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Posts Tagged ‘theory’

best books and best books

Well, that’s it. I’m done with the revisions on Midnight Never Come, and I must say I’m rather pleased with the state of the book. Which sparked me to ponder the difference between “the best book it can be” and “the best book I can write.”

Most of what I do is the former. This is the latter.

Let me put it in metaphorical terms first. You know that height is determined by both genetics and nutrition, right? As in, your genes allow for you to be a range of possible heights, but your nutrition will determine where in that range you fall. (Broadly speaking. I need the metaphor, not the biological specifics.) Well, most of the time what I’m doing is feeding my books all the nutrition (effort) I can give them, so they reach their full potential in terms of growth (or rather, quality.)

I think of it this way because my ideas tend to come out of my subconscious, and are inflexible to a certain degree. They are what they are, and if I care about them enough I will write them, but that doesn’t guarantee that every one is a groundbreaking new leap forward in my skill. There will always be some development — I never want to coast — but I can’t necessarily take an idea that’s capable of being five foot nine and make it six foot just because. I make them the best books they can be, given the ideas they’re built on. If there are flaws, weak points, it’s a problem in the foundation; the only way I can do better is to write a different book.

Midnight Never Come has eaten everything I’ve thrown at it, and asked for more. I can’t feed it enough to make it hit its full potential. It is the fourteen-year-old-boy of novels.

It’s close to being as good as it can be. I can tell. There are very few places in the book where I look at it and think, man, that could punch the reader just a little bit harder — but there are a few. And those places exist, not because I haven’t put in the effort to fix them, not because the foundational ideas aren’t strong enough, but because I simply don’t have it in me to squeeze out those last few drops of awesome. This not quite the best book it is capable of being, but it is the best book I am capable of writing.

When I wrote Warrior and Witch (to pick one example), I deliberately tried to work on a bigger political canvas. That was the major challenge of that book. This book? The political canvas got bigger again. And there are more pieces on my mental chessboard. And the embroidery of its description and style is more intricate. And a whole lot of other metaphors I could toss in there, which boil down to: I’m pushing myself everywhere. I can’t think of a single major aspect of the book that isn’t bigger and better than what I’ve tried before.

You could say, shouldn’t that be true of every book? In theory. But the truth of the matter is, my brain doesn’t cough up ideas that advanced on a regular basis. Most of them push me on one front; some push me on more. Which is fine, really, because working selectively on different aspects of my writing make leaps like this one possible. If I sat around waiting only for the truly record-breaking ideas, I’d never come up with them, or be capable of tackling them if I did.

But it’s odd to look at a book and think, this truly is the best I can do. And not have it be a negative statement (c’mon, is that the best you got? pfff), but a positive one.

<ponders> I’m not sure this post conveys what’s in my head. It feels like this reflects badly on most of the other books I’ve written, and I don’t mean for it to do that. I promise, I don’t slack on any of them.

Maybe what I should say is: most of my books are the best I can do with my ideas, while this book is the best my ideas can do with me.

We all use the English language, but . . . .

This has been brewing in my head since Scalzi posted his “advice to young writers” thing a while back, wherein the first two points were 1) your writing is crap and 2) that’s okay, we all started out as crap and got better. (Insert, of course, a brouhaha from people who never read past the “your writing is crap” line to see what he meant by that, and how it wasn’t half so offensive as they assumed.)

I had an apostrophe (I think you mean an epiphany, Swan) epiphany after reading through Scalzi’s advice and the responses to it.

If I hand you a paintbrush and tell you to paint the tree outside my office window, odds are you will suddenly feel awkward and clueless and utterly inadequate to the task. Even the physical experience of using a paintbrush isn’t that familiar to most of you, and it would take a lot of practice to get to the point where you could do anything good with it.

If I sit you down at the piano and tell you to play me a piece of music, all of a sudden you realize you have ten fingers, and now you’re asking them to behave independently and simultaneously in a way that is not at all like typing on a keyboard. And again, you would need practice before you could play much more than “Chopsticks.”

If I put you in front of a computer and tell you to write me a story, suddenly everybody thinks they can do it.

I think it’s easy for aspiring writers to assume they can do this because, after all, isn’t it stuff you do every day anyway? We all know how to hold a pen or a pencil and use it to form letters. Most of us, these days, know how to type. And we all use the English language. Isn’t that what writing is?

Yes, but.

There’s an undiscovered world inside that “but.” My epiphany was that I think a great many people fail to perceive the degree of craft that goes into telling a story. They see words on the page, but they don’t see the skills that are required to decide which word will be more effective, how to structure a sentence so it’s grammatical but doesn’t sound like every other sentence you’ve put down, how to get a paragraph to flow so the impact arrives at the right moment, how to build suspense and then resolution into a plot, how to reveal character through telling details instead of just telling, how to create images in the readers’ minds that will stay with them long after the book is closed.

