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.

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Watching “The Magicians”

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It wasn’t exactly “Once More with Feeling,” but danged if I’m not humming “Under Pressure” under my breath for the last day or so.

I’m not sure that “All That Josh” constituted a musical episode, considering that it only featured a few musical numbers and didn’t really follow the structure of a musical production. On the other hand, the whole thing was an extended joke on musical keys, one that my not-so-inner music theory geek appreciated.

I’ve been a fan of “The Magicians” since the show premiered, at first due to its willingness to make some bold choices with its adaptation. That those choices were arguably necessary–the books are essentially unfilmable as written–doesn’t make them less creative, and in “All That Josh” a number of them paid off strongly.

A key element to the show’s success is making it an ensemble story, rather than primarily Quentin’s. Friends who bounced off the books pretty hard because of Quentin’s sad-sack personality find him a bit more bearable when the focus is on the group of principal characters as a whole. Granted, none of them are particularly likeable, which is one of the things I find most realistic about the show: take most of us in our early 20s and add magic, and try to tell me a lot of us wouldn’t be assholes.

Despite this, “The Magicians,” the TV show, carries a message not unlike those of Harry Potter, Buffy, and other stories involving magic: the characters are most successful when they work together. That’s nowhere more evident than in “All That Josh” where they’re literally spread among four different locations–at least two of which are in some other dimension–and still manage to sing together. They’ve been under tremendous pressure all season: to find the keys, to bring magic back, to rescue the Fillorian monarchy from the elves’ control, and perhaps hardest of all, to forgive one another for all the shit that went down in seasons one and two.

“All That Josh” didn’t fix any of those problems permanently–it couldn’t, not with three episodes still to go this season and season four in the works. Yet all of the characters, especially Quentin, have matured tremendously this season. The most important moment in “All That Josh” wasn’t when they all sang together, but in the moment that predicated it: when, called out by Josh, the others acknowledged their neglect of him (and he admitted that he’s not so great about returning phone calls, either).

Even in Never-Never Land, there might be something to be said for growing up.

Watching Stranger Things

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Life being what it is, I didn’t get around to watching season 2 of Stranger Things until this past week, binging on most of it last night while being held down by a cat who missed me while I was away at a retreat. Lying on the couch and absorbing a story that entertainingly calls back to the pop media of my growing-up years without being solely a nostalgia piece (the reason I wound up detesting Ready Player One) seemed like a good end to the weekend.

It’s interesting to me that TV now still has the episodic serial structure while being consciously aware that many (maybe most?) viewers are going to watch the whole season in one go. Stranger Things‘s references to chapters rather than episodes feels like an acknowledgment of this: while you might not read a whole novel in one go, you rarely read a single chapter and then put the book aside for a week before reading the next. Stranger Things feels novelistic, and even though Netflix allows one to skip the opening and closing credits, these breaks in the action are still introduced, requiring the viewer’s intervention to skip over them. They become a part of the narrative framing of the show.

This has the advantage of being able to build a strong arc with less worry that viewers will be able to follow plot developments, because they probably just finished watching the previous episode. On the other hand, things like character inconsistencies, usually due to the plot needing a character to do something out of character, become a lot more obvious. (It didn’t make sense to me, for instance, that the kids–Dustin very much included–weren’t more suspicious of Dart’s provenance, even though the playing out of that storyline supported the overall story plotwise and thematically.)

Weaker episodes also suffer more by being bookended by stronger ones. “The Lost Sister” feels like a lost opportunity in a lot of ways, and it doesn’t help that it’s preceded by “The Spy” and followed by “The Mind Flayer”, even if I am fond of El’s new look. At this point I’d like to see what look she’d choose for herself, after spending the entire series thus far being dressed by other people. Watching her come into her power has nonetheless been a delight, not least because I was once a teenage girl who experienced a shocking awakening to the power that, specifically, adult men had to affect my world and control my actions–even if none of them were shadowy government agents with spooky research agendas. At this point I just want to see her agency develop more fully. And, I really want to see Kali/Eight/Linnea Berthelsen again in a more interesting episode.

What impresses me, though, is how the show is using nostalgic resonance to its own advantage. Stranger Things isn’t just a nostalgia piece; certain aspects of the story are timeless, most especially its study of how humans respond to trauma. The 80s setting and deliberate references to media of that era (the Alien movies always freaked me out; thus and so, the tunnel scenes in Stranger Things likewise do so quite suitably) are enjoyable to an audience of a certain age in which I am very much included, but I like to think I’d be enjoying the show anyway.

