Saturday, March 8, 2008

Trusting the Story

We had a stellar INK meeting last night.  I got home a little after one a.m. and had a long work day today, so if I'm less than coherent, blame the woodstove.

One of the many things that came up at the meeting was trusting the story.  This has been discussed everywhere and in-depth, but it bears repeating and repeating and repeating.

There's a common syndrome that bugs the bejeezus out of everyone so much that they tend to focus on it to the exclusion of other writing issues.  It's the writer who won't listen, won't take critiques, who will tell readers and editors and agents and book critics that they're wrong, and won't change a single word of their precious baby to suit anyone.  Some of them are brilliant writers and can get away with it, but most don't learn how to write well in the first place (since they're convinced that they're perfect and don't need to, you know, learn and change) and simply exist to annoy editors and agents with hate mail telling them how stupid they are and how sorry they'll be when this, the next great American novel, will sell billions of copies and become an intergalactic best seller.

There's another, more quiet syndrome that plagues writers and that's the one I want to focus on.  This quiet syndrome befalls the writer who tries to edit and adapt their story to please others.  Some will even go further and listen to the vicious voices in their heads that tell them their story is crud and only changes will make it barely serviceable.   Sometimes the changes suggested are valid, but they don't always work together.  Unfortunately it seems that the people who suffer from the first writing syndrome I mentioned above use this syndrome as an unshakeable reason to never listen to reader response.

This is where a wise author will become as Buddha.  No, not with the big belly thing and the creepy smile.  The middle road thing is overused and cheapens the concept in some ways because it's so familiar it can be dismissed.  Pair it with 'the truth lies somewhere between' and the concept of story integrity and hopefully the story won't fall victim as easily to either problem.  

Both syndromes have similar medications that help relieve the discomfort and sometimes even inspire a partial cure.  None of us are free from disease, though, not when it comes to writing.  I'm afraid we all have to live with being riddled with chronic writerly illnesses.  

Ask yourself why you're writing the story.  What is the inspiration, the thing you're trying to express?  It could revolve around a theme, a character, an event, or something as abstract as a sensation you felt when you saw a dog sharing an ice cream cone with a three year old.

Break it down to the scene.  Why this scene, this way?  Does each element serve a purpose?

Look at the characters.  If you were in their shoes, would you respond in a similar way?  Or do you know someone who responds that way?  Can you get inside the character's head and understand why?  

Are there ins and outs?  Can you see yourself or someone else getting into this situation and finding the events you pen out inevitable even if they're surprising?  On the other hand, is there a way out?  It doesn't have to be a pleasant way out, but there are always, always options.  If there aren't other options, it's not going to read in a realistic fashion.  And if there are better options that the character doesn't follow, the reader will wonder why this poor, helpless puppet is being forced to do something stupid/illogical/pointless instead of doing this other thing that fixes the problem.

Finally, is there reason?  Almighty Reason is our guide and light, and it has many colors.  Characters need reasons to do things, and they need to be strong motivational reasons if things get tough, or a real person would give up.  There should be a reason why you're describing this time and place, and no other.  There should be a reason why the readers ought to bother reading your story, and you should give them that reason.  "Because I love this idea and it won't let me go," is a start.  The first syndrome writer has no issue with this, but the quiet syndrome writer may in fact be missing this.  The quiet, insecure writer may find that their personal enjoyment (*cough* obsession) of the story is insufficient reason to write it, so they must alter it in the hopes that the changes will make it matter to others, or worse, alter it so that it will reflect a literary ideal rather than their own hearts and minds or hopes of reaching a real, flesh and blood reader.    

What's the harm in trying to adopt most or even all the changes that readers suggest?

Well, aside from the fact that readers can be wrong (no! really?) and could contradict each other (you mean people might like or hate things that other people hate or like? Dang!) making changes in line editing, working in partial conceptual revisions, altering character motivations and other such rewriting always runs the risk of inserting discontinuities and tone changes, as well as outright contradictions.  Artifacts appear in the writing from previous versions that didn't get eliminated.  This happens all the time in revisions.  It's part of the process.  But the more changes an author makes the more opportunities there are for continuity, logic and voice/style issues to arise.  Too much line editing, like overworking a painting, will turn the words to gray, lifeless mud.  Working in conceptual revisions is like overworking a collage--you'll end up with a gaudy thing that makes no sense.  Altering too many character motivations is like changing all the expressions in a family portrait--suddenly they don't look like family anymore because they aren't natural and themselves around each other.  They become artificial and disconnected.

What's a poor writer to do?

Outline writers will disagree with chronological/character-driven writers, but both styles of writer will agree that the truth will come out when you return to the heart of the story.  You can start writing from scratch--blue screen writing.  Write it like you remember it.  Anything you leave out probably wasn't that important, and new things might come in that bring the story back to life.  You can return to the outline, a homecoming of sorts.  You can never go back home again, they always say, but returning to an outline after wandering the wilderness can help ground you for a beginning-to-end rewrite.  You can Snowflake the work and see if you can find missing elements and build character motivations.  You might even find a subplot or two.  You can edit one aspect at a time from beginning to end.  It's tiring, but worth it to go through and look only at one character's part in the story, then start again from the beginning looking at passive voice, and then again looking at setting and sensory detail, and so on.  Lastly, you can go to the masters for advice.  Revising Fiction by David Madden.  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee.  Read writers who write better than you.  Rudyard Kipling.  Mark Twain.  Miyamoto Musashi.  William Shakespeare.  Ernest Hemmingway.  Homer.  James Herriot.  Khalil Gibran.  They've lasted and their names are known throughout the world for a reason.  Read them for pleasure, or if you can't enjoy their work, try to figure out what it is that's made them last.  Was it a message?  The flow of their words?  An amazing idea?  Characterization?  Sensory detail?  Listen to their voices.  What are they talking about?

Then think hard about what you're talking about.  If you had only one story you could tell the world before you died, what story would you choose?  Would it be a fantasy, or a story from your childhood?  Would it be long?  Or would it be short and punchy, something you could tell aloud by a campfire before wandering off into the darkness?  Do yourself a favor and tell that story when you sit down and write next time.  If you're still having trouble figuring out what it means when people say trust the story (what is it that you're trusting really if everything is so malleable?) think about the crucial images and scenes that you want to transmit and the feelings you want to inspire in the telling.  If you find a special reader or three that you trust, listen to what they have to say.  Let their impressions guide you deeper, kind of like therapy with a really good counselor, but own your story like you own your life.  The story is part of your life, even if it's fiction.  Once you've found the critical elements that must be there, they become like history, and then it's your job to make history come to life for the reader.

When you're done, if you survive, there's always the next great story waiting to be written inside you.  If you're like me, there's a whole lot of them excited and ready to be told. 

1 comment:

Carissa said...

You truly had an opinion about this topic, didn't you! Very indepth discussion.

Can't think of a thing to add, except I hope you were glancing at Carole when you mentioned the first writer syndrome. ;-)