Writing about writing

I’m going to take a tiny break from my poking around the NaNoWriMo forums, and unburden my mind on something.

I spend an awful lot of time writing about writing when I only have one book out, don’t I?

Seems strange, especially to me.

Thing is, Tolkien wrote a bit about writing and he only ever released two books (Lord of the Rings, for those who don’t know, was only a trilogy due to paper shortages).  I certainly don’t believe I’m half the author that Tolkien was, nor do I disregard his academic writing … but his fiction is only two works.  Silmirilion, and others are unfinished and posthumous publications.

Thing is, a person who writes can know a lot about writing without being published.  If this were not true there would not be writer discussions everywhere on the internet, and before that on Usenet, and before that on Fidonet, and before that on select BBSes, and before that in various paper newsletters or coffee shoppe/library based clubs.  No, a person can have an hundred titles published and not know anything about writing, and a person can have nothing published and know everything.  It’s like saying someone with a degree in something is more knowledgeable than someone without one — not always true, the difference is that one met certain criterion in a university, the other just spent a lot of time in careful study.

I don’t propose to know all about writing.  I certainly would never claim to, on purpose, write literary works — if for no other reason than my outright distaste for every single example of such that I’ve ever encountered.

The thing is, we all find something that works for us — we share that for those who it might save some grief and pain.  Somewhere out there is another writer wired a bit like myself who is staring, tears in her/his eyes, struggling to compose a tale upon the cold, lifeless screen of a computer.  Sweety, turn off the machine, grab some ink and paper, give that a try.  Hurray, another story rescued!

Also, one cannot write without reading.  This is stated time and again.  Someone had to be the first writer, someone had to be the first blacksmith, so I suppose it’s not quite true — someone can work it out from nothing but it’s going to be pretty unlikely.  Even our friend Mr First Blacksmith, he probably knew something about making bronze, and Mr First Bronzesmith learnt something from Granddaddy Copper or Tin-smith, both of whom learnt all they needed from Ugh Goldsmith who figured out the shiny yellow rocks look neat if you smash them with some dull gray rocks, and goes all runny if you get it near that neat fire thing his cousin Og No Eyebrows discovered last week.  So, I say, you must read.  The first novelists read poetry.  What did the first poets read?  I honestly don’t know, it’s not an area of history that ever much intrigued me, but I would guess that they listened to story tellers who recited a kind of epic poetry.  From this you learn techniques (a hotter fire makes these funny rocks sweat out grey shiny stuff), you learn methodology (no, no, hit the metal, son, not your thumb, works better — trust me).  Most importantly you learn what inspires you (what?  I can’t turn everything into a smithing analogy)!

If you read enough, and then write enough, you discover these details (oh!  hit the metal with a hammer!  Who knew!?) which some will call rules of writing and others rules of thumb.  I provide rules of thumb.  For certain kinds of fiction it’s important to follow strict structures, to only put that she wore green shoes if it’s vital to some later or immediate aspect of the story (at the very least it has to be symbolic).  For others, this isn’t so important.

This is why I tend to say, do it or not, it’s up to you and the necessities of your story.  Because that is the key:  It’s.  Your.  Story.

Believe me, I haven’t read all there is to read, but I’ve read enough to know that one thing is Truth:  in the course of human history, there is no truly new idea in how to write.  Someone will have tried something like it somewhere.  And in this age, someone will have published it at some point and in some place.

As I said:  Do the characters eat?  I don’t know, dear, do they?  Do the characters have sex?  Is it that kind of story?  Fade to black or graphic detail?  Is it that kind of story?  Do I describe their clothes?  Does the narrator notice the clothes, or care?

