Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Part Six

What’s the point? Form, Content and “Getting Stuck”

There are as many different ways to write as there are writers, good and bad alike. When it comes to the “process” of writing I try not to be prescriptive. What works for you is the way you should do it. But whether you like to start by imagining a character, or a place, or a voice, or a situation that captures your interest, it’s easy to find yourself stopping at some point to ask yourself: is this one really worth doing? Is this a story or is it “just typing,” as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s works?
For most writers in most situations, the best advice anyone can give you is “follow the story.” If you don’t know where the story is going, follow the characters. Get the basics down, the “who what when where why” of the story, and see where they take you.
“Form” can be taken as a simple enough term: a story is a form, as compared to a novel, novella, play or essay. It also refers to the ways in which the story can be told: as a first or third person narration; or perhaps imitative of another form, such as a letter, essay, or as casual speech, like a person recounting an event at the dinner table. The story you’re telling dictates the form the story will take.
“Content” is simply a matter of what needs to be in the story to get it told. Do you need specific information on the central character’s background? Should there be a scene that establishes the rivalry between the central character and his adversary? Or can that be summarized in a brief bit of exposition? There’s a scene I wrote early on, when I didn’t know how the conflict worked. Should I take it out now, or won’t the readers understand what’s happening if I remove it?
Until you get to the final draft – or what you think is the final draft – those should be the main concerns. And sometimes you don’t need to go any further than that. Your readers will decide if you’ve touched on any great themes, given them a moral lesson or illustrated an intriguing philosophy.
If there’s a point you want to make, by all means make it, but be ready to alter that point if your story takes you somewhere else.
Let’s say that in the rough outline of your story, you’ve set up a character to be the “bad guy,” the villain of the piece. You want to make sure the readers know he’s bad, but you also want to make him a convincing character, not just a piece of cardboard. So you give him a real background, and in creating that background, you figure out the bad guy isn’t all that bad – at least he isn’t “evil.” He does bad things because bad things have happened to him in the past. Now, how does that change your story?
You might say, “No, I really want a bad bad guy. Let’s change this.” Or else you might say, “That’s okay. It all seemed too simple before. Maybe what my hero does isn’t as cut and dried as I thought. Maybe he’s no angel either.”
Neither situation is all that bad for a writer to be in. It just depends on whether the plot of the story is pulling you more strongly than the characters. At other times it may work the other way. In either case, the story you’re writing is making you think about certain matters and possibly see them in a different light. You may not just be growing as a writer, but as a person too.
Ursula K. Le Guin once referred to science fiction stories as “thought experiments,” asking “what if” questions and pursuing possible answers by creating fictional scenarios. But there’s no reason to limit the idea of “thought experiments” to science fiction and fantasy. “What if” questions exist in everyday life as well. What if the up-and-coming manager in an office ran into an old friend from his wild college days? Would he become nostalgic for the days when he acted less responsibly? Would he realize after a while that he’s become just the sort of person he swore he’d never become? Would he be ashamed of his youthful indiscretions? Would he look up other former friends?
The plot of the story might pull you forward, or one of the characters might pull you forward so that you don’t know how the plot works out until you know more about the characters. In either case you’re pursuing a thought experiment: you don’t know how things will work out until you’re reasonably finished with the story.
The story may take you places you didn’t plan to go, investigate types of behavior you’d never before considered or outcomes you’d never imagined.
You leave yourself open to possibilities.
Some writers set out to teach their readers a lesson. What often happens, though, in all kinds of writing, is that the story teaches you first.
It’s also the great fun of writing, and the passion, and the stimulation. Whether or not your story gets published may prove secondary to the great experience you had writing it, following it, and seeing where it’s taken you.
Follow the story. Follow the characters.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to illustrate with a personal example.
My first published science fiction story was called “A Man Makes a Machine.” It concerns a narrator named Maggie, a genetically “created” personality who is in charge of a huge interstellar cruiser. In all respects she looks and acts like a human being except that her life span is much longer and she was born in a lab rather than from a womb. Part of her cargo is a group of settlers, heading to another planet in another star system. They have been deep-frozen and placed in suspended animation, since the space flight to their new home will take over seventy years. They’re not humans, but alien creatures called zhemzhis who sort of resembled evolved dinosaurs.
