A few things I've learned.
"There ought to be a story about X" is as powerful a motivator to create something as there is likely to be. If you don't see what you want out there, that's a good sign it's crying out to be created. That's also a sign at least one other person might want to see it too. Not everyone has the wherewithal or the resources to write a story, so your work may end up speaking for others.
Most writing projects peter out because of boredom or bad time management. Work up the discipline not just to stick with a project, but to know as quickly as possible whether or not a given project is something you want to stick with. How much is there in it for you?
I don't like to use the word discipline because that word has been tainted to mean something to most people more like "punishment", but that's not it at all. Discipline is something you impose upon yourself, not others.
"Happy people have no stories," as a refrain in a song once put it. And even happy people want something. Everyone in your story, at every time, should want something -- even if they don't know it at the time -- and that wanting should inform the story and give it direction and purpose. Gulliver Foyle in The Stars My Destination wants to find out who left him to die in space, and transforms himself into a superhuman Renaissance Man to do it. Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist wants nothing more than to overcome the grief of losing his son, but doesn't even know it until a chirpy pet store employee wakes him up to it gradually. The end of desire is the end of, if not all stories, at least the one you're writing.
It should always be clear what a given scene is about and to what end. Every sentence should advance the action somehow; it should tell us something we didn't know before, show us something we didn't realize, illuminate things with new light. If you come back to your own work and find yourself reading it two or three times to figure out what you meant, or say to yourself "they'll know what I mean," that's a sign of mud on your story. Wipe it off.
Writing is rewriting is revelation. If a story is hinting to you that it needs to be different in order to really work, go there and find out what happens. If you see a thread hanging off a sweater, it's very hard to not pull it. In a story, you can and should pull it, just to see how things unravel. You can always dump your changes if they lead into a dead end. But often they lead to revelation.
We all know this one, but I think the reasoning behind it is not always as clear. One does not want to be hopelessly in love with one's own language that you defend it against all changes, even those that make the work as a whole stronger. It's OK to have a sentence here or there that calls attention to itself, as long as it doesn't muddy the work or bring it to a halt. But always be on guard against defending your work from change it badly needs.
Every difficulty in your story has the seeds of its own resolution within it. I insist that this is the case without exception. In the early stages of working on Flight Of The Vajra I found myself flummoxed by a problem with the story's milieu. How could a religious institution, founded as a bulwark against relentless futurism, survive when what it offered to the problems of death and decrepitude simply couldn't stand up over the centuries? Then I thought, maybe that is the story -- that the Old Way, as I called it, is fast discovering it has nothing to offer humanity as it has become, and has to adapt or die, as all organisms do. The difficulties in your story are the story.
If you know in your bones you can't have a happy ending, don't give in because it'll tick off some undefined reader out there. I struggled with this one for a while before realizing I was only ever writing for myself first and everyone else second. This is not an excuse to shun the audience or have contempt for them, only to know that they came to you for the ride they are about to take. If you give them a happy ending that feels right in the moment but is false in retrospect, they're going to sour on you even if they don't know it. Stanley Kubrick wrote Paths Of Glory with a fake happy ending to give to the studio, then turned around and shot the real one, the heartbreaking one, because he knew in his bones it was the one that made sense for that story.
It took me plotting several novels to realize stories are not about plots but feelings. You enter them knowing and feeling nothing, and along the way you are encouraged to feel certain ways about what goes on. Every time I worked out a story, I always told myself: how do I want everyone, both the audience and the characters, to feel about this when it's over? The two parties don't even have to feel remotely the same things. A superb trick, one I have yet mastered, is to give the characters a happy ending, but to have the audience know this is anything but. But your story should be an emotional arrow fired at an emotional target of some kind.
One of the nice side effects of thinking of a story in this way is it gives you a wider range of emotional flavors to suss out, become familiar with, and work into your stories. Not everything is about happy and sad alone. When people first begin to cook they often have little to no awareness of all the subtleties that go into good cooking or how to produce them. They know only the flavors that come out of a box or a salt shaker. By the time they're comfortable in the kitchen, their tongues have become experienced.
Dale Peck once wrote that fiction doesn't discover truth, but invents it and dispenses it as it sees fit, which is why it's called fiction in the first place. But even the invented truths of fiction come from the truths of things outside of fiction. I would go further and say they must come from such places.
