Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Long And Meandering Post About Writing

A warning.
What follows is a long and often meandering post about writing. I suspect people who write genre may find it of some interest. I'm not sure I'll be able to say the same for people who just want to pick up a book and have a good time. So with that caution...

When I hear writers interviewed, especially genre writers, they are inevitably asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas from?" The author generally smiles beatifically and mush-mouthes his or her way through a response which is guaranteed to cause scores of readers to bleed from their eyes.

Stephen King once described writing down a list of possible titles and sticking it to his refrigerator. He then went down the list, title by title, ripping each one from the sheet as he went along, and fashioning a story for each entry on the list. I've actually tried this, and I must clearly pronounce---I am no Stephen King.

However I do try to find inspiration from different sources..hoping something will spark an idea to file away for later use. To be honest, I don't do much story writing now unless it is in response to a "call for submission". Not that the story will sell, but nothing motivates like the lure of the marketplace.

I recently read an article in Scientific American. with the intriguing title: "Is The Universe Leaking Energy?"

Without even reading the piece, I jotted down three ideas to later develop into something. God bless writer's groups (hear that Gwen?) for helping me develop the ability to create from prompts. The ideas?

1) An expedition sent to the fringes of the known universe finds reality breaking down as the energy that keeps it together dissipates.
2) A group of scientists find that their experiments at the sub-atomic level are somehow bringing about enormous changes in the far flung universe.
3) In deep space a prison ship escapes and heads into a wormhole only to be spit out at the edge of the universe, where different rules of physics are at work, stranding them in a vast dead zone.

Now, note the above are quickly jotted ideas. They aren't stories. Stories require the presence of characters. All fiction, all good fiction, is about people, after all. Still, looking at this process, finding one idea which might have potential (I sort of liked the third idea), one can now begin to actually plan a story, putting personalities in conflict, presenting obstacles to be overcome, internally and externally.

And since we're on the process of writing, let me refer to a little read essay by H.P.Lovecraft who described his process of writing. (not how he received his ideas, but the actual process). Below is a short description of his steps, in his own words.

1) Prepare a synopsis or scenario of events in the order of their absolute occurence--not in the order of their narration. Describe with enough fulness to cover all vital points and motivate all incidents planned. Details, comments, and estimates of consequences are sometimes desirable in this temporary framework.

2. Prepare a second synopsis or scenario of events - this one in order of narration (not actual
occurrence), with ample fulness and detail, and with notes as to changing perspective, stresses,
and climax.  Let additions and alterations be made whenever suggested by anything in the for mulating process. (Mulating???? Only Lovecraft)

3. Write out the story - rapidly, fluently, and not too critically - following the second or narrative-order synopsis. Change incidents and plot whenever the developing process seems to suggest such change, never being bound by any previous design. Remove all possible superfluities - words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole episodes or elements - observing the usual precautions about the reconciling of all references (my bold face---this is economy, Rick take note)

4. Revise the entire text, paying attention to vocabulary, syntax, rhythm of prose, proportioning of parts, niceties of tone, grace and convincingness of transitions (scene to scene, slow and detailed action to rapid and sketchy time-covering action and vice versa... etc., etc., etc.), effectiveness of beginning, ending, climaxes, etc., dramatic suspense and interest, plausibility and atmosphere, and various other elements.

These four points are great. Sadly, Lovecraft was an author who hated characterization, and his stories suffered for it. Instead, he proudly proclaims in this very essay that he feels his main purpose was not necessarily to tell a story, but to create an atmosphere in his work, a feeling of the weird. It's a shame he didn't feel the need to do this through character and conflict, working on an arc which allowed the reader a satisfactory catharsis.

The late Isaac Asimov discussed writing in his memoir I,Asimov. Looking at his explanation of his process and Lovecraft's, I tend to veer closer to Asimov's in my beliefs. Asimov wrote:

"Of course, it also helps if you don't try to be too literary in your writing. If you try to turn out a prose poem...I have therefore deliberately cultivated a very plain style, even a colloquial one, which can be turned out rapidly and with which very little can go wrong. Of course, some critics, with crania that are more bone than mind, interpret this as my having "no style." If anyone thinks, however, that it is easy to write with absolute clarity and no frills, I recommend that he try it."

