Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Serving of Story Part 3: Too Much Authority Too Soon

On September 20, I wrote a one-sentence comment on my blog:

"When you write, you don't write primarily from the mind, you write out of the love you feel for the people in your story, which means everything you write is meant to serve these people and does not exist to fulfil some intellectual goal of your own, such as getting published."

Today, I have the second of two important comments from readers that I really want to answer in detail, and so I'm doing it here, where I have a lot more room than in the comments section.

At 15 October, 2010 , Blogger Stephen Dunscombe said...

It's been a long, long time since I've felt any love for any of the people in my story, and I only really realised this recently. I still get ideas for *stories* - ideas that grab hold and won't let go, scenes and images that move me, that I want to make happen *somewhere* - but nobody in them has any life to them, and so the writing almost immediately becomes a slog.

I've recently gotten back into fanfic after many years of avoiding it, and I'm finding that helps - it's full of people I already know and love, and so I can go back to who they are again and again.


Fiction is a weirdsome beast.  It is both more and less true than reality.  The more true  part comes from your own understanding that your characters are never going to be coming to knock on your door to ask you to go out to the movies with them.  That one fact, the awareness deep inside you that fictional characters are never going to live  unless you make them live for the reader, forces you to write fiction that other people will want to read.  Fiction also is more true than fact because you, the author, knows what really happened, and why it happened, and why all the people in the story do what they do, and why somebody didn't go to his/her friend's house that night. 

The other part, where fiction is less true than reality, means that fiction is more contained than fact.  When you write fact you're always wondering what part to put in and what part to leave out.  It all happened, right?  But when you write fiction, you serve the story by including within it only those things that matter to the outcome of the story and the understanding of all the characters.  Your character doesn't have to actually tie his shoelaces.  He can just slam out the door.  He doesn't have to slam the green wooden door with the brass-dragon-head knob.  Do you see what I mean? 

There's the kind of Authority, in Story, that serves your story perfectly, allowing you to know 100% of why and how everything in the story happens.  Opposing that, is the desperation of not knowing how much to put in to start with, and how much to just fly with.  Most people don't do enough work period.  But I am fairly certain, given your clue about loving the fan-fiction as opposed to your own creative fiction, that the opposite is your problem.  You do too much work in your own creative fiction before you let yourself fly.

Listen to what MPax had to say about being 100% in Authority over her story:

"I've started the spit & polish on my second novel this weekend. So, I've been putting myself in my main character's shoes. Been writing up character goals, motivation & conflict charts. I don't do that until after the first draft as I plot best when writing. It works best with the characters telling me who they are instead of the other way around. Then I write up sheet to focus and do the spit & polish."
                                                           -MPax, private communication       

In other words, MPax just doesn't try to know 100% of what she knows she's going to have to know, in order for the story to make perfect sense in the world she has let form itself along the way.  She just does her "reality check" at the end.  I've never done that myself, but I can imagine it being "a blast", as she described one of her novels to me.  That's what writing should be.  A "BLAST"!!!  And even more fun because until it gets published, it's all yours.

Going back to fan-fiction, Stephen, and finding it helps you to love your writing again, just has to explain why your "original" fiction might turn to slog for you - as opposed to the love and fun and excitement you have writing fan-fics (which are stories written in worlds and with characters other writers have created, the original story not being fan-fic, but something that allows the original writer to tell one story in one part of his/her world, and to have 100% understanding of why and how everything happened in that story, while still leaving, beyond those boundaries, a richness and edginess that provoke other writers to want to see more and more and more stories in that world, and so to write them themselves.)  Boundaries in fan-fiction, being more or less pre-determined, allow you to relax, settle into a world you already know really well, with some characters you know very well indeed, and either use just them or introduce some new ones, and then create a new story beyond the boundary of the original story.  Because you're relaxed and haven't had to work yourself to death to know everything about everything in this world with people you haven't had to slog over to make real and believable, then you can catch something amazingly like lightning, and write yourself a story and have fun again.
What I believe about you, Stephen, without really any evidence except intuition, is that you are the kind of person who fears to hurt your amazing idea in your own creative fiction by not knowing enough  about your world and its people before you start writing.  How much is too much? How much is enough?

Imagine eating an endless medieval banquet, each course having stuff you like, each course giving you some satisfaction, but as you get fuller, and fuller, and heavier and heavier, you find yourself just... well, tired.  And the courses just don't stop.  You want them to bring a dessert made of air, but always one heavy course leads to another.  Instead of courses of food, imagine creating an island, and peopling it, and then you wonder if it's volcanic, and if so what kind of  pressures created the island just here, so you look across the world at some undersea crevice, and you say, okay, this is getting plugged up and it causes pressure under my island.  Satisfied, you want to go on, but that crevice, why is it getting plugged up?  Being a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and curious individual, you have to know.  And so, one thing leads to the next, and it's just like that banquet, Stephen.  Your world has too much STUFF in it for your story to need, in order to work.  You overdose on heavy main courses of research, and by the time you get to your wonderful idea as the "dessert" part of your story, it's only the beginning

Not fun any more?  Well, I guess not!!!  Not easy to love a brilliant idea that is only the beginning after all the work you've already done. 
Don't take this to mean that you should not do the kind of work that you do, in writing your own creative fiction.    Just don't try to do it all at first, because you'll end up doing more than you'll ever need in your story.  Your idea strikes.  You do not put it on the shelf.  You start writing with it.  It will be only a scene, the first scene where this idea is going to have an effect on characters that are only just vaguely formed in your mind.  As you write it, you'll find out what you need to know that you don't know yet.  When that happens, when there is one thing that simply must be known, then you figure out that one thing.  Eventually, bit by bit, as you are  writing, problems will arise you'll solve them where they happen, and then you'll keep on writing, until a character refuses to do what you'd do, and you don't understand why until you sit down with your notebook and just let the ideas flow. 

I call it having my character in for coffee.

When the need to know something comes up, that's when you do the work.  It's never a slog then.  It's always only one bit of information, and you know why you need to know it, and you don't have to take a year to figure it out.  By the time you're done, you'll know everything you need to know about your world, your characters, and your idea.  Maybe there's other stuff you could know about it, but as long as what you have done is solid and strong and a place for lightning to hit the stars, it doesn't matter.  Let other fan-fiction writers add to your world, and enjoy it that they can.  That you've left them space to do it. They can't change your story because it's 100% solid with your Authority.  But they can love your world, and your characters, and play with them the way, right now, you're playing in other peoples' worlds.

Now won't THAT be amazing?  Knowing you've created a world and characters 100% complete within the boundaries you've set for those characters to solve their particular plot problem, while still leaving enough edges and depths to make other people want to work with them?

Think of your solitary creative fiction like that.  Think that you are creating the source of a million and one fan-fics. 

And every now and then, it doesn't hurt to take a holiday from writing your own stories, anyway.


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