On-ramps to various weird freeways

So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism. (I’m paraphrasing Max, and he should feel free to correct me if that’s not what he was talking about.) But that wasn’t the direction of the panel he was on–it was another panel but not this year’s That’s Another Panel–and then Max had to get to his next thing Sunday afternoon, and by the time Readercon rolls around, the thoughts I had early Sunday morning will be stale. Nor am I sure they’ll fit on Twitter without a blog post link to point to first. So here we go: this is your blog post link.

First of all, I think that different works of science fiction and fantasy are doing different kinds and levels of sense of dislocation and the weird. The name that gets canonically brought up in terms of “entry level” science fiction these days, someone who “provides on ramps” to science fiction, is John Scalzi. I think that in a conversation about sense of dislocation and the weird, this is more or less a complete red herring, but worth tackling first for demonstration. Most of what Scalzi has done in most of his books–I haven’t read all of them–is not all that weird. Nor is it trying to be, nor should it be trying to be–I want to emphasize that sense of dislocation, sense of the weird, is not an unmitigated virtue, is not being defined as the science fictional or fantastic thing to do, and therefore I am saying that John or his work should be deprecated for not doing it. Everybody should write the level of weirdness, alienation, dislocation, that their work demands, that they are interested in writing. John is given credit for not being highly referential, but this is blatantly false; John’s works are constantly referential. But they’re contemporary references. So the people who are frustrated by the feeling that they have to have participated in a hundred years of science fiction genre in order to understand a science fiction novel will not have that obstacle. That is one on-ramp he provides. Another he provides is almost more a staircase, because it provides access for some and not for others: it is exactly those contemporary references and style. When you have a scene of dialog with complaints about the monotony of a cafeteria menu, in exactly not only the type of complaints but the type of specific menu items that would come up for an American slightly older than me–an American John Scalzi’s age–there is a large audience for whom that is a very comforting access point. Look! It says. Things here in the future are not so weird. There may be galactic spaceships or green rejuvenated people or whatever space thing we are doing in this book. But people are still just the same. We go to our jobs and do them, we gripe about the food, we get on with it. So that sense of interpersonal familiarity is heightened with the utterly contemporary grounding. Our pop culture figures are name-checked, our relationships are reinforced. So while John gets people to buy and read science fiction–and in that sense may get people comfortable with the idea that science fiction in general is not too unbearably weird for them–what he’s not doing is getting them comfortable with a massive dislocation that is written to feel utterly unlike everything they’ve ever known. Nor does he need to want to do that. It just means that his toolbox is not all that useful for the people who do want to do that.

So. Other genres of the weird. In the course of the brief discussion during the panel, we mentioned surrealism and magic realism. I think one of the biggest on-ramps surrealism has is metatextual. People who pick up a work of surrealism have buy-in that the experience is going to be weird and dislocating before they ever get started. This is what they’ve signed on for. For all that SFF likes weird sometimes, SFF also likes adventure and speculation and many other things; alienation, dislocation, and sense of utter weirdness is not the only thing or even the main thing that a person picking up a work of science fiction and fantasy can be signing on for. So in some sense this is like asking, “How does porn get people to want to be aroused?” There is some of everybody in the world; surely there are people who watch porn for reasons other than to be aroused and then find themselves aroused anyway. But arousal is the thing it says on the tin. That is what you are buying if you buy porn. (“Buy” in the most general sense.) And the sense of dislocation, alienation, and the weird is what you are buying if you buy surrealism; the disappointing surrealism is the stuff that doesn’t deliver it. Much of the other weird avant garde that is not specifically surrealism–much of modern and post-modern art–is the same way: you go in knowing you want some of that, and if you take someone to a museum who doesn’t already want some of that, it’s not necessarily great at prompting them to start unless they just have a lightbulb moment. Much like many of us got to the weird in speculative fiction.

Which is great. (I mean, it’s terrible. Very little worse than mundane surrealism, ask me how I know. But it’s good to know.) But not very helpful in getting science fiction and fantasy writers more tools for the persuasive/converting toolbox.

