Tracie Welser is a Clarion West grad, a teacher and a writer. Her first professional sale, “A Body Without Fur,” appears in May/June issue of Interzone.
Excellent fiction is an art we’re all working to capture on the page. Blogs and how-to books are full of advice on how to achieve excellence through structure, prose, plot, setting, character and dialogue. But when it works, why does it, really? Is excellence a convergence of these factors, these skills, like a formula of some kind? If we’re honest, the possibility is a little thrilling to contemplate. A magic formula! I’ve seen how-to-write texts which promise this very idea.
We could speculate on tastes of various readers and writers and the styles that appeal to them (the sentimental, the romantic, the horrific, the scientific and so on). As Michael Chabon points out in his artful collection Maps and Legends, we read and write “for entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure.” And entertainment comes in different flavors. But I want to know how and why story works, why the rhythm and syntax of a sentence gives it power, how the structure of a narrative draws in or discomfits the reader, and to what ultimate effect. I’m going to assert that the real deal, the aspect of fiction that keeps people reading is Sense of Wonder. This is true whether the genre is horror, epic fantasy, mystery, “hard” sci-fi, or cowboy stories. Or even that other genre that doesn’t recognize itself as such, literary fiction. Or the weird. Especially the weird.
How is wonder accomplished, if that’s what we’re chasing? I mean, really, deep down, cognitively? What kinds of narrative make this experience possible for the reader?
Surprising or shocking the reader with the unexpected creates cognitive dissonance that the reader feels as wonder. Just enough of the expected, subverted, does this in a sublime manner. A visual metaphor helps here: I once saw prints by an artist whose photos blend nature into urban landscapes such as train stations. The size, scope and juxtaposition of flowing water and growing things against the urban and mechanical are beautiful and startling, initially. Once you’ve seen it, the spectacle isn’t as compelling, but that first glance creates a “wow” moment.
The much-touted startling story hook, or violence embedded in narrative as spectacle, or sensual pleasures presented as extraordinary and enticing, all play on the cognitive dissonance and wonder of the reader. Something unexpected is happening! For simplicity’s sake, I’m talking about sex and violence, but there are plenty of other ways to accomplish the translation of the visual into text.
But there’s a how-not-to. We have to tread carefully in order to bring readers moments of wonder without relying on tropes or harmful stereotypes or easy fixes that insult their intelligence or worse.
How not to: othering characters based on gender or race or exoticizing the foreign or relying on stereotypes for horrific/bizarre effect. Pulpy fiction like Lovecraft’s is infamous for this. Witness the perils of darkest Africa! Behold the evil Eskimo, the uncivilized swamp cultist! Included in this category are the inbred hillbilly, the small-town sheriff, the psychotic man with dwarfism, the mentally unbalanced and/or tragic queer, the one-dimensional woman. I’m guilty of this in my own way. My fascination with Le Guin’s anthropological style led to me create a recently published story that teeters on the edge of the noble savage trope. I have to ask myself hard questions about that choice. Did I find that compelling? Why? Did I do enough to transcend the stereotype while pursuing a sense of wonder?
Violence is compelling, and it can be used to awe the reader. I’m not saying that violence is “wonderful” in a delightful sense, but it is a spectacle for the senses, psychologically interesting. It’s the effect to which violence is used that makes the difference.
I know I am not immune to this impulse, either. I have a graduate degree in the study of gender theory, but both of my recently published works begin with a story hook in which violence is directed at a female character. What does that say about me, about my own demons or narrative aesthetic? Am I perpetuating a harmful trope when I compel the reader to see the startling beauty of blood splattered on snow, a sense of wonder inspired by the visual I saw in my mind’s eye?
What hooks you into narrative as a reader? How do you create “wow” moments in your writing, and what, if anything, can be problematic?
You don’t know the things that shape you.
And I mean it. You don’t. They’re so big and so important to you that you have no perspective on them. They’re such a constant presence that you can’t tell them apart from air. You can’t feel them affecting you, influencing you. To you, they’ve always been there, and always will be.
But maybe you get a chance to understand them, when you move away from them. When you grow up, move on, seek to explore. And once you’ve moved on, once you’re wandering a strange new world, you see things and think, “Haven’t I seen this before?” Or you find yourself thinking along a certain process of logic every time, looking at the same things and doing the same things with them.
And you wonder, “Where did that come from? How do I know this? Why do I do this? Why is this so interesting to me?” And you start to think about it.
