Categories
Writing

Origin Stories

I just got a very nice compliment on Twitter for my origin stories. Compliments are nice, of course. To semi-quote Twain, we do like compliments. All of us do. Novelists, burglars, congressmen, all of us in the trade. But it also got me thinking about why most origin stories are so terrible, and what to do about it.

To put it in the simplest terms, if it’s an origin story, we know what happens. That takes a lot of the fun out of it.  But here’s the thing: this is a perfect case for the 3B rule*: Point of view solves everything. We know what happens from certain points of view; but how does it look from the angle of someone we’ve never considered?

Another consideration (closely related to the above) is turning the predictability from a disadvantage to an advantage, which you do with a sort of literary Judo–using the reader’s knowledge against him.  “You think you know what happened, but what if everyone’s motivation was different from what you think?”  Treat it like secret history–keeping the known “facts” just means you get to play with everything else.

Anyway, not sure if there’s enough meat here for a blog post, but I haven’t touched this thing in a while (it’s not really working yet; I can’t comment on my own posts without jumping through hoops). So, anyway, those were some thoughts on origin stories, and maybe they’ll trigger some conversation.

*If you want to know why I call it the 3B rule, you can ask me. Or Emma Bull. Or Elizabeth Bear.

Categories
Art Writing

Harmonics and Correspondence

Some time ago I distilled some of what I’ve figured out about writing into the phrase, “The art of writing reduces itself to the craft of manipulating correspondence; the craft of writing reduces itself to the art of finding the right word.” I’ve been letting that float around in my head for a while now, to see if I could explain it in terms that might be useful to someone. The tricky part is that word, “correspondence,” and what it means and how I’m using it about writing.

I’ve just been re-watching “Doctor Strange,” and going to school with the script. I was noticing some bits with Wong: having a single name (“like Adele….or Aristotle,”) and whether he ever laughs, and how the writer (C. Robert Cargill)  used that, returned to it—the exact moments in the film when those came up again, the release of tension, the sense of a callback, the completion of something we weren’t aware needed completing. That last is a lovely thing to pull off. Season 6 of Game of Thrones did a lot of it: paying off things we didn’t even expect to pay off (“Hodor!”).

When I talk about correspondence in writing, that’s the sort of thing I mean. Cargill uses it, as I said, to relieve some tension, to control the pacing, to amuse us, and simultaneously add a bit of depth to a character. But look at the setup for it: we’re at the point where our protagonist is trying to come to terms with his new environment, and the interaction with Wong tells us a great deal both about Strange and about that environment and how far he is from anything familiar. That is all it needed to do. That it then turns around and unexpectedly pays off is a special kind of elegance.

But here’s the thing: that technique can work with amusing bits, and with powerful thematic statements; with word play, and with subtext; with trivialities, and with profundities.  In all cases, it is establishing a correspondence between disparate elements or moments.  It is how symbols—images in which extra meaning is concentrated—can tell their own story simultaneously with the one being told “on top” if you will.  Done badly, it is why that symbolic story gets in the way and makes us feel we’re at a lecture rather than reading a story; done well, the symbolic story reinforces, comments on, corresponds with, the incidents.

Now set all of that aside for a moment, because I want to talk about music.

On the guitar, there are things called “voicings” that are important to better musicians than I am. That is, there are numerous ways to play the same chord, all of which will work with the melody, but each of which is different. For me, if I can find a way to play a chord that’s good enough to not sound horrible, I’m satisfied; but a good guitarist will be aware of the different overtones and harmonics* that each chord formation will have, and will use different voicings to add to the overall effect of the song. The unsophisticated listener (like me) will often be unaware of those choices, but it will nevertheless affect us; if done right, the music will be more fulfilling, more elegant, more lasting.

So now we get to the part of this that I’m struggling to express, because it is simultaneously the most abstract part, and the most practical. Let’s try it this way: Every scene is a chord, every sentence is a string. The string has a note that contributes to the chord, but it also has harmonics.  These harmonics might be the exact metaphor used to express a thought, or the rhythm of the sentence, or the generation of a symbol by infusing an image with extra meaning, or the sound of the words, or a bit of semi-accidental worldbuilding, or a sensory detail, or an extra hint of characterization, or any number of other things.