An interesting counterexample to this is Banksy. Their work is not in museums; their audience is not very self-selected compared to most contemporary artists. I think that there are three key accessibility points there: literal physical accesssibility. Banksy stuff will be on the street where you will see it, and you will either like it or not, but you are not asked to go out of your way to get to this art that you may or may not like; the energy cost is low. Banksy’s stuff is “short” for time investment. You look, you take it in. And in fact I have seen more publication of dislocational, deeply weird fiction in short speculative fiction than in novels. And Banksy’s stuff is at least sometimes funny. Humor is a great access point if you can pull it off. If your humor is three levels of abstruse and obscure…that’s great, honestly, I love that kind of humor. But it’s important to realize that “I’ll make this really bizarre thing funny” does not automatically get you a larger audience. (Worth doing, though, because it entertains the crap out of me, and that’s what’s really important here, right? Of course. Okay.)

So the other genre we were going to talk about was magic realism. And I think one of the major tools magic realism has is sensuality. Sensuality of image and sensuality of prose. I think that most science fiction and fantasy writers know that sensory input is important at some level for almost all readers. Young writers will get advice like, “No one will care if you calculated the warp core mass exactly correctly if they can feel the spaceship controls under their hands.” But do we do it? When is the last time you could really feel the spaceship controls under your hands? Of course there are books likeĀ Dandelion Wine and the works of Cat Valente that focus on the sensual, but in general I think the speculative genres tend to shy away from it. Magic realism, on the other hand, wallows in sensuality. Why on earth is there a rain of roses in this scene? That is totally bizarre, what is going on here? Wait–do you care quite as much what’s going on here? You can practically taste the heavy, choking scent of roses in your nostrils. You can feel what the petals would be like on your skin, on your lips. Whether or not you know what they’re there for, those are some real roses, and for many readers, that pulls them along into the next piece of the book–or at the very least keeps them anchored in this one.

(For some readers, yes, you really do care. Some people bounce off magic realism because of the balance of sensuality and explanation. But if speculative writers are borrowing tools from other people’s toolbox, they can try to have both.)

And that made me think about paranormal romance. For my money, the entry point of most romance genres is sensory writing, not love or relationships or even sex. There may be stereotypes that romance novels have someone gasping, “Oh, Perceval!” on page one, but in the vast majority of romance novels, you have to wait some time to get to the sex. If sex was the on-ramp, you would have exited, parked your readerly car, and wandered off into a field of daisies. Something else has to be the on-ramp, and because I am a highly non-visual person, it looks really obvious to me that highly visual writing is one of the things it is. So: sensory writing, but focused on one sense in particular in most cases. Highly effective for a large number of readers.

Now. Does this mean I’m saying everyone should do more of this? No. I’m saying it’s one set of on-ramps, one set of access points, I have noticed, and particularly if you’re trying to do something deeply weird, deeply dislocational, and are trying to expand your audience for it, it’s a thing to think about. Adventure is a really traditional access point for both science fiction and fantasy. You can sort hard SF writers into which ones really really want to write about explosions and feel obligated to have some kind of science to dress it up and which ones really really want to write about science and feel obliged to have some kind of explosions to dress it up. Especially late in their careers, when one or the other goes out the window. But similar categorizations are more broadly true for other kinds of ideas and other kinds of action/adventure.

And I bet there are more access points I’m missing. And I’d love to talk more about them. Here or there or on Twitter. Even if you think I’m wrong. Especially if you think I’m wrong. There’s more to say here, too, about exoticism and escapism and phantasmagoria of ideas vs. senses–I know, because I’ve been having some of that conversation on email already–but honestly this is long enough and I need to hit post at some point and actually, y’know, start talking. And simultaneously get back to the story I’m writing.

The Vogon poetry problem

I think we all know the Dragonsinger problem of poetry in fiction (I will describe it in case someone doesn’t), and this week I found its opposite.