I once noted that we have no trouble with the idea that Superman can fly and project laser beams from his eyes, because he still has many attributes we associate with human behavior: his respect for his parents, his love of Lois, his unwavering devotion to defending the world from both itself and others. The less Clark Kent there is in Superman, the more we waver at accepting him. Even R2D2 and C3PO (and BB-8!) in Star Wars are worth identifying with because they have human traits. Even Kafka's nightmarish stories obey aspects of human truth: that our fears are not rational, that we can justify anything if we want to (and we always want to), etc.
But a story about people whose behaviors do not correspond to human reality, even one that has no fantastic elements, is going to be a tougher sell unless you dig out the truth from it. We would accept Superman without blinking, but we would have a harder time with a man who cheerfully sells off his children into slavery. That would require an extraordinary effort to be made comprehensible; in fact, I'm sure there's a story in it somewhere. But many novice writers suffer from not knowing how to observe or record human behavior in a convincing way, and don't always realize it.
Some of this also relates to politics, in the sense that a writer's political leanings tend to manifest in their work whether or not they put them there consciously. When most of us say they don't like politics in fiction, they mean politics they don't like, and I think this goes for everyone regardless of their leanings. But I think the deeper truth of this is most of us just resent it when a political viewpoint of any kind is artlessly shoehorned into a story. Some part of us knows it's just plain bad writing, and gets turned off. A political thriller can be interesting, but even it has to maintain respect for everyone involved as people. And a work of art that has a political alignment has to start by being art and end by being art, like Picasso's Guernica.
I also believe (you don't have to join me on this) that most people know on some level when the politics in question is on the wrong side of history. But I would be just as bored by a story that is leftist propaganda than a story that is reactionary propaganda. A story that departs from talking about people to talk about politics, that eschews the specific human case for the generic political one, is more often than not just a weak story. Nineteen Eighty-Four would be a mere tract if it were not also invested with a strongly constructed story, one about a character we cannot help but feel invested in as the walls, already close around him, close in even further. There but for the grace of Big Brother go we.
How you embody your point of view is everything. I was no fan of Heinlein or his politics, but I never got the impression he used his writing as a way to legitimize his view. It was the other way around: his view informed his work, and was also far from the only thing that informed it. Philip K. Dick had a worldview 180° out of phase from Heinlein's, and he couldn't help but let that influence his work. But he too didn't make his work into mere polemicism, just of the leftist sort. He had bigger things in mind -- maybe too big for him to survive, but that's another issue. If a writer is to have any politics at all informing their work, it ought to be the politics of being on the side of other people, whatever and whoever they are. Fiction's mission is to sympathetically take the side of the human (or near enough to human) condition.
When we talk about truth in a story, we are not talking about the marshaling of facts, although getting your facts straight matters. (I had to rewrite a story after the last minute because I forgot that you can't pay cash for an airline ticket anymore.) We are talking about the feeling you get when you say to yourself, "Yes, it is like that, how come I never noticed before?" and the feeling you get when you say to yourself, "Maybe it could be like that." Those two kinds of truth are the ones most worth striving for in any story, because we get them so rarely anyway.
On adapting Phil Dick's work to film and TV, and why this most unfilmable of authors has been filmed so much.
Don't ask me how I managed not to start watching The Man In The High Castle until just now. Don't. Me, the biggest Philip K. Dick fan on my block, passing up on a TV series made from one of his most lauded works. How does that happen? Don't ask. Okay, in truth, it had something to do with the show starting in the middle of some goings-on in my life that made it hard for me to want to watch it, whatever its origins, but those times are past now, and it's a tad easier for me to sink into it.
What gets me most, though, is how a man whose works have long been regarded as unfilmable are now not even considered all that tough an assignment for a creative team. I've written about this before -- it's because we have far more of a history of how to adapt things, and decades of more sophisticated storytelling to build atop of, than we used to. It also helps that we have more ways to bring something to the screen in depth and breadth than ever before -- it isn't just about two-something hours destined for a theatrical release.
Another strange and remarkable dream, scavenged as best I could from its remembered fragments.
The other night I had a dream, and right after waking up I ran to the keyboard and typed out as quickly as I could, through my blear, an abbreviated version of all that I could remember before it evaporated. I later examined the notes, and reconstructed as best I could how the dream unfolded.
