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Beginnings And Endings

Posted on 12.01.2015 at 10:54
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I have a strange habit: When I buy a new novel, I make a point of reading the first line, regardless of how many other books are ahead of it in the queue. I’m not sure when I started doing it, or why—or at least, I’m not sure I had a reason at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I can probably venture a hypothesis or two.

I don’t know if I can speak for all of book/literary culture, but first lines are something readers pay attention to. Just look at the various lists of memorable opening sentences. One book I’ve seen in the library collects first lines from eleven thousand stories. I’m sure you can probably recite a first line or two from something you’ve never read. (I’ve seen the opening to Pride & Prejudice enough to know it more or less by heart, though I still haven’t read any Jane Austen.)

And I get it. In my class this semester I’ve been talking about the seduction of the reader if a piece isn’t something people have to read, unlike when professional or civic or academic obligations compel them to read. The writer establishes a contract with the reader that promises some kind of pay-off—action, knowledge, mystery, something. Otherwise, why keep reading? While readers have different thresholds for when they’re willing to give up, it makes sense to get their interest as soon as possible.* For some, that’s the title. For many more, it’s that first line.

The reader perspective makes sense, but for me, my fascination with beginnings—of which the first line is kind of a big deal—comes out of a writerly curiosity. It’s easy to wonder about the choices the writer made in deciding to start a story in a particular place. Why begin with that scene or image or sentence out of all the ones available? What do we get in the opening—setting, dialogue, action, character, abstraction? What sense of language do we get a glimpse of—like, is there any rhythm in the prose even there at the start?

As you may or may not know, I really didn’t like reading when I was younger, so a huge swath of my childhood was devoid of formative reading experiences. I didn’t have books I read again and again until they disintegrated. I didn’t consume print in huge quantities during what were probably my most impressionable years. I’ve been working to make up for lost time, and so, because of that sense of time slipping away, I rarely revisit books. Though I’ve read hundreds, only so many beginnings have stayed with me. Some of them are so short that it’s hard to forget (like Fahrenheit 451’s “It was a pleasure to burn.”). Others I’ve seen repeatedly, often in craft books or books about books, that the memory becomes more solid (1984, Lolita). And yet, for all the specific sentences I recall, for others books, the thing that stuck is an image (Cassel Sharpe on a roof at the start of White Cat) or an idea (The Time Machine introducing the fourth dimension in a way that’s totally reasonable). And these aren’t necessarily the stories I remember best overall, just some pieces. So while an intriguing start is great, it’s not essential. Obviously you don’t want a story to feel like a slog from the first page, but the bulk of books I’ve loved didn’t floor me right away. That stuff arrived later—though probably not too much later.

As I was thinking about beginnings I remember—and the legion I forget—I realized I have a similar relationship with endings. Personally, I feel that endings are the hardest part to write, whatever I’m writing. My respect to those who figure out the destination then reverse-engineer a story from that. I can’t work that way. I’m not confident I know, even after all these years, when the right time to end a story is. I tend to not linger much once the conflict’s resolved; beyond that, I don’t have much technique for my own endings. I mean, exhortations of writing a “surprising but inevitable” ending don’t exactly help a whole lot in terms of actually putting that into practice.

But forget about principles. Let’s try for induction. Which endings (or near-endings) have stuck with me? (Brief, fairly vague references to Fahrenheit 451, The Road, A Wizard of Earthsea, Life of Pi, I Am Legend, and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear follow. I’m not sure if these qualify as spoilers, but in case they do, you’ve been warned.) Sometimes the ending hits hard with a vivid image (A Wizard of Earthsea, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear). Sometimes it’s a revelation that casts a new light on everything that came before (I Am Legend, Life of Pi). I admit, I’m partial to hope (The Road, Fahrenheit 451). And then there are the closers that demand slowing down by virtue of the cadence, so you savor the shape of the sentence (my go-to here is Neil Gaiman). But I’m sure that a number of books from my past would tick at least one of these boxes, so I guess I have no definitive pronouncements, just possibilities.**

What beginnings and/or endings have stuck with you? Any thoughts about why they persisted while others fell away?

* Throughout the writing classes I’ve taken, I’ve heard it emphasized again and again: Start off strong (though that doesn’t mean with a figurative explosion).

