In Which No Trope Is Forbidden

29 January 2004

I drink beverages to ward off the sore throat demons, because the last thing Kari and Grandpa need is for me to breathe illness on them when I'm in town celebrating their good stuff. Maybe I will be taking zinc after I go to the grocery store today. C.J. made me take it before, and it was nasty but functional. So maybe it's a thought. My throat isn't very sore. It could work.

The plan for today involves the very last of the errands, after a good but errandy day yesterday. Groceries, movie rental returns...yarg! Okay, so after a dinner date featuring sopapillas, Mark and I came home to watch "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Which was not what we would call...good. Nor even entertaining. I was expecting "bad but entertaining." Instead it was tedious, poorly written, crashingly obvious, nonsensical in a way that was not even really was a waste of two hours. Bleh.

And here's something: if you're going to go to all the trouble of setting your movie in the past, do not jump through hoops to duplicate modern technology for your characters anyway. It's lame. "We don't know how to do plot exposition without video any more, or we else thought it would be terribly clever to have Victorian video! Ha ha, how clever! And/or lazy! It's black-and-white but otherwise functionally no different! Ha ha!" The Nautilus: that was clearly not a modern submarine. It was a Vernian sub. It was ridiculous in other plot-related regards, true, but at least it wasn't clearly a Cold War nuclear sub. I can enjoy a good anachronism, but honestly, let's not pretend that the forms of our current technology are universally dictated in any way. Why does every Victorian action movie feature a car? Write a '20s action movie if you want a car! The '20s are cool anyway!

And if Mina Harker had intoned, "Dorian!" one more time, I was going to get the garlic out my very own self.

Ah well; back to the Blockbuster it goes, and I won't have to deal with it any more. I wish we'd finished all the errands yesterday -- the high today is supposed to be -5 -- but I don't think it would have been humanly possible, so there you have that.

What was I going to talk about? Ah yes: forbidden tropes. I was talking with Marymary about whether it was fair game to ban some types/subjects of poems, either in general or in workshop, and she said, "Aren't there tropes that are difficult for a novice to pull off in prose?" I've had to think about that. In my Intro Creative Writing class, I got to see some of the hideous beginner poetry standards, love and despair, rain as a symbol for both, etc. etc. etc. But in short fiction, I haven't seen as much of that. There was more variety of novice badness. There are overworn stories in my genre(s) for any level of writer -- the magic shop, the magic box what eats stuff, the First Landing On [insert favorite solar satellite here]. But I wrote a magic shop story and a first landing story as a novice (or an early journeybeing at best), and they've since sold, and people have apparently enjoyed them.

The problem with people in my intro creative writing class and my fiction studio is that most of them were not fiction writers. Most of them did not write stories in their spare time. They did so as part of a class assignment, and they were still definitely at the early undergrad level of class assignment, where the prof tells you what to do and you do it, and if the prof doesn't say what to do, you curl up in a confused little ball. So a lot of the stories were the equivalent of someone writing, "I don't know...there were these people, I guess." Nobody was bugging them to actually have plot, setting, or idea/conceit (it was not a spec fic class, and idea/conceit is not generally included as a main component of story in mainstream stuffs anyway, at least not that I've seen). On the down side, if they'd had to figure out a plot, a setting, and a conceit, maybe they'd have ended up with a story there. I don't know; maybe they wouldn't. But the thing I wrote most often in my crits was, "Why does this story start here? Why does it end here? What makes this particular slice special?"

(This could just be my inherent dislike of slice-of-life talking, I realize.)

One of my classmates had an easy solution for this: she stuck characters on planes and in elevators in random pairs and had them converse. Every story we read was either on an airplane or in a stuck elevator. "I'm doing a whole series of them," she told us. "That way, you know, I have a beginning and an ending for each one." Oh. Well. Okay then. But again, I have a slowly growing novel that begins on a plane. I don't want to outlaw them. Even for novices. And if my classmate had been fantastically talented, these stories might have been witty little gems. It's certainly possible. Likely, no, but you don't get very far in this business by insisting on the likely.

I guess I would say that, to my way of thinking, the thing that makes you a novice is that most of the tropes are hard for you to pull off. Any fool can mess up a Cinderella story. Any fool can mess up a bildungsroman. Any fool can mess up...anything, really. And some of us fools need to mess up a bunch of things before we get them right, and others of us fools don't.

Is part of this my patchy English background, do you think? I had an English minor, but it consisted of Intro Creative, Writing Fiction, Japanese Lit, Science Fiction, and Shakespeare (the upper-division version, not the lower). I knew a few English profs pretty well and the rest not at all; nobody ever talked to me about lit grad school or MFAs or anything. When I popped up with the Asimov Award my senior year, most of them made surprised squinty faces, A writer? Where did she come from, anyway? Oh, she's one of Dennis Henry's physics students? Huh. I didn't know they had writers over there. So it could be that English profs were wandering around telling people never to attempt a Man Who Learned Better plot until they'd been writing for three or four years at least. I'd never have known it. Did they tell you that kind of thing? Were you warned off any aspect of fiction as a novice?

My creative writing profs were great for me. Joyce Sutphen is a poet, and she is enthusiasm personified. (Hmm. Sometimes these stories in the "MacArthur Station" series are dangerous.) She was my cheerleader when I really needed one; she was a mostly-unbiased observer who told me I was not fooling myself with this fiction stuff. If I had to sum up Joyce's writing advice to me, it would be, "Go, go, go!" Which doesn't leave much room for, "Oh, and by the way, don't tell any love stories" or anything like that. Quentin Miller was my Writing Fiction prof, and he was more critical than Joyce, willing and able to see (and show me) where I'd jumped the tracks, where a good story could get better. But he was also not the type to try to steer me away from stuff. Some of my classmates, maybe; I think he was going to gouge his eyes out if he had to read another rough draft of a story about a first oral sex experience, and I wouldn't have blamed him a single bit. (I was near the eye-gouging stage on the second drafts, myself.) Did I just miss stuff? Were they supposed to be warning me away from things? If so, what?

So. Off I go, metaphorically at first and then literally. It's going to be a pretty busy day again, but I think it'll be good. And warm. Yesterday I layered fleece over long sleeves. Today it's Polartec over flannel.

Tomorrow: Mary Poppins and the death of the magic, how Rilla of Ingleside ruined me for life. And, we hope, more book progress.

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