It does raise the question in my mind of creative reasons for the era of the story’s setting. There are obvious marketing reasons: folks around my age will be drawn in by it (I’ll admit, it’s a reason I started watching, though less a reason I keep watching), and there’s ample opportunity to sample from cultural tropes that people both older and younger than myself will be familiar with. And given the age of the creators, that sampling is no doubt enjoyable, in the very particular way that referencing well-loved stories and artifacts from one’s childhood past can be.

But what’s a story reason for setting it in 1983-84? I have a few theories, though some I want to sit with for a bit and see how the show develops. I will observe that the story itself–government mind-control experiments, Cold War paranoia, alternate dimensions wherein lurk Chthulhu monstrosities, and the science-y rather than fantasy veneer overlaying all this, is as characteristic of the era in which the show is set as the kids getting around on bikes and using walkie-talkies, the town library’s limits on how many books you can take out, and Billy’s hair-metal listening habits. A story with this premise set in 2017 would, I think, feel oddly dated, out of sync with the times. Our understanding of science has evolved, and we’re paranoid about other things.

On the other hand, while phones have replaced walkie-talkies, libraries are as much about the Internet as about books, American parents generally don’t let their kids wander around on bicycles until after the streetlights, and Russia is no longer a–wait, never mind that last one–human nature hasn’t changed much. We still lie to ourselves and to each other, we still take foolish actions for noble reasons (and vice very much versa), and traumas past have a way of rising up and smacking us in the present. The very nature of nostalgia requires hindsight. Stranger Things might be set in the 80s, but it probably only could have been written now.

Reading Wylding Hall

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I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth Hand’s fiction for a long time. Waking the Moon, which seems to be a lot of people’s Elizabeth Hand gateway drug (at least, among readers around my age), came out when I was in college. Smith wasn’t much like the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine (it was a bit like Blackstock College in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin; I am aware that Blackstock is more directly based on Carleton), but I was from Washington D.C. and had been to Catholic University a few times. The setting felt familiar, plus I was beginning a fascination with ancient goddesses that would continue up to the present day. So I read all of Hand’s work that I could, especially including Black Light, with its rhapsodic Dionysian apostrophes and references to Euripides’ Bacchae and the Orphic Mysteries.

Wylding Hall, to me, bears a few resemblances to Black Light, though it is very much its own thing. Mainly because both feature an enormous house in which a great deal of the action takes place, a house that seems much larger than it has any reason to be, with mysterious rooms and even more mysterious people, and characters whose chemically altered state of mind might explain all the weirdness except that you know it doesn’t, because this is not the kind of story where you wonder whether there’s anything supernatural going on. Some of the characters might; you, the reader, do not. Despite this, when a revelation occurs near the end of the book concerning a certain photograph, the effect is jolting.

One of the things that Hand is very good at is atmosphere. Whether in her fantasy and science fiction or, more recently, in her Cass Neary crime novels, she opens windows into vivid worlds bright with color and terror in equal measure. I’d love to visit Wylding Hall, would love even more for that visit to be with a band that achieves the kind of synergy Windhollow Faire does, with an optimistic manager footing the bill. I tell you what: the best of their experience was what I always hoped playing in a band would be like, and every so often, it was. Though I also know that Wylding Hall would creep me right the hell out. I get creeped out in my own house, a thoroughly boring and poorly constructed split level dating only to the 1990s; one look in that closet full of dead birds and I’d be looking on AirBnB. And yet.

And yet, the story works so well for me that I want to go see the place anyway. While nothing about the plot of Wylding Hall particularly surprised me–and it’s a short novel, though quite a bit happens in it–Hand so successfully establishes an atmosphere of wild creativity and equally unchained creepiness that particular moments are as effectively startling as they need to be to sustain the rest. Though I was left with some lingering curiosity about the locals, what they know, and how laconic they are about the danger the members of Windhollow Faire are putting themselves in. There was a definite shade of The Wicker Man about them; if Christopher Lee had shown up, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. Also much like The Wicker Man, there’s a sense of inevitability about the proceedings, as though the events of the novel were a foregone conclusion as soon as the musicians and Wylding Hall encountered one another. There’s a longstanding cultural trope of people, especially musicians, encountering uncanny beings at crossroads: gods, fairies, or devils. Perhaps Windhollow Faire was doomed all along.

Looking forward to Annihilation

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This week, the trailer for Annihilation, the movie based on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, hit the Internet. I’ve been a fan of VanderMeer’s work for about five years–though, when I saw him on the schedule as a guest lecturer for the MFA program I began in 2012, I realized I’d had a copy of his City of Saints and Madmen sitting in one of my to-read piles for years. I read it and immediately wished I had done so sooner.