** One reason I likely have less to say about endings is their power rests on the preceding story, whereas a beginning doesn’t need the same amount of context to make sense. Jeff VanderMeer expresses a similar sentiment. In Wonderbook, he writes, “The truth is that it’s harder to talk about endings than beginnings.” Plus, y’know, spoilers.

Assorted Thoughts on Comedy, Drama, and Brevity

Posted on 08.31.2015 at 09:12
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I’d consider myself devoted to short fiction. About a sixth of my personal library is made up of anthologies and collections. Each year I read over a hundred short stories. I look forward to new releases from my favorite authors as much as anyone, but I get a special frisson of excitement when the next publication collects their latest short work. But for all that, I don’t entirely get flash fiction.*

Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough of it to develop an appreciation for the form. After all, I certainly didn’t fall in love with short fiction with the first story I read—or even the next few. Maybe it’s because flash pieces rarely give me what I most value in a story: characters I feel like I know or a plot that leaves me eager to know what happens next, though when it comes to stylistic or structural experiment, flash can succeed. Maybe it’s because I can’t write it and so I feel shut out as a reader as well as a writer. I mean, even my short stories tend to run longer than the publishing norm (~8000 words), and I gravitate toward drama more so than comedy; to me, pathos seems more difficult to pull off in a short span.

What made me think of brevity in relation to comedy and drama was a live storytelling performance I saw earlier this month. Familiar with The Moth? Well, Philadelphia has its own version—StorySlams, care of First Person Arts. Five minutes to tell a true story in front of an audience, no notes, judged by random people from the crowd. As a listener, I thought it was a lot of fun. For the storytellers, I imagine it’s a special kind of hell. (I’m not really fond of talking about my life or of public speaking, so maybe it’s hellish only in my eyes.) If you get the chance to go to an event in this vein, I recommend it. People can really impress with their memory and the way they shape ordinary experiences into micro-arcs.

I noticed something at the end of the night. Of the ten storytellers, only one told a more melancholy story; all the rest were played for laughs. On some level, I get that. Remember this is a live performance—if no one’s laughing when you hope, you can tell. In writing, there’s no instant feedback loop. And even for a live performance, you can’t necessarily tell if you’ve got someone by the heartstrings. Feeling sympathy or pity or whatever doesn’t always result in an outward display.

I’ve got a theory. Comedy can be condensed. Witness the one-liner. I’m not sure if Twitter has been a blessing or a curse for comedic writing, but I see more people going for wit than, say, profundity. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.) But what about something like the six-word story? For sale: baby shoes, never worn. They can achieve pathos, right? Sure, but while I think micro-stories can elicit some of the emotions intended, I don’t think they can be nearly as powerful as a fully dramatized story, where you get to know and bond with characters, inhabit a world for more than a few minutes. I’ve gotten more laughter from someone else’s pithy observation than from some entire movies. So maybe there’s something to my theory. Maybe not. It has me thinking, though, which is good. I haven’t been in the headspace of stories for quite a while. I need to find my way back to it.

* A possible post for the future.

I’ve had an idea sitting on the backburner for years now. Ever since I started keeping track of my reading in a given year, I’ve found that one or two books often stand out among the bunch. I’ve wanted to devote a post to each of those books but, to do any justice, I wanted to revisit those books and really immerse myself in them, give myself time to enjoy their textures and styles even while contemplating what made each of them, for me, special. But I’ve realized that I don’t now have the time to do so, nor will I in the near future. And keeping thoughts stored up until “the right time” isn’t easy, especially when so many other things currently compete for headspace. Instead of putting it off further (and thus building up the finished product in my head and making me even less likely to ever start for fear of failure), I’m putting those thoughts down now, inspired by a friend’s post(s) on writing mentors. Imperfect, but better that than unwritten.

I met Cat Valente through her work, specifically the first volume of her Orphan’s Tales, In the Night Garden. It was the spring of 2009. I was winding toward the end of my first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program. As a cursory attempt to dive into the breadth of speculative fiction, I’d spent the previous few months familiarizing myself with some of the genre’s different strands: steampunk, interstitial, space opera, slipstream, and cyberpunk. By that point I was several years removed from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; I knew I wanted to read more work that drew on myth, fairy tales, and folklore so that those influences would find their way into my own writing. Saving the best for last—so I hoped—I chose Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Valente’s In the Night Garden as my semester’s final readings.

