Wednesday, October 20, 2010
It’s Human, But Is It Art
On Friday Chris touched on something very important: the perception of the writing craft as something people do just as a by-the-way, with no effort. I meet at least three people a year who tell me “When I retire I’ll write a novel” or “I always wanted to write a novel, I just need some time I can sit down.” It sort of reminds me of the line in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy says “Any savage can dance.” Which was indubitably true, and very much what he should say to depress his interlocutor’s pretensions, but was emphatically not true of the elaborate dances of the Regency.
I think the reason for this disparagement of writing as a craft/art is that storytelling is two fold. One is external – story telling is such an elementary function of being alive. In its elementary form, most of us were doing it by the time we could put sentences together. (I swear the dog drew on the wall, mom, honest!) And if you’re going “but most of us WERE drawing on the wall as toddlers, so why doesn’t art suffer from the same issue?” Well... Because most of us can tell, at first glance a stick figure from Leonardo da Vinci, but also because of the second part of the reason – as people who write to entertain others, we try to make it seem easy from the other end. We want the reader to appreciate the story, not to be jolted out of it to admire our neat trick of description or how handily we slipped in that bit of world building.
This means if we do it well our artifice is invisible to the reading public and they think we’re just “telling the story” as it occurred to us.
Now, as annoying as other people’s perceptions of our work are – and they are! – they are not the biggest problem of this perception of writing as a natural thing to do that takes no training and no effort. The worst toll this perception takes is on the writer him/herself.
What am I talking about? Well... Even though I was always aware that there was an apprenticeship period involved and also was keenly aware of – say – the difference between my short stories and those I read monthly in Analog and Asimov’s, it took me years of concerted effort to be able to be conscious of what I was showing the reader. Look, think of it as of those pictures where if you look at it one way you see a beautiful young woman, another way and you an old crone. Artists are very conscious of this and very careful to “frame” their composition in a way the eye effortlessly perceives what they want it to perceive. As an aspiring artist I can tell you a composition of any complexity, particularly with objects (we’re built to see faces. Which is why if you stare at a stain long enough you start seeing some form of face in it) and you can get the young beauty/old crone effect a hundred times magnified: you can see what the artist is showing or you can see... soup. A new and unskilled artist will fail to highlight what he wants you to see, and you’ll have to work to figure out what he’s drawing – even if it’s well done. It’s all light and shadows and how they’re arranged, plus a careful placement of negative spaces. (A professional artist told me the first (HC) cover for Draw One In The Dark wasn’t badly drawn, just badly lighted/highlighted. I’m still unsure whether I believe him.)
It’s harder to see it in writing – of course – but a similar effect takes place. You aren’t just “telling a story,” you are building a picture in your reader’s mind, step by step. A picture of a world, a character, a plot. You need to make sure what you create in their minds is what you want to. More importantly, because of the tools of writing as an art is playing on people’s emotions and there is very little fiction that can be considered “satisfactory” if it doesn’t touch our emotions one way or another, you need to hit your reader with the right jolts of emotion at the right time.
This is again more difficult than it may seem because of course it is perfectly clear in your head and therefore you sometimes don’t realize where you’re adding in extraneous detail that muddies the picture or nullifies the reader’s involvement in the story. In this you should rejoice, because artists face much the same issue – of course – because the picture is clear in their heads.
In fact this is part of the reason I oppose new writers' writing either what they know (in the sense of something they lived through – autobiographical stories, even with minor enhancements) or about the one world they’ve had in their heads since they were five. While for a more experienced writer the personal touch/knowledge adds a layer of interest and depth, for a beginner it just means you throw in everything but the kitchen sink and make the book unreadable.
I’ve talked about writers groups (apparently there are artists’ groups as well. Part of the reason I’ve stalled in my art is that I don’t have the energy to look for one) as a way to help you see your art through other eyes. We won’t touch that now.