Since then, and since his lecture, which was on imbuing your storytelling settings with a sense of place and which cited Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory as a source–also a fascinating book that I wished I’d read earlier–I’ve become quite a fan of VanderMeer’s work and that of his wife, Ann, an amazing editor. I loved Annihilation when I read it a few years ago; when I heard it was going to be a movie, directed by Alex Garland no less (I loved Ex Machina except for the last ten to fifteen minutes; maybe I’ll write about that at some point) and starring the likes of Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, I couldn’t help but get excited.

The trailer looks amazing, and what’s interesting to me is the visual richness of it. When I heard about the film, as excited as I was, I wondered how the book would transition to a visual medium. One of the things I love about VanderMeer’s work is his careful selectivity of detail. It’s hard to do this without leaving the impression of blank characters in a blank room, but when reading Annihilation especially, I felt that pleasure that one gets from reading an author in control of their work. The right details are revealed at the right time; any confusion on the part of the reader is deliberate. You’re supposed to wonder what the hell is going on, just as the characters are. To elicit this feeling in the reader while compelling them to keep reading is a neat trick, and one that I personally enjoy in my reading experience.

It’s also been lovely to see the sales figures for Annihilation, the novel, shoot up in response to the trailer release. I do wonder what readers coming to VanderMeer’s work via the movie (or the movie’s trailer, at any rate) will make of his writing. His stories are deeply weird, often unsettling, sometimes frustrating, personally rewarding. I can’t wait to see what Garland and company make of this one.

Tracking and Storytelling

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Feline track, probably a bobcat. Rainier, WA, 2017.

A few years ago, in the context of wilderness survival training, I got interested in wildlife tracking. I love watching animals but wildlife tends to make itself scarce unless it’s accustomed to humans, and most of us make too much noise to get close and aren’t willing to sit still long enough for them to come to us. (Hunters are a notable exception.) Wilderness Awareness School out here in the Northwest offers, among other interesting classes, an intensive course of training on tracking animals. I signed up, and had the first class over the weekend.

There’s a lot involved in tracking, but mostly it seems to amount to being observant. I’ve been hiking and camping all of my life but looking for animal signs is a different way of interacting with my environment. I move more slowly, make less noise, spend more time examining things that seem disturbed or out of place. One of the course instructors described tracking as a form of pattern recognition. I suspect it’s also a matter of recognizing when a pattern is broken.

One of the most interesting elements of tracking–a technique the school also uses for aidless navigation–is storytelling. Tracking, traveling, and storytelling are some of humankind’s oldest behaviors. There’s something primal about combining them.

When I was at Clarion West, the writer Paul Park told us that a story is an accumulation

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Elk track, Rainier, WA, 2017.

of specific detail. That’s a definition that I’ve never forgotten. When you’re tracking, you’re gathering details, uncovering them, like a good journalist: who was here? when? what were they doing? why? where were they coming from, where did they go? This kind of storytelling serves a practical purpose–in the days of hunt and gather, kill or be killed, an eminently practical one. The activity I engage in out of curiosity and a desire to better know the natural world was once a matter of survival, and in some parts of the world, still is.

The story you tell when tracking is made up, but not out of whole cloth. You’re gathering those specific details and assembling them into a picture so vivid that, last weekend, I sat in a wash in the forest with over a dozen other students and all of us could picture the mother mountain lion and cub that had passed through that exact spot in the recent past. We assembled that story out of our observations, the promptings of our teachers, and our imaginations, and told the story to each other. And now I am telling it to you.

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Baby birds in their nest by the Suiattle River, June 2015.

The role of storytelling in tracking is obvious. What about the role of tracking in storytelling? A writer will say that a story isn’t so much made up as discovered; Stephen King describes writing as a form of archaeology. If storytelling developed out of the human need to tell one another what happened–there was a mountain lion here with her cub, there were deer here, a squirrel shredded some Douglas fir cones and I heard him shrieking at me from the treetop here–then the process of story creation within our minds is indeed an act of discovery. And it’ll feel like a discovery even when we’re completely making it up.

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On a wilderness walkabout, June 2016.

I used to write fast. I have reams of stories from those days, churning out the million or so words that suck until you start getting out of your own way, developing your skill, understanding how the stories you read actually work, and get to the good stuff. As it turns out, both tracking and writing require quiet of mind, attention to the task at hand, a careful uncovering of detail, and a willingness to sit still.

intuition, rationalization, and characterization

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I read a lot. Writers should, in general, and not just the sort of stuff we ourselves write (or want to write). I also work as a librarian and there’s a cliché about librarians and reading that isn’t as accurate as people think, but which happens to be true in my case.

Anyway, this week I started Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which turns out to be one of those books that has a way of connecting up with other things I’ve read recently.

Or maybe not so recently. As I absorb Kahneman’s construction of System 1 (quick, intuitive thinking) and System 2 (slow, logical reasoning) I am reminded of another book I read two decades ago, and still widely recommended in self-defense circles: Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear.

Both books examine two modes of human thought, but do so from different perspectives and to different purposes. Kahneman, I think, is trying to get at why and how we react, judge, choose, and believe the way we do, often in ways that observers would view as mistaken–and why we’re so bad at recognizing our own mistakes. De Becker was starting from a similar place, but with a much narrower focus: the purpose of The Gift of Fear is to train your intuition–Kahneman’s System 1–to sort real danger from something that might seem dangerous but is really innocuous, and to trust that intuition when in a life-or-death situation. That might seem at cross purposes from Kahneman’s assertion that System 1’s conclusions are frequently suspect, but I don’t think it is. System 1 is at its best when there isn’t time to sort through rational responses and pick the best one. Most of the time, we aren’t in that kind of situation–and I can point to instances when I was, and System 1 served me well (avoiding a car accident, catching a falling object before it hit the floor and broke, responding to and de-escalating a physical threat).

What does this have to do with characterization?

If we’re trying to create convincing characters, one of the ways to add depth to them is to think about their System 1 and System 2. What do they believe–and what do they really believe, perhaps not even consciously? What things are they so experienced at that when they have to perform them, they do so at the System 1 level? (For example, most of us in the United States are good enough at driving a car to handle it reasonably well under normal conditions, avoid crashes, etc. But very very few of us are capable of doing the same on a racetrack.) How do they react to the unexpected, and how do they rationalize it afterward? What unconscious, intuitive motivators lead them to make mistakes that readers and other characters will recognize, but they will not?

I often say that I don’t care whether a character is likeable, as long as they aren’t boring. Unlikeable characters in whom we are nonetheless interested and might even sympathize with can be some of the most intriguing examples of System 1 and System 2 in conflict. A character whose System 1 thinking betrays negative or even evil impulses, but whose System 2 thinking constantly strives to either override or justify them is more interesting than a character who is just evil for evil’s sake or who never makes a mistake because their intuition is always correct.

Even if a character’s System 1 and System 2 are largely in alignment, finding ways to incorporate both into that character’s beliefs, personality, and behavior adds depth and nuance. Such characters tend to be more interesting to watch or read about than those who never engage in self-reflection, act in ways that turn out to be contrary to their own interests, or make mistakes. If one of the purposes of story is to help us understand ourselves, then informing our writing with research like Kahneman’s can help writers accomplish that purpose.

New publication: “Arkteia,” See the Elephant

I’m very pleased to announce this publication; “Arkteia” is a story close to my heart, and just happens to be the first story I workshopped at Stonecoast. The arkteia was a Greek ritual chiefly associated with Artemis’s sacred site at Brauron, not far from Athens. In the ritual, girls between the ages of around five and ten served as priestesses, “dancing the bear” in a placatory ritual connected to a myth involving the killing of a bear in the sacred precinct. This was not the only place where the killing of a sacred animal was said to have angered the goddess–a similar act purportedly led Artemis to keep the winds from Aulis until Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.

Both the goddess Artemis’s connection to bears and the thoughtless intrusion of humanity into wild places are important background themes to this story. Enjoy!

writing, day job, and civic duty

There’s a lot going on, and only so many hours in the day.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in these politically turbulent times. Though, I’m not sure any time isn’t politically turbulent. Certainly the more I read of political history, the more I’m persuaded that political turbulence is part of the human condition. The specifics might change, if possibly less than we think.

Like most writers, particularly those who’ve been writing for awhile but are new to being paid for it, I have a day job. It works out to a job and a half: forty hours at work, another twenty to twenty-five a week working on fiction. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else, though I fit in as much as I can. (Writers are stereotypically introverts. I am not.)

Our times are politically turbulent, but civic engagement in the United States has been declining for a long time. I tend to peg the beginning of its current decline to sometime in the late 1970s, though I’m depending on historians and political commentators to support that as I was in nursery school then. I’m hopeful that current conditions represent an ascendancy, though the options for said engagement beyond voting (and contributing money, if one’s in a position to do so) are fairly limited.

But another thing that civic engagement demands is time. Time to go to meetings, to call or write one’s representatives, to find or form the organizations necessary to get anything done in the civic sphere these days (particularly if one doesn’t have money).

It feels selfish, sometimes, to turn those hours before and after work and on weekends to writing, when there is so much in the world that needs doing.

On the other hand, thinking of art as self-indulgent or something solely to be pursued at leisure, as having no inherent worth, is so characteristic among the dominant powers in our society, that spending a few (or many) hours on something that might turn out silly or strange or not at all begins to feel like a form of resistance.