I cannot stress enough, that there are no literary police who will charge you with being in violation of code 43-b of the Rules of Writing if you don’t do what some literature professor or creative writing instructor told you to then confiscate your literary license.  TELLS, yes, sort of, it’s called marks and they tend to be bad if you don’t follow the instructor’s instructions — but that’s a whole other matter.  Believe me, Jo Rowling, Stephen King, J R R Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Charles Dickens, A A Milne, Frank L Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E E “Doc” Smith, Arthur C Clarke, William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Geoffrey Chaucer … and so many more, names we know, names we love, names we cherish, names that will live on or have already long endured … they broke The Rules, or at least some rules.  Other rules they followed, some rules weren’t rules yet, some rules aren’t rules any more.

And there’s another point.  It’s so hard to agree on these rules that it’s possible to have these discussions.  If Rules for writing truly existed, beyond those needed to codify how one communicates via the strange glyphs upon a page or screen, then there would be no question and no discussion:  one would become a writer the way one becomes a plumber, or an accountant.

Time and again:  Art has no rules, no boundaries.  Art is imagination, and creativity.  We say ‘think outside the box’ when we want someone to be creative — we tell them to step beyond the bounds of laws, rules, status quo, etc.  In our imaginations, men walk upon the moon, upon alien worlds; in our imaginations we explore the depths of the sea and soar among the clouds; in our imaginations we can send a picture around the world in the blink of an eye; in our imaginations we can converse with cats and have tea with dormice.  Some of these things have, since, become reality — but first they were imagined, and first they were the stuff of fiction, first they were novels or epic legends, dreams of eccentric geniuses.

It can never be stressed enough, and I am not alone, so many of the artists we all adore so often stress the same advice:  do not shackle your dreams.  Do not stifle your story with boundaries and Rules.  Reserve “should” only in name of advice, “Should Veronica wear high heels with that kind of dress, do you think?”  If you can dream it, write it, because if you can dream it you can inspire that dream in others — and that’s what it’s all about really, sharing our dreams and imaginings so that others can enjoy the same journey we did.

“Write what you know.” What nonsense

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”

~~ Gore Vidal

I positively love that quote.  It says a lot.  It’s not terribly polite, no, but it’s truth in many regards.

“Write what you know” you see it everywhere you see writers or would be writers discussing things.  Such a strange phrase, I think.  If we write only what we know, the where do we get some of the grander adventures of gods and heroes?  Where shall we seek the dreams of far away worlds and the starships that will get us there?  How shall we dance with angels, sing with mermaids, climb Mons Olympus, and so much more?

We’re writers, even if we skip the fantastic, however shall we rub elbows with the financial elite while sipping champagne and eating caviare?  Wherever would be Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — take your pick of films, but I tend to prefer Pretty Woman for this thought.

If you’re speaking of non-fiction, then certainly write what you know.  I’m not about to try to write a four-hundred page treatise on the mating habits of the Australian Dwarf Hamster.  Why?  Because I don’t know anything about the mating habits of any hamster dwarf, Australian, or otherwise.  If I tried to write that book my ignorance would show, unless I researched it to the extent that it ceased to be anything I’m ignorant of.

In fiction however we ought to write what we think, feel, dream, fear, love, and hate.  Fiction is about holding a mirror up to reality and life.  It is symbolism, it is satire, it is commentary, it is entertainment.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the epic tale of two stoners looking for their car after a hard night of partying; the tale of the Hollywood streetwalker who wins the heart of a Wall Street billionaire; taking a family trip across the solar system in your very own nuclear rocket ship; sailing the high seas with Long John Silver and a map to lost treasure … these are things we don’t have to know in our minds, these are things we need to know in our hearts, our souls, in our sense of humour, in our feelings of whimsy, and in our deepest desires.

When we tell a story we must write what we don’t and can’t know.  If we didn’t, then books written by women would have naught but female characters, and vice versa for the men.  Indiana Jones would have no Nazis to fight and no exotic locals to interact with.  When we tell a story we have no choice but to dig into our imaginations and write what we believe, and what we hope that our audience will too.  We have to say “I can’t grow a beard, but I suppose if I could it must be …”

Oh, certainly, we can research some things.  We can research details of shaving.  The intricacies of the straight-blade, cut-throat razor, or the ins and outs of maintaining a handlebar moustache can be unravelled with a little time spent in a forum of moustache enthusiasts.  Still, we cannot experience it.  We can know about it, but not know it.  If you can’t have a moustache then you can only guess at how hard or easy it is to keep soup out of it and how you might drink your coffee politely.  Even the author who can grow a moustache doesn’t know these if he does not grow it and experience it.

