Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Different Approach To Storytelling

So yesterday there was a discussion in a PulpRev chatroom between a couple of people about writing, as there so often is. Dominika Lein (whose book I, The One is available now on Amazon Dot Com)posted a link to a blog post of hers which was talking about the difference between controlling the characters and letting the characters control you. The blog post is here, and you really should go read it AND the comments on it before we continue, because Dominika and Misha Burnett get into an interesting discussion that I'm going to be building on. Now I'm not going to try to speak for them, but merely provide a different perspective on story writing. I've only published a few stories so far, so take it for what it's worth, but I have been writing for a long time, if that makes any difference.

My take on writing is a little bit more...insane, I suppose, than other people's. I've made "jokes" on twitter about how I don't plan stories, or about how I don't "write" so much as violently hallucinate for four hours straight and write down what I see. Well, thing is those aren't jokes. That's actually my writing method. I've tried to plan out stories before, several times as a matter of fact, and every single time the plan becomes completely worthless after I start writing. Because regardless of what I would like for the story to do, if the story isn't doing it, then that's not where the story is going. I found that when I tossed out the outline and just wrote, the story developed its own path, and more often than not it was better than what I'd planned out.

I definitely see the advantages to making an outline, meticulously designing your characters, and tossing things that don't work for your story. "Different strokes for different folks" is one of my maxims, and I understand that just like making plans for stories doesn't work for me, my method won't work for others. But some of the things Dominika talks about in her post were surprising to me. I don't treat myself as god in my own little universe. I'm not "creating" this story, I'm just here to write it down.

Now this, of course, doesn't mean that I just toss first drafts out and pretend they're finished. Of course not. As a matter of fact I usually agonize over my stories three or four or more times before I give them to anyone, with the exception of Christopher Warren, and that only in a very special recent case. To tell the truth I'm horribly self-conscious about my writing, and to hear that people actually enjoyed it after reading it (even if they do have copious notes for revisions) was a serious shock to the system the first few times it happened.

So, when I write a story, I put down the first draft, and that's the way things happened. I can make minor changes, and of course change my prose to make it sound better, and I do this as much as possible while I'm writing and afterwards in editing sessions. But so far as the sequence of events goes, I can't change that. Even while I'm writing, I've had moments (quite frequently) wherein I'll write out a sentence, and it'll be WRONG. I'll instinctively know that it's WRONG. It's not a matter of "That character wouldn't do that." It's a matter of "That's not what happened, and you know it." 

The story has a flow, there's a proper path here, and a million or more wrong ones, and if I don't pick the proper path then the story will be ruined. Moreover, I get a sense of revulsion when I try to take the wheel of a story and make it do what I want it to. It's a physical cringe that prevents me from going farther. The story goes off the rails, and I have to back up, get rid of the offending sentence, and figure out where the story really goes from here. It's a bit like following a game trail in the woods. It's easy to lose your way, and can be difficult to get back to where you're supposed to be.

So the characters don't control me in the sense of not wanting to break their character, it's more that the entire story controls me, because I can't make it go in a direction that it doesn't want to. I'm not god, I'm not the director of the story, I'm the facilitator. I'm the one writing down what I see. An observer. A Watcher, if you will. It's not given to me to interfere, only to watch, and write. Maybe archeology is a better metaphor for this method. The story is already there, I just have to dig it up. And I have to be careful not to break anything, or confuse any part with the rock it's buried in.

So when I get an idea for a story, it usually starts off with a character, because stories that don't focus on characters are generally boring as shit. You could have the coolest setting in the history of speculative fiction, but if you don't have characters to put in it, it's going to go to waste. And I don't have anything planned out about them. They have a general appearance, and some kind of profession, be it wasteland wanderer, monster hunter, space legionary, down on his luck cowpoke, whatever. Then they're in their world, doing something. Crossing the desert on a horse, trying to find a deadly faerie that's been terrorizing a village, shotgunning orcs, crashing their ship on an alien world, could be anything, usually it starts with some kind of action scene. I find in media res gets the neurons firing a bit faster than starting out on a slow note. 

And from there the story develops on its own. More traits of the character are revealed to me, such as eye and hair color and the like, and I insert them into the prose in as non-intrusive a way as possible. Nobody likes to read exposition dumps wherein you describe your character meticulously. It's boring, and it distracts from what's actually going on in the story. You know, the plot. A trick I use a lot is to describe the action and throw in a little description. "His blue eyes scanned the group pointing guns at him," or some such nonsense like that. 

But I find that the story flows much better if I allow these things, as well as details of the world, to be revealed to me as the story goes along, rather than trying to plan it out. I'm an atrocious planner, and honestly not that creative. This is how I justify my view of writing. When I actually try, I come up with crap. When I take my hands off the wheel and let the river carry me where it wants to go, things go much smoother and I don't spend so much time fighting the current. 