There is a more important effect of this “but it’s natural” certainty. Most writers – particularly in the long apprenticeship years – think it is natural, too. And even those – like me – who are aware it’s a craft, fail to see HOW to get to the pro state and how to be really conscious of what they’re putting on paper. As a result there are any number of writers who either think their very first effort is the best thing ever (and a lot who fall for traps like Publish America, convince themselves they’re now published and stop developing) and others who have in fact put in effort and are “almost there” but give up because they don’t see the final step.
You see, you have to be trained to see the lines of the story and the techniques you need to convey it with minimal effort. And, as with writing, a lot of it has to be learning by doing.
So, what am I bringing you, besides doom and gloom? I’m going to quote Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith again (it’s getting to be an habit.) When I was young in writing (yeah, yesterday. No. Really, really young – about twelve years ago.) I attended Oregon Writers Workshop. Now, they do it differently these days, but my class was the first. Imagine this – I land from a flight, we drive a few hours, and suddenly I’m this room with a man who is telling me about bathtubs. It took a while to focus and realize what he was saying and it took much longer – and experience – to realize he was right.
What he was talking about was the bathtub of publishing. Picture a bathtub and an open faucet, pouring water into it. There is a line halfway up the bathtub (so, the bathtub in this house when we moved in!) The water is running with some force, and every time it hits the bathtub/other water, it splashes. At first those splashes all fall under the line, but as the tub fills, more and more hits above that line. Below the line is unpublishable. Above the line is publishable. The water level is where your writing is.
If the water pours forth with sufficient force – i.e. if the subject touches you emotionally and all your subconscious ducks line up in a row – it is possible to hit above the publishing line as an almost raw beginner. My short story Thirst was written in 91. I refuse to show the other stuff I was writing at the time. It took me another seven years to catch up with that story (and then I had to force the growth, as I’ll explain.) However, it’s hit or miss and accident, and, okay, some measure of natural talent (I’m very suspicious of unquantifiables like “talent”) and not something you can replicate at will.
However, your hits will become more frequent and more controlled as you accumulate more water in the tub.
So, what’s the water, you ask – you really need to have more patience with metaphors! The water is what you’ve written so far. Writing like other crafts and arts benefits from practice. Just the process of doing it over and over again – particularly combined with good exterior critique – will help you grow. And the more turned on that faucet is – the more water that pours out every second – the faster you’ll learn.
Yeah, I can see you frowning, out there and getting ready to tell me writing takes time, writing takes thought, doing it faster doesn’t help. To which I say poppycock. At any rate, what I’m talking about is not “faster” per se, but constantly. Leonardo Da Vinci didn’t get to paint like that because he was kissed by genius from above. He might have been, but in my humble opinion the “genius hypothesis” is over played to explain magnificent art and craft. Leonardo, and other boys of his time who aspired to be artists, were probably apprenticed as pre-teens and spent years mixing paint, doing sketches, eventually – when they were very good – working on bits of the masters’ canvas. Another thing they did was do a lot of work that wasn’t even meant to be shown – painting on practice canvas they just painted over later. And if you think they were golden youth, coddled and well rested and thinking each canvas carefully through, you’re far off. They were overworked wretches, used more or less as household servants, who were made to learn their art in the intervals of making the master’s life easier.
I’ve often thought that writers should have a similar system, and not just because my house becomes covered in cat hair at an amazing pace, but because it removes the soft illusions that art happens in moments of pure genius/inspiration.
When I was a beginner but no longer raw – in between that workshop and say, the publication of my third book – I believed the thing about the bathtub of publishing on faith. I couldn’t see how writing a lot, blindly, would help. I thought it would be better on read about writing and study and write fewer stories. However, Dean had told the story so convincingly that my friend Rebecca Lickiss and I went home and proclaimed new rules for our joint writers group. “From now on, we write a short story a week.”
