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Jun 29, 2009

Novels vs Poems, Integrity of Language

I've found a great way to come up with ideas for new blog posts is to just steal them from The Literary Lab and I've done that again. This post of theirs on revising has been percolating through my mind for some time now:

I consulted a poet friend that I have mentioned once or twice here before. His name is Craig Cotter, and over dinner I asked him why he made certain word choices or phrase constructions in several of his poems....

What I realized was that Craig had initially limited himself to what edits he was allowed to make. The source of his inspiration, the motivation that got him to write this poem in the first place, he felt, was preserved in that first draft, not in the idea of that first draft. That meant that he couldn't revise everything. He couldn't start from scratch with the same idea, because that would be a different poem--one that he could write at a different time.

My gut reaction reading this was to think, "But prose is different from poetry. A novel is different from a poem." A novel -- at least the kind of novel I write -- is all about the idea. The words are merely buckets which I use to scoop it up. I could imagine changing the buckets without changing the idea carried therein.

I also vaguely felt like I had visited this argument before.

Sure enough, I consulted Dancing at the Edge of the World a collection of essays by Ursula Le Guin and found the argument in the essay "Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry." She quotes Huntington Brown, who supported my gut's reaction:

If it be asked wherein a poet's attitude toward his matter diffres from that of a prose writer, my answer would be that in prose the characteristic assumption of both writer and reader is that the subject has an identity and an interest apart from the words, whereas in poetry it is assumed that word and idea are inseparable.

Fair enough, as far as I'm concerned, but Le Guin objects:

...there is in his definition an implication that cannot be avoided and should be made clear: It is the language that counts in poetry and the ideas that count in prose. Corollary: Poetry is untouchable, but prose may be freely paraphrased.

Er, yes. Precisely. What's the problem?

The integrity of a piece of language, poetry or prose, is a function of its quality; and an essential element of its quality is the inseperability of idea and language. When a thing is said right it is said right, whether in prose or poetry, formal discourse or cursing the cat. If it is said wrong, if it lacks quality, if it is stupid poetry or careless prose, you may paraphrase it all you like; chances are you will improve it.

Oh. Quality. Yes, well, that does it explain it, doesn't it. I daresay, you could take all of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and paraphrase it, and as long as you kept the magnificent idea of it, you'd have lost little. But I don't think you could do the same to A Wizard of Earthsea. This is not to insult either author, but simply reflects the fact that Asimov wrote his stories as though they were encyclopedia entries (and as a matter of fact, an encyclopedia entry on the fall of the Roman Empire inspired the entire Foundation series) whereas Le Guin wrote all her prose tales as though they were secretly poems.

Perhaps this is my problem, and why I'm struggling with uneven prose right now. At times, I also wish to gild my novel in secret poems. At other times, I merely want the easiest bucket to slosh it out onto the page. But sloshy words frustrate me, leading me to revise again and again. Each time I revise, I find that I have not merely paraphrased the poor wording, but changed the ideas, proving that words and ideas, after all, are inseparable. And so I've come around to the complete opposite conclusion of my gut reaction, but the same result. I must revise, like it or not, until the prose has more poesy.

Uneven Writing Quality

Even though I am not going to look at it again until I have heard back from my beta readers, I already know one problem with my wip is uneven prose. The first chapters and the last chapter are colored, curled and styled to a chic finish, whereas middle chapters look like a hair-cut by an ax. Even beta readers tend to gloss more over the middle than the beginning, as they suffer from crit fatigue. Does anyone else have this problem? Any solutions or tips?

Jun 28, 2009

Between Old and New

I haven't started writing yet on my Secret Novel (research continues) and I've forbidden myself from even looking at Dindi until I finish writing my critiques for my Beta partners and receive their crits on Dindi in turn. This leaves me with nothing to write or revise and I'm starting to get antsy. I've even -- deities help me -- taken to doing house work! (Desperate times indeed.)