I can say without exaggeration: those books changed my life.

It was only an odd kind of luck that put those books on my radar. At my MFA residency that began the semester, everyone seemed to be talking about Angela Carter. I like to think of myself as fairly well-read, so the fact that I’d never heard of her before, even in passing, rankled. I decided there and then to remedy the oversight. (Maybe I’ll write about Carter in a future post.) As for The Orphan’s Tales, I vaguely remembered all the praise the books received when they debuted a few years prior, and I thought they had something to do with fairy tales. They did indeed and I could, so went my thinking, read another new-to-me author, a bonus that squared well with my goal of exploring spec fic. When I think now of all the fairy tale fiction I could have stumbled upon instead—the anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the vast number of retellings, and of course the wonder-tales themselves—I reel with the possibilities.

It’s been six years since I’ve read In the Night Garden, so my memory has unsurprisingly grown hazy with time, but I remember my reactions to it. I felt a kind of intoxication with her prose, to the point I found myself occasionally wishing for a page without a simile or metaphor. (I’m sure the book had plenty of such pages, but to me, I felt saturated by the richness and density of it all.) The frustration, though, was infrequent; far more often the beauty of the language struck me so much I could only read a little at a time, the better to process, to digest. I was dizzied and dazzled by the structure, nested stories within stories, each distinct enough that I rarely felt lost. (For a visual breakdown of these interconnections, see my friend Robert’s insightful post.) I could not then, and cannot now, totally comprehend how she envisioned that, let alone how she pulled it off so it felt natural. And I was amused by her sly commentary on fantasy’s tropes and mechanisms, touches of meta that felt of a piece with the world she’d created, luring you in with its (false) sense of familiarity only to up-end the whole thing time after time.*

No sooner did I finish the book than I had to start preparing for the MFA summer residency and line up classes for the fall (the life of an adjunct!). So I didn’t—still haven’t—finished the series. But I found a writer I wanted to know more about, to read more from. I was a fan.

I didn’t immediately seek out more of her work because, being enrolled in the MFA, I tried to expand my horizons, which to me meant finding other authors, other books. But three important events followed my encounter with Valente’s work. One, when the MFA director encouraged students to recommend visiting writers, I suggested Valente since she lived in Maine (not far from the program’s main site) and she wrote fiction and poetry, which seemed to go well with Stonecoast’s cross-genre emphasis. Two, I started following her LiveJournal. And finally, I met Valente, if only briefly.

I’d gotten some sense of Valente’s preoccupations through her novel, but her blogging felt so much more direct and raw. Though not as prolific now as she used to be, Valente imbues her nonfiction with the same qualities as her fiction: a gift for metaphor, a fascination with the stories we tell and how and why (which also means taking them apart and putting them back together with new bits), a compelling voice, and a refusal to flinch from harsh truth or sensitive material. I’m usually wary of published work that’s also available online, but when she announced she’d release a collection of her posts in book form, I knew I’d add it to my shelf because I wanted her work at hand, tangible.

Besides the movement of her mind, her journal also offered glimpses of her relationship with fans. Her comment threads could reach into the triple digits, and many of the comments were hers, engaging with her fans’ questions and expressions of gratitude for articulating something they didn’t know they felt. I got to know the puppeteer, and that made me more eager to attend her next performance.

That next performance wasn’t long after I’d read that novel. Stonecoast, my MFA program, is magic. As proof of that, one of the students helped set up a salon with the Interstitial Arts Foundation in the same town as my first summer residency. One of my friends, a fellow Stonecoast student, had recently gotten a story accepted for the IAF’s second Interfictions, so he’d be reading along with—you guessed it—Cat Valente, who’d had a story in the first Interfictions. I found this out days before heading north, so I packed my copies of The Orphan’s Tales for her to sign and tried to keep my anticipation in check.

When I did meet her, I practiced extreme restraint. I asked her to sign my books, thanked her, and shut my mouth to keep from gushing. Sure, I wished I’d said more, felt like I could have without self-consciousness, but to my mind I’d made the right choice. I much preferred subtlety to histrionics.