The Dragonsinger problem: all the other characters go on and on about how brilliant Our Protagonist’s poetry is. “You are the best poet of your generation!” they cry. “Possibly the best ever! Our country/language/planet has never seen such a wondrous poet as you!” Problem: very few authors are the best poet of their generation. Very few best poets of their generation decide to write speculative novels. So if you do show even a few lines of such a poem, rather than only the reactions to the poems, it jolts the reader right on out of there. Or immerses them in pity for the country/language/planet that is stuck with no better poetry than that. One of the worst examples is Menolly of Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. Everyone falls all over themselves to praise her. Her peers are sooooo jealous. And Anne McCaffrey shows quite a lot of Menolly’s lyrics in the books, and they are…not, shall we say, in stiff competition for the best of her generation. I first read them right before I turned twelve, and I am not convinced that they were better than I could have done at that age. I believe they rhymed die and cry, among other things. And I was reading T.H. White at around the same time, so I had the ants to help me make fun of them with the moon/June/soon, love/dove/above, and thanks to T.H. White whenever pop music is particularly annoying me I think of Al Jolson.

Anyway.

Yesterday I encountered the opposite. The author was quite aware that they were portraying bad poetry. It was supposed to be youthful and exuberant but not at all good. And it went on. And on. AND ON.

This is just what Douglas Adams did not do with the Vogon poetry. Vogon poetry, as Adams described it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, was notoriously bad throughout the galaxy, weapons-grade bad poetry. But he described it. He had a line or two. Enough for people to chuckle at how bad.

And then he was done.

Because people believe you that your bad poetry is bad. Oh, they believe you. They just don’t need to sit through it. You only need to hear the clarinets honk once to believe that a grade school band concert is bad. Too much longer and people look away. There is a very narrow land between two swamps, and those two swamps are Embarrassment Squick and Boredom. Being bad at things is rarely interesting. Dart in. Move on. Even if you’re setting a baseline for later improvement, the reader will believe you: yep, they’re bad, they can get better. Golly, we hope they get better. Soon. Now, even. Time for the training montage. Or the cut-scene to exhausted-but-better. Or something else.

It’s not a bear hunt, but…maybe go through it anyway.

That is: you can go over it. You can around it. You don’t have to go through it.

But sometimes you should.

Here’s what I’m talking about: the other week when I was having tea with some writer friends, one of them started talking about a problem she was having in her work. Let’s say that it was that people were finding her settings too generic. (It wasn’t. But let’s say that it was, because I like my friends to be able to discuss their problems without feeling like the whole internet will then become their confidante without their permission.) And the way she phrased this problem meant that the rest of us were helping her brainstorm ways to make a generic setting okay–the sorts of plots where a generic setting would not call attention to itself or bother anybody, the sorts of characters that could do their own personal, individual pyrotechnics and not make anybody go, “…does this person actually come from anywhere in particular? it feels like not.”

And as she was listening to us, she backed up and said no, what she actually wanted now that she was listening to us all was to make her settings less generic. How to work on that. And we immediately switched gears. Oh! You want to work on that, right! Let’s talk about ways to work on that!

There actually could have been three things there, though: 1) Her settings were not actually generic, but the unique stuff was not coming through. Work on how to bring out the unique stuff. 2) Her settings were generic. Does not actually care much about setting compared to other elements. Make other elements so amazing that people are too busy going, “wow, I love this protagonist,” or, “I could not wait to find out what happens next!” or, “What snappy dialog!” or whatever. 3) Her settings were generic. Try to make them less so.

#2 is risky in some ways–the good-enough story element–because on the one hand you have to admit that the odds that you will knock everybody’s socks off in every single aspect of a book are essentially nil. But on the other hand…deciding right up front that you don’t actually care if a major element is very good leaves you pretty vulnerable, especially if readers don’t like the basket you put all your eggs in. “I have really awesome speculative ideas!” you might say, and I might roll my eyes and say, “wow, this is supposed to be hard science fiction? because let me tell you how the physics of that totally doesn’t work. And also the characters are completely cardboard. Yick.” That has happened. That has happened more than once. On the other hand, the authors with whom this has happened have plenty of fans. So–priorities. It’s really hard to identify everything you might want to improve simultaneously, even if you’re just pleasing yourself and not cranky people who majored in something related to your idea. Sometimes it’s really, really okay to work around one or two things that you know are weaknesses for awhile.