Jun 26, 2009

Why Character Driven Fiction Can Be Subtle

I'm still at the research stage of my Secret Novel. I'm entering new territory with this novel. Dare I say it is literary?

Perhaps -- I've concluded after spying on the discussion over at The Literary Lab -- not.

Although the period of my piece is fairly contemporary, I see it as historical fiction. Some historical fiction is undoubtedly literary, but some must be mainstream. A definition to distinguish the two has been put forth: "what distinguishes literary fiction is what is left unsaid. Narrators may be self-absorbed or unreliable, things are pointed to without being explained." It is what happens "between the lines."

Thinking about a historical novel like The Source by James Michener, I wondered if what happens is between the lines. I decided, not really. The themes are deep and mind-blowing, almost incomprehensible, despite being stated as explicitly as possible.

I think most literary stories are character-focused and the game is all about inferring things about the characters from their actions, and the descriptions. Frankly, I think the reason it is easier to let these kind of stories be read between the lines is because most humans, perhaps especially most readers, have minds designed to understand other human minds. We cannot intuitively understand the passage of 6,000 years -- on the contrary, to be comprehensible, even this must be shown to us through characters. It must be brought to a human level.

When those other factors are not present, the focus on characters can be subtle in the extreme -- because we have (or at least some of us do) exceedingly refined cognitive powers of inference when it comes to unlocking human motives, emotions and relationships.

I recently finished The Favorite by Mary Yukari Waters. I don't often read the literary genre, so I wasn't certain what to expect. Indeed, for the first third of the book, I kept waiting for "something" to happen. All that appeared on stage was a bunch of female relatives taking tea together, going on walks, and talking about their family relationships. Okay, I get it, I thought, the relationshipsare the plot, but even so... I persevered and a strange thing happened. (Don't laugh, I'm new at this!) I truly began to feel I could enter the minds of these people, like a telepath. And I realized the illusion of telepathic powers was so convincing in part because nothing else dramatic was happening. It was as if I could reach in to the ordinary minds of ordinary people and experience their greatest fears, sorrows, joys and memories.

I have a recurrent fantasy, which often occurs to me when I am walking or driving, of acquiring the ability to read the minds of passers-by, total strangers. I wish to experience qualia as another does (the holy grail of philosophers), to become another person, then return to being myself with full comprehension of both.

There are, of course, many telepathic characters in science fiction, and even in wider fiction, but how convincing this telepathy is depends on the skill of the writer. If the writer is not also a telepath/empath, the portrayal can be weak indeed. According to the cognitive science "theory of theory of mind" (sic) we are all mind readers, to a greater or lesser extent. Those of us closer to the autistic side of the spectrum may prefer genres which tend to have flatter, easier-to-read characters, whereas those with highly honed hyper-acute mind reading skills may find flat characters painfully boring. Such readers need meatier fare, more subtly flavored, and salivate at the challenge of discerning every nuance of realistic relationships between imaginary minds.

I would love to be able to cook up such characters -- in theory. But am I really capable of focusing so finely on characters? I'm not sure. I tend to think more abstractly than empathically, and so I am frequently distracted by other sorts of patterns besides mind reading. I gravitate toward histories more than memories, philosophies more than personalities and clever ideas more than realistic characters.

I do want to mind read my characters as deeply and realistically as possible, but, I realize, not for their own sakes as much as for what they can tell me about their societies, cultures and the great events in which they've participated. In always grasping at the larger picture, I worry I may miss many of the subtle details.

Jun 16, 2009

Choosing a Character who Sees Deeply

I really want to reveal the nature of my secret novel, before I make it so mysterious that it becomes a let down when I finally do reveal it.

That said, I'm not ready to talk details yet. As Scott Bailey mentioned in the comments on his blog post about outlining, it's not so much because I'm trying to keep it secret as that I don't feel comfortable jinxing it before I have a draft. So, for now, it's still the secret novel.

That said, I'll still discuss a problem in general terms, if I may. That's choosing a character who can see deeply.

