Friday, June 24, 2011

Dry Spell

There are times when the writing becomes tiresome, when the events of the day or of life in general become so wearing that the last thing you want to do it sit down and try to eke out a few words worth reading.

This is one of those times.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Master Class

Writing is a lonely business where each writer sits and tries to fill the screen with something worth saying. We each deal with our muse idiosyncratically, relying on our imaginations, education, and references to craft unique works. We labor like journeyman artisans prior to the industrial revolution, before knowledge of their master's methods became widespread. We are anchorites by nature and vocation, rarely meeting with others of our tribe, usually for critique sessions.

I've been in a critique group for several years whose members are professional writers of varying accomplishment. Although I'd enjoyed our sessions, in which we read and criticize our most current material, I began to feel that somehow we were missing something; that all this picking at one another's scribblings wasn't accomplishing any improvement in our craftsmanship but merely polishing the finish, as it were, on pieces that had already been forged.

What would happen, I wonder, if we talked instead of techniques, methods, processes, and the other writer's tools that line the backboards of our wordsmithing workbenches? Would we discover preferred ways of plot development or found that sorts of hooks work best? Would we explore the byways of flashbacks or realized where foreshadowing could be used most effectively? Would we agree on those elements that constitute an ideal scene? The list of possible discussions and discoveries goes on, ranging from "what works best for me?" to, simply, what works.

Would my dream assembly of accomplished writers form a master-level seminar where we could meaningfully discuss the how's and why's of the writing craft, without getting into the niggling trivia of a specific story, page, scene, or line of prose? What sort of dialogue would produce the best results? Which subjects would spark the most interest; perhaps development of the protagonist or would it be the meanderings of plot? How much discussion could there be about the traditional triad of character, setting, and time and whether writers necessarily need to appeal to sight, sound, smell, and the kinesthetic aspects in detail? So many questions, so much to be covered. The pressures of imagination and production probably mandate that there would never be enough time, people, and interest to hold such a discussion.

But I can dream.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sources of the Nile

Some of the great explorations of history, such as those of Speake and Burton, were determining the sources of the Nile. Was it a spring bubbling in the Mountains of the Moon, perhaps it flowed from Lake Victoria in Kenya. or even in some hidden glen deep in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda?  Eventually it was determined that there was no single, definitive source, but that the Nile was the result of outpourings from smaller waterways spread over one and a quarter million miles or more of collection basin throughout central Africa.

I often wonder where my own ideas came from when I complete a story, or sometimes, even a single scene or passage.  Was it spurred by something I'd read in my earlier years, an event in my life, something mentioned in a casual conversation, or even something once read and then forgotten, only to emerge years later clothed in different expression?  There are a few stories that I can point to and say "Yes, this is where I got the idea," but truthfully that might only address the macguffin, the punch line, the setting, or the character's makeup, not all the other stuff that fills the pages - all the little ornamentation, snippets of conversation, and observations that well up unbidden and pour onto the page without my conscious control. 

In the end I ask myself where does the Muse, who inhabits me when I get into the fugue writing state, find these things, all these niggling details, all this color and sound and smell and action?  How does it happen?

An example:  In my story "Primrose & Thorn" the Jupiter sailboat and its environment came from careful research and the story's plot was carefully contrived in advance, but nowhere in my mind had the characters of Louella, the lusty, direct, and black female protagonist and Pascal, her french companion been formed.  As I was writing my Muse gave Louella birth and let her rise entire, like the Botticelli Venus, from the sea of unconsciousness and step into the story.  For certain her character and behavior grew out of the necessities of the story, obstensably a vehicle used to put my feelings about sailing in  a way the reader would enjoy, but she had her own personality formed from the type of challenges she'd faced.  I am certain that I've never known anyone like either Louella or Pascal, nor are they amalgamations of people I've met. So where did they come from?   

Perhaps, like the sources of the Nile, the content of my writing drains from the broad timescape of a lifetime of reading, experiencing, and discovering my world.  Perhaps it is something best not explored to discover the source, but only to marvel that it is there for the Muse to use.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Short" People

Several years ago, after I had a few stories published and wrote my first Nebula finalist (Primrose & Thorn), I was invited to dinner by four accomplished novelists. I listened with rapt attention as they spoke knowingly of agents and contracts, of royalties and galleys, and talked with the ease of experience about book launches, autographing, and the other things that seldom impact a short story writer's life.  This was heady stuff and I reveled in being graced to be among their number.