The next year, as far as this particular story is concerned, was unremarkable. I read, I wrote, I taught. I read Valente’s blog regularly and kept my eyes open for anthologies she appeared in. When she decided to self-publish a collection of short stories, I bought myself a copy right away—I really got started reading spec fic with short stories and even today they’re all I feel confident writing, so I try to read whatever I can and support writers who also work in the short form. But aside from that, nothing major until late in the fall.

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my MFA thesis, I found out that Samuel Delany, who directed the creative writing program at Temple University, invited Valente to read from her latest novel. I’d also discovered that the suggestion I’d made so long ago was taken up: Cat Valente would be a visiting writer at Stonecoast in January, just in time for my final residency. As I read over the e-mail with her name on the residency schedule, I shook my head and laughed in disbelief. Friends of mine, fellow writers I’d grown to love and respect over the last two years, would get to know first-hand Cat Valente’s awesomeness. “Excited” didn’t begin to cover it.

Yet somehow when I went up to Valente after that Temple U reading, I managed—if memory serves—to conduct myself like a normal human being. We talked about the book she’d read from, the collection I had her sign, and how much I was looking forward to her Stonecoast visit in a few short months. She was gracious and charming; I didn’t feel a moment’s dissonance between the writer I read and the person she was.

That final residency was one of the most emotionally intense experiences I’ve ever had. I presented research and read fiction to my friends. I said (for-the-moment) goodbyes. And I introduced Cat Valente at her reading. Introductions are a little weird. You say nice things about someone present to other people. And, while it’s not about you, you want to do a good job, to do justice to the person you’re setting the stage for. A lot of people dug her reading and seminar; she fit in smoothly with everyone, like she’d been there for months instead of hours. She mentored a couple of students the following semester—a terrific surprise I’m unsure anyone expected—and I can only imagine what that must have been like.

If that was all Cat Valente had done for me—bookending my Stonecoast experience, two years I’ll never forget—that would be enough to earn her a place of honor among the writers I’ve encountered. But it goes beyond that. When I’ve seen her at reading since, she’s always willing to chat, patiently signing the small stack of books I’ve purchased in the interim. The more of her work I’ve read, the more I appreciate not only the richness of the prose and the uncanny way she reinvigorates old stories but also the optimism, the feminism, and the strong sense of empathy pervading her work**. I admire the productivity she manages: her first book was published in 2004 and since then she’s released about two dozen others. (The only other author represented nearly so well on my shelves is Ursula Le Guin, which I’d bet Cat would appreciate.) I admire the honesty and enthusiasm in her posts on her blog and on Twitter. The way she is in the world and the ways she encourages others to find their individuality and to own it—it’s advice we all need to be reminded of occasionally. Cat Valente may or may not be magic, but I believe she has access to magic. Read her work, speak with her, and maybe you’ll find that out for yourself. I count myself very lucky to have met her and her work.

*This review from Strange Horizons does a great job discussing how the book seamlessly handles exposition, another of its impressive feats.

**Her work would need a lengthy post to itself, if I could ever find the words for how powerful I find it.

It’s been nearly a year since the furor over the How I Met Your Mother series finale. I had thoughts about it then, but the rest of the Internet did such a good job grumbling that I saw no need to add my voice to the chorus. But while I saw some of my ideas given shape—Chunk Wendig’s write-up is pretty spot-on—nobody said just what I wanted to say. So I’m saying it all now, in the hopes that pinning my ideas down on the page will exorcise them from my mind.

Spoiler alert, just so you know.

To be continued...Collapse )

Why I Need To Submit Fiction More Often

Posted on 01.06.2015 at 11:04
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For the past few months I’ve essentially lived in a bubble. I read little outside of my school work, virtually ignored online news, so I’ve had only the faintest idea of what’s been happening in the world. But as the semester ended I started returning to the surface for air and discovered that several spec fic magazines had emerged since I’d last kept tabs on anything beyond school. The lifecycle of publishing deserves its own post; for now, I’ve got submitting work on the brain.

It’s been a while since I’ve sent out anything for publication. Part of that’s because I haven’t had the time or opportunity—it was probably my busiest semester in years, hence the bubble. But composing a cover letter and hitting Send doesn’t take all that much time. The bigger issue is that I have nothing in good enough shape to share publicly—or at least, nothing that hasn’t already been rejected across the board. So I have to get something ready for publication.

But which one(s)? The stories I wrote most recently need less revision—I hope—compared with those I wrote earlier, since the older ones no longer accurately represent my writing now. I could in theory polish those up to the point where they do showcase the way I write now.