I have several characters already chosen for me, as it were, by the nature of the novel. I know who my four main pov characters must be, at least in broad strokes. I still have to make sure, however, that the personality of these characters is not only sympathetic enough to justify being a protagonist, but profound enough to have insights into their own situations.

This is tricky.

I don't want the characters to be a mere mouthpiece for me the author. On the other hand, there are certain philosophical observations I would like my characters to be in a position to explore. I have to make certain I don't make them all dingbats. At the same time, their pov is going to be necessarily limited by where they are and what they are allowed to see, so I mustn't give in to the temptation to make them all knowing, either.

Unless I bypass my characters and write in omniscient.

I didn't realize how tempting that would be.

Or... here is a strange idea. I could introduce an omniscient narrator who is actually revealed to be a character at the end of the book. This voice over could philosophize along the way.

Hm. Probably I should just avoid the temptation to philosophize altogether.

Is it important to you to have a character who sees deeply, who is intelligent and observant, or do you prefer to work with "naive" characters, who, while themselves innocent of what is really going on around them, allow the reader to see past them, into the real situatoin?

Running Out Of Future

Uh oh, is science fiction running out of future?

1984?
1999?
2001?
2010...

Are all the "cool dates" taken?!

Jun 15, 2009

RWA vs Epublishers

An interesting confrontation between the RWA and the world of epublishing, defended here by agent and author Deidre Knight.

RWA’s current stance on e-books is that a publisher must offer at least a $1,000 advance in order to qualify for legitimacy. Never mind that many digital authors far exceed that amount in royalties, or sell more than 5,000 copies of print editions of their e-published titles. The problem with RWA’s simplistic criteria is that it ignores one crucial fact. Our industry is changing radically, with traditional publishers seeking innovative models for overhauling their distribution and content.
...
Meanwhile, let’s talk about RWA’s position that e-published authors who make more than $1,000 in royalties are a rare exception. As an agent, I have seen a fair number of statements for clients writing for Ellora’s Cave and Samhain. The majority of these writers have passed that $1,000 benchmark within the first few months. I’m sure some of the smaller e-publishers sell fewer copies of titles, but lumping all e-publishers together and stating that most of their authors don’t earn $1,000 a title is misleading. It’s like comparing royalties earned at St. Martin’s Press to those from a tiny print publisher of romances. All print publishers are not created equally any more than all digital publishers are.

If RWA truly wants to protect authors, then it’s time to join the 21st century where the rules of the digital market are changing daily. As I write this, a new initiative between Scribd.com and Simon and Schuster was just announced, a partnership to bring digital content to members of this emerging community. Considering the priority that print publishers are obviously placing on developing digital content, for RWA to disavow e-publishers is a disservice to all their members.
...Consider, too, that e-publishing can be a tremendous beginning point for many authors, leading to even bigger careers with mainstream publishers. Within my own agency, I signed on e-authors such as Rhyannon Byrd, Dakota Cassidy, and Joey Hill, and in each instance, their track record in e-book format caught New York’s attention, as did the reviews they’d earned.

Not only did I sell digitally published authors to houses such as Random House, Penguin Putnam and Harlequin, but their e-readership followed them to print, launching them with a huge built in advantage in such a tough market. In many cases, authors who begin with e-publishers choose to continue writing for those companies, even as they forge ahead with traditional New York houses. Surely, RWA can see the value in these examples, and how e-publishing could potentially benefit their members.

As a third generation entrepreneur, I’ve learned firsthand that you either change with the times by adapting to the market or you are left behind. When the automobile first came along, buggy whip manufacturers saw themselves as being in the whip business, when they should have understood that they were in the transportation business. We are now in the literary content business, and the physically published book is only one of several delivery formats, yet another “device” to hold, much like the Sony Reader, the Kindle, or your iPhone. Like the buggy whip manufacturers, RWA must modify their organizational model or be left behind…their membership along with them.