Yet, as the evening wore on, I began to wonder why I had been invited to sit among this prestigious group since not only had I not written a novel, but the possibility of embarking on the long and arduous task of writing long had not yet crossed my mind.  Were they going to give me the secret of writing huge works?  Were they about to give me the keys to novelist heaven?  Were they going to impart the secrets of the book?  I waited, growing more concerned and anxious as the evening wore on through salad, entree, desert, coffee, and finally drinks.

Finally the leader of this pack of wolves turned to the lamb among them and said: "Bud, how do you manage to sell to Analog?  What's the secret of writing short?"

I forget what I said, but most likely it was "Huh?"  That was my first glimpse of something that I have debated ever since that night: why can some people produce novels with seemingly little effort while others struggle to produce more than a few thousand words at a time? What quirk of mind causes a novelist to spend fifty pages on an action that a short story writer dismisses in a sentence?  Why does no one go to the bathroom in a shorter work while novel characters detail every aspect of their daily ablutions?  And why in the world does the novelist allow dozens of characters to creep into their story, diverting the plot this way and that, pestering the protagonist with niggling, bothersome trivia that prevents resolution of the central issue chapter after chapter?  Why do they insist on burying the core of the story with excessive detail and descriptions?

Why can't they just say what they mean and get off the stage? 

Short story writers don''t feel the need for glittering ornamentation or writing casts of characters that are not directly related to the central thesis of the story.  A short story's protagonist is never diverted for long from their path, not with the premise's tease far behind and the end of the story looming just a few thousand words ahead.  No, the short story writer's brain focuses on the immediate, the important, and nothing that does not support the central thesis is allowed to intrude on making a clear and utterly unambiguous end.  The short story always has a point, damn it!

Perhaps that is the central difference between the novelist and short story writer: While the novelist cannot resist the call of complexity, the short story writer cannot resist the need for simplicity. 

But I fear that is too much of a simplification since many novelists write short stories and some short story writers manage to eke out a novel or two.  The answer might be the simple economic reality that you can't make money writing short so most novelists chose not to.   That also is a simplification that begs the question I was asked at that long-ago dinner and today, after all those years since, I am left not knowing the answer.  I do know that I write short because I couldn't do otherwise.  I feel impelled to reach a conclusion quickly, to make my point, tell my tale, and start on the next, and the one after that, and on and on.

And maybe novelists feel the same impulse to expand, expostulate, and discourse because they cannot do otherwise.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Unspoken Things

We've all heard the gripes and complaints about the writing game - the difficulties completing the first draft, the pain of editing and revising, revising, revising and the further indignities of yet another god-damned edit and revision before casting the piece adrift, only to see it flounder on the shoals of editorial whims.  Yes, and then, when it does sell, seeing the niggling copyedits, the galley mistakes, and finally, seeing a botched print job, poor cover art or illustration or all three, and usually at once.  We've all heard the litany of missing manuscripts, computer failures, files forever lost or worse, unreadable. Then there are unsympathetic agents, penny-pinching editors, illiterate copyeditors, and other hated minions who dislike your work.

On and on, the writers complain at the cons, on facebook, twitter, myspace, and a thousand other channels of the bitter hand fate has dealt them by cursing them with the writing compulsion. They say a better income could be realized flipping burgers, a better marriage if only they didn't waste time at the desk, happier kids if they took the time to be with them instead of cursing and slaving at the word-smithing anvil they've chained themselves to.  Yeah, all that.

But the thing they're reluctant to tell you, the precious secret that they all hold in the deepest recesses of their being is the absolute joy they experience while writing.  They rarely mention the high they achieve by crafting the perfect phrase, choosing the precise word, or arranging the well-crafted scene.  Joseph Campbell said to "follow your bliss ..." will lead you to a life of happiness. You may not be wealthy, healthy, or respected as a result of writing, but you will be happy.  

In writing as well and over time one gets more pleasure as their skill in the craft improves.  Just as a marathon runner experiences a high after they hit the wall, so too does a writer feel a jolt of exhilaration when that penultimate revision recedes into memory and only the final editorial gloss remains.  Acceptance provides satisfaction for a time, publication gives a temporary glow, and the income a certain feeling of accomplishment, but the true writer's joy comes from none of those - it comes from simply knowing that you have created a well-structured and carefully edited story.

And that, more than anything, is the meaning of joy.