Not everybody, of course. Some people look at a book and say, “I could never do that.” Some people start trying and immediately realize the difference between what they’re doing and what Admired Writer X did. But I’ve seen a lot of writers who, at least when they start out, seem to think there isn’t a learning curve with writing, just like there is with anything else.

Or maybe they just think their learning curve all happened in elementary school.

A common truism among writers goes something like this: you’ve got a million words of crap in you, and what you’ve got to do is write them. Only then can you get to the good words. What this translates to in non-literal terms is, writing takes practice, just like everything else does. One might as well say you’ve got a million notes of crap in you, and once you’ve played them all you can start being a good pianist. Etc. The point is, few if any of us get to skip the practice stage, and if it looks like someone has, they probably just did their practice out of sight. Me? I wrote my million words of crap when I was a teenager, because I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Someone who makes that decision at the age of forty just has a later start, is all.

But it has to be mindful practice. It has to be critical. Banging out dozens of short stories, each one replicating the mistakes of its predecessors, won’t do you any good, any more than banging out notes on the piano without concern for what they sound like will make you a better pianist.

The practice is necessary because, until you reach the point where you have the basics down, you’re going to have a hard time getting to the finer aspects. To continue with the piano analogy — because it’s one I have personal experience with — so long as you’re having to think consciously that a note printed on that line is a D, and you need to stretch your hand X far to form a sixth, and this is where middle C is, issues like interpretation and expression are Right Out. Likewise, you need enough unconscious familiarity with word choice and the formation of sentences and the punctuation of dialogue that your brain can devote itself to higher thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’ll never pause to think about those more basic issues, but they won’t be eating all your attention anymore.

You know how to use the English language, yes. But do you know how to use it well? Do you know what to do with it?

What we do isn’t half so easy as it looks.

good thoughts on endings

The ending of a story is inextricably tied up with the rest of it. It flows from what precedes it, but it also shapes and reshapes everything that precedes it. The ending of a story can tell us what the story means — it can give meaning to all that precedes it.

If you’re already familiar with The Sixth Sense and Casablanca — or if you don’t mind having their endings spoiled for you — you might want to check out Slacktivist’s post on endings. Normally I read his journal for his ongoing dissection of the Left Behind books (as an evangelical Christian himself, he finds the books not just bad with respect to plot, character, pacing, and prose, but morally and theologically abhorrent). You can see a bit of that peeking through where he talks about the Book of Revelation as an ending, but mostly this post is about narrative, the job an ending is supposed to do, and what happens if you replace it with another ending.

Good thoughts, says I. And it reminds me of one of the challenges inherent in playing RPGs with an eye toward the aesthetics of plot and character. Unless you script everything that happens and leave nothing to chance — and sometimes even if you do — you will occasionally find yourself in a position where some event doesn’t fit, where the story takes a turn that you would not have put in, or would have revised back out again, if this were a story you’re writing. But RPGs don’t allow for revision; every gaming group I know tries to avoid redlining unless there is absolutely no other choice. So sometimes what you end up with is a fascinating exercise in interpretation: how can you view and/or explain those events in such a fashion as to arrive at a meaningful ending? How can you use an ending to resolve conflicts or disappointments lingering from before?

Endings matter a lot to me. I’ve said before, I don’t mind seeing/making characters suffer and fail and lose what matters to them — in fact, I often enjoy it; yes, writers are sadistic — so long as the suffering and failure and loss mean something. They have to contribute to a larger picture, whether that picture belongs to the character in question, or other people on whose behalf they have gone through hell. But random, meaningless suffering, or suffering whose purpose is to show you there is no meaning . . . no. I’ll do gymanstics of perspective to avoid that, to arrive at an ending that gives a different shape to what has gone before.

How about you all? What are your thoughts on endings? If you’re a writer, do you know them when you set out (which probably makes arriving at meaningfulness easier), or do you have to create them as you go along? If you’re a gamer, how do you feel about retiring/killing off characters, or ending games? How about the alternate endings Slacktivist talks about, where a different resolution gets tacked on?

more thoughts on fanfic

I’m sure many of you have stopped going back to check my earlier post on fanfic for new comments, if you ever did so at all, so I thought I’d a) mention that the discussion is still going on there, and b) start a new post.

The reason for the new post is that my thoughts have had some time to compost, or marinate, or whatever the metaphor I want is, and I think I can articulate some things now that I couldn’t before. Most particularly, a few things I found myself saying to ancientwisdom over there.

Cut again for length . . . .

thorny thoughts

There’s a lengthy entry up by one cupidsbow discussing fanfic in the context of Joanna Russ’ How to Supress Women’s Writing. I spent a good fifteen minutes attempting to write a comment in response to somebody over there, but I’ve decided I’m better off doing so over here; the thought I’m trying to articulate is thorny and awkward, and I’m having trouble figuring out how to phrase it, and if I try to do so over there, odds are I’ll just piss multiple people off and find myself at the bottom of a verbal dogpile I didn’t mean to start. So I’ll chew on my thought over here, and see what I can get out of it. Warning; what follows is rambling and unfocused, and not entirely thought-out.

cut for rambly unfocused length

A Cultural Fantasy Manifesto

People wo have engaged in certain kinds of discussions with me are probably quite tired of hearing me flag my comments with “that makes the anthropologist in me think X” or “since I’m an anthropologist . . . .” (I’m a little tired of it, myself.) But I’ve come to realize that it’s an important clue to how I think and what I think, not just in an academic or general context, but specifically with regards to my writing. Which has led me to identify what I’m trying to do with my fiction, at least a good percentage of the time. And since “anthropological fantasy” is an unwieldy term, let’s call it “cultural fantasy.”

