Sorry about the lack of bloggo de blog in the last week or so — work had me running around, writing kept me busy, general exhaustion over other things. And then there was the bad news about abortion rights, about which I can only say that you need to get to a voting booth in every election and vote for people who will at the very least not make things worse, and stop pretending you won't be affected by this, because this is universally bad news. And for all those sullen twerps who cross their arms and won't vote unless they have a pie-in-the-sky solution for all their problems on offer ... I don't want to hear it, that's not how any of this works, that's in part how we ended up in this mess in the first place, kindly get lost.
Anyway, here's something to take your mind off all that (I hope), gleaned from the work I've been doing on the next novel Shunga-Satori.
For the most part, I tend to write the actual manuscript of a book in order, start to finish, with successive revisions. But not everything I come up with gets dreamed up in that order. Sometimes I'll jot down a sentence or paragraph and make a note to myself that it belongs at some point in the story. During the weekend, between one thing and another, I wrote down a sentence I was certain would be used in the climax of the story, with the annotation: "These are the turning words."
For those not familiar with this term, "turning words" or "turning phrase" is a Zen term. It's typically used to refer to the part of a Zen kōan that snaps the whole thing into perspective. E.g., if the kōan is some dialogue between a student and a teacher, it's whatever the teacher says that enlightens the student. (The point is not that if we hear the same turning phrase we will also become automatically enlightened, but rather that the phrase is a touchstone or reference for the things the kōan can embody or unlock.)
I think if I went through all of my books with a highlighter marker, I could yellow-pen one specific sentence (or at worst a whole paragraph) that would function as that book's turning phrase. There's always a moment where everything in the protagonist's frame of reference is turned about in the way they need it to be to reach the story's conclusion.
Most theories of fiction have something like this in them, but I think it only made the most sense to me through Zen practice. For most of the time, there's no great insights or revelations; there's just you sitting and looking at walls. But all that practice builds up something within you over time, something that can be potentiated by just the right thing — the right words — at the right moment.
Good fiction is not just about telling a ripping great yarn (although that's kinda essential), but about allowing whatever kind of story we're telling to alter the reader's viewing equipment. A good book is one where I come out feeling like I see the world more completely and clearly, because it's provided me with a turning phrase for my understanding. And I don't mean some literal sentence in the book, but whatever it is the book has done as a whole that leaves me altered.
I stump for fantasy and science fiction being better equipped to do this than most other kinds of fiction (if only for the audiences that are receptive to it), precisely because one of its very premises is that we leave behind our default points of reference for things. We have no choice but to, as Seung Sahn famously said, "put it all down". We must leave behind our opinions and our conditions and our situations to enter the story, because all that baggage is too big to fit through that door. But once we're through that door, the rest of another universe awaits us on the other side. And once we come back through that door, we are presented with the option of picking up all those bags and trudging on back home ... or maybe just maybe leaving a few of them behind. The more a story just seems like a fun time for openers, the greater the odds later on of slipping in such an option.
Over time I've become more conscious of writing what I believe are a story's true turning words. It's the moment that contains within itself all the dilemmas the story has been striving to swallow, and once it does so it swallows all of them whole. It's typically at the climax, but in a couple of cases, it's something like the next-to-last sentence. Meaning once it comes along, there's just about no story left to tell, or whatever we have after that is mere commentary. It's helpful not to think about it as being the climax, but being necessary for the climax to take place, or have its full effect.
When I first started writing seriously, I remember feeling in my gut that a story needed certain things like that to feel complete, and I remember those feelings being distinct from any theories about fiction I'd studied. It was something I felt from the inside out. Later, when Zen came along, I felt I knew how to express it better, and I don't think that was due so much to Zen (although it would be nice to say so!) as it was because I'd had a fair bit of practice by that point. But Zen did give me a larger framework to think about it in.
I didn't know exactly when or how the turning words for Shunga-Satori would present themselves. Precedent indicated I would just type them when I was at the part of the story that most demanded their appearance. This time, they came earlier than I anticipated, and I made sure not to let them pass through my fingers. And at some point all the rest of you will get to see them, too.