Story As Dream

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I read the beginning and end of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers today. I realized while reading the first chapter that absolutely everything in the book – the locations,  the descriptions of them, the things that happened and the descriptions of them – were symbols, or at least atmospheric. It opens with a page full of description using words associated with water (flood, pour, drain, wave, engulf), suggesting that the protagonist are lost on an ocean and about to be engulfed in a great wave. The first paragraph describes workers on the barges under their hotel window, emphasizing their activity and apparent senselessness, setting the stage for how the couple wanders the city (and their relationship) aimlessly, without knowing where they are or what is happening around them.

Every detail used foreshadows the upcoming events; no unrelated details are presented. We’re told that it is a famous tourist destination, and that the locals speak a different language, but not what city it is or what language they are speaking. The details are iconic, stereotyped, even cliche’. The streets grow dark and the buildings brooding, and we know something bad is going to happen; we know Robert is dangerous from the kinds of buildings nearby when we run into him. We know immediately from Robert’s gold chain and smell of aftershave that he’s some variety of douche. So it’s much like a dream: Some idea, mood, or obsession generates a series of images and events.

I don’t know exactly how that translates into a method of writing, but it does at least suggest that “plot first” and “characters first” are not the only options.

There’s a wonderful line around the third page: “She loved him, but not at this particular moment.” I’ve seen that line many times before, but only where someone had just done something to make the other person angry. Here, it’s used while they’re getting ready to go out. It doesn’t mean that some fleeting emotion is overpowering her love for him; it means her love is a thing that she feels now and then. This is either brilliant characterization, or a statement about love.

I read the ending (which I sometimes do to avoid investing a lot of time in a bad book), and this novel, which had such promise of saying something interesting about relationships, turned out to be more of a Gothic thriller about sadomasochism and murder. But I bet it’s a well-written Gothic thriller.

Writing Tip: Know Whom You’re Taking Advice From

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Some years back, I was fussing to [Lester del Rey] about finding an idea for a story that hadn’t been used before. I wanted something new and original. He gave me one of his patented smiles–the ones that always made him look like a cross between your kindly uncle and Jack Nicholson in The Shining–and told me in no uncertain terms that new ideas did not come along that often and that when they did, they came in disguise. It was better to take old, established ideas and just turn them over and over in your mind until you found a new way to look at them.

– Terry Brooks, author of The Lord of the Rings The Sword of Shannara

I feel this speaks for itself.

Why We Read

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I was pointed toward an interesting, if bloated, article by Jonathan Franzen from 1996, “Perchance to Dream”. Here’s an excerpt about why people read, according to a sociologist (with sentences boldfaced by me):

Shirley Brice Heath is a former MacArthur Fellow, a linguistic anthropologist, and a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford; she’s a stylish, twiggy, white-haired lady with no discernible tolerance for small talk. Throughout the Eighties, Heath haunted what she calls “enforced transition zones”–places where people are held captive without recourse to television or other comforting pursuits. She rode public transportation in twenty-seven different cities. She lurked in airports…. She took her notebook into bookstores and seaside resorts. Whenever she saw people reading or buying “substantive works of fiction” (meaning, roughly, trade-paperback fiction), she asked for a few minutes of their time. She visited summer writers conferences and creative-writing programs to grill ephebes. She interviewed novelists. Three years ago she interviewed me, and last summer I had lunch with her in Palo Alto.

[But she doesn’t seem to have published anything about any of this. -me]

To the extent that novelists think about audience at all, we like to imagine a “general audience”–a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book. …

Heath’s … research effectively demolishes the myth of the general audience. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she told me, two things have to be in place. First, … one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same. On the East Coast, Heath found a strong element of class in this. Parents in the privileged classes encourage reading out of a sense of what Louis Auchincloss calls “entitlement”: just as the civilized person ought to be able to appreciate caviar and a good Burgundy, she ought to be able to enjoy Henry James. Class matters less in other parts of the country, especially in the Protestant Midwest, where literature is seen as a way to exercise the mind. …

According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. …

I told her I didn’t remember either of my parents ever reading a book when I was a child, except aloud to me.

Without missing a beat Heath replied: “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate–the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. … What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you–because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.“

For Heath, a defining feature of “substantive works of fiction” is unpredictability. She arrived at this definition after discovering that most of the hundreds of serious readers she interviewed have had to deal, one way or another, with personal unpredictability. Therapists and ministers who counsel troubled people tend to read the hard stuff. So do people whose lives have not followed the course they were expected to: merchant-caste Koreans who don’t become merchants, ghetto kids who go to college, men from conservative families who lead openly gay lives, and women whose lives have turned out to be radically different from their mothers’. This last group is particularly large. There are, today, millions of American women whose lives do not resemble the lives they might have projected from their mothers’, and all of them, in Heath’s model, are potentially susceptible to substantive fiction.[6]

In her interviews, Heath uncovered a “wide unanimity” among serious readers that literature “‘makes me a better person.’”She hastened to assure me that, rather than straightening them out in a self-help way, “reading serious literature impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. And, in so dealing, they come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life.” Again and again, readers told Heath the same thing: “Reading enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive–my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity. ‘Substance’ is more than ‘this weighty book.’ Reading that book gives me substance.”  …

With near unanimity, Heath’s respondents described substantive works of fiction as “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically. From Agamemnon forward, for example, we’ve been having to deal with the conflict between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to the state. And strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys. They’re everything that pop psychology is not.”