Sometimes it’s time to dive in and try to get better at them.

You’re the one who gets to say which is which.

where you go from here

One of the problems I have with our system of schooling is that it sets up the expectation that if you want to know something, if you want to know how to do something, other people will tell you what it is that you need to know, the steps you need to fulfill, the boxes you need to check off. Want to learn Spanish? Here is what learning Spanish means! First you pass Spanish 1! Then Spanish 2! Here are the vocabulary lists! Here are the grammatical forms you learn and the order you learn them in! Your Spanish class will vary from someone else’s, but you will each have external validation that you are doing it properly, you are doing the thing.

This is basically not how learning goes. It is not how projects go. Most of the time–most of life–there is no one you can ask and get a definitive answer: am I learning the thing? Am I doing it? And even more basically: is this the thing I should be doing? Either learning Spanish itself or this set of vocabulary words, this set of grammatical forms, this type of pronunciation: is this the thing I most need to work on in order to be better at this? Or is there something else? Because there is, isn’t there. If you’re doing translation, if you’ve gotten to the point of real conversation or real reading, there are the parts that are cultural. The parts that do not fit any list. Where no one can say to you, “here is your new list!” or even, “your long a sound, it sounds too broad, it does not match coherently with your i sound to make an accent recognizable in any Spanish dialect.” The parts where you have to reach for a phrase instead of a word, and you start learning about pieces of culture to know what phrase. People can tell you some of that. But if you don’t start reaching for those pieces yourself, you will stay adequate, never better than that. It’s like that with music, with math, with baking, with everything. You can start with the externally validated list of Things To Learn To Get Better At The Thing. You can consult the experts: how do I thing better? And they will have opinions. But if you don’t start having opinions yourself, you won’t become one of the experts yourself.

And this is where I think a lot of writers run into a problem with criticism, with what criticism is.

Criticism is not a substitution for these lists. It is not trying to set itself up as your new list. You can take it as one if that’s useful. When you’re saying to yourself, how do I thing better? In this case write. How do I write better? What do I want to get better at, in my writing? You can say, huh. A lot of people who talk about the last thing I wrote said that the dialog sounded very wooden, maybe I should work on that. But that’s not what they’re doing. They are not your teacher. They are not writing you a to-do list. They are saying what they thought. You can choose to try to work on that thing next time. You can choose to shrug and say, well, I agree or else I don’t, but that’s not what I’m going to try to do.

Your agent or your editor can say, “This needs clearer exposition,” or, “I’d like the voice to come out more vividly here,” or, “I just don’t think this will sell unless you strengthen the protagonist’s motivation.” And if you’ve chosen to go with a form of publishing where you have an agent or an editor, that’s part of why you have them. Your critiquers can do it. But that feedback can only take you so far if you’re not pushing yourself. If you’re not saying to yourself that you want your premise to be more ambitious, or your portrayal of working relationships, or your descriptive prose. They are working on selling the writer you are. They can see the outlines of the writer you could be. But only the outlines. You’re the one who has to color that in. And if you can’t–your critique group, your editor, your agent, your family, your friends, your mentors, all those people–they can give you a boost. They can try to extend your reach. But you’re the one who has to figure out what you’re reaching for.

The critics, the reviewers–they can point out weaknesses. But it’s up to you to decide if you want to work around them or strengthen them until they’re not weaknesses. Or ignore the criticism. It is there for readers. You can choose to learn from it, but it’s not there to teach you.

