June 21, 2005

filling time with fiction

Would the person who's been Googling Dichroic Reflections along with my full name please leave a comment to tell me who you are? Then we can figure out if I'm the one you're looking for; there are at least four of us in the US with this same first and last name. Thank you.

I have been extremely bored lately, for large parts of my day. One result of this, in me at least, tends to be that I'm driven into creativity. Apparently I'm too lazy to create things unless I have nothing else to do. (Or multitasking - I knit because it's something I can do while reading.) Since I owuld be conspicuous taking knitting with me everywhere, I've been venturing into new territory and trying to write fiction. It's something I can do inconspicuously anywhere I have a pen and paper or computer. Or even without, if it's just a matter of thinking up plot ideas.

I say "just" but the truth is that figuring out what should happen is the hardest part for me and is the main reason I've never really been a fiction writer. One thing I've noticed, though, in recent years is the number of books, even great books, which really have no plot in the classic sense of a story with crisis, climax, and denouement. Tristram Shandy is probably too weird to be a good example, but, for instance, what happens in Little Women, other than that the characters live grow up? (Or don't in Beth's case.) The same could be said of Tom Sawyer, but in that case the book is really a string of episodes with a different plot in each section - the whitewashing, the raft episode, Injun Joe and the cave. On the other hand, I'm not quite bored enough to want to write a whole novel, and short stories do tend to have something resembling a plot - a small one at least - with some sort of problem that is solved. One way to avoid that is to write something that's not a story but just a vignette, a peek into a window, as I did here, but really, that's cheating a bit.

Next, there comes the technical challenge of assembling the story. I can write grammatically, and if not well at least fluently, and in different voices to some extent. Those things could definitely be improved, but at least my prose isn't going to cause the casual reader actual pain on the first glance. But it is interesting to realize what else there is to writing a story that I simply don't know. The thing is, though I'm only a so-so fiction writer, I am a very good reader. This means that I can often see what's wrong, but have no idea how to fix it. For example, I can write conversation, I can write description, and I can write narration, but I have no real idea who to balance them and move between them. (That's exactly why the Una story is almost all dialogue, with one long chunk of description cribbed from -- well, heavily influenced by -- Montgomery at the beginning.)

The current story is in omniscient third person, and the heroine is said to have done this and that and even thought this and that, but she never actually talks to anyone. Mark Helprin did write a story like that, but I think I need to assume that's because he knew what he was doing, and I don't. Also, the point of his story is that his hero really is very isolated and hardly talks to anyone. Mine is hanging out with her friends, and presumably chatting to them. I think the solution may be to introduce another character or three, sketchy ones, just so that she can be talking to them and telling her own story. Another way would be one L.M. Montgomery used, in which the character addressed various remarks off into the ether, to herself or no one, but that seems artificial. (Even though I've been known to do it myself.)

And then there's the problem of how much. I suspect this is an authorial problem in general, not one that's specific to me while I don't know what I'm doing. For example: This is a short story. In the middle of it, the heroine needs to go off to Antarctica. (Actually, she just needs to go somewhere remote, with wide spaces, and unlike home, but since I've been to Antarctica and can describe it, that's where she goes.) So she could go there and back in one line, and I could just spend some time discussing what she thought over while she was there, or I could talk about where she went and what she saw and how long it took, or I could talk about how she got there and the people that she met, her opinions of Buenos Aires and Ushuaia on the way and how she found penguins enchanting and seals dead boring. The trip could be anything from a paragraph to pages and pages, and the trick is to figure out what is actually necessary to the story.

And then there's the fine-tuning, making sure that every sentence is necessary (I can't really get it down to the word level now) and that the voice speaking is never out of character. That I know for sure is something all authors have to work on, though clearly they're skills that can be honed to work better and faster.

There's definitely an unevenness in quality between different stories, too; for instance the current one isn't nearly as good as Una's story. I don't knwo whather that stems from the compellingness of the original idea, the characterization, or the execution.

Also, there are some daily-life issues. It turns out that I can get pretty far back inside my head while figuring out a character or story point, which is not always a good thing while driving or in a meeting, about like being unconscious real world while reading a very good book.

I'm still bored - for one thing I can't think of enough plots to keep myself entertained - but at least I'm learning some of the dimensions of what I don't know.

Posted by dichroic at June 21, 2005 02:26 PM

I'm afraid it's me. Sorry. I was looking at entries about "Rowing through" and ran across your journal entry. I started reading it. If that is a no-no, I apologize. However, i must say that you write really well. I wish my thoughts were as interesting to read.

Anyway the more I perused, the more I wanted to get a sense of the person I was reading about so I did a google search on the name to figure out who I was reading about. Curiosity is a gift or a curse. No sense of place in the late entries. Was it the PB in Maine, Santa Barbara or elsewhere? Reading the earlier material I learned PB was Phoenix.

What started this search? Boredom at work and my consideration of starting a class in rowing at the master's level. I'm trying to decide whether it's something I want to commit time and expense. I suspect so. I love the sound of a good rowing boat on the water. Finding out that someone has actually written a bit about the grind online was a gift.

I saw a single scull gliding along below a bridge in Snapper Creek in Miami about 20 years and the image has stayed with me. Commitments to other sports precluded the time and consideration to pursue. I now have the time to consider such an option.

Again, apologies if any need to be tendered, I'm not sure of protocols. Nonetheless, thank you for the opportunity to partake.


Posted by: rollcast at June 22, 2005 05:41 AM

My friend Jason and I have conversations about writing that usually go something like your whole entry here. Typically he says, "But I won't write fiction, 'cause I'm not very good at it." There's a variety of responses to that, but one that struck me right now... you managed to say in one sentence that you're a "so-so writer" and a "good reader," which led me to realize what I'd barely figured out on an unconscious level before: perhaps, people good at reading know what good writing is, but get frustrated when they are not immediately as good at writing as they are at reading.

I've been reading and writing alongside each other for most of my life, and probably have spent similar amounts of time doing each (wow, I think that's actually true. I'll have to think on that to be sure), so it never really occurred to me before that the divide between the two could be so great that it could be daunting. I mean, yeah, I'm a much better reader than I am a writer, but at the same time, I've always had the confidence that what I write entertains *me* at least.

Anyway, the kinds of problems you're having (trying to figure out what happens next, and when it happens) are the sorts of things I think all writers encounter; my multitudinous writing crises of the past three years have, more or less, been over the same questions, though happily, the same question asked over and over again does get somewhat more refined as you go--if you're *learning* from what you're doing, that is.

Posted by: Mer at June 22, 2005 07:23 AM

I'm actually going through a bad writing spell at the moment (as in, I haven't been writing very much, and what's made it onto paper or disk has been drivel). Part of it, I think, is that I'm currently weirdly uptight about not having committed "great acts of literature," to borrow Billy Collins's pet pobiz-deprecating phrase: my brain realizes this is utterly silly, that it's not a competition, blah blah blah etc., but my psyche is apparently determined to wrestle with it anyway.

(If past phases are any indication, however, what will happen is that I'll eventually swear off writing for publication for the rest of the year -- and then, three weeks into my self-imposed sabbatical, I'll get snagged on a phrase that won't leave my head until I turn it into something pretty, and then everything will be fun again. In the meantime, I have plenty of work and a lot of recipes to try.)

P.S. I've also written several letters to you in my head -- I *will* eventually transcribe one of them onto stationery and send it your way. . .

Posted by: Peg at June 22, 2005 09:23 AM
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