“And religions themselves are substantive works of fiction,” I said.

She nodded. “This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn’t mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems. Your family versus your country, your wife versus your girlfriend.”

The first section seems implausible or just trite. It sounds like all she’s saying is that some people read for social reasons, and some for non-social reasons, pretty much like every other activity. This is a theory that doesn’t predict anything. Also, telling someone that “from an early age you felt different from everyone around you” is a cold-reading trick.

The second section is more interesting. Perhaps it’s also trivially true. She may have defined “substantive works of fiction” in a way that excluded readers unlike the group that she “discovered”. But it does describe what I like in fiction.

I agree that fiction is the only place where most people grapple with difficult problems in nontrivial ways, and might possibly change their minds. There are plenty of forums for debate; but I seldom see debate change anybody’s mind. I have better ways of arriving at truth than through fiction, but not of communicating it. Fiction manipulates your emotions to make you perceive facts differently, using stories as Trojan horses to smuggle in ideas and attitudes that your mental firewalls ordinarily keep out.

But its methodology is so sloppy that it’s hard to believe it can on average bring you closer to truth, rather than farther from it. Good writers aren’t especially good philosophers, so most of their ideas may be bad. If fiction does more good than harm, it’s probably just by shaking readers out of their local minima in thoughtspace. A random walk through mostly-bad ideas may eventually arrive in a place that’s clearly better.

Summary: Substantive works of fiction are “the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically”.

Write Bestsellers Using This One Simple Trick!

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I just found Stephen Diamond’s blog Disputed Issues, which is about writing legal briefs. His insights apply to any writing. In “A rare shortcut to better writing“, he claims there is one simple thing you can do to improve your writing.

Learn to type faster.

The idea is that the more automatic typing is, the less you think about it (even subconsciously), the more you can concentrate on your writing. It makes sense.

Plot in Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses”

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A follow-up to Crutches:

I’m in the middle of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. There’s a big middle section of the novel where “nothing” happens. I think this is intentional.  The central question at this point is why the two boys have run away to work on a Mexican ranch, and why they want to stay there instead of going home as might be sensible. The author needs us to understand what the characters want, which is just to be cowboys, to live on a ranch and work with horses.

So he describes ordinary things going on at a ranch, putting the plot on hold in the meanwhile, except for the introduction of a love interest. There may be all sorts of symbolic things going on here – breaking horses can be a metaphor for many things, and how the ranch hands treat and gain respect for the boys is also a story — but plotwise, it’s mostly horses. He makes the daily activities of a horseman interesting enough that we want to stay with the story. Once we realize that we keep coming back just to read more about working with horses, then we’ve understood why the characters do, too.

Crutches

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Is practicing writing different from writing?

How do you make a story worth reading? It’s hard. You can sit around trying to think of “something to say”. You can envision a character and a situation that makes us empathize with or laugh at that character.

Or you can throw dragons and unicorns in your story because you know some people like anything with dragons and unicorns. Or you can pick a non-Earth-like planetary system and begin listing ways that life on it would be different, and write something that might get published in Analog. Or you can write pornography.

That second paragraph is full of things I consider crutches. I often like stories based on those things. But when I started writing, all I wrote was fantasy and science fiction stories that relied on technical ideas, or amazing fantasy settings, and the more I wrote, the more I began to suspect that I didn’t have anything to say about normal, everyday life.

So I read more non-genre fiction, where the author can’t rely on dragons or ray guns and has to talk about people. But again I found it full of crutches. John Irving has written some great things, but he has a tendency to kill someone off when the story gets boring and hope that will liven things up somehow. The other thing people do is talk about romance, which is a worthy subject, but it’s too easy to start spinning a tale about who’s sleeping with whom, or will she or won’t she, without proving that you really know anything about humans at all. The crutches of mainstream literature are romance and death.

I want to be able to write stories that have no dragons, no ray guns, no life and death situations, no romances, and are still interesting. It’s fine to write stories that have those things, but if all of your stories rely on those things to make them interesting, you’re probably not really connecting your readers with your characters, and not writing anything more than entertainment. I would like to be able, like Ray Bradbury, to write a story about getting out of the movie theater before they begin playing the national anthem, or the pleasure of running through grass barefoot.

Sometimes a great story uses death or romance to talk about something else, like Frank O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (which I don’t personally like very much), or Flannery O’Connor’s story “Everything that Rises Must Converge”, or Charles Bukowski stories. But if you do that, it’s hard to know whether you’re using a crutch. So I sometimes try to exclude those things from a story, just to prove to myself that I’m not using a crutch. So I suppose that makes that story a kind of practice story.

Summary: Sometimes, as a writing exercise, I write a story without allowing myself to use fantasy, science fiction, sex, romance, or life-or-death situations.