What this means is that worldbuilding is not just important to me; it’s one of the most central parts of what I do. (With some stories, maybe the most central.) Character, for me, arises from and is shaped by the socio-cultural context of the individual; their beliefs and the actions they take aren’t independent of that context. People aren’t puppets of their cultures, of course, but neither are they free of them.

It also means that I’m promoting cultural relativism. Often people misunderstand this idea; they think it means that everything’s okay, that you can’t criticize a practice if it’s a part of somebody’s culture, so in the end you can’t criticize anything. Not true. Cultural relativism means trying to understand the reasons why people do things, how that practice fits into what they believe about the world — trying to see it from their point of view. It means releasing the assumption that there’s automatically something more natural or right about the way your own culture does things — which, yes, in the long run means you’re going to be more accepting of odd practices, because they don’t look so odd anymore. Something they do in one culture may be no weirder than what you do in your own — or equally weird. You end up seeing how your own cultural practices are constructed and artificial. But understanding the reasons behind human sacrifice or whatever does not require you to say it’s okay: a reason is not the same thing as an excuse.

Corollary to that: I’m not interested in constructing an ideal society, where there’s perfect gender equality, racial harmony, religious tolerance, and a benevolent government, to name a few things I happen to like. Utopias bore me. I’m interested in constructing messy, complicated societies that are full of flaws and then saying, ooh, this is interesting, let’s see what happens if I poke it here. And concurrently with this and the previous point, I’m interested in making up cultures that are different.

Folks, the real world, taken in all its multifarious glory, is weirder and more wonderful than you could possibly imagine. And what that means is that there are (to butcher Kipling) nine and sixty ways of constructing governments, families, religions, genders, meals, music, fashion, houses, and anything else you care to name, and every single one of them is neat. I have an abiding love for Celtic, Norse, and medieval culture, but you’ll rarely find them in my fiction, because I want to introduce readers to things they haven’t seen before. It’s a fine line to walk; too much weirdness, too many new and unfamiliar things, and you start losing readers. But I want to keep extending my writing out into new cultural territory, exploring all the different ways people can live, and what that means for who they are and how they act. Especially in fantasy, where metaphysical propositions can be accepted as literally true, with demonstrable consequences that might seem unrealistic in the real world.

So when I say “cultural fantasy,” this is what I mean: fantasy where the world is as interesting and developed as the characters are (and develops those characters in turn), where you’ll find ideas and practices that aren’t all familiar north-western European constructs. And since some of you Gentle Readers reading this may know my writing only through my novels, I have this to say to you: if you’re in the camp that thinks their setting isn’t that original, I’ve gotten better since then, and if you’re in the camp that things they were fabulously original, I’ve gotten better since then. I have a thousand and one worlds in my head, and I want to spend the rest of my life exploring them, and bringing readers with me.

numbers to chew on

When the Sword & Sorceress antho call went out, I sat down to see how many stories I had around with female protagonists (as that’s one of the requirements). I was startled to find the answer was: not many. Which surprised me; I thought I wrote female characters on a regular basis.

So I sat down and did some counting. These numbers have changed some since the original count (story sales, new stories in circulation), but the pattern’s still there, and still interesting. (At least to me. Your mileage may vary. If so, skip this post.)

Number crunchiness ensues

explanations, seen and unseen

A few days ago, I had an brief exchange with Frank Wu on the topic of explanations and how they differ between genres. The comment that started it was anent my own story in Talebones, but the part I found myself in disagreement with was a broader issue than the instance in question:

We had some interesting discussions at Radcon about science fiction and fantasy; one idea that fell out was that in science fiction, things are explained (perhaps poorly, but at least there is an attempt), and in fantasy, we just accept the hand-waving (oh, it’s magic).

I’d like to expand on the thoughts I started in the comments over there.


Definitions of fantasy I don’t like, #1

I’ve been noodling for a while now with the idea of writing a series of small essays for my website about various genre definitions and how I feel about them — their pros, their cons, their applications, etc. Since Rob Sawyer has started a minor internet dust-up with some recent comments of his on the subject, I thought this seemed a good time to address one of them.

We’ll start with this statement:

Fantasy and SF, on the other hand, are diametrically opposed: one is reasoned, careful extrapolation of things that really could happen; the other, by definition, deals with things that never could happen.

Delany has done a finer-grained version of this in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I’ll quote at length because I think any attempt at summary would end up being nearly as long: