In Which Our Heroine Surveys the Experiments

6 February 2004

Let's talk about experimental fiction. I was raised a closed-minded linear science type (because, as we all know, science has nothing to do with intuitive leaps or keeping an open mind, right?), and so when I hear the word "experimental," I have some expectations. And they're not being met. So, as silly as it may seem to have rules for experimental fiction, I do.

First rule: when you run an experiment, you evaluate the results. This is a key step. Experimentation will get nowhere if the experimenter doesn't look at what happens. So when you write an experimental piece of fiction, you need to keep in mind that it may not work. You need to be willing to look at it and say, "Oh, yeah, turns out that second person future tense makes this story totally incomprehensible, funny thing about that," and either rewrite or trunk the story. Or it may be that second person future tense makes the story fabulous. But you need to be willing to look at it and see whether your experiment choice was one that worked.

(In science, it can be valuable to publish negative results, i.e. "we did not find a correlation between x and y." But stories are not published as sample experiments for other experimenters. Stories are published for people to read. If they serve as sample experiments, well and good, but that's not what they're around for.)

Second rule: sometimes it's your problem. Some things make a piece totally incomprehensible. Skipping all consonants, for example, is not a way to make a readable piece of fiction in the English language -- no one can do that right. No, really. Nobody. But other experiments can just be screwed up by you personally. Maybe you've never written a story with the ending first, building backwards in time. And maybe you didn't pull it off. You need to evaluate whether it's something you didn't do right, something you can't do right, or something you think can't be done right.

Third rule: if it's been done in another field for ten years or more, it is no longer a creative experiment. Really. Call it something else. And don't run around talking about how such-and-such an editor doesn't like experimental forms if he/she doesn't like a form that people in litfic used extensively in the '70s. Let's take an example: I wrote a piece, "Things We Sell to Tourists," in the form of thematically linked vignettes. Stan Schmidt at Analog rejected it, saying he liked it but didn't know if his readers would really go for the form. (Or something to that effect.) Now, I could go around putting my nose in the air and proclaiming that Stan doesn't like experimental fiction, and apparently no few people in this field feel that's an appropriate response. But under the circumstances, I think it's much more appropriate to see that this is a form Stan has seen before. This was not the first linked-vignette piece he read. So what he didn't think was appropriate for his mag was not an experiment but an established technique. Which is not a flaw in his taste but a data point about it. Same goes for editors who hate the present tense or the first person: those things are not in any sense experimental any longer. Editors are allowed to dislike them, and it has nothing to do with how experimental or outré I am, you are, or that person is. It's fine to do things you've never done before, and it's fine to do things that have never been done before, but for heaven's sake stop confusing the two.

Fourth rule: if you want to go on more and more about your experiment than about the story itself, that's a bad sign. And if the experiment is tacked on and not integral to the story, that's an even worse thing. Choose the best mode for telling a specific story. If that means fourteen lines of iambic pentameter...well, it's probably a fairly short story, but you get what I mean. Style and form and all those things should go with the elements of your story, not just get stuck on as an afterthought.

Okay? You got all that? Good.

I finished the rest of the Mary Poppins series, and the thing that bothered me the most about it, besides the repetition I talked about yesterday, was that Jane and Michael never seemed to learn. They had evidence that all sorts of fabulous things actually happened, but then the next time, they said all the same thing over again: "Oh, Jane! I was so sure it was real!" "I thought it really happened, Michael! Do you suppose it did?" I would think that if you'd already been to a circus of constellations and watched people hang stars in the sky, and you'd found corroborating proof for those events, you'd have quite different default assumptions than the average person. That it would be much easier for you to assume something had really happened, even if Mary Poppins was being tetchy about it.

It also made me very, very grateful that I lived in a time and with personalities of parents such that I got things explained to me. Adults wouldn't just make grown-up references, cackle madly, and wander off. The world is much friendlier that way.

I'm still enjoying Fallen Host, but the chapters feel too short to me. That seems like a picky thing to say, but they're really short. Laestadius is showing his age in the sections I've been reading. There are just some things in here that I don't think a 20th or 21st century folklorist would ever write, and his credulousness is not always useful to me. Ah well. He's sometimes willing to believe in everything he's been told, and at other times he's pretty patronizing about "primitive" behavior.

I think one of the nice things about writing a magical history is that you don't have to go crashing around assuming people make no sense. You can say, "Hmm, now they carried a brass ring when they prepared a corpse for burial? Why would they have done that?" And in context, the why can make sense. It doesn't have to be "Oh, I dunno, they musta believed something freaky about it." Because the something freaky can be the truth, and can be sensible.

