Thursday, August 27, 2009

Making the light bulb go on

And no, I don't mean the one Sarah shoved in Cthulhu's fundamental orifice - assuming Elder Gods actually have such mundane biology. Well, unless it went all the way up so his eyes light up. I guess then he'd really wave those tentacles.

What I'm really talking about is communication. When you strip it down to the barest of basics (no, not that kind, that's reserved for private showings with a very exclusive audience of one - since my husband doesn't run screaming from the sight) all writing is trying to communicate something. It might be a mood, an idea, some facts that someone thinks are interesting enough or important enough to write about, or it could be just about anything. For the likes of PTerry, it's often a whole bunch of them all at once.

Me, I count myself lucky to get one or maybe two things across cleanly in a story.

On the fiction side of the fence, the main thing we're communicating is a story. Something that shows interesting stuff happening and people you can empathize with trying to deal with it and often making it worse before they can get hold of it and have their happily ever after. Words, no matter how much we love them (and hold them and pet them and...) are just tools.

If you don't use the tools right, or you don't use the right tools, you don't communicate at all, or what you communicate doesn't bear any resemblance to what you thought was happening. Not that this doesn't happen even with the best of us, especially when we let Mr Smug Bastard in the back of our subconscious take over and pour the words out, but then we have to go back and adjust, and tweak, and sometimes give Mr Smug Bastard a damn good smack because he's led us up the garden path and committed plot diversion in the begonias.

The short version? If people don't get it you did it wrong. Period. If most of the people who read it get it, you can mostly not worry about the ones who don't. You can't please everyone, and there are some people who'd complain no matter what.

I'm naturally a play-with-words type. I'm writing this with minimal revision, and my normal rather... ahem... colorful way of putting things is showing through. To get to the point where I could write good fiction, I had to strip that back to the bones and have nothing but the story. No description, no nothing. Then I had to learn what details I could put in. It wasn't easy. Normally I don't just mix my metaphors, I shove them in the blender and ramp the power up as high as it will go. We won't go into what I do to poor, unsuspecting similes (no, Dave, NOT simians!)

In the situation Sarah wrote about yesterday, Robert wasn't communicating with his classmates because he assumed they shared his knowledge base. They weren't communicating with him, because they had no idea where he is, figuratively speaking. This is something I'm terrified of, because that blank look that means whatever I was saying flew past without touching a single brain cell also means I failed.

I failed to use my tools - words - to put my message in a form the people who had to understand it could use.

I've had the rather painful experience of having to learn to recognize that "um... you left me behind after three words" look and backtrack and rephrase. It doesn't help that I make honking great intuitive leaps of logic that leave people who don't think in weird sideways lurches scratching their heads - and I can't explain how I got there. I just know it's right, and it's easy, really, because if it was difficult I couldn't possibly do that. (Yes, you can all stop laughing now. I know now I'm crazy enough to go in the nuthouse and just controlled enough to stay out of the grasp of the nice men waiting to fit me for one of those lovely jackets with the super-long sleeves.)

So, if the audience - the readers, the players, the classmates - give you that blank look, you backtrack and try something different. Or you back off and go with the majority (especially if it involves grades) because sometimes the communication lines aren't up to the job. You can't make jokes about the cloaca of Elder Gods to someone who's never heard of Cthulhu. They don't have the tools to understand you and by the time you've explained about squid-headed beings whose mere presence drives men mad, the joke is gone.

The flip side of this, of course, is seeing the lightbulb go on behind the eyes when your readers/listeners/classmates catch on. Even without speculating on how the lightbulb got there, I can safely say it's one of the most rewarding aspects of the craft.

What are some of your lightbulb moments? When you saw it go on, or when your very own lightbulb lit up? My favorite has to be when - and this happens in damn near every story I write - I finally catch on to what Mr Smug Bastard in my subconscious is up to.

10 comments:

John Lambshead said...

Leave Cthulhu's fundamental orfice out of this. Life is bloody enough already,
John

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, your post is pertinent to something that's been whirling around in my head for a while now.

I think there's a big difference to how creative people see the world and how non-creative people see it.

You mentioned sideways logic leaps. I think that's where creativity lives and that's why we laugh at some people who can make the creative leaps that leave us gasping, in a good way.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

I call this the Eureka moment, where I completely understand why Archimedes jumped out of his bath and ran naked thorugh the streets of Syracuse. It sometimes happens while writing the outline, sometimes midway through the novel and sometimes, in a bloody panic, during the revision.

Whenever it happens, it's a beautiful thing. All the pieces click into place, and I think "Wow, I'm a genius." Then I realize I spelled it "Genioos" and come down to Earth again.

The strangest thing, though, is not when I fail to communicate, but when people find, in my work, things I have to re-read and squint to find there. Nothing bad, you know, but when I find reviews that say stuff like "Draw One In The Dark is fundamentally about Man's relationship with insects" it gives me pause. I'm waiting for the review of Darkship Thieves that says "It is a work about the lack of lightbulbs."

And while we're on lightbulbs, John, how do you know Cthulhu doesn't enjoy it? Humancentric. :)

Kate said...

John,

I'll bow to your superior knowledge of biology, although I've got to say I didn't think it was blood that came out of there. Actually, I thought Cthulhu had ichor or something :)

Kate said...

Rowena,

Yes, there's definitely a difference in how creative people see the world. Those sideways leaps are - I think, or possibly hope - from seeing the possibilities first rather than the "rules".

Of course, I may just be the only person in the world who reads that depression may actually be either a side effect of or part of a beneficial adaptation to encourage deep thinking and creative thinking, and goes "oh wow, neat!" (And yes, depression is an issue with me).

Kate said...

Sarah,

Absolutely. It's a wonderful thing when it happens and for a little while everything is perfectly clear and makes sense.

Then reality bites back - as it's so very good at doing.

Yes, it is fundamentally weird to have people finding things in your work that you certainly never intended to put there. We all see the world through our very own set of distorting lenses.

I think I got mine cracked and second hand from a closed down fun-house.

On lightbulbs and Cthulhu, perhaps this explains the electric eel? Er. I did not want to think that. I really did not want to think that. Now I'm stuck with the notion of fishy erotica for Elder Gods.

Chris McMahon said...

My big 'Ahh' moment is usually right at the beginning of a story - the flash of initial conception. Following that there is more a series of little lightbulb moments and I pop the little plot problems as they came along and see things falling into a recognisable "something".

More rare for me is the big CLUNK when I understand a new element of this strange, mysterious thing we do.

Kate said...

Chris,

It's wonderful, isn't it? I think the start of a story has a lot of "ooh, shiny!" to it, while the lightbulb moments along the way are more satisfaction.

That wrenching clunk? I think the hamsters threw a gear again. Sorry :)

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate,

I have suffered from depression all my life and am currently being treated with an SSRI. Stress and depression eventually forced me to retire from my position as a British Museum professor. One's kidneys stopping functioning through physiological stress is nature's way of telling you to slow down.

It seems commonplace among successful research scientists, artists, musicians, advertising planners, comedians, actors, writers.....

You will find the cliche of the mad professor has a solid foundation if you ever visit the senior common room of an elite university or research institute.

There is some form of genetic link between high creative ability and mental illness. Both phenomena are found in the same families.

I suspect that the brain wiring defects that allow a creative personality to concoct new worlds in their head is only a matter of degree from 'hearing voices' and full blown schizophrenia.

I am about half way down the track that runs from mild mood swings (pmt doesn't count although it gives similar results :) ) to full blown bipolarism. It very rarely stops me functioning, although the kidney episode was scary.

Stephen Fry, Bill Oddie and Spike Milligan are examples of well known creative people with bipolar disorder.

I choose to think that my depression is the price I pay for being creative and for being able to churn out massive work output when I am in the up-swing of the maniac-depressive cycle.

I would not sacrifice the creativity to cure the depression.

with best wishes

John

Kate said...

John,

Yes, having your kidneys shut down is definitely one of nature's more emphatic ways of telling you to slow down. There's a reason they call nature a "mother" and it has nothing to do with giving birth...

Depression and other mental illnesses are very strongly related to creativity, and often blur the boundaries. If the price of not having the mental illness is losing the creative, then I'll keep the mental illness - I don't want to ever lose the sense of wonder when I'm exploring a new story, or the delight of learning that other people like what I write.

It seems that if you get interesting people and wonderful worlds in your head, you get to have demons there too.

Hopefully with your meds you're getting the best of both worlds - the control you need to beat the worst back without losing the creativity, and the ability to live more or less normally.