Something goes wrong (something always goes wrong in a story). One of the deep-freeze units breaks down and a passenger is un-frozen, a zhemzhi child named Hhesst. The unit could be fixed with one replacement part, but that part was not stocked on the ship before it left. A supply goof-up. Because of that, the child will have to live out its life on the ship (named Ariosto, by the way), since the average zhemzhi life span isn’t much longer than the length of the trip.
What to do? The Ariosto is run by a corporation, one that runs its ships on strict budgets. Deviating from its course is out of the question. If Maggie were to do so the corporation would deem her “defective” and have her destroyed when the voyage out is over. Ariosto will encounter a kind of “patrol” ship that would be close enough to reach it in four years, and would very likely have the replacement part, since they contain the same kind of deep-freeze units. However, the patrol ship (named the Kora) cannot intercept the Ariosto, without just cause, such as a criminal action or a major navigational malfunction.
What to do now? Maggie, to her “owners,” is considered a machine. And, as the title of the story refers to, “A man makes a machine to do a job faster and better than he himself can do it.” For four years she takes care of Hhesst, nurtures, educates and entertains him.
And, at the point where the courses of Ariosto and the Kora are closest, she deliberately changes course, not only bringing the two ships closer but giving the patrol ship cause to board the cruiser and “deactivate” the “malfunctioning” Maggie. They can, of course, also provide the replacement part for the deep-freeze unit and allow Hhesst to survive the voyage.
Maggie has sacrificed herself to save Hhesst. And why? If “A man makes a machine to do a job faster and better than he himself can do it,” Maggie determined that the job she had to do was be a human.
That’s the story line, as plain and simple as I can make it. I threw a lot other things into the story, things about communications systems, attitudes on Earth, Maggie and Hhesst reading Shakespeare and listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams. But all of that was there because, I needed those things to tell the story. Another writer may have thrown in other things.
The germ of the story had been my watching a very bad science fiction film where a deep-freeze unit like the one in my story malfunctions and the results are treated as a joke. For some reason, I saw the thing as tragic instead of humorous and the fictional possibilities for a story started building up from there.
My concentration while writing the story was on what I needed to make the situation believable (for science fiction readers, at least) and what would make it work. There is no faster-than-light travel in my story, no deus ex machina. The events that occur in the fictional world I created have to behave within the logic of that world. I couldn’t really see much further than that.
Later on, after the story won a local prize, and after it was published in Amazing Stories, someone mentioned that it seemed to him a little like Antigone, where Maggie has to decide between God’s laws and man’s laws. Someone else pointed out what to him was a fairly obvious tip of the hat to feminism in the way the roles are assigned.
None of that was really obvious to me while I was writing it. I wasn’t conscious of the Antigone connections or anything else. I just wanted the story to work.
Speaking of work, after the story came out, one of my day job co-workers asked what the story was about. We were working at a place where the work was pretty dumb, with terrible managers and ridiculous rules. So I looked around after she asked me the question and answered, “It’s about working here.”
It happens to be true, though I definitely wasn’t conscious of that while writing the story, and not for a long time afterward.
Most other concerns shouldn’t enter into the writing process. You write the story you’ve got and decide what it is when you’re finished. Sometimes it’s a story. Sometimes it’s a chapter of a novel… or an essay… or a prose poem. Sometimes you might want to beat it back into what you started to write. At other times you just tell yourself that whatever the piece wants to be is just fine with you.
The late poet and teacher Paul Carroll was fond of saying “Our poems are wiser than we are.” For the most part that’s true of most everything we write as long as you concentrate on the craft of putting the story together, imagine there’s someone out there with whom you want to communicate and you work hard to make sure that person out there understands what you’re saying.

As an exercise, consider that the Irish writer Frank O’Connor used to say that if he couldn’t compress what a story is about into about a four line description, he was writing about too much: that is, there was too much for one short story.
          Now this is something to try over a period of time.
          If you come up with an idea for a short story, see if you – like Frank O’Connor – can sum it up in a four line description. But unlike O’Connor, once you’ve written it down, put it away and don’t look at it again until you’ve finished at least a first draft of the story.
          Then, take that description out and compare it against the story you’ve actually written. Does the brief description still accurately summarize what you’ve done in the story?
          If not, do you like what you’ve written better than what you set out for with that brief description? Do you think what you’ve written is not as good? How would you write that four line description now?
          If you’re not as happy with what you’ve written, perhaps the four line description will help you determine what you need to revise in your next draft. Then again, it may serve as the germ for a future story. If nothing else, it will show you how much you’ve grown as a writer from the time you first conceived of the story.

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