Still, I only have so much time. The obvious solution is to focus on the stories I think are strongest and/or most appropriate for the venues I’m interested in. But. I like the old stories and think at least a few of them deserve a home; if I didn’t, I might not have been able to write them in the first place.

This, then, is why I think I need to be better about submitting work: Because I can tinker indefinitely with a piece, judging it not ready.* Because I can dismiss an older story languishing in the digital drawer because it’s not reflective of my work now. But for writers, there is no now. Like photographs, the work we produce can never illustrate who we are, only who we were. I have a sense of my own private history as a writer, but there’s no public history. Nothing to tell others where I’ve been, how far I’ve come.

So the work needs to be out there, searching for a home, becoming part of something larger. Otherwise, it’s easy to continue telling myself not yet, not yet until it’s too late.

*Works of art are never finished, only abandoned.


The Reading Habits Of Foxes And Hedgehogs

Posted on 10.21.2014 at 09:49
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I hated reading for a good chunk of my life. I didn’t struggle with it or anything; I just didn’t enjoy it—until I discovered science fiction and fantasy, that is. By degrees, everything changed after that. I looked forward to reading, I started buying books, I found my way to writing.

But, despite trying to make up for lost time and all my education in the various wings of English departments, I’m not nearly as well-read as I’d like to be. For the bulk of my active reading life, my diet has consisted largely of fiction, typically of the speculative sort. I can count on two hands the number of poetry books I’ve read. Only three years ago did I start reading nonfiction for pleasure in addition to information. I’ve managed only a tiny, tiny fraction of the canon, however malleable that is.

In the last post I wondered about the proper balance between reading and writing. Now I’m narrowing it down: if you’re a writer and you are reading, what kind of reading would be most useful for your literary growth?

Isaiah Berlin wrote that there are two kinds of people. (I’m always skeptical when anyone tries to simplify the world so neatly, but go with me on this.) You have foxes and you have hedgehogs. Foxes know many things and hedgehogs know one big thing, which I’ve always interpreted as breadth versus depth. Writers—and other artists, for that matter—seem to embody both. They need to know their craft well, but they also need to know about whatever they’re representing (or want to represent) in their work. In both cases, that knowledge comes from living, but it also comes from reading. Writers are often exhorted to read both widely and deeply, which can present a challenge.

I’ve read a lot of SF/F. Not doing so would be ridiculous—I’d have no idea what stories had been told, how the tropes had been used, what spoke to me and what left me cold. But reading only SF/F can become a closed-circuit. The ecosystem—in this case, my brain—doesn’t allow new elements in, which leads to stagnation and so a kind of death.

How, then, do you balance reading deeply with reading widely, especially when there’s so much material and not enough time? I guess with a contradiction: being experimental and conservative. If you know what sparks your interest, by all means, go there. Read your fill. But don’t confine yourself to that. Think of certain authors, genres, or whatever as home, a point to return to even as you venture outward, exploring. Sometimes you have to stick with something that doesn’t immediately hook you, because the new can be strange and, at first, uncomfortable. Still, not every experiment will be successful. And you have to be willing to draw up boundaries. Too many failed excursions probably means that something isn’t for you. That’s okay. Move on. Keep moving. Pick up something familiar to recharge you.

There’s enough work out there that you’ll never reach the end of what you love or what you haven’t discovered yet. That, to me, is exciting.


The Reading And Writing Balance

Posted on 09.03.2014 at 10:04
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As the previous post makes clear, I can go for depressingly long stretches of time without writing, but I’m unable to function if I’m not reading for fun, even sporadically. Which got me thinking about the trade-off of time spent writing and time spent reading, what the golden ratio is.

Stephen King*, who admits to being “a slow reader,” manages to read “seventy to eighty books a year,” which to me is an astounding number. I’ve been keeping track of my reading habits only since 2006, when my average reading speed increased to the point that I couldn’t feasibly remember a given year’s reading. So I started an inventory. My highest tally was 2007, when I had an office job, so an hour for lunch and a ninety-minute commute translated to a lot of reading. But like King, I’m not an especially fast reader. I’m fairly picky about the books I read, and I savor my books, mostly. If I can work in somewhere between thirty and forty books, I’m happy with that.