When I was done, I realized to my dismay that I had not been able to be faithful to the dream, that I had added a great deal of material fabricated after the fact, but in a way that felt like it was in the same spirit even if I could not remember it word-for-word of moment-for-moment. The original was far less coherent, but far more magnetic in the way dreams are -- they don't make sense outwardly, but they make sense inwardly. What I cobbled together ended up being more a jumping-off from the original, not a transcript from it. But here's what I wrote anyway.
ON SF exhaustion, and the point of believing in tomorrow.
Some months back I read a mainstream review of a recently published anthology of science fiction -- mainstream in the sense that the review was aimed mainly at people not themselves SF readers. What caught my eye was a sense on the reviewer's part that SF was "exhausted" -- their word. That word matched some of my own feelings, that the wonder and the confrontation and the spellbinding of SF had been drained out and replaced with cynicism and bitterness and mystification. And for good reason: look at the headlines!
On Stanley Kubrick knowing just what he wanted.
I'm currently neck-deep in Taschen's wonderful Stanley Kubrick Archives book, available for the huddled masses in a nice priced-down edition that won't cost you a mortgage payment.
Back when I was a wee one, I first encountered deep details about Kubrick and his highly particular ways of doing things by way of Michel Ciment's excellent earlier book about the man. He was unlike most artists I'd encountered before that point, who when grilled about why they did things, either shrugged their shoulders or gave answers that had more the semblance of thought than any actual gears turning. Stanley always had answers.
Some say "good, better, best" is an absurdity and best done away with. I agree, sort of.
Here and there, now and then, you've seen me talking about this John Cage quote:
When Art comes from within, which is what it was for so long doing, it became a thing which seemed to elevate the man who made it above those who observed it or heard it, and the artist was considered a genius or given a rating: First, Second, No Good, until finally riding in a bus or subway: so proudly he signs his name like a manufacturer.
Clearly the point Cage wants to make here, and has made elsewhere, is that all this talk of First, Second, No Good is a red herring. But if we stop talking about good, better, best, then it stands to reason that all talk of quality will eventually fall out. And then we find ourselves in the embarrassing position of having to defend people who spatter paint at a canvas or do nothing in front of piano for minutes on end and call that "art".
How the Open Library, digital resources, and my own reading habits have changed my bookbuying.
Family stuff (the good kind) has kept me away from the keys for the last few days, but it also provided me with an opportunity to visit a bookstore, and realize just how much my book-buying habits have changed in the last couple of years. I'm barely buying anything now, but I'm reading more than ever, and the stuff I'm buying is passing a higher threshold of value. But some old habits remain, like the way a wad of paper in the hands feels and what kinds of freedom it gives you.
People who launch YouTube channels or present themselves a certain way on Twitter are said to be engaging in a kind of performance. Or someone who just keeps a blog, like yours truly.
The word performant wasn't really a part of my vocabulary until fairly recently -- say, the last couple of years, when I heard it used to describe certain kinds of public political activity, among other things. ("Performant cruelty" has been the common term for this administration's policy choices.) But it also came to me as a way to describe how one goes about cultivating a public persona. People who launch YouTube channels or present themselves a certain way on Twitter are said to be engaging in a kind of performance. Or someone who just keeps a blog, like yours truly.
For some reason the dental guard I wear at night now provokes unprecedented dreams.
Not long ago I started wearing a night guard when sleeping, on the recommendation of my dentist. I've had a cracked tooth replaced with an implant, and I need the guard to keep from wrecking the crown atop the post.
One of the more curious side effects of wearing the night guard is that I have far more vivid and memorable dreams than I ever did in my entire life. My dreams have typically been dreary stuff: trying to get home from school, trying to find classes I haven't attended all semester, trying to navigate some airport where the signs make no sense, etc. But now, well ...
And how to push my own envelope.
When I was growing up, my father, my brother, and I all played chess with each other. Dad beat everyone; my brother occasionally beat him; I always lost against both. Some of that was simply me being the youngest of the three; some of it was, even as I grew up, was impatience with the intricacies of chess. I'd think out the opening game as heavily as I could (which wasn't very), and then I'd get impatient and just go move move move move move and get it over with, which typically meant losing badly. I have never been good at chess in either the literal or metaphorical sense; people could tell I was lying long before I ever opened my mouth. Guile is not something I have ever been good at. (Poker is absolutely beyond me.)