There there are the unknowable, unresearchable.  What sort of creatures live on Europa?  What sorts of things are rude or polite on the fourth world of ε Eri?  What was Helen of Troy‘s favourite food?  What is the dance that cures the plague by calling upon Polikthara’s holy light?  Just what does sex feel like from the perspective of our opposite gender?  What is it like to be dying of consumption, or of leukaemia?  What are the smells and sounds of this street in Budapest at noon … in 1287CE?  What did sabre-toothed tiger taste like?

So many questions.  Fiction answers those questions.  We dream of hunting a sabre-toothed tiger with our flint spear through the frozen wastes of the neolithic Earth, the survival of ourselves and our whole family dependent on you coming back with that precious meat and that skeleton made of such useful tools.  We tell that dream.  Are we right?  Are we wrong?  Maybe sabre-toothed tiger tastes more like mastodon and less like chicken, but c’est la vie, without a TARDIS we’ll never know.

That is the meaning of that quote, to me.  Even in the things researchable, sometimes you just have to step into the realm of dream, of narrative causality, of poetic justice.  You have to look at the books in the library on lock picking and locksmithing and say “Rabson.  Screw it, we’ll just wax eloquently about a Rabson deadbolt.  They don’t exist, but how many of my readers know the first, second, or even twenty-fifth thing about locks?!”  When we say that we get the wondrous adventures of Mr Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar extraordinaire.

How many of us have been shot, shot at, stabbed, in a bar fight?  How many of us have been handed an exploding dental floss, a wristwatch with a laser in it, and an Aston Martin with missiles?  How many of us have been given a recommissioned diesel submarine and told to go act like a pirate trying to get past the US Nuclear Navy with a crew of lunatic misfits?  How many of us have taken a rocket to the moon?  How many of us have explored the lost, cursed tombs of the ancient Pharaohs in search of treasure?

When you write fiction trust your gut.  Feel, question, and guess. To Hell with what you know.  Forget what you know.  You know that science says the universal speed limit is 299,792,458 metres per second, but what if you feel or suspect that this isn’t true?!  Don’t tie yourself down with “facts”, ever do that.  If you want to give physics the finger, then do it — keep the laws of thermodynamics only if you like them, but don’t feel obligated to obey them.  This is your world, your story, your dream.  If we can fly when we close our eyes and sleep, then by all the watching gods, so too can we when we look at the words between the pages.

The characters are people, too

One of the biggest question you’ll tend to find on a writers discussion forum is various takes on “How do I make my characters well rounded?”

You’ll find no end of advice in all manner of different formats.  Most popular, these days, involves these strange questionnaire things.  Honestly, I could see the merit in them if it weren’t for the very undeniable fact that I’ve met few people who can answer half of those questions for themselves, let alone their characters.

My approach, and one I suspect a few other more popular authors of using (if I’m to judge by things they’ve said about their writing process) is to approach things from the point of view of Heinlein’s fictons.  Put another way, to make your characters believable and real — well rounded and three-dimensional — simply assume they are real, somewhere.

Isn’t that what the questionnaire is supposed to do?  Or any of the other myriad writing exercises?  Possibly, I couldn’t say, those always leave me scratching my head in confusion at best, or crying in frustration at worst; I leave those methods to their proponents and move on to my paper, my pen, and The Voices.

I, and many of my favourite authors, approach the character development as a process of discovery.  We might start out with something rather flat.  Lauren, for example, started out as just a petite, religious girl with boyfriend trouble — I think I did already know she was a dancer.  Sally started out, mostly, a physical description and hardly aught else.  From there I discovered many things.  Lauren’s a vegetarian, Sally’s Italian/India/Puerto Rican mix.  I learnt all manner of interesting things in the course of writing and, I imagine, I’ll learn more yet.

First off, I find this method more fun.  It means, as I’m writing, I’m just as engrossed in the story as my reader (hopefully) will be, and just as amazed by new bits of information as they.  It has an advantage, too.  One major criticism I’ve seen for many of the pre-writing character development things is that they lead to info dumping.  You learn things about your characters that do not, and will not, have any bearing on the story but now that you’ve taken the time and effort to generate this data you feel inclined to put it in.  By letting the characteristics of the story’s population grow organically in the course of writing them, you avoid this — some.  There are things I know about my characters that aren’t in the stories.  Some are from bits of discarded sentences and paragraphs, others are from the fact that, in the course of writing them I get to meet and get to know the characters and, I suppose you could say, we have our little chats about one another where little bits of interesting trivia get learnt and dutifully jotted down in my little notebook; yes, a really for real little lined blank journal type notebook — cheap, blue, recycled materials, half off at Target.

Secondly I think this keeps the characters people in the mind of the author.  You stop trying to force the story to go where you thought you wanted it to, and let it go where it leads.  This sounds like absolute chaos, oh no!  Right?  Well, no.  You’re still in something like control.  For example, if you want a happily ever after fairy tale ending you work hard to prevent that breakup looming on the horizon — and failing that, you fight like Hell to bring them back together.  The thing is, by letting it all flow naturally so that you’re no more aware that the breakup was going to loom on the horizon than the fact that it was going to do far more than just loom … well, now you’ve added a layer of conflict and drama that, given your fairy tale notions, might never have happened — a new depth and suspense to your novel — you’ve prevented it from feeling arbitrary and stilted.

Oh, sure, we’re all advocates for the way we write and critics of the ways we don’t.  I’ll admit — my way has its flaws.  For one, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’ve got more trouble with writer’s block than some other authors who take a more organised approach.  Too, it might be said that my story can get away from me, I mean how does one prevent Lisa, Allison, and Sally from turning the entire 400-odd pages of story into an endless game of strip poker?!

The reality is that you do keep ahold of the reigns of the story, even if you don’t hold them tightly.  The other is that you do think about the characters, a lot, but more casually — during dinner, or as you’re drifting off to sleep.  You ask yourself little questions, envision little scenarios and daydreams.  You ponder.  The reasons for this is so you have an idea how to steer reality.  The character might make their own decisions, but the key to keeping them out of the game of strip poker is to give them a little nudge, or hang a carrot from a stick and lead them away.  Helps to know what kind of carrot or stick to use.  So, yes, there is a margin of planning ahead — just nothing formalised at all.

I find it insanely helpful to avoid stereotyping, or at least to avoid accidental stereotyping.  Some people are stereotypes; we’ve all met them.  But by not thinking hard about the character, by not building the character we avoid our own prejudices and expectations colouring the characters.  We can have the rather dense, muscle-bound farmer from Bangladesh who happens to be an avid fan of French operas, makes a mighty mean quiche, and sleeps with a beloved little fluffy teddy bear.  We wind up with the genius computer geek and hacker who uses a stove top percolator, an old fashioned ice box instead of a refrigerator, and makes her own soap from lye from the ashes from the cast iron stove from which she heats her home.

I suppose it depends on your own perspective on what makes someone a complete character.  Me?  I define them in terms of the old greats of Speculative Fiction.  Robert Heinlein was a master of it, in my opinion.  His characters were people.  Lazarus Long, Ishtar and Hamadryad, Andrew Libby, the Rolling Stones‘ family, the fashionly challenged E. C. Gordon of Glory Road, and Friday.  All of these characters were, yes, competent and intelligent.  But they were well rounded.  They were people who wanted families, who wanted love, who had hopes, fears, uncertainties, indecisions, prejudices, hatreds, passions — perfections and flaws.  Maybe you prefer little Nim, of Nim’s Island, or Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit two more characters brought to life by little touches that — generally — come from approaching the characters as people, not as parts of a story.