When you’re aware of those harmonics, you can use them, so even as the melody resolves, you return to the harmonic, you can find correspondences and resonances that deepen the melody, provide a counterpoint to it, or suggest other melodies that are implied but never played.  What I’m saying is that these harmonics are already in the sentence you’ve written.  You just have to look for them.

Maybe this is something you look for in your second draft, maybe for you, you can find it as you’re creating, but it comes down to this: that sentence you’ve written that contributes to the scene, that in turn serves the story: look at it again, and see if maybe there are some harmonics there you can come back to.

* For you mathematicians,  a harmonic is a sound wave that has a frequency that is an integer multiple of a fundamental tone. For the rest of us, a harmonic is a secondary tone generated by the vibration of a string that harmonizes with the dominant note.

Categories
Writing

Progress report

Staring at the screen went pretty well today. I squinted a couple of times, and cocked my head once at the last sentence. I thought about changing it, but then decided against it.

My eyes seem to be working well–I can see the last thing I typed, and exactly where the next word should go. As it will be a new paragraph, I have the indentation for it, and I checked that several times.

Also feel pretty good about rolling my shoulders as I looked at the spot where the next word will go, and about standing up and walking around, opening the fridge, closing the fridge, and sitting again. Sometimes getting up and moving can be a very important part of staring at the screen. I know it feels like, when you move around, you aren’t properly staring, but after a bit of motion, you can come back and stare in a more relaxed state.

I know for beginning writers, it can be difficult to know just how to stare at a screen. I wish I could help you on that, but everyone is so different. For me, sitting back and scowling works really well, but others need to crack their knuckles, and some have to pound on the desk for the stare to be really effective. You just need to find what works for you.

Okay, this was a little break for me; now that screen is waiting, and it won’t stare at itself!

Categories
Writing

A Cautionary Tale for New Writers

This is directed at those of you who are, or who are about to be, in the process of publishing your first novel, especially if it’s with a major publisher.  I’m going to tell you about something I screwed up with the idea that maybe you won’t, all right?

My first novel, Jar-head, or whatever it’s called, has this big, ugly blotch in it that makes me cringe every time I think about it.  It’s the line (quoting from memory because looking it up would be painful), “All of our Houses are named after one of our native animals.”  It doesn’t belong there, it sticks out, it is terrible exposition.

It wasn’t in the novel as I submitted it, I added it to editorial specification.  Except, and here’s the thing, when my editor (the amazing Terri Windling) suggested it, she specifically stated, or rephrase in your own words.

I was a newbie writer, dying with the excitement that I was actually having a book published, utterly lacking in anything that could be considered self-confidence, and the very idea of disagreeing with an editor was, well, how could I do that?  Who could do that?  I couldn’t do that.

Now, let’s be clear: this is on me, not on her.  She wanted a bit more exposition, which was not unreasonable.  I could have disagreed with the need for it, saying, “Hey, you figured it out, let’s assume the reader will too,” or I could have agreed and done what she told me to—found an elegant way to get that information across.  She would have been perfectly comfortable with either of those.  But I was new, intimidated, nervous, so I just copied what she said, even though I kinda knew at the time it wasn’t right.

So, okay, here’s my point: It’s your first book, and maybe you’re as intimidated as I was, but it is still your book, and your editor knows that.  We don’t  go into the editorial process with an Attitude, with a feeling of, “Don’t you dare touch my sacred prose!” but it is also wrong to be so subservient as to not even question anything.  You don’t want that, the reader doesn’t want that, and the editor doesn’t want that.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

Categories
Art Conventions Writing

Narrativity Early Bird Deadline

A reminder that, if you’re interested in attending Narrativity (July 12-14, Minneapolis), the early bird registration rate ends tonight.

It is my hope that this will be a place to challenge each other on how we work, on all aspects of the craft of fiction.  I want that moment of, “Woah, I never thought of it that way,” and, “I have to try doing that in my next book,” and, “I wonder what would happen if I tried this?”  I have strong ideas about what makes writing good; I want those ideas challenged.  If you have strong opinions, express them.  If you don’t, come and discover them.  It is also my hope that the discussion will help us become better readers.

Go to the web site and look over the proposed panel list, see what you think.  Want to be part of the conversation?  We’d love to have you.