I am all in favor of clear communication, but it’s very hard to communicate to someone that they aren’t doing something no one imagined they might want to do. There are so many things to be done that if you don’t communicate that you’re trying something, the odds are pretty good no one will think that you are and tell you that you could and how to get there. This is true if you’re not making social efforts: no one will come in and say, “Hey, by not ever asking people to do anything, you’re failing to communicate that you want to do anything.” It’s also true for particular writerly ambitions. Mostly we try not to write reviews excoriating books for not doing what the reviewer imagined they could unless there is some good reason to think the writer meant to. I’ll have some things to say about Diane Duane’s Games Wizards Play in my book post, but none of them will be, “Hey, this is not a very reliable treatise on planetary astronomy.” And there will always be reams and realms of things you could be trying in your fiction that no one will come and chide you for not doing. Because they didn’t know you might want to. They thought you were content as you were.

Don’t be.

Psychological expressionism

I think–and this is by no means a new thought that I’ve had–that it’s better not to slam books for something they were never trying to do in the first place. If something is not a genre romance, the author never promised that the book would definitely have a love story and a happily-ever-after, so saying that the author screwed up because it lacks those things would be unfair; similarly, you don’t have a bad author for not providing a solution to a crime at the end, what you have is not a genre mystery. It’s fine to then go on and say, “I prefer romance,” or, “I prefer mystery,” or, “Even outside those genres, I prefer those elements in my non-genre fiction.” But there seems to me to be a useful distinction between what you want and what the author was aiming for.

I was thinking of this with a book I was reading, because the way the cast of characters was drawn differed from a psychologically realistic portrait in ways that seemed clearly deliberate. Only the protagonist got to be a fully realized individual with motivations and desires of their own. All the other characters were specifically arrayed against them, not just in the ways that people sometimes do oppose one, but in universally loathsome ways. In ways that entirely precluded being a fully realized individual with motivations and desires outside the protagonist. And this was done so completely that it seemed impossible to me that it could be an accident. Everything about these characters was calculatedly loathsome–no one ever just happened to like a food or a mode of dress that might be perceived as neutral or even liked by some readers or not by others. Everything was at a fever pitch of hatefulness, all aimed at the protagonist.

It struck me that rather than considering this failed psychological realism, a better term for it might be psychological expressionism. That, like in a Munch or Kandinsky painting, the supporting characters were all there not to be realistically drawn but to evoke a feeling in and about the protagonist–in this case the feeling of being all alone and persecuted. I’ve seen others that are about feeling overwhelmed, which are less disturbing than the persecution complex book I was reading and eventually set down and did not finish. You can dislike this mode of characterization just as you are not required to like a particular style of painting. But I think it’s useful to dislike it as itself rather than as something else.

One of the weaknesses of psychological expressionism in literature, of course, is that when it’s not a clear-cut case, it can blur into theory of mind problems in the author–just as half-assed Expressionism can blur into attempts at realism wherein the painter really just can’t do faces very well. But I don’t think that invalidates it as a deliberate artistic choice. And once people are making it as a deliberate artistic choice, I want the vocabulary to talk about it. So here we are.

revision and sunk cost fallacies

Last week I sent my agent a revision of a book of mine, and I’m really happy with it. I think it’s a good revision that did a lot of exciting things to this book that made its core more itself rather than radically altering it. I think one of the hardest things for new writers is that revision gets really, really hard to tell from sunk cost fallacies. And the advice you get depends on the direction of characteristic error the person giving the advice tends to have.

On the one side, you have the infinite comma fiddling. Sometimes a draft really does need to be put to bed. There is a virtue in doneness, good enough is better than never seeing the light of day, and all that jazz. Will you learn more from changing the adjective on page forty-seven or from writing an entirely new story? And will you improve your odds of getting it out there in front of an audience from changing that adjective or from having two manuscripts that might appeal to people from slightly different angles?

On the other: there are many editorial passes involved in an unpublished manuscript. No, many. No: many. And usually there should be. Usually for a novelist who has not published a novel before there is a darn good reason for each editorial pass. Unwillingness to do the work to get the manuscript into shape means standing in your own way. And there will always be a newer, brighter, shinier idea, and nobody actually cares how shiny your ideas are, because authors don’t write ideas, they write books.

