Wednesday, June 30, 2010
A Long And Meandering Post About Writing
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