21 September 2005 by Published in: writing 2 comments

I fiddled and fiddled with an entry about Katrina, but some of the momentum has left me, and stuff kept changing faster than I could edit it to respond. That in itself says something. Earlier in the catastrophe things went so slowly that I could gather my thoughts and post and know what I said would still stand for days. I may still finish it out and post it but I may not. We’ll see.

This is a writing post, so if you find that kind boring consider yourself warned. I finished the story I was thinking of as “Ancient Gardener” but is now called “How Does Your Garden Grow?”. It’s very (don’t say boring, don’t say boring — uhhhhhhhh) basic. Even so, it’s extremely satisfying to have finished it, because it’s the first thing I’ve completed in weeks and weeks. In fact, August was mostly a wash for writing. I managed to send off a revised opening for “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light” to VP but that was basically it. Most of those scenes were new, so it was writing work as much as it was revising work, but still, it wasn’t more than 8000 words or so.

Besides the satisfaction of completion with “How Does Your Garden Grow?”, I also feel like I can sell it. I don’t know why, exactly. It’s weird having those contradictory feelings: the feeling that it isn’t as good as much of the other stuff I have written mixed in with the certainty (completely unfounded, mind you) that I can sell this piece. It smells vaguely like literary fiction, although there’s definitely spec elements to it. It’s not magic realism, because the magic in it is weird and surprising to all involved. I’ve increasingly noticed, by the way, that people toss around the words “magic realism” without having any sort of idea what it means. A writer in my writer’s group claimed her story didn’t have to make sense because it was magic realism. I sputtered a bit in outrage, but I don’t think she noticed. I’ve also heard the term explained as “Latin American” which besides not being a particularly meaningful tag, probably discomfits Salman Rushdie a great deal, not to mention the neglect it gives to Gunter Grass.

I have to fix and revise “How Does Your Garden Grow” before anything else, but I’d like to be sending this around in a month or so. Before Halloween. “Hindsight” is back out searching for a home. It took me about a month to turn it around and send it out again. I need to be quicker than that.

I’m jumping ahead of myself a little, and trying to look back at the first year of writing already, even though I’m not to the end of it. I know I’ve not done as much nor as well as I wanted, and I’m a little concerned that when my self-imposed deadline is up, I won’t have gotten anywhere yet.

A writer friend and I had an interesting discussion last week, about the nature of the short story reader. She theorized that the average short story reader is not as intelligent as the average novel reader. I hadn’t ever considered the idea before, but it sounded a little off, if not outright backward, to me. Of course, neither one of us has any evidence to support either conclusion, but the interesting thing about our positions is that it reflects in the way we write. Her primary novel is convoluted, with twenty different plotlines and a cast of thousands that she manages adroitly. My current novel in progress is unidirectional, unlayered, with five major characters in a limited setting. On the other hand, I see short stories as an opportunity to play with form in a way that just isn’t possible or sustainable over a novel. I write most experimentally in short stories, figuring that a reader will tolerate much when it’s only three thousand words. Thus I feel free to write stuff in which not much happens, or in which there’s puzzles to be worked out, or in which there’s contraform ideas that play off against genre conventions. I enjoy using unreliable narrators, for example, or putting together a picture with fragmented bits of prose, like mosaic. I try things that are (to me) risky, like humor. Her short stories, however, are usually straightforward vignettes. Pieces that hang on a pivotal event and are played out in very closed circumstances. In essence, our somewhat opposed and unfounded preconceptions about the type of person who reads a format have guided the way we write in that format. Or perhaps, the way we write in a format has set our mind as to the reader we imagine for our words. Her short stories are generally better received than mine at our writer’s group, by the way, but of course, that’s not conclusive proof that her position is correct. After all, there’s lots of variables there, including that she may just be a better writer than I am overall.