Some of this has slopped over into my writing career. When it comes to stories about people who are devious, or at the very least more devious than I would be, I'm at a double handicap. It's hard enough coming up with what they would do at all, and it's even harder for me to make sure what they would do isn't actually just something stupid in disguise.
It's hard to just do things, because our ideas about them always get in the way.
Steve blogged recently about how he tries to adhere to a schedule of writing daily, and of focusing on a given project per day. Working on one thing for a couple of hours, then switching away for another thing for a while, then another, etc. tends to have a debilitating effect on him. Context switching, he found, ran contrary to the deep immersion that creative work demands. I think this is true of most anything, especially writing; "getting into the zone" is antithetical to the relentless chopping-up of the day into pomodoro-sized bites.
On the use and abuse of thought experiments.
The real world never behaves like the world of a thought experiment. In science, thought experiments are proposed. But no conclusions can be drawn until you actually do the experiment in the real world. The real world contains variables no thought experiment can ever account for. And no one is ever gonna try this one for real.
The thought experiment in question is pretty cruel (read the linked piece, see for yourself), and that made me think about how thought experiments are often used like this. Not as a way to spur thought, but instead as a way to attack someone, or to make them uncomfortable because it's fun to watch people squirm. (If you think it's fun to watch people squirm, kiss me goodbye.)
I am not reacting out of surprise, but dismay. I don't think there's anything in this world that can't be weaponized and used as a way to drive a wedge between people -- although that's not a sign we should do nothing in life but hide under our beds and take shallow breaths.
The more I try to parse it, the more this business of best-of, of ranking things, seems a consumerist attitude.
Why do we really care what the best books ever written are? Because that way we can avoid wasting our time on the bad ones? Because then we can spend our hard-earned money on the good ones? The more I try to parse it, the more this business of best-of, of ranking things, seems a consumerist attitude. Again, it's not because our hard-earned money doesn't deserve to be spent well; it's the conflation of aesthetics with consumerism in a way we barely notice that's the problem.
And should, even if they aren't great marketers.
In this age, we can create so many works. We can publish books physical and electronic. We can make podcasts that fly across the internet. As I’ve heard it put, so many ways, “there’s just so much stuff out there.” This then begs the question, “why create?” From giant conglomerates to people like ourselves, there’s so many people making things to read, watch, and so on. The chance of our works finding purchase in the world seems slim indeed, even if we pour heart and soul into marketing.
The conclusion Steve comes to in this post is "do it anyway" -- do it because it's something worth doing for its own sake, not because of what happens afterwards. This is my own conclusion as well -- why write unless you want to be in front of a keyboard making words literally every day? But some of what Steve touches on makes the picture more complex than that.
Ken Russell's "The Devils": not quite bad enough to be funny. But still awful.
The Criterion Channel recently added a movie of utter notoriety to its lineup: Ken Russell's The Devils. I knew going on that the movie's trouble with censors has left it in less-than-ideal shape, but I wanted to have some idea of why the movie commanded such furor then and now. One hour and forty-five minutes later, I'm wondering why I ever bothered.
When tech works it's a wonderful thing. The rest of the time... (Self-written blog software edition.)
Some time back I switched to my own homegrown software package for running this site and a couple of others. For the most part it's been a success, although my own development of the software dropped off steeply once I hit a "good enough" level of features. Then, not long ago, my hosting company revised how scripts ran on my server, and my blog software ... well, it didn't break, exactly, but let's say it dropped from warp speed to impulse drive.
Some story ideas of mine that remain eternally in progress.
One of my secret weapons of productivity is to always keep a full pot of ideas on low simmer in the background. When one projects ends, I can take a short break, look in the pot, see which idea has floated most to the top, then scoop that off and set to work on it. At any given time, two or three ideas remain near the top; the rest sit at the bottom and wait. Some of them are no more than "I'd like to do something like this" ideas; here's a few.
A mindset to be identified and resisted.
Don't ask me where I first heard that phrase. Memory and the fossil record point to Harlan Ellison, who used it as part of the dedication to one of his books. "Deja vu," he added: what I am about to tell you is familiar, and not in a good way.
With time and discipline I notice when I step into the same elevators again and again. I am not talking about a specific, dismal situation, like waiting for a green light or doctor's test results. I mean the mindset that goes with that kind of limbo, the mindset of waiting for some information before you feel like your life can resume. It is a mindset to be identified and resisted. Life goes on despite your thinking about it.
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of November 2019.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind