Into retreat and out again

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Some friends in the Seattle SF writing scene have organized a writing retreat for the past five years or so, and three years ago I started going. Though I’m a firm believer in the ability to write anywhere, I’m also a firm believer in the influence of environment on actions, behavior, and state of mind. So if someone does the necessary organizing for me to pay a modest fee and hang out in a beautiful park for several days, writing, playing music (lord, I’ve missed jamming), going for walks, and working on my plant and track ID skills, I’m not about to say no.

Partway through the extended weekend one of the other attendees observed that a lot of writing involves staring into space. I spent about an hour on Saturday doing exactly that, sitting on a beach with a notebook handy for any insights that might surface (there were quite a few, involving some short story revisions that I’d just embarked on), occasionally pointing my binoculars at a disturbance in the water to see whether it was a harbor seal (it was, on one occasion), or just another bundle of floating kelp. Being something of a reflective person by nature, this was a pretty enjoyable way to spend an hour, not least because–speaking of environment–sitting on a beach on a beautiful early summer day is a pretty great way to spend an hour regardless.

Is it work? Well, sure it is. I used to think that I had to make wordcount every day to show myself as a writer, but while establishing some sort of daily or almost-daily writing practice probably isn’t a bad idea–much as with anything else that requires practice to improve at, such as exercise or playing a musical instrument–of course there also needs to be room to imagine and reflect. In the case of the story I had on my mind just then, I’d already produced a draft, which I had just re-read before setting out to the beach, along with notes and feedback received from a writers’ group. I’d put some grist in the mill and was letting my mind, which had produced the story in the first place, go to work on it.

I’m describing all of this because I’ve seen a lot of discussion and debate about writing process lately. There’s the old plotter-vs-pantser comparison emerging again, most specifically in discussions around the ending of Game of Thrones (for the record, I don’t think that’s what was going on there), and yet another argument about whether you have to write every day to be a writer (no).

A lot of my own journey as a writer has been figuring out what my process looks like, and I suspect that’s the case for a lot of people. Models like plotting vs. pantsing or writing every day are descriptive, not prescriptive. You can talk about what works for you, and if someone’s struggling make recommendations, but it strikes me as beyond silly to insist that something is inherently better if done a certain way, or to prescribe a process for someone when what’s really needed is some discernment about how they best approach their work. Not least because I’ve found that for me, the process tends to shift with each project. Part of writing the story is working out how it’s going to be written.

To me, prescriptions around writing–or doing anything else, really–bespeak a disengagement with the work. Plug in this process, and stories will come out. Maybe there are writers that this works for; I’m not going to undermine my own point by insisting that it can’t. What I am saying is that I finally, after far too many years of trying, seem to be starting to create stories that I’m fond of and that other people want to read, and I’ve gotten there by figuring out how to produce my own work.

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Game of Thrones and what we talk about when we talk about stories

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There was a moment during the Game of Thrones finale when I wondered whether Benioff and Weiss had read Yuval Noah Harari.

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari engages with the notion of story as a social unifier, a carrier of meaning, and a marker of cultural identity. The understanding that human beings are wired for story is not new, nor is the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of stories or the way they inform cultural meaning. My mother has never read Lord of the Rings, but in watching the movies she, a lifelong Catholic, immediately discerned that Tolkien had been one as well. The necessity of intercession for Frodo’s salvation is an explicitly Christian notion; one need not be a Christian to understand this, nor to enjoy Frodo’s story, but it’s there. Inasmuch as I agree with the statement that the United States is a Christian nation, it is in the sense that Christianity has inextricably informed what we find important about stories. If you don’t believe me, look at the popularity of Star Wars, likewise a tale founded on redemption. (I’m not saying here that all redemption stories are necessarily Christian. But redemption is woven through the Christian religion, and Christianity itself is a massive cultural force. These things have  impact.)

But Lord of the Rings is also about story, itself: Tolkien wrote it in part to create a mythology for a culture that he saw as lacking it, and the work is infused with an invented history so powerful that there are people who know it better than the history of their own countries. For this reason, when Samwise Gamgee discourses on the power of story I give him a pass, even though I usually dislike it when fiction lampshades itself this way. It’s thematically appropriate for Sam to explain why stories are important, because one of the things that Lord of the Rings is about is why stories are important. Given Lord of the Rings‘ enduring popularity, I’d call Tolkien’s argument a success.