Now, most of the group had full time jobs. Those who didn’t had toddlers. And almost all of us had a novel in progress (something we didn’t bring to the meeting every week, because critiquing novels doesn’t work like that but which was, unfortunately unenforceable.) Oh, the crying, the gnashing of teeth, the death threats – wait, that was us to them! If you’re thinking “I’d walk” about a third of the group did. The ones who stayed did the stories, though, and within a couple of years we were all published in some manner.
Mind you, I always thought it was partly potluck – i.e., write a lot and some stories will hit the market at just the right time. I won’t even deny there was an element of that – there are stories I simply do not list in my home page for good and sufficient reason.
BUT yesterday I saw – like an epiphany – that Dean had been absolutely right about the “force” method teaching you faster too and perhaps forcing you to reach a level you never would have reached otherwise. Look, I’d written A LOT before that workshop (eight novels, for one) but at a slow pace, and it was one step forward two back five sideways. It’s not just that you have to write however many words of crap. There is something to writing as fast as you can. To straining that limit, even. When you have to produce fast, you simplify the task. You learn to see clearer, almost in self defense.
Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been going through my folders of “never submitted” stories. Some were never submitted because I knew they were bad, some because I thought that there was something wrong there. And some of them I never submitted because I forgot they existed (yeah, I know. I had toddlers.)
I started reading about the time I went to the workshop, and read the next two years of forgotten stories – and you know what? The growth was crystal clear. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the bathtub!
When I went to the workshop I knew a lot (I should hope so. I’d been writing for thirteen years) but the problem was, through all the theory and the bits of craft, I didn’t know how to CUE things or how to... well, play with the reader’s mind. That’s something that for me at least, had to be learned at an almost subconscious level, before I could codify it. So most of the early stories are technically correct. They just happen to be the world’s biggest fails. How? Well, take this angel urban fantasy story I didn’t remember writing – the tone and voice in the beginning made me wonder if it was a synopsis. Or the other one, where I drop you in the middle of the subplot and it takes a while to get to the main point (like most of the story.) And then, slowly – what was in real life almost imperceptibly – I progressed. By the end of that period, I can see – can’t we all – things I’d do better now, but it’s undeniable most of these stories are publishable. (I told you I forgot to send them out, right? Yeah.)
By the way I noticed a similar effect when I did six novels in a year (while home schooling the boy genius and taking art lessons, and becoming a ninja – okay, I’m joking about the ninja.) The difference in the novels and “ease of voice” between the first and the last is startling.
Now, I also learned there is a limit (hey! No one told me I was human!) The first novel of the next year needs serious revision if it’s ever re-released. It reads like I was writing in a fog. Partly because I was. I THINK I could have managed the six novels easily if it weren’t for kids, house, housekeeping, homeschooling. (The art actually helps me rest. Long story.)
So there is a natural limit to the body and mind, but if you push yourself to it – or beyond – you will learn a lot of the techniques you’ve read about but not interiorized. You know, the ones you’re doing consciously and clumsily and which will flow if you practice it till your fingers bleed.
No, I don’t want to hear excuses. I know the dog ate your practice time. But painters practice. Ballet dancers practice. Musicians practice. Everyone practices but writers, who think story telling is natural and therefore should come effortlessly.
What? You thought you were special? Get moving. You have a bathtub to fill.
UPDATE: I just realized I've been an utter slacker the last two years. Needed, perhaps because I was tired onto near-breakdown. But No More Slacking. I'm throwing down the glove. For the next six months I'll try to do a short story a week and a novel (in addition to the three I HAVE to deliver and the almost finished one.) I'll report on my progress on the end of each weekly post. (You always miss some weeks, so the result might be three shorts a month, but I'm aiming for four.) Who's with me?
UPDATE Update: Anyone picking up the gauntlet and at least making an effort to follow up, no matter how imperfectly, will be elligible for a "rubber ducky" pin (with a picture fo a rubber ducky swimming in ink.) Be the first at your con. Amaze your friends and neighbors. Have them give you weird looks! Spend all your con explaining "no, it has nothing to do with bathing." DO not miss this once in a lifetime opportunity.