Jun 14, 2009

Writing and Empathy

I think the basic substance of literature is the exercise of empathy. Some stories stretch our brains more deeply, but all offer the possibility of imagining other lives, other minds, and other points of view.

While I believe we humans create art for art's sake (unlike ants) that doesn't mean art doesn't also enhance our existence in other ways.

We put ourselves into someone else's shoes for the duration of the story. Research has shown "that merely imagining positive contact with members of an out-group can help improve attitudes towards that group."

In an initial experiment, Rhiannon Turner and Richard Crisp had half of 25 students aged between 18 and 23 spend two minutes imagining a positive encounter with an elderly person, whilst the remaining students imagined an outdoor scene. These were the specific instructions for the imagined contact group: "imagine yourself meeting an elderly stranger for the first time. Imagine that during the encounter, you find out some interesting and unexpected things about the person."

Afterwards, the students who'd imagined meeting an elderly person subsequently showed more positive attitudes towards elderly people than did the control group.

Of course, a lot of writing which attempts to do this too clumsily comes across as mere propaganda. And, speaking of propaganda, we know literature and other media can be used to whip up hate and bigotry just as easily as empathy.

Even if stories promote a good cause, the power of stories to model human behavior has always been a two edged sword, both coveted and feared by those who want to push a social agenda. For instance, another study found that watching tv can convince you to donate a kidney.

Participants were asked to watch a selection of episodes from popular TV dramas with storylines that included both positive and negative depictions of organ donation, and then complete surveys that assessed a range of factors related to how strongly the viewer had been influenced by the storylines (and no small potatoes here; more than 5000 people completed the House survey).

The results: viewers who were not organ donors before watching the dramas were more likely to decide to become one if organ donation was portrayed positively and if characters in the show explicitly encouraged it. Viewers who reported emotional involvement with the narrative were significantly more likely to become organ donors. And, finally, viewers clearly acquired knowledge from the content of each drama – whether it was accurate or not.

And that’s the “depending on how you look at it” part of this. The study is really telling us a couple of different things: emotional involvement with narrative affects the way people think, and supplies knowledge that may very well not be true. Most people would probably agree that organ donation is a social good, and if TV dramas encourage it then all the better — but, the troubling part is that the same dynamic driving the good can also serve up the bad with equal effectiveness. Pseudoscience, vaccine alarmism, and quackery of every flavor proliferates just this way.

This also opens a conundrum for writers. Is it important for your story to convey the "right" message, to model "good" behavior -- to combat racist stereotypes, for instance, or teach people to think in a new way? Or is it more important to show the "truth", even if it's ugly or sets a "bad" example? Or do you want to deliberately shock and upset any conventional sense of right or wrong? Even if you do have a message, does trying to push it actually make the reader resist it? Even if you don't have a message, can you really tell any story without conveying a message, whether you want to or not?

Jun 10, 2009

Blending Facts Into Historical Fiction


Back at work on my Secret Novel, I'm working in a new genre -- literary (in my case, perhaps merely psuedo-literary) and historical.

By historical, however, I actually mean "1978-1998" so I'm also facing a new quadary. When I am writing a story loosely based on real people, what restrictions apply? My account is fiction and names and particulars are different, but is there a point at which historical research veers off into obnoxious intrustion into privacy, or even purgery? Is it gauche to base a fictional account on someone's real biography?

How overgrown with fictional elements should a portait be before it is wholly itself? And yet, if it is too changed, does it not betray the realism needed to tell the story?

[Art by Levi Van Veluw.]

Jun 9, 2009

Why Don't Ants Have Art?


Lady Glamis has a series on her blog on the nature of art.

Questions like this tend to send my mind down different lanes. Look at the beautiful sand castle in the picture. I would call it art if humans had crafted it. In fact, however, it's a termite fortress, and I wouldn't call it art. Not because it was created by non-humans, but because it wasn't created for any of the reasons art is created.

If you are like me (I hope, for your sake, you aren't), you spend an inordinate amount of your time asking yourself, "How do humans differ from the social insects? And why?"