Which brings us to the finale of Game of Thrones. There’s a moment in the (rushed and curiously flat) scene in which a hastily assembled council determines who will rule the Seven–excuse me, Six–Kingdoms, where Tyrion makes a point similar to Samwise Gamgee’s about the power of story, and uses this to argue for Bran Stark as king.

That’s when I wondered if the showrunners had read Harari. I may also have muttered “You have got to be kidding me” to the television screen. For a few reasons, among them that Tyrion’s claim that Bran has had the most interesting story out of all the possible candidates is debatable, and Westeros’s remaining politicians accepting this without argument implausible. Maybe they were tired enough of war that they’d have accepted anyone on the throne who wasn’t a Targaryen. Who knows; the show was pretty obviously disinterested in its own politics at that point.

But for me the moment didn’t land well because it was yet another thing that the show hadn’t earned. In terms of being about story, what Game of Thrones has mostly been about is the danger of forgetting stories: the people of the Seven Kingdoms forgot about the dangers north of the Wall, in the way we all tend to forget about dangers that aren’t immediate. (We know this, among other reasons, because it occurred to no one that sending the non-combatants at Winterfell into the crypts during a battle against an army that can raise the dead would be a bad idea.) Game of Thrones has been about a lot of things: the pervasive corrupting influence of power, humanity’s short-sightedness particularly when it comes to personal ambition, and response to trauma. But it’s not directly about story, not in the way that Lord of the Rings is.

This isn’t to say that Bran’s memory isn’t important. It is, because human memory is fallible and Westeros’s lack of collective memory is part of the point. But in choosing Bran, Tyrion seems to be countering his own argument: Bran’s story, while interesting, is not the most interesting one in all of Game of Thrones, and even if it were it would be a pretty weak argument for Bran as king. Tyrion, perhaps, wants Westeros to be a place founded on stories; we know that he values books and knowledge immensely, and is distressed to be left out of the book of history that Sam Tarly hands him. But within the story we the viewers have experienced up to that point, that transition has been neither earned nor made.

This essay on Tor.com makes a similar point; Bran’s ascension could in fact be read as part of Game of Thrones‘ skepticism concerning the methods by which we choose who is fit to rule. Midway through season 8 I had the thought that in its way, Game of Thrones was thematically similar to Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, wherein the ruler of the galaxy turns out to be an old man living in a shack on a remote planet with only a cat for a companion. If there’s anyone in Westeros as disinterested in ruling as that old man, it’s Bran.

I wish the show had taken more time to play this theme out, because I think it’s an important one. I think a major reason so many people have gotten so invested in this show is because, in America at least, there is a deep and widespread national cynicism around leadership, political power, and how who gets to have those things is decided. (That cynicism, incidentally, goes way farther back than the current administration; Americans could stand to know our own history better, too.) As the show drew to a close and people began discussing, often in very negative terms, how it ended, there’s some understandable consternation about why those people are so upset about a TV show when there are so many real world things to be concerned about.

But, as Harari says, stories are one of the ways we achieve cultural unity–and Tyrion said the same thing, albeit hamfistedly. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen such a mass investment in a TV show; the last time I can remember, there were a lot fewer channels. That Game of Thrones got so much traction in an era of hundreds of channels (to say nothing of the plethora of entertainment options available on the Internet), and on a premium channel at that, is significant. Among other things, stories are proxies: we use them to talk about what matters to us in a lower-risk, lower-stakes way than addressing those matters directly. People were disappointed that Daenerys wasn’t a savior. Other people couldn’t believe anyone thought she would be. Plenty of people, myself included, thought that the best outcome would be no one getting the Iron Throne–well, Drogon saw to that, and the throne on which King Bran sits is of necessity more practical. Samwell Tarly proposed a democracy, but Westeros is going to have to wait at least a few more centuries for that. Over a million people were so disappointed that they signed a petition demanding a remake (which is almost certain to happen at some point, petition or no petition; we’re getting a Lord of the Rings TV show, after all). Interestingly, almost everyone (even people who liked the ending) seems to agree that the final seasons were rushed, and season 8 most of all.