My first thought on how to sort whether a revision was a good revision or a bad revision was whether you had a good reason for doing it. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to figure it out, because some of the good reasons involve waving your hands excitedly and making swoopy noises, and some of the bad reasons can sound very erudite. (But that’s not a clear indication, because you can fool yourself with swoopy noises and make total sense with erudition, too.) I think that assuming that most books need at least one or two revision passes is a good start, and if you don’t need those you’re a rarity and an outlier.

And…I think if you find that you’re doing large numbers of big revisions, over and over again on the same book, my best rule of thumb is if you have a smart reader who has read this specific book, can you describe what you’re doing and why? And does that smart reader say, “Oh yeah, that sounds much better?” Or do they at least say, “Okay, well, that makes some sense?” Obviously you don’t want one smart reader to be in sole control of your fate. But if you’ve done a couple of revisions and you decide you need to do one more–but you can’t really describe it so that a smart reader who has read your book and generally liked it things that you are improving things or at least prooooobably not making them worse–that’s a pretty big danger sign, and worth at least thinking about.

Literally everyone I talked to about this revision said, “Oh yeah! That sounds much better!” So either I’m on a really solid good track…or I’m getting really good at describing revisions now….

To illustrate my last remark YET AGAIN

Last night I didn’t read Anna Karenina. I didn’t watch Simon & Simon or consume walnuts or gluten or alcohol. I didn’t play Moonlight Sonata on the harmonium. I didn’t buy a hamster.

All the things you don’t do are pretty boring to write about.

For one of my friends, though, not consuming alcohol was a little more interesting, because she was recently actively staying sober as a choice that she needed to make for her health. Not like me–I’m at a point with my vertigo and my vertigo meds where I can have a bottle of cider or a glass of wine and enjoy the pleasant taste, and some days I do, and most days I don’t. When I do, the taste can be interesting to comment on; when I don’t, the lack is completely boring.

Earlier this week, people in my Twitter feed were talking about the perception that all writers are heavy drinkers. And honestly some of the reason for this is that a bunch of writers really are heavy drinkers. And some of the reason for it is that conventions bring out the heavy drinker in some people who are otherwise pretty moderate. But some of the reason for it is that those of us who are, like me, light drinkers, and those who are non-drinkers, don’t talk about it in those terms; it’s just not an interesting thing to discuss. At best, boring. At worst, it sounds defensive or false. “There I was, playing the harmonium and TOTALLY NOT DRINKING HEAVILY WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT, GOD, EVELYN.” Or, “There I was, buying a hamster and NOT drinking heavily NOT LIKE SOME PEOPLE, KYLE.”

So it’s a good thing to keep in mind: like many topics, you’re not going to hear most of what other people do, and that occasionally means you hear from people like my friend who say, hey, this is how many days (or in the case of other friends, years) I’ve been sober. But for most cases it means you hear, hey, I’m having this drink, and it tastes like this. Or, I’m having this many drinks, wooo! (If you’re thinking that I find “it tastes like this” more interesting than “wooo!”, yeah, guilty. But people get to have their “wooo!”)

If you’re trying to work in this field and do convention culture and you’re someone who is concerned about heavy drinking in writer culture, though, for personal reasons–maybe you’re someone like my friend who needs to stay sober for your own health. Maybe you’re shy and not very comfortable drinking in professional circumstances. Maybe you just don’t like loud bars. A million reasons. I think it’s probably a good idea to think of what positive things you’re doing for convention/colleague bonding instead. So that you have something to talk about and focus on–“hey, I am doing fancy brunch with people!” or “I am doing tea tasting!” or whatever else you are doing. Rather than, “I am not drinking!” Karaoke. Trying to find someone who knows about fight scenes and is willing to nerd out about yours until you can fix it. An outing to the best restaurant you could find in walking distance–they have [specialty of the house here] and you heard it’s amazing.

