered individuals. The other two were things, not beings. One was an evil ceramic patio fountain, and the other (actually another multi) was serially a cake, a food magazine, and a supermarket magazine rack.
That leaves the men. Why do I choose a male protagonist? Much of the time it’s that I’m writing a character who is used to being in control of situations, but finds himself in a situation he can’t fix. He underestimates those around him–especially women, but men, too. He thinks he controls more than he does. He is a man of action, but this time, his actions don’t work. I have an abundance of female characters on hand to give him helpful advice, which he does not take. (To be fair, sometimes their advice isn’t all that great.)
My remaining male protagonists are, save one, passive. One is a statue. He is clearly male though, so I haven’t put him in my “neither” category. One is grieving. One is tired. One is clueless. The only one who isn’t either overly confident or overly passive is superhuman.
I choose my protagonist’s gender without much thought, but not without reason. Is the gender choice inevitable? Could my male or female characters be written as the other gender, or no gender at all? I don’t think so.
My goal is not to write “she” stories or “he” stories, but human stories. That said, gender is a big deal when it comes to how we see ourselves, and how our culture sees us. Usually, a story rests more easily in one gender, rather than the other, or none, or both.
I hope, at this stage in my writing life, I’m not submitting anything truly horrible. I think I can assume that much. But I fear mediocrity, because I’m fully aware I can’t recognize it in my own work.
When I edit myself, I catch outright errors. I recast awkward sentences. I read out loud (or mutter to my laptop while sitting on my couch) and make changes whenever I stumble in my reading. (If I get confused while reading my own work, what horrors might others experience?) I make sure the plot makes sense. I walk around inside the characters, so that their actions ring true. But only rarely can I tell if my work is any more than competent.
I finished a novella last autumn, thought it was all right, but wasn’t super in love with it. At some point though, you have to stop fiddling, so I sent it out. Six months later, it was rejected, but with a note that it had made it to the final round of consideration, and they hoped to see more from me.
Really? I reread the thing. It was better than I remembered. This is good!
I have also reread published stories. Some wear well, and I’m really pleased. Others make me cringe. I won’t say which ones!
On occasion, I have written something I knew was good. These rarities tend to be stories that are relatively easy to write, unlike my usual grinding process. Most of the time, writing is a grind, and I am working in the dark.
Four years ago, I decided to take a break from blogging. Dozens of times since, I have considered picking it up again.
During my extended break, things have happened. Our daughter went to grad school and got a real job. I had my thyroid out. We’ve been to Memphis, Nashville, London, Paris, Berlin, and Helsinki, among other, less exotic, places. I’ve had two stories published online (Sockdolager and Allegory), and another to come out, soon, from the venerable print zine Tales of the Unanticipated. We had a long-lived pet cockatiel die, and adopted a new one. None of these events disrupted my schedule enough to keep me from blogging, and yet I stopped dead, as suddenly as if I’d fallen into a sinkhole.
I joke that laziness stopped me, but that is untrue. I would not describe myself as driven, but I would say I’m a pretty reliable plodder…the sort of person who does laundry on Monday and pays bills on Tuesdays, and writes very nearly every day. I’ve gotten stuff done, just not blogging. I might cite perfectionism, and that would be closer to the mark. I want everything I write to mean something. You know, there’s so much stuff out there. Lots of blathering. Most of it doesn’t mean much of anything, nor does it seem to have much of a purpose. And while “meaning” and “purpose” are different concepts they go together for me. Meaning is always useful, and that which has purpose means something.
I don’t know which things I write will end up meaning something to someone, so perhaps, “meaning” and “purpose” are concepts that need to be considered. My posts don’t get a lot of response, but I am grateful for the responses I do get, and am a bit amazed to still get the occasional comment after a four-year hiatus. Apparently there is occasional meaning here, but I can’t predict when or where or for whom.
I’ve been mulling over how the need for meaning and purpose can throw a stranglehold on a person ever since reading the second book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, A Closed and Common Orbit. In it, the AI protagonist tells us that animals don’t have a purpose. Human animals, however, are obsessed with the concept of having a purpose, of searching for the meaning of their lives. With that bred into their very souls, they have programmed their AIs to be purpose-focused as well. AI Sidra finds herself needing to re-invent herself to survive. Re-inventing oneself involves lying about one’s past, but she is programmed only to tell the truth. In figuring out how to undo her own programming, she comes to recognize survival, friendship, and love as purpose enough.
The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.
In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.
Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.
Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.
The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.
That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.