Sticking with King as an example, he writes that his goal for every writing day—virtually every day—is two thousand words/ten pages. “On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime.”

King doesn’t command that his habits become someone else’s. And even if he did, his circumstances are not yours are not mine. Writing is his job. No commute. No required overtime because it’s some particular business season. Not even an eight-hour day by the sound of it. Meaning he has a not-insignificant amount of time freed up compared with someone with a more traditional job and who makes routine choices about whether to read or write off the clock.

I look back at my own situation over the past few years, as both a reader and a writer. Books: In 2008, I just hit thirty books, my arbitrary minimum, and barely passed that the following year with thirty-three. Over the next four years I read forty books or more, with 2011 being an outlier at fifty-six. As for writing, my record year was 2009, my first at Stonecoast; I wrote ten stories. No other year even comes close. I wrote four in 2008 and 2011, three in 2007, two in 2010, and one each in 2012 and 2013—and 2014 if I can finish a draft.

What I expected the numbers to tell me was that as I read more books in a given year, I wrote less. And vice versa. That isn’t quite the case. My most productive writing year was only my second-lowest in number of books read. My second-highest year for reading was also my second-most productive writing year.

The numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, my book totals represent sheer number of books, regardless of whether they’re children’s books or novellas or comics trade paperbacks I can breeze through in an afternoon. The number of books doesn’t reflect the actual quantity of words read. It also ignores all the other reading I do, especially as a teacher. I leave the books I’ve read for the PhD off because, if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have read them. For the MFA, the books I had to read counted toward the total because I’d wanted to read those anyway, which was awesome.

As for the writing, being enrolled in an MFA was a huge motivator. Besides being accountable to a mentor, having a deadline, and paying money for the whole experience, I got work done because, when it comes to school, I take it seriously to the near neglect of other responsibilities. When I’m just writing for me, it’s easy to prioritize other things over my fiction. So no wonder I wrote ten stories. But the numbers represent finished drafts, however terrible. I’ve lost count of all the random snippets and opening pages I’ve written only to put aside, or stuff that informs a story without being an explicit part of it. And besides, this is all just quantity. Heaven knows how these stats matters in terms of quality.

It’s intriguing that the year I was neither teaching any classes nor enrolled in a post-grad program was one in which I read and wrote a good amount. I’m sure that’s not the sole reason, but it makes me ponder.

What are your daily/monthly/yearly goals as a reader and/or as a writer? What do you consider a good balance between them for you?

*All quotes taken from On Writing. That’s all the citation you’re getting from me.

Story Snarls

Posted on 08.18.2014 at 10:15
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I haven’t finished a story in the past year. This spring was so frenetic I barely had time to do any leisure reading to maintain my sanity. (I’m disappointed if I don’t write regularly, but I practically collapse if I go too long without reading from my own shelves.) So I had one resolution for this summer: I’d write and finish a short story draft—even a really shitty one—before the fall semester began. Barring any miracles, I’m not going to succeed.

I could make excuses, but I’m not interested in sharing them, and I doubt you want to hear them. I’m not writing this post to enumerate all the reasons I’ve fallen short of my modest goal; I’m writing it to articulate the difficulties I’ve been having with this particular story.

Without getting into all the details, the story is part homage to, part revision of the mecha trope. I love giant robots, though I’m not nearly as steeped in the genre as I could be. I’ve only seen G1 Transformers, of course, and only a handful of episodes of the various Gundam and Voltron series. As for written examples, I’m not sure if it exists in any substantial form. (There’s Armored and the Battletech series, but even these aren’t quite what I’m after.)

So, without much for reference points, I find my story taking on a military science fiction bent. This is a challenge for me. One: I don’t have any genuine interest in military SF. I don’t gravitate to those kinds of stories as a reader. And while military SF has high levels of drama and action, the stories I as a writer like to tell don’t lend themselves to that milieu. Two: I’m not, to my mind, a particularly good SF writer. I don’t have the scientific or technological literacy that SF can—though not always does—demand. I don’t have nearly as much familiarity with SF’s tropes as I do with fantasy’s. And I haven’t yet figured out what I can get away with as an SF writer, what logistics should be thought through and which can be taken care of with handwaving.