You’ll end up with some of the heavy drinkers with you, because they like [specialty of the house here], too, and karaoke and tea and brunch and fight scenes, too. And also some of the moderate drinkers and the light drinkers and the non-drinkers. And hey, isn’t that what you wanted? Because the stuff you’re not doing…is kind of boring. And not your focus anyway. So better to accentuate the positive, see how that works. And if it doesn’t, try a different positive, because messing with Mr. In-Between is pretty much never the answer.

revision: three ways to level up

  1. There’s stuff you don’t have to revise any more when you get past a certain point, because you never mess it up in the first place. That’s convenient if you can get it. Do as many of those as possible. But don’t expect them; they come where they come, and yelling at yourself for not having more of them is counterproductive. Your favorite writer in the world wrote something completely idiotic in the first draft of your favorite book. Really. I promise they did. Ideally they revised it out.
  2. There’s stuff that would have looked impossible when you were newer at this. When someone says, “I’d like you to do more of x, more of y, and more of z, and can you do it in 10% fewer words? Thanks.” Sometimes you look at that and think, “Well, sure, yeah. I see how to do that. That’s only work, no problem.” And you know for a fact that when you were newer at this, less practiced, you would have cried. You would have thought this was ridiculous. Smooth out the pacing, what does that even mean? Does this editor, agent, or critique buddy hate you? I bet they hate you. They just say these things because they hate you. Whereas a few years and a bit of practice and the very same critique suggestion is reasonable. It’s like yoga, when they tell you to breathe into various body parts that are not your nose, sinuses, or lungs, and at first you balk and think, “Ludicrousness right here, what do you mean, breathe into my tailbone, you breathe into your tailbone, lady,” and then after a bit more you’re like, “Oh, breathe into my tailbone.”
  3. And then there’s the stuff that you know better than to attempt. Because you have the experience to know that it’s a bad idea. It looks very much like the stuff in #2, only, y’know, bad. Do more of x, y, and z, in 10% fewer words? You breathe into your tailbone, lady, that is bad for my story and I’m not doing it. Not even belligerently. Just: time for the nope, the calm and rational no thank you, nope. Knowing which reaction goes where and how to implement them: that’s the important part of leveling up.

Listen to Kenny Rogers, storytellers.

Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

I am a big fan of the TV show The Good Wife, and by “a big fan” I mean “a person who is behind by a full season at this point,” but that doesn’t make my enthusiasm less strong, it just means that I am physically incapable of watching broadcast and, eh, life. But I really do love this show. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. I’m looking forward to watching every episode, and when Alec visits, I am now watching every episode a second time so that I can enjoy them with him.

The network confirmed a few weeks ago what those of us who pay attention to title structure* already know: that this season, season seven, is the last season of The Good Wife. And I am glad. Because I used to be a fan of Criminal Minds, and I’m currently watching S10 of it with my workout. And uff da. Uff da. It is the shambling corpse of the show I used to love.

One of the episodes I watched yesterday tied up a plot thread that had been left from season two. And it did so in the most inane and simplistic way possible, taking all emotional complexity out of the equation, just: yep, this thing happened. We were sad. There was another person sad too. We tried to comfort him. People knew each other in the past. The end.

So it’s clearly not that people run out of plot, because there was some plot, just sitting around right there unused, and they used it. It’s something else that happens. The momentum runs out. The elastic wears out, the story needs a belt and suspenders to keep going. A lot of shows that get to be a train wreck as time goes on, it’s clear that there was plot yet to happen, they just…couldn’t wrangle it all as they tried to go and go and go.

So get in. Tell your story. And for the love of little green turtles get out again. And when a story you love ends–not when it’s cut off, but when it comes to an actual ending–be glad that it had the grace to do so, instead of becoming its own self-parody.

(I refer to the fourth Brunette Agent on Criminal Minds as O. If you name the first two Elle and Em, you cannot blame me for calling the next two N and O. Brunette women: not interchangeable! Come on, show! I hear tell that O is not long for this show. I do not look forward to P. Why am I still watching this show about how you are not safe in your home, or also if you leave your home you are not safe, and especially on the internet you are not safe? Because for as terrible as it is now, it’s still the right pace for my workouts. Sigh.)