As a matter of fact, since I've started writing with the expressed intention of submitting and publishing my own work, the only time I've encountered serious grind-to-a-fucking-halt writer's block was when someone said, "Here's a story prompt. Start your story with these three sentences and then build on it from there." It's not my best work by a long shot, and I'm going to have to do some serious face-lifting on that story to get it up to snuff. Personal snuff, other people might like it, but I didn't. Whenever I let the story start where it wants to and end where it wants to, it comes out much easier, flows better, and I don't have to worry about getting stuck as much. 

I had to actively force myself to write that story. And not as in "Okay we're going to sit down and write for the next four hours" force myself to write, but "Okay I know this is the most wrong and unnatural feeling method of writing a story we've done in years but we need at least five thousand words so crank it out so you'll have SOMETHING to send them." It was a very unpleasant experience, and not one I'm looking to repeat any time soon. This is why I consider carefully what magazines to submit stories to, and don't even bother with bigger magazines. They have their "issue of the week" that they want stories about, and my writing doesn't function like that. 

Whereas with something like Cirsova, the entirety of the story content guidelines was "No more fantasy, we have enough. No elves. Around 7,500 words. Preferably planetary romance or sword & planet. We need more science fiction for next year." Of course there was more to it than that, but barely. This kind of submission guideline system gives the writer much more freedom than something like Escape Artist's call for stories about Space Marine Midwives, which had a fucking laundry list of qualifications and requirements, up to and including the skin color of the author. Now I imagine that if you sent that list to fifteen different authors you'd get sixteen different ideas back, but it seems to me that it would get a bit staid after the first three stories about people giving birth on a battlefield. Cool idea to include in an anthology with a wider focus? Sure, why not. Good idea to structure an anthology in totality around? This is gonna get boring fast. 

But give me a prompt like, "There's a cursed weapon," and suddenly my pistachios start percolating and I start to see things, and those things want very badly to be written down. To the point of insomnia and anxiety. The Space Marine Midwives thing would require meticulous planning on the part of the writer to stand out from the other five hundred people submitting stories from the same prompt you are. The cursed weapon or "Sword & planet with no elves, please," approach means that you almost certainly won't see the same story twice. 

So, perhaps I am insane. It's not a possibility I discount out of hand. All I know for sure is that the method described by Dominika just does not work when I try it. Maybe it's a method you have to practice to get the hang of, but it feels so fundamentally wrong when I try it that I might as well be injecting poison into my creative drive. And this isn't to disparage Dominika and writers like her that use this method. One man's poison is another man's balm, and what works for one writer won't work for another. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and writing, while a craft that you must hone through practice and refinement of technique, is not a thing that has a set of well-defined rules for how to get from point A to point B. Most writers I know of have a damned hard time describing the process, and I've probably fucked it up quite badly in this post. And I've been writing like this since I was very young. 

Now, this isn't meant to be a blanket statement. There are most definitely tried and true methods you can use to refine your technique and make your writing better. But so far as the process, the actual writing itself goes, few writers will take the same approach in my experience. So if I were going to dispense some writing advice to kind of wrap this stupidly long post up, I would say find the method that works for you, and refine it until you can do it on the spot, at any time.

Carry around a laptop, or your phone, or a notebook and pen (and yes, PEN, not a pencil. Those black scratches on the page when you fuck up will be a keen reminder and keep you from doing that again) and write whenever you get a spare moment. I did this in college and at several jobs, and while the stories I wrote aren't going to see the light of day, the practice that I got in writing them was immeasurably valuable, and now I can pop open a word document, work out the name of the character, and start writing. 

So practice is very important, no matter which option you pick. When you train muscles, they get stronger. So write, and write, and write, and eventually you'll have something that'll be worth publishing after a few rounds of revisions, and maybe rewrites, depending on your style. Editing is incredibly important, not just to catch typos, but to tighten up phrasing, get rid of lazy words, make descriptions more vivid, and improve the overall flow of the story so that it presents itself to the reader in a fashion that is pleasing to the eye and interesting to the mind. 

So find a good editor, and listen to what they say. But at the same time you should be refining your technique and your self editing process so that they have less to red-pen when it goes to their desk. And don't take this post as the final word on anything. Go find other opinions, mix them together, come up with your own method, or find an method that you think would work for you and adopt it. There are many paths to take through this forest, and not everyone can see the same one. You can cut your own path, follow a game trail, or wander under the trees and see where you end up. 

But whatever you do, GO FORTH AND WRITE.

No comments :

Post a Comment