I stopped reading Ray Bradbury when I went to college. I haven’t really returned to him since then, not in earnest: I started writing, and to write better I felt you had to read things you’d never read before, and expand your horizons.
But the more I write, and the more I think about the things I want to write, the more I find myself returning to Bradbury’s world, to his ideas, to what he wanted things to be like, and what he wanted to warn us about.
It made me proud to hear people say The Troupe felt, in parts, like a Bradbury story. And when they said that, I realized he was who I’d gone to for my next one, one I was still writing, American Elsewhere. I’d been writing in his shadow. I’d sought him out specifically, without even knowing it. I was continuing a conversation I’d been having with his work since I was a child.
It’s okay to write in his shadow. It’s too big to get outside of, really. It falls across so many genres, so much of history. It’s layered in the earth like strata of stone. We carve pieces out of his stories without even knowing it, and stack them up on top of one another. And we work and live with them beside us, unaware they’re in the background. And I think they will be for a long, long time.
So long, Ollie.
So long, Stan.
Peter Brandvold has written over seventy fast-action western novels under his own name and his penname, Frank Leslie. Follow of his blog here.
Finding that first sentence of the day can be as bracing to the writer as that first up of coffee, but it’s sometimes as hard to find as the strike zone for the aging fast-ball pitcher or as elusive as wild asparagus for the natural foods forager.
Sitting down to the soft, menacing whine of his machine, the career-scribe stares at the blank screen and sees nothing but his own bewildered eyes staring back at him. Two lone eyes in a vast sea of white.
Gradually, the eyes get wider.
They are suddenly no longer the wordsmith’s own eyes but the eyes of the moron he suddenly fears he’s become. “Eee-gads!” he cries, fists clamped to his temples. “My career is over and I have only a few chapters left on this oater I’m writing! No delivery check for me, and they’re probably going to force me to return the advance money I’ve already frittered away, as well!”
The scribbler’s heart pounds like musket fire in a Civil War reenactment battle as he wonders if they’re hiring down at Target.
Where are those slippery devils, those glistening little hand-cut and polished jewels, those sentences, hiding?
Sometimes, at this point, the writer must become the Euell Gibbons of his trade, don his metaphorical hiking boots and walking stick, and light out for parts known. Yes, into the wild he’s explored before. Into the woods where he’s found those toothy little word-lions roaming free in the past and managed to throw a loop around them and haul them home to the cheers of his relieved family and the yips of his happy curs.
My version of this primeval forest is usually as close as my own office bookshelves or sometimes even my bedside night table.
At either place I can usually find all the books I’m in the half-conscious habit of returning to on those frustrating mornings I find that I need my pump primed. Sometimes, all I have to do is flip through one or two of these tomes, reading a few of the sentences in each–usually by writers who have struck major chords with something deep inside my writer’s ear before, firing the spark of creativity inside my desperate soul–and suddenly I become a cat pouncing on a mouse.
I’m Hemingway in Africa.
Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive.
It’s weird, the books I find myself returning to. These are the books I’ve read and reread so many times I know them almost by heart, but they’re not at all what anyone who knows I’m a fast-action, blood-‘n’-guts western writer would expect. Most days, there’s not a single oater among them.
Today I found three books at the top of the stash I return to most often and thumb through repeatedly, searching for the sounds that are going to ring my own bell. And one or all of these almost always rings it.
Here are the titles:
Red Smith on Baseball.
Lights on a Ground of Darkness by Ted Kooser.
One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell.
Yeah, that last one’s a freakin’ gardening book. And aside from throwing a few shrubs in the dirt now and then, I don’t even garden! The thing is, I’m not reading for content but for the sound of the writer’s words arranged with such seeming effortlessness into graceful sentences.
I’m needing to hear the writer’s voice and see the images that that voice paints in my head. For some reason and almost all the time, hearing and seeing those sentences written by folks I consider masters of the trade helps me use my own voice and my own images to write this essay, for instance, as well as the scenes in my own western novels.
Here are two sentences by sportswriter Red Smith from his essay, “A Man Who Knew the Crowds,” that got me going yesterday:
When the iceman cometh, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference which route he takes, for the ultimate result is the same in any case. Nevertheless, there was something especially tragic in the way death came to Tony Lazzeri, finding him and leaving him all alone in a dark and silent house–a house which must, in that last moment, have seemed frighteningly silent to a man whose ears remembered the roar of the crowd, as Tony’s did.