That, I think, tells us something about people’s investment in the show. It wasn’t the spectacle–there were visuals in the series finale worthy of Zhang Yimou, so if it had been a matter purely of spectacle no one would have been disappointed. People were interested in the politics. They were interested in how Westeros was going to solve its problem of leadership. They were interested in seeing, once the supernatural threat had been dealt with, exactly how the survivors were going to figure out how to live together. It’s one of the reasons Hamilton has been so incredibly popular; the music’s great, of course, and incorporating hip-hop into Broadway productions is still novel enough to get people in the door, but these things alone don’t explain the massive appeal of a show that uses them to bring us a Cabinet meeting (two of them, in fact). I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these shows have achieved overwhelming popularity in a time of deep political unease and unrest. The questions posed by Game of Thrones and Hamilton are the same questions we are asking ourselves.

For all our sakes, I hope we figure it out.

Another completely unnecessary take on Game of Thrones

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Like a lot of people (many of them with gigs at media outlets) I was pretty disappointed with last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode. While recognizing that a severely abbreviated season (six episodes isn’t a lot, even if they are longer than usual) means cramming a whole lot of events into a shorter timeframe, the results have tested my suspension of disbelief to the point of being willing to write off the remaining two episodes. It feels as though those responsible for the show’s production are aware that enough people are still watching just to see how it turns out that they can afford to be lazy. The actors do their best, but when their characters are reduced to cardboard cutouts who no longer exhibit deep reflection (while apparently being able to teleport the long distances that the show spent several previous seasons establishing), they can only do so much. The show’s outpacing of George R.R. Martin’s novels has done it, and the audience, no favors.

It does highlight the importance of good writing, though, and lately the writing on Game of Thrones hasn’t been very good. (Yes, supposedly, they’re still working off an outline, or a set of notes, or maybe just the revelation of the ending, from GRRM. That doesn’t really invalidate my point.)

My biggest issue, with both the previous season and the current one, is the increasingly arbitrary treatment of time and space. One of the things that makes Westeros feel real, both in the books and on the show, is that in a world where neither asphalt nor the internal combustion engine exist, it takes a long time to get anywhere. The dragons are presumably faster but present logistical difficulties of their own, chiefly how one fuels a giant fire-breathing flying lizard.

Sure, it’s fantasy, as though that’s an argument for arbitrariness in storytelling. I’d argue just the opposite: a fantasy has to work harder to be convincing because it includes fantastic elements that the audience must believe exist, at least long enough to be drawn into the story. One of the reasons that Lord of the Rings is such a classic is this very attention to detail.

It’s not that Game of Thrones has to show us every excruciating step from Winterfell to King’s Landing. We saw that in season 1. But it’s become increasingly difficult to tell how much time is passing from one scene to the next over the last two seasons. Hours? Days? Months? Could be years for all we know.

This same lack of attention to detail is evident elsewhere, particularly in the most recent episode. Plenty of other people have called attention to Jon’s offhand farewell to Ghost, the hamfisted dialogue of Jaime’s departure from Brienne and Sansa’s conversation with the Hound, and Daenerys’s unbelievable failure to spot Euron’s fleet before it killed one of her remaining dragons. It’s less that these things occurred, and more that they lacked the development that has set Game of Thrones apart from other shows of its genre. Because yes, it does make sense for Jon to leave Ghost behind–direwolves don’t fare any better in the south than Starks. It does make sense for Brienne to be upset that Jaime is going back to Cersei, even if it’s (as many people hope) to kill her. It does make sense for Sansa to acknowledge that trauma has shaped her. But each of these moments failed to shine, like Mark Twain’s metaphor about the lightning bug versus the lightning.

And then there’s the death of Missandei, which is none the better for having been utterly predictable. Perhaps not in its exact manner (though here too there’s evidence of rushed and lazy writing), but as soon as she and Grey Worm started talking about what they’d do after the war, there was no way both of them would survive. Especially since they were the only two POC left, in a story that has mostly lacked them. They might not have died first, but having been reduced to tokens, there was no way they’d have long life expectancies. (Pretty sure Grey Worm isn’t going to last to the final credits, either.)

In a way, the inspiration of so many takes, thinkpieces, explanations and counter-explanations, and analyses of the most recent episode highlights the problem. In many of these pieces I’ve seen people filling in gaps that the show could and should have filled in for us. It’s not that every little thing needs to be explained, but interpreting Sansa’s actions after she learns of Jon’s true parentage (to which we never see any reaction from his family), or Daenerys’s incomprehensible battle strategy (miss seeing an entire fleet and charge its ranged weapons in broad daylight), or Jaime’s true motives for going back to King’s Landing (he’s understandably emotionally stunted, but he’s being either cruel or manipulative in that scene, and either way it’s a cheap shot) shouldn’t require this much after-action analysis either.

In its final hours, Game of Thrones has told its audience that we can’t trust it, and that’s really too bad.

The Magicians and representation

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I’m unreasonably fond of The Magicians. I was fond of the books that it’s (increasingly loosely) based on, but in many ways I enjoy the show more. Whereas Janet was a pretty thin character in the books, Margo, her TV adaptation analogue, is magnificent. All of the women characters have more depth, which makes their stories more interesting. The ensemble nature of the show, versus books 1 and 3 being chiefly from Quentin’s point of view, allows for a broader focus and frankly makes the early portions of the story more palatable. Being myself closer in age to the Brakebills faculty than the students, I find their Gen X-leavened cynicism and world-weariness both relatable and hilarious (Dean Fogg in particular, who always looks about two seconds away from an eye-roll). Sure, the main characters start off kind of insufferable, but I was pretty insufferable myself in my early 20s. If I’d had magic on top of that I’d probably have been a total asshole. The show scratches the same itch for me that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, back in the day; it’s a great escape, without being so candy-coated that I feel mushy-brained after watching it. And there’s the musical episodes.

So, like pretty much everyone who’s been watching and enjoying The Magicians, I found the finale of season 4 absolutely wrenching. In what follows I’m going to be alluding pretty specifically to what happened, so if you haven’t watched it yet and have managed to avoid being spoiled up until now, you’ll probably want to stop here.

I’m not going to go into how well the finale worked from a structural or character development standpoint; that’s been more than adequately covered elsewhere, from viewers who thought it was perfect to viewers who found none of it believable, including the reactions of the other characters to the episode’s climactic incident and its consequences. What I do want to talk about is how people who saw themselves in Quentin responded. Not to speak for them, as they can and have spoken for themselves, but to emphasize how the response of this portion of the audience highlights the importance of representation–not only on the screen or the page, but behind it.

The show’s creators have given a few reasons for why season 4 ended the way it did. Jason Ralph was planning to leave the show (well, this was described as a mutual decision, which could mean anything, but there were at least some reasons on his side for the departure). The writers felt that Quentin’s character arc was complete. They wanted to remove the white male ostensible protagonist (I use the word ostensible because Magicians, the show, has always struck me as more of an ensemble piece) to make room for the narratives of the other characters–this was arguably foreshadowed in “The Side Effect”.

All of these things can be true, and probably are, but that doesn’t change the fact that the writers stepped in a major and highly distressing trope, one that they could and should have avoided. The character of Quentin was both mentally ill and, it transpired, bisexual. Characters possessing one or both of these attributes have a distressing tendency to die. (Buffy did this, too.) And there isn’t really any good reason for this, except that our cultural paradigms of story have decided that it’s all very well to represent mental illness and non-heterosexuality and other non-dominant dimensions of being, but they certainly cannot be shown as attributes of a hero who survives to the final curtain, even triumphs. It’s especially distressing when this happens in a show that has capitalized on its positioning as queer-friendly, which Magicians definitely has done. In essence, while claiming to subvert one trope, the show’s creators wound up fully realizing another. And you have to ask whether they’d have done so if the white male protagonist they were removing from the stage hadn’t also been queer and diagnosed with mental illness.

I don’t actually think that they did this on purpose. I think it didn’t occur to them that the story could be viewed this way. That’s not an excuse. It’s why representation matters–not just in front of the camera, but behind it, and in the construction of the story before the camera ever rolls. How do I know this? Because, despite being a writer myself who’s been primed to watch out for this sort of thing since a friend first pointed out the Black Dude Dies First trope to me over twenty years ago (yes, said friend was black, and no, I hadn’t noticed it before he pointed it out, and if you don’t think it still happens take a close look at who dies and who survives Infinity War), despite having friends who were watching The Magicians specifically because a character they identified with had such a prominent role, despite having known many people who are not straight, are mentally ill, or both, this interpretation didn’t occur to me until I opened up Twitter the next day.

Partly that was because I was so caught up in what happened in the episode. A lot about it is very well done. Jason Ralph and Arjan Gupta are especially good in it, and I have a whole new affection for a song that up until a couple of weeks ago made me think of a one-hit wonder from my middle school years. (Given the show’s clear affection for music from the 80s I do wonder if I’m actually their target demographic after all.) It does in fact close a character’s arc, and provides a way for the actor playing that character to exit the show. But my lived experience is not the same as other viewers’. I haven’t had an entire life of seeing the few characters who possess characteristics similar to myself being offed to provide a lesson or motivation for a protagonist (Disposable Woman is bad enough), particularly not in a show that seemed to be courting my eyeballs. If I’m bringing my own perspective to a work that I create or engage with, that perspective is going to include things I’m more likely to notice and pay attention to, and things that I’m less likely to.

But how much stronger, more interesting, more inventive, and less hurtful to an audience that The Magicians has actively cultivated would it have been to write something that did all of that–and also didn’t give us yet another iteration of the Bury Your Gays trope?

Getting serious

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The other day a writer I follow on Facebook asked people to say how long it took them to break in as writers, or how long they’d been working to break in if they hadn’t quite managed it yet. (I still put myself in the latter category; I tell myself I’ll change that perception when I sell a book, but I hear that writers far more established than myself usually feel like they haven’t really made it. So who knows.)

I’ve been writing stories since I was 11 or so, but I think I’ve had a lot of false starts on trying to do it seriously. Including when I went to Clarion West, which I either did too early or not soon enough, depending on how you look at it. When I started the Stonecoast MFA in 2012, one of the program mentors asked, quite reasonably, “If you went to Clarion, why haven’t you published much since then?”

Of course, not everyone who goes to Clarion goes on to a published writer’s career. But, since I was in one of the few MFA programs in the country with a commercial bent, I was presumably interested in one. So it was a reasonable question, and one that I mulled over for the next two years of the program.

I didn’t become a better writer overnight, and one needn’t go into an MFA program to become a better writer–in fact, there are good reasons not to. But since I graduated and have started internalizing what I learned there and really looking at how to incorporate the feedback I get from my critique groups into my work, that work has been improving.

There’s a well-known quote from Ira Glass about how your taste develops far ahead of your skill. Beginners in any art can see the difference between their own work and that of those they admire, and despair of ever bridging the gap. So much of it is a matter of learning how, and learning how is the hardest part.

I think getting serious means eying that gap, and working out, specifically and bit by bit, how to bridge it. At least, it is for me, and the way I know is that since I started doing that, my own work has improved.

Sitting by the river

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I’m a nature nerd. To the point that I actually enjoy all those bits of Tolkien that are about the landscape and the vegetation and probably the geology. I’ve been studying wild plants this year with a nature school here in the Pacific Northwest. The perception shift from wall of green to species and life-cycle stage recognition has been exciting. It also causes me to wonder how I didn’t notice all that stuff before. The blossoms on the maple trees outside the bedroom windows jump out at me in vivid yellow-green. How did I previously fail to notice them?

Years ago a writing teacher (it was Paul Park) described a story as accumulation of specific detail. That was a long time ago and I’m not nearly as far along as a writer as I thought I would be by now, but that little nugget has never left me. When studying wild plants, especially ones that you might be eating or harvesting for other uses, specific detail becomes important for another reason: something edible and even tasty can closely resemble something that can kill you if you put it in your mouth. (Camas and death camas, for example. And then there’s wild carrot, or is it hemlock…?)

Over the weekend the wild plant class went east of the mountains to the Umtanum Canyon near Ellensberg. Until the last few years I hadn’t spent much time in eastern Washington, and had developed more familiarity with the ecosystems and weather patterns of the west. But there’s a lot going on over there, and in the space of a day we encountered multiple medicines, a few foodstuffs, and a handy recognition pattern for poison oak (I didn’t know it produced berries).