Our species has, in some ways, much more in common with ants than with other mammals. No other mammals build heated and air conditioned appartment buildings, share nursery duties on a large scale, divide labor into different roles, wage wars. Ants do.

But ants do not paint, sculpt, write or dance. They clearly could, if they were moved to, just as they weave leaves into homes or build bridges across rivers. They just don't because, after all, what purpose does art serve?

What purpose does art serve? In the essay of Lady Glamis' friend, it's suggested art makes us feel; perhaps it also leads us away from wickedness and toward goodness. (This was a matter of contention in the comments section.) Perhaps. Ants, after all, don't have morality or religion either. Why on earth would we need external, physical objects made by our fellow beings to help us feel? Yes, it's a form of communication, but of such a subtle and subjective nature it cannot be of any use for the usual purposes communication serves.

From the earlies age, children naturally create art. All human beings, and all human cultures, crerate some art. We can argue about who does it better -- perhaps the competition to perform or create superior art is the only explanation for how it evolved? -- but that doesn't explain why we do it at all. Why we need it. Why the thought of a society which suppressed all art is an example of a living hell. Why the struggle to control art is dear the hearts of all who hunger for power over the minds of their fellows.

Suppose you were the last human being left alive on Earth. No agents, no audience. No buyers, no lovers. No reason to create art. Would you?

I don't know about you, but I probably would. It would, in fact, be only through the creation of art I would endure such a situation at all. And that's quite strange, isn't it?

Jun 8, 2009

A Wasted Day

There are many days I can't work because I have other pressing activities. That's frustrating, but it's a neccessary evil. Today, however, I had time to work, and wasted it. That's beyond frustrating. It leaves me deeply depressed.

Of course, I suppose I was depressed to begin with, since instead of working, I stewed the whole day long in stressful thoughts about my inability to face the future with my current resources (mental as well as physical). It was one of those days when my inadequacies pointed and laughed at my aspirations, and even at noon, the sun shone grey. I ate too much, tasted too little.

I scrolled through various Word files on my screen, but typed nothing. I thought about painting, but baskets of laundary were piled between me and my art desk. I thought about doing laundary, but returned to my computer.

Scrolled some more, typed nothing.

Worried some more, solved nothing.

Tommorrow, I am not going to worry, and I'm not going to even try to type one word. I think I'll read. And try to go outside.

Jun 6, 2009

Another Round

I finished another round of revisions in order to have a draft for my later beta readers. In this version, which is still rough around the edges and missing one scene, I strengthened the story line of the hero.

One of the critiques of an early beta reader was that the story made a promise to the reader at the start which was never carried out by the end. I've revised that so that hopefully the reader will see how the story promise has been delivered. (Vague, I know, but I don't want to get too much more specific.)

While working on revisions, I've simultaneously been working on the second book, but I'm now now sure. Should I keep working on book two or should I "refresh the palette" with some work on another book?

I suppose I'll follow my inspiration; if I continue to go strong on book two, I will. But sometimes it does help me to take a break between projects and work on something completely different.

Does anyone else do that?

Jun 3, 2009

In Need of Villains

I have an idea for an Urban Fantasy, but I need an idea for the Big Baddies. I'm tired of demons, werewolves, and vampires. A goverment conspiracy run by a corrupt US senator who wants to sell arms to terrorists? Uh, no. That is so done.

What kind of villains would be original, badass, re-newable (can't be just one dude, I need my heroes to plow through a lot of 'em), something interesting enough you'd like to read it?

Both sf (aliens, robots) and fantasy (demons, necromancers) type ideas welcome. What kind of villain hasn't been done that would be supercool?

Jun 1, 2009

Guest Post on The Literary Lab

The Literary Lab was kind enough to invite me to guest blog. This week they are exploring the strengths and weaknesses of different genres. I've taken the opportunity to jot down a theory I've developed on the appeal (or repulsion) of Epic Fantasy.