Now I’d be a poor writer if I wrote only the same kinds of stories or the ones that came easily to me. But I wonder how to recognize the distinction between not writing a story because it’s hard and not writing one because it’s turning out to be something you’re not even a little excited by. So, to get back to the mecha story: In writing it, I’ve encountered a lot of questions. That could be positive, right? An indication I’m being more thoughtful and conscientious in my writing choices. But the more I mull over these questions, the farther away I feel the story veer from one I want to tell (to say nothing of what I’d hoped to tell, though I think in the end stories bear only faint resemblances to their initial vision). So should I pursue it to the end, just to see how it winds up? Or would it be better to just start over to see if I can get the execution to be more in synch with the intention?

I’d love to hear about your experiences when the writing goes in a direction you didn’t expect and maybe weren’t enthusiastic about.

Some Things I've Learned About Research

Posted on 05.27.2014 at 11:43
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If you’ve ever heard me talk about my MFA program, you might have noticed I tend to speak in superlatives: It was one of the best decisions I ever made, I found some of my closest friends there, and I learned so much about my writing that I can hardly identify any major gaps—save one. The one significant (to me) lesson I hadn’t picked up during those two years was how to research. Not the fusty kind involving library visits, MLA format, and all that. I mean the kind that starts with “I’d like to write a story involving world-class marbles players but I don’t know the first thing about marbles, let alone at the pro level.” So where/how do you start? That question took up residence in the back of my mind, occasionally traveling to the forefront when I considered breaking out of the rut of stories informed by what I already knew. Daunted by the potential of failure, I shied away from experimenting, from discovery, and instead kept to the paths I’d walked so often.

Thankfully, I lucked into a Research for Creative Writers class this past fall; in taking the class, I got enough familiarity with how to research topics with an eye toward story fodder that I feel more confident about venturing out into that unknown. But I have to warn you: It’s a pain in the ass.

Four questions guided us through the semester as researchers. What do you already know about the topic at hand? What do you want to know about it? Where can you find that info you don’t yet have? And how do you put it all together gracefully? I don’t think I’m giving anything away by sharing these questions; it’s finding answers—even tentative ones—that’s the real challenge. Like all the other bromides about writing—simple in theory, less so in practice.

I’m oversimplifying when I say this, but it seems like there are two approaches to research. One is to gather as much material as you can before setting out to write, collecting more as needed during the actual composing. The other, and the one that strikes me as far more manageable, is to write the damn story and figure out where you have gaps—of setting, character, etc.—that could be filled in by researched information.* I don’t much like the first approach because it can theoretically go on forever. How do you ever really know you have enough? Eventually you just have to put your butt in the chair and words on the page. Besides that, you’ve got chaos, no sense of order or relevance of what you’ve collected. The latter approach makes more sense to me because, though researched material can impact a story beyond lending verisimilitude, I prefer to see what shape the story takes independent of outside interference. And once I know that, can see where I might need a fact or a detail, my research has a direction and purpose, instead of a mad grab for info.

But even with a direction and purpose, you don’t always turn up the info you need—or you don’t recognize a detail’s usefulness right away. It’s a process of back-and-forth, trial-and-error, which is also why the (over)preparation method seems odd to me; you’re going to have to do all kinds of scutwork anyway. May as well cut out the extra step and get right to it.

Even if you find all the info you need and blend it seamlessly into your narrative, there’s still a chance you’ll get something wrong. And someone will invariably catch you for it. Not a good thing—not just because most people don’t like having mistakes pointed out, but because that slip-up could break a reader out of your story. Some readers might be forgiving, some might not notice at all, but some will lose the sense of the whole due to one loose thread. You can’t please every reader, and I’m not even suggesting you try. I’m just saying that when you introduce research into a story, you’ve got one more plate to juggle in addition to believable characters, a compelling plot, sharp prose, et cetera, et cetera. But that also means a greater sense of satisfaction when you pull it off.

For me, the greatest benefit of research—and I’m paraphrasing something I read long ago, can’t remember where—is it expands the sphere of what you know. “Write what you know” is a great place to start, but, if you write enough, eventually you run the risk of exhausting what you know (or at least what you know that feels viable as Story). Research ensures that, in some sense, there’s no end to what you can know.

* I think fiction writers have the advantage over nonfiction writers in this; with fiction there is still, ideally, a story independent of the facts, whereas that may not be the case with CNF. A post for another time, maybe.

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