I have no idea whether any of this will ever be used in a story (though some of what I’ve learned as a nature nerd did make it into my stories “Arkteia” and “People of the Wild”). But I feel like knowing the place you’re in enhances storytelling, even indirectly. Humankind came up with stories as a way to understand, explain, and remember. Understanding, explaining, and remembering where we are, whether that means our current physical location or our innermost selves, seems like it would be strengthened by sharpening our perceptions of our surroundings.

Besides, hiking up an ancient river canyon and identifying what you’re seeing on the way–identifying being the first step, and only the first step, to knowing–well, it’s fun. Learning, like creation, seems to work better when it’s fun.

Starting over

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Earlier this week I tossed most of two projects I’ve been working on. One a short story, the other a novel. Both have existed in some form for years, even decades. One came very close to publication last year, but didn’t make it. When I re-read it earlier this week, I saw why.

But I also got excited, because I saw exactly what was wrong with it.

I have a habit of sending pieces out before they’re fully cooked. The logic is, works aren’t so much completed as abandoned, right? I think I’ve misunderstood that saying, possibly willfully, for a long time. Yes, there’s always something else to tweak or fix. But this story hadn’t been at that stage when I’d sent it out. Not even close.

I’ve said before that writing and martial arts are similar, at least in how I experience and practice them. My kung fu teacher taught in a deceptively simple style that used relatively few techniques, many of them variations on each other. The challenge lay in doing them well enough, and being able to adapt them creatively enough, to be effective. And the only way to do that was to practice them, play with them, bounce them off a wall (well, your training partner) and see what stuck.

Same with writing. Make characters compelling, setting concrete and believable, plot that moves. Simple. But how to do that is harder to communicate effectively. I think that’s why so many writing textbooks say basically the same thing. The challenge lies in how to do it for this situation, this story.

I realized that I wasn’t thoroughly thinking through…well, a lot of things about these particular stories. I was just going through the motions, generating a lot of words, hoping that the results would be worthwhile. And maybe there are people who can write that way and get solid results, but I kind of doubt it. Even if there are, that wasn’t working for me–any more than getting in the ring with a partner and taking a similar rote approach would. That’s a good way to get your ass kicked.

So, I’m trying again, with a lot more conscientiousness and a lot less emphasis on just getting words out. Over the past however many years I’ve established a pretty solid writing habit, and that’s something I can leverage. What’s changed this week is that I’m actually excited about the stories I’m working on again. It’s been awhile since I could say that.

As to whether the results will be any better, well, we’ll see. But I’m betting they will.

Holydays

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I’m really feeling the solstice week this year, in the sense of noticing how early it gets dark, how quiet it is at home, and so on. Earlier this week I was sitting at the dining room table, journaling, and listening to the rain wash against the house like surf on a beach. It felt like the room was wrapped in a blanket against the weather outside.

Last week I was sick. This week, the Mr. is sick. And after some deliberation, we decided not to travel this year. On Christmas Day we might go down to some friends’ in Centralia.

Or, we might stay home and have lasagna, exchange gifts, watch movies. Last year was a big family adventure—I spent the holidays with my brother, his family, and our parents in Shanghai, and we took a tour of Yunnan Province—and this year I guess I’m just feeling the hygge. I have a lot of internal-combustion-type stuff going on. And I’m tired.

Hellenismos doesn’t really do solstices. The solstice is far less dramatic in the Mediterranean than, say, Scandinavia, or Ireland. But I live in the Pacific Northwest, which is a lot more like northern Europe in terms of climate, if not in latitude. Marking the solstice makes a certain amount of sense when you’re waiting for the hours of daylight to stop shrinking. So I’ll be participating in a vigil, and thinking about the coming year. I’m feeling…I’m not sure how to describe what I’m feeling about it. My days of youthful anticipation are pretty much behind me at this point, but lately I do find that I’ve been engaging with things at a deeper level. The potential to do that, and to go further into the things I’m doing, feels good.

One of those things is the Hardanger fiddle, which I finally, after much struggle and frustration, am getting to sound a little bit like it’s supposed to. It’s fair to say that this is the most challenging instrument I’ve ever played, and it’s forcing me to work with it in a more focused and disciplined way. That’s probably good for me.

Changing up my process

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This year, I wrote a lot but didn’t finish anything. Part of that was due to working on a book, which takes longer to finish than a short story, generally speaking. But I was having trouble even finishing the book, mostly because I’ve been shopping the one that’s already finished for over a year and getting nowhere. So that’s depressing.

I am, as most anyone who knows me will tell you, the Queen of Too Many Irons in the Fire. One thing I did accomplish this year was to cut back on how many projects I was trying to work on simultaneously. Turns out if you put too many irons in the fire, the fire goes out.

But slowing down requires you to come to terms with where you are.

So: I’m in my mid-forties, with a slow trickle of short publications to my credit, and a novel that I haven’t managed to sell. I’m aware that a lot of people never get this far. They tell me about not having time to write, which might even be true; or they don’t send their work out because they’re afraid it’s bad; or it actually is bad. (I’ve written a fair amount of crap in my time. If Sturgeon is correct, most of what I’ve written is crap.)

However, I’ve basically solved the butt-in-chair problem. Having the persistence to get in the chair and write something, or research something, or play a musical instrument (I said I have too many irons) shouldn’t be that significant, but we live in an age of permanent distraction, so it kind of is.

Speaking of permanent distraction, people–other writers, even–talk about how they don’t have the attention span to read long-form writing anymore. Even if they did, there are far more books being published every year just in my favorite genre than I have time to read. When I think about it that way, I have a hard time justifying the amount of time and effort I’ve spent just to get this far. There are other things that I’m better at, certainly. Some of them, I get paid to do.

So, I could set all this aside, and spend the time that I spend writing doing something else. I’m not getting any younger, after all. None of us are.

But I haven’t decided to do that, so far.

What I have decided to do is make some changes to how I work. When you do anything long enough you start to see for yourself what needs to happen in order to reach the next level. My gung fu teacher of blessed memory used to observe that this is where a lot of people stop. They see how much more work lies ahead of them, and decide to do something else. This is not exactly the same as giving up.

I can see what needs to happen. I’m curious to know whether I can achieve it.

Thinking about structure

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Over twenty years ago, I met a teacher who changed my life. Not only because of what he taught and believed, but because of the community of fellow students and other teachers united by a common practice of a particular martial art. Training in that art yielded a number of benefits, among them a sense of and appreciation for structure that has affected my approach to stories and writing.

This isn’t too surprising. Much of the how-to around storytelling deals with structure: three acts, the hero’s journey, and so forth. Stories and storytelling have been a part of humanity for so long that it’s hard to imagine ourselves without them. But we also get impatient when a story meanders too much or seems to have no point. Often what’s missing is structure; or, if you recall that stories were told long before they were written, timing.

The danger of how-to manuals like Structuring Your Novel, useful though that book has been for me, is of mistaking the map for the territory. Just as solely repeating forms doesn’t mean you’ll win a fight, forcing one’s story to conform to the structure runs the risk of discarding ideas that might have worked with a little more creative effort. You have to allow for the unexpected. Use the structure as a tool instead of taking it for granted.

It’s also beneficial to avoid assuming that any one structure is universal, or even that any one structure is better than all the others. My chief complaint about the hero’s journey model isn’t the model itself–it’s very useful, and it’s a lot of fun to map stories onto it, including quite ancient ones such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. But trying to force every story we find into this particular structure means missing the variability and mutability in which reside stories’ ability to surprise–not to mention the other story structures which are possible.

When I first started writing I resisted what I viewed as the formality of story structure; I was too creative for that, maaaaaaan. Yet an interesting thing happened when I started paying attention to structure and its attendant feature, timing–when I started thinking about how the structural elements of story interrelate, like little Chekov’s guns firing all over the place. My stories started selling.

Structure guarantees nothing; I still collect more rejections than acceptances. But in starting to see how structure functions as a tool in storytelling, I’ve strengthened my stories overall, and seen the creative potential in giving my story a good skeleton. Structure might make for predictability in some respects, but some of the best poems are sonnets.