What if people don’t like the next thing you do as well as this thing? Well. Then they don’t. That’s a risk. They also might not like this thing as well as this thing.

What if you can’t think of a next thing? Eat some strawberries (or an orange if you are allergic to strawberries; whatever). Take a walk where there are trees. Breathe.

What if people nag you and nag you and they spend the rest of your life nagging you about the thing you did that they liked so much? Remember that it is great when people like things you make, but it does not make them the boss of you, and it does not excuse them from polite behavior. And it is far better to be begged for more of your art than to be begged to stop.

Now go on. Know when to hold ’em, but err on the side of folding ’em.

*Season one of The Good Wife had one-word episode titles. Season two, two-word episode titles. And so on until season five, which had three-word episode title again, and Tim and I turned to each other and said, “Well, guess it’s a seven-season show, then. Cool.”

You oughta know (process, not Alanis)

One of the nice things about doing anything for long enough–writing fiction, baking bread, whatever–is that you start to get a feel for how it goes for you. What’s thrashing around and what’s process, what’s thrashing around that’s part of process.

Some of us have way more thrashing around in our process than others.

I think the trick is to become okay with that.

So for example: last month. I was writing a story I told someone I would write. Or rather–I was writing a category of story I told them I would write. It was a pretty loose category. And I had to write several thousand words on each of a couple stories to find out that, nope, no story here! Because sometimes the dead end is obvious, and sometimes the dead end takes awhile to find. In this case, the person I had told I would write this story was a professional editor, and I had given them the concept for one of the stories with a dead end. And they agreed that, golly gee, sure sounded like a story! But nearly 4K later, I knew that I could force it to be a clanking clattering story-like object. It would have a science fictional idea, characters, a plot, a beginning, a middle, an end, something you could point to and call setting, something else you could point to and call theme. But what I could not do was get a good story that I would be happy with.

So I tried another story, and then another, and then poof! There was the story. Hurrah! Happy ending! (It actually did happen to have a happy ending on the story I ended up writing. But I mean the meta-story I am telling you here. That has a happy ending.)

For some people, this would be completely unacceptable. Not part of the process. I am happy for them. I am so glad they have a process that works. That is their process. This is mine, where I fling myself cheerfully at things, quite often with some notion of how I think they will go but sometimes not, and sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m wrong. And sometimes the wrong wanders off into something better and more interesting. Yay! Process! But sometimes the wrong just dead-ends. And this too is process.

I think the key word here is “should,” as in: sorting out what I should and should not be able to tell in advance. Example: yesterday I wrote a complete short story from just a title. I knew that I did not have a story there until I sat down to write it. That is good. That is what I should know. If I thought that I did have a story there, that would be wrong. But if I thought that not having it was the same as there being no story there, that would also be wrong.

Some people can tell in advance whether there is enough for a story, before they have written nearly 4000 words. Bully for them! But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for me to get hung up on these people and say that I should be able to tell that. What I should be able to tell is some of the time when there isn’t. The file I have open now: it is not organized yet. It has the gestalt of a story–it has the mouth feel of a story–it has the weight of a story–it has the voice of a story. But it does not have the structure of a story yet. That is something that I should know, that I should be able to tell from here. And in getting the structure of a story I will probably write enough prose on it that I will be able to tell that it is the story I think it is. Knowing the difference between gestalt, weight, voice, mouth feel–and plot, structure–that’s important. That’s something I should know at this stage, and I do know it. But should I be able to swear that these things won’t run away with me? that the structure will not morph out from under me? Eh. Can’t get too attached.

Novels are different. You have to figure out how to tell that there really is a novel there before you have half a novel and find out that there’s no novel. Because I am totally happy writing 4K words of a 6K story and throwing it away, but 60K words of a 90K novel…less happy. I mean, if you gotta, you gotta. But I think usually you don’t have to throw away more than 20K of something that might have been a novel but wasn’t. 30K at the outside. So that’s comforting really.