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Saturday, July 29, 2017

What are you Thinking?

[Original post, Jan. 21st, 2017 in Riding the Blimp at]
"Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness - when a glorious idea comes to mind, and secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven't had time to know how much better it ought to be." J.B. Priestly
         What are you thinking about when you write? Are you thinking about the story, or are you thinking about the writing? The answer to this question can have a profound effect on what winds up on the page. I think that, perforce, a pantser must be thinking at all times of the story. After all, she is making it up as she goes. The words flow, and the cleanup comes later, during an early edit, when spelling and punctuation are addressed with the story already complete. A plotter like myself has already done the creative work, and is now applying The Craft to that brilliant story he outlined. His thoughts, my thoughts, are on the nuances of phrase, the subtleties of degree, the interweaving of sometimes revealing, sometimes misleading dialogue. You will hear authors talk about how their characters force changes on their plans, and that is certainly true, but in my case, if Scene 86 has been plotted to be a showdown in the street, it is not going to somehow become a soul-searching conversation between the sheriff and the saloon girl with the heart of gold. Just doesn't happen.
         So, what does this lead to in the final product? Derivativism, plain and simple. When Beyond the Rails hit the market, it wasn't long before one of the reviewers characterized it as "Jules Verne meets Firefly." Said reviewer swore that it wasn't meant in a derogatory way, and I love the description and use it myself, but it's gotten me to thinking: Have I ever done anything original?
         Before Temple of Exile, I started (and never finished) a series called Tribes of the Southern Sky. Can you say Star Trek, boys and girls? The focus of the story was Terran Space Agency Ship Chippewa, one of dozens of identical Frigates, basically destroyers, trying keep the peace in the Southern Drift, a helical swirl of fifty-odd stars projecting south of the galactic plane. The former enemy, the Vronn, had just signed an armistice ending a generation-long war, and an uneasy trust was developing between the two sides. The differences were the class of ship, smaller and not nearly as capable as the Enterprise, the size of the crew, about 20, and her redshirts were highly-trained professionals, sort of a meld of ninja and navy SEAL. Oh, and the captain was a woman. "Chops," the guy who eventually led me to steampunk, was reading it, and having seen this similarity, I remarked that I didn't want to become known as the guy who ripped off Star Trek. He was sharing it with a friend who suggested that I embrace it, write some Star Trek material and submit it to them, and perhaps they would approve me as a writer. I saw too many things wrong with that to list, but basically, it wasn't what I wanted, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't what they wanted either.
         I moved on to fantasy, starting with Temple of Exile, then moved on to modern action/adventure, and a crime drama. I can't say that I copied Lord of the Rings or Nero Wolfe (and you can't either!), but that spark of originality, that intangible something that would deny comparison with something already well-known, was missing. Temple of Exile probably came closest, but as I wrote that without a plan, it was unpublishable from day one. I've mentioned the similarities between Beyond the Rails and Firefly, and the project that's really percolating right now is The Darklighters, which if I'm to be honest, is pretty much The Man from U.N.C.L.E. moved to a Victorian setting. I'm beginning to think that maybe I should just hang up the pen and enjoy my retirement.
         But it isn't that simple, is it. I'm pretty sure everyone in this audience knows that you don't choose to write, you are chosen, and once chosen, the only escape from that nagging muse is found in the act of writing. It doesn't matter whether you're good, whether you're popular, or whether you're published, once the harpy of literary creation sinks her talons in, you must write. I have two other projects under consideration that have the promise, at least, of some level of originality. Stingaree, named for San Diego's Victorian waterfront district, is to be a steampunk novel in which I will try my best not to emulate some other great work, and Nexus, which I think will come after Stingaree (the muse willing...), and will concern the activities of an organization defending the world from supernatural threats. Yeah, I know, Supernatural; but there's a lot of ground that can be explored under a theme like that, and I hope to find some that hasn't been claimed already. This is probably my best bet. All I can say is that I don't set out to copy other more famous works. I try to write the best story I can, and the things that creep into my work are the best examples I have. When you find them there, they are very much tributes, although I would like to eliminate them entirely, have my work be my own, and will work diligently toward that goal in the future. You, my readers, will have to tell me how I'm doing.
         How about you? What are you thinking about while you're writing, and how does it affect what goes on the page? It's something to consider, and there definitely is an effect whether you realize it or not, so put on your thinking caps, and see if your writing improves. There's a lot to be said for self-awareness!
         That's thirty for this week. Until next time, read well, and write better!

~ Jack

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate that you're a plotter; it's gotten a bad name as too stiff, when stiff is exactly what you need when you build a skyscraper.

    The structure in place means you're free to create the art part - knowing the story is going to the right place, but not knowing how.

    For me, the structure is far more basic than anything else - and it has to be right, or the improbable premise will be just as improbable at the beginning as at the end.

    There's a famous New Yorker cartoon of a scientist at a blackboard, with the left third covered in formulas, the right third covered in formulas, and 'Then a miracle occurs!' in the center third.

    In my plotting, beats are built into scenes, which are set in chapters, into parts, and then into the trilogy - all very fractal - but I write one of those beats as if it were a short story, and it works.

    There is nothing random in good fiction. The kind I like, anyway.

    The advantage is that when you need that miracle in the middle, the reader has already been trained to take that tiny leap, and not question it, because everything before and after is so solid.