Thanks, Red. And Henry and Ted.
You’ve helped me more times that you could ever know turn that moon-like desert of the white page into a flowing field green with wild asparagus!
Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter are both Australia-based speculative fiction writers. Hannett is the author the short story collection Bluegrass Symphony and Slatter is the authorof Sourdough and Other Stories, The Girl with No Hands & Other, and Black-Winged Angels. They are currently collaborating on Midnight and Moonshine, a collection of stories due out in November 2012.
For the most part, writing is a solitary activity. An idea strikes and you mull it over, jot notes, think about character and setting and plot. You may surround yourself with the company of other people, other writers — go to workshops and critique groups, to coffee shops with your laptop, or travel with notebook in hand — but when it comes to turning vague ideas into a story, when it comes to actually writing, it’s all about you and the blank page. No net.
Writers often prefer it this way. Some of us are natural introverts; we like solitude and the quiet processes of creating narratives, well-turned phrases, and engaging characters. Many of us squeeze writing in between jobs, family life, friends — so we steal a few moments out of our days to retreat into our imagined worlds. Others simply like to keep their work to themselves until it’s completely polished, until all the embarrassing plot-holes are filled and the clunky writing all tightened up. Also, the majority of writers are control freaks — we are gods in our own little cosmos.
When we think of writers, the image is of someone hunched over a typewriter or laptop, maybe in a garret, or a lavish library, but always alone — and always churning out a bestseller, of course!
So people are always curious to find out how the collaboration process works for us. How do we work together to create a cohesive narrative? How do we blend our styles and voices? How do we decide what stays and what goes? What happens if there’s a disagreement? Is it quills at twenty paces? We’ve talked a lot about why this works for us and for today, we’ve narrowed the collaboration process down to five points…
1. How does the process actually work?
We usually start with an idea sparking an excited What if? discussion; an image or concept that leads to a flurry of questions like, “what if this happened” and “what if she does this” and “what if they do this because of that — oooh, and then that…” This ultimately shapes the story’s plot. Since we live on opposite sides of the country, this is done via email, text messages, Skype or phone. Next, notes are compiled and shared so we’re both on the same page. From there, one of us will start a draft of the story — and how far we go with each draft changes from story to story. If we’re feeling inspired, we might scribble down a whole draft before we send it on; if not, we write until the words run out. Sometimes the story comes out chronologically, but sometimes we’ll build it all out of sequence, jumping between early scenes and later ones, until the whole thing comes together. The story flies back and forth until it’s done.
Coming up with ideas doesn’t necessarily stop after the initial session. One of the best parts about collaborating is that you have someone to bounce ideas off of, which is fantastic when you can’t figure out what happens next. Both of you have a vested interest in the story, so mid-writing brainstorming can be really productive. When the story starts to take on a life of its own, no amount of planning can prevent the tale going where it needs to go, so it’s great to have someone to talk to about where it goes from here… The excitement of starting a new story is multiplied when you work with someone else — and even better, when you hit a snag, your writing partner is there to cheer you on.
3. Not being precious
Writing with someone else means that you can’t be precious about what you’ve written. You have to be willing to let them change words, phrases, paragraphs and even whole scenes. Darlings may be killed and details added or deleted. The wonderful metaphor you spent hours polishing simply might not work once they’ve tweaked the context. The story belongs to both of you, and any changes are not personal insults — they are making the tale the best it can be in and of itself. So before you embark on a collaborative project, you should have established one important thing:
You will never be able to let someone else “kill your darlings” if you don’t trust their writing and editing skills. We forged this in a Clarion crit-pit and built upon an initial respect for each other’s writing, then learned to be better editors from being first readers and editing for each other. The fact that we’re friends helps, and the fact that we know we’re both really serious about good editing and good writing. Our separate works are very different — Bluegrass Symphony is not Sourdough and the two could never be mistaken for each other — but when we write together the effect is a seamlessly blended third voice.
Like all good relationships, the secret is communication: talk about the process beforehand but also while it’s happening, so there’s an ongoing dialogue. In addition to chatting and emailing, we use track changes and comment bubbles — the best invention ever — to explain why we’re changing something, to make sure we each know the overarching concepts and can maintain the same goals for the story. Be flexible; there needs to be “give and take” to collaboration, and if you feel strongly about something then be prepared to compromise on another aspect of the story. Trust your co-author and think carefully about whether it’s worth fighting over the placement of a semi-colon.