I'm rethinking my revision ideas about Reprogramming, and I think the way I'm rethinking them is good. Better, at least. Certainly more tractable. I'm thinking I may have been wrong about the very largest scale of revisions necessary. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to do the rest of the revisions on the list without adding the two extra characters, and then I'm going to give the damn thing another read-through and see. It makes this stage less daunting. It makes the next thing to do clearer either way. And the stuff I'm doing next on this book will need doing even if I need those two extra characters after all. Thing is, I'm now thinking they might make the book clunky and unwieldy. I'm thinking they might deform the shape of it. You know how there are large people with proportional butts and large people whose butts just go way beyond? I'm afraid that in making this book larger, I would add mostly to the butt. If that metaphor makes any sense. That instead of getting taller or broader-shouldered, my book would just get assier. So I'm going to do other stuff first and then see whether this stuff is for Reprogramming or whether it can just go in Command Line whenever I get around to that.

It's very strange, revision at this stage. It was years ago when I passed the point where most of my stuff is worth salvaging, or rather, where I can tell what's worth salvaging in time to not spend time on it. (And please, God, don't let me prove myself wrong on that one....) But I'm also improving year by year, month by month at the very least. So the things I finished in '00 and '01 are not consistently at the level I can hit now. Readable, yes. Worthwhile, yes. In some cases, even good. But my attitude about editing them is entirely schizophrenic based on length. Short stories, eh. It's only a short story. Some of my short stories are deeply special to me, and I would like to see all the ones I have in circulation right now published at some point. But on the whole, I think my time is better spent writing and revising new stories. And if that means that some of my short stories from that time are published in smaller semi-pros or not at all, well, all right then. I can deal with that. I have enough story ideas that it's a matter of managing my time effectively.

But novels, oh. Not the same thing at all. Maybe part of that is that the novel submission process is so much slower than the short story submission process. Maybe it's that novels are a heck of a lot more work, total. Maybe it's that I really, deep down, think of myself as a novelist, and this short story stuff is fine and fun and lovely but not what I'm all about somehow. (Which is silly, because I'm very proud of some of my short stories.) And maybe it's that I have had short stories published without major editing, but I don't really believe for a heartbeat that I'm going to get a novel published as it stands anyway. Hmm. Maybe it's that the short story has a better chance of being read in its entirety by somebody, because hey, 1200 words, how long can it take you? And maybe it's that I have some confidence in my ability to get 1200 (or 2400 or 3600) words into a shape that's as good as I can on the first set of editing passes. Whereas 60K or 100K or 240K...well. It means more to me, is probably the thing. Which is probably the same thing as saying, "Yep, I'm a novelist." Sort of. Or close to the same thing. Maybe.

The thing is, I'm okay with my general take on short stories; I don't need to revise everything in the submission queue every time it comes back. That would be a very, very bad idea. I would do nothing but pick pick pick at stories I wrote when I was in grad school. But with novels, I'm still thinking it's worth my time to edit them again, and again, until they get published. I'm still thinking that's the best idea. I'm still thinking that's what they deserve from me.

Have I gone horribly wrong here somewhere? I can't think that anal-retentive agonizing over each short story that comes back is the way to go, but shrugging and saying, "That's as good as it deserves to be, let's see if it finds a home or not" sounds callous.

I think the upshot of all of that part is that I just don't know. Which is really too bad, but sometimes that's what you're left with.

Ah well. We live in a city that will give us, with our paper, a 40-page 2-section "celebration of hockey." And, oh, that makes me happy. Not just because somewhere along the line, I started learning these names, started to be in some sense a hockey person. But also because of the way they talk about Minnesota in this section. It just knocks me over that for the first time in my life, I'm living in a city where "us" includes me. Where if they talk about how Minnesotans are and what Minnesotans do, I respond with "Yeah, that's true, we do," or "No, we don't!" I grew up in Nebraska, but my folks are obviously transplants. They didn't go nuts over Nebraska football. They didn't go to a Caniglia restaurant as kids. And as much as we enjoyed Omaha when I was a kid, and as much as we still do...I understand now how my folks are Minnesotans, northerners, how they always will be. Because all that stuff that used to slide right by me about the other places I lived just clicks here.

The year we lived in Kansas, my grands were still up here in the Cities. And when we would drive up to see them, I remember how palpable my mom's relief was when we got to Albert Lea, and now I know what it was: we had returned to her real world. Omaha is part of my parents' real world; they've made a home and lives there. So when we lived in Omaha, the drive through Iowa was just a brief reality hiatus, or even part of our reality (the part we drove through to get to Grandma's, but still). But in Kansas, we were cut off. Mom in particular was cut off. And when we crossed the border into Minnesota and came up to the lake at Albert Lea, it was a very palpable symbol: big lake, familiar place, you're home. Even before Albert Lea itself, there was Round Prairie Lutheran, which I always thought of as the Church of Thank God We're In Minnesota. And now -- now I see it. Now I know why it meant so much to Mom to get there, even if we rarely stopped in Albert Lea, even though we didn't know many people there. The difference in the trees, in the lake, in the snow plows, in the restaurants and the gas's home. It's where we belong.

I didn't know the difference until I came here for Gustavus. I didn't know there was a place where I could be part of the local "us." Even a fringey part. It's...different, as we say up here. But a good different.

Ack! Someone stop me! I'm synopsizing the wrong novel!

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