Somewhere an MFA grad is shuddering. Shudder on, because I leave you with some thoughts on writing from another author considered an important figure in science fiction, Robert Heinlein. Heinlein had five rules for writers...

Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order(Okay, I take exception with this. I'll hope he meant one shouldn't keep endlessly playing with one's work before sending it out. Sometimes a story is done, and an author should accept it as complete and move on. Too many people get caught up polishing, polishing, polishing...)
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold


Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, well, I like Lovecraft much more than Asimov. I have many more books by HPL than Isaac, although I did enjoy his Foundation series. Perhaps because I like poetry myself, prose poems often light my fire.

I don't see why a book couldn't have both a good story and really good prose. Those are the kinds of books I remember best.

Rick said...

Wow, taking lessons on economy from Lovecraft reminds me of taking lessons in self control from Madonna.

Anonymous said...

I love you idea #3. It's Enterprise with convicts. That's something I'd like to read.

Angie said...

Okay, I take exception with this. I'll hope he meant one shouldn't keep endlessly playing with one's work before sending it out.

Well, yes, that's implied. But from what I've read, he essentially meant more along the lines of, "Fix typos if you really have to, but then get it into the mail." :)

Having experienced the occasional writer who'll, for example, disingenuously claim to have "concerns" about a particular story because they wrote "only seventeen drafts" (and no, I'm not making that up [eyeroll]) I'll admit my BS tolerance on the OMGPolishEveryWord!!! side of the issue has gotten very low. I'm more with Dean Wesley Smith, who observed (collecting data from fellow writers, including those who take his workshops) that writers rarely recognize their own best stories, in terms of what's sold and what readers have liked. A writer's own favorite story will often not sell, or will sink into obscurity after publication, while a story the writer was pretty sure was mediocre was the one that got snapped up, won awards, got sacks of gushing mail from readers, etc.

We just don't know -- we're too close to the story once we're done with it. I'd rather write it, go over it for typos and truck-size holes, then send it out and start on the next one. In the time it would've taken me to do seventeen drafts [snort] I could've written ten more stories, with all the practice and improvement that comes with writing ten stories, and maybe gotten a few sales out of the effort.


Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I think it depends more on the reasons the writer has for what they are doing, and their goals. I know some folks argue that the 'only' and 'always' goal is publication and money. I don't agree. If the writer is using polishing and polishing as a way to avoid submitting material because they are afraid of rejection, then that is definitely not healthy. But if a writer is crafting a prose poem then such a piece might go through many polishings. Or, if the writer just likes polishing. Often, though not always, rewriting is the most enjoyable part of writing for me. On the other hand, to call oneself a writer I think you do need to eventually let that sucker go. Recognizing one's own best work is another complex issue because it gets at the whole question of what is best. I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion that just because a lot of readers like something that it is therefore best. I certainly do think it's possible for a writer to be too close to their material though and not see where certain of its strengths lie.

Mohamed Mughal said...

Asimov's style may have been straightforward, but the content brimmed with ideas, intrigue and keen observation.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Chuck, I love both authors. I think good books do have both lively prose and solid story. Asimov's writing wasn't as sparse as he claims.

Rick, Lovecraft wrote at a time in America where literature was going through a transition. I think he was caught between two eras, and struggling with numerous personal demons.

Christine, I kinda like that idea, too, mostly for the potential of conflict and character development.

Angie, your comment is interesting, and maybe worthy of a post onto itself. You're right that sometimes we're blind regarding our own work. Your comment also lends itself to something I often say, that our writing is not our own. Once we finish, it is off and becomes the property of the reader.

Mohamed, I have always enjoyed Lovecraft's short stories and novels. Even his mystery stories were worthy of applause. You know, I've also used his non-fiction work in class before, his ability explain complicated concepts to readers is brilliant. I think I can say the same thing for Arthur C. Clarke.

WritingNut said...

Very wise tips from two very wise writers. Thank you for sharing.

Also, thank you for stopping by my blog today :)

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim said...

What Charles said!