A while back, Elizabeth Bear posted a really interesting treatise on talent in her journal. Some people say that writing requires talent, while others say it requires craft. Obviously those who believe the latter view writing ability as a form of democracy, achievable by anyone who works hard enough and long enough. Meanwhile, those in the former camp think that writing ability is, at the very bottom of the well, innate and that no amount of dressing up the words or repetition is going to get you there if you don’t have the gift. The Bear thinks it takes both. Good Las Vegas resident that she is, she compares writing to a deck of cards. “I suspect if one is going to make it as a writer,” she says,”one walks in with a free card. One thing you can do coming out of the gate. One aspect of the tremendous interwoven craft of writing that you’re naturally good at.” In that sense it’s all about talent. But after that, she explains, all the other cards you need to make your winning hand, you have to work for. This metaphor makes a lot of sense to me. Her freebie was characters, but she counted five other cards she had to master before she was published. She also counted things she was still working at. Of course this got me thinking about my own freebie (because obviously, I think I have some talent). At first I was unsure about what came first, because I’ve been writing for so long. I think the freebie I got was voice. The thing people tell me most often about my writing is that they were right there, inside the person’s head. People use the word “compelling” to describe things I write with a frequency that seems more than coincidental. They are pulled along by the tide of the character’s thoughts. I think doing voice requires a kind of emotional honesty that isn’t automatic for many people. It also requires a decent command of language, which I do have, but I think that followed the drive of voice, instead of preceding it. (Amusing anecdote, which illustrates my point : very very early in my writing career, either second or third grade maybe, I wrote a story in which a character, in dialog, used the word ain’t. I had recently read either The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or both, and I was very interested in the different sorts of ways people spoke. My teacher corrected the dialog and counted off points. I tried to plead my case, that the error was intentional, that it was dialect, that it was in speech so that would be ok. I don’t today remember who the teacher was, but I still remember her unwillingness to allow me the liberty of misusing grammar and I well remember both how embarrassed I was that she actually thought I didn’t know ain’t was not correct when I wrote it and my outrage that she would not let me express the character’s voice accurately. After all, Mark Twain did it, so it must be allowed!). Voice is a hard one to get, especially if you didn’t get dialog with it, which I didn’t. Also, unless you develop a pretty good grip on language, you end up using the same voice over and over and then – as they say in comics – your gift becomes your curse. And lastly, voice, and the language it requires can be a really tough freebie, as a commenter to the post points out, because it “hides a multitude of sins”. In this way it can keep you from developing the other necessary writing skills to succeed. If the pull of the voice is inviting enough, if the language is atmospheric enough, then when you enter the house of my story I can keep the lights low and you might not notice the stairs don’t go anywhere and the toilet has sprouted in the dining room. As an outgrowth of voice I got character, because ultimately, knowing someone’s insides reveals their outsides, but this process was not as transparent as I make it sound here. It was hard work coming up with characters to have the voices and creating consistency between their thoughts and their actions. In fact, I went through a phase where I had a lot of crazy characters, because I couldn’t always match the voice to what was happening in reliable ways. I’ve got a description card, but it’s a low value card, serviceable, but not trumping any hand. Sorely lacking from my set of cards, and made worse by some interactive story writing I did throughout high school and college, are plot and structure. The writing friend I mentioned earlier will often tell people they “need more plot” in their stories, like this was something you could just run down to the grocery store and pick up. In exactly which aisle do I pick up a can of extra plot? Of course, for her it seems easy, she’s GOT the plot card. She can add or subtract plot at will. I don’t know if she came with that one naturally or if it’s something she’s worked for, but there’s no question she’s got it. Right now I kind of cheat at plot. I have characters and I put them in a situation and then I describe what they do as a result of the situation and pass that off as plot. The primary way in which that’s not a plot is that it’s static. It’s a problem, and then the resolution (or dissolution) of the problem, but it’s not actually stuff that happens that might be variable and then interrupted by other stuff that happens. In other words, I am not adept at short-circuiting character directions, or subverting the main action, or bisecting plots. I work in two dimensions still. But the beauty of seeing your shortcomings is that you can work at them. Maybe by this time next year I will have earned a plot card. Now that’s a nice thought.

iTunes says I was listening to Hollow from the album Vulnerable by Tricky when I posted this.


The writer friend
Wed 21st Sep 2005 at 10:38 pm

The plot card was my freebie.

You missed a card from your hand. It is one that I envy. Setting.

I have a reason for feeling that short story readers are less intelligent: I read short stories when I’m tired and lack an attention span. It’s as simple as that.

But, as usual, for the most part, I agree.

Fri 23rd Sep 2005 at 12:19 pm

I’m probably missing a lot in the definition but it seems to me, after reading the definition, that a story which doesn’t make sense can’t possibly fall under the heading of "magic realism". It almost seems to me that a writer would have to take great care to make sure that a story makes sense if it is to fall under this category due to the elements that it would probably contain.

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