Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's Only Words

It is one of the er... interesting aspects of a writing career that moments of heartbreak and the most fallow, dark years are inextricably linked to the moments when something clicks.

Perhaps it’s true of life, anyway. Human beings are creatures of habit. If everything is going along fine – or even tolerably – nothing changes. This in terms of society explains why wars and revolutions tend to change the world in scientific and innovation terms as well as in political and social. Because once everything is made “wrong” or “uncomfortable” and a mass of humans are broken out of their routine, then you can reestablish your quotidian life using new information/science.

In 1997/8 I’d come to the conclusion I’d never sell, not at the professional level. This required I rearrange my entire life, which had been geared towards my learning the craft and trying to get published for over a decade and strongly geared that way for at least six years.

I realized early on that I couldn’t actually give up writing. It’s an ingrained habit that long predates any dreams of publishing for pay. I make up stories and I write them down to get them out of my head. I finished my first “novel” (Okay, so it was forty pages) at ten AND wrote it during finals week in fourth grade (which actually determined what kind of secondary school I would attend, so it wasn’t as unimportant as it sounds.)

So, in 98, first I tried to write just for myself, but that didn’t work. When you’re writing for yourself, there’s no reason to make sure you are understood or understandable. There’s no reason to affix the details to paper. What you write ends up sounding like memories of dreams – things that come out of the subconscious and submerge again. After a while it feels pointless.

I needed to write FOR someone, but I had no audience. These days I might have written for online. How that would have turned out is anyone’s guess, and I truly have no clue. Perhaps I’d have attracted no readers, studied, and ended up about where I am. Or perhaps I’d have attracted a couple hundred, just enough to keep writing at the level I was.

As it turned out, though, self-publication at the time was – at best – silly. So I thought I’d keep writing just as a hobby and to get readers, I’d write for fandom. Finding a fandom was something else again. My dad used to introduce me to people with “this is my daughter, she doesn’t like television” – making sure people knew my handicap up front.

I’m not going to be high and mighty here and say I picked the one fandom that was out of copyright on purpose. If Anne McCaffrey hadn’t stomped so hard on all fanfic related to her work, I’d probably have fallen into dragonworld fanfic. Hard. As it was all the traces of those that I could find were long since shut down.

Other than that, my tastes verge on the fuddy-duddy. I wasn’t going to attempt Heinlein fanfic, (I’m not that crazy) or the rest of the genre. Dumas fanfic is the ONLY fanfic that runs to foursomes. Er... same gender foursomes. And I didn’t want to write erotica, anyway. I wanted to write stories.

So I fell into Austen fanfic at Derbyshire Writers Guild and The Republic of Pemberley. I got myself kicked out of the Republic of Pemberley in short order. No, I didn’t want to write erotica, but I reserve the right to make stupid jokes. Apparently, that wasn’t allowed at RoP.

This left me with DWG. And because I had learned to write for publication – even if I hadn’t been published – I studied the market first. What I found was so surprising that it took almost a year for it to penetrate.

You see, partly because I am foreign born and an ESL speaker, I paid a lot of attention to words, always. I think I’ve shared that my idea of how my work was received at publishers when I first started writing – I thought people sat around laughing at my misuse of idiom and wondering where I was from.

Because of this, I obsessed on words for many, many years. In fact, when I went to the Oregon writers workshop, Dean Smith STILL had to order me to not think about the words. (For which I can never thank him enough.)

But DWG taught me how truly unimportant words are. If you start writing a story that puts Darcy and Elizabeth in a perilous situation, you can have malapropisms in every line and grammar mistakes in more than half the text, and you’ll still have a lot of comments and a large following.

I’m not saying that people don’t care about entries, and I’m not going to say that most fanfic authors are illiterate – both would be false. At DWG though there are writers from all over the world and from all avocations. People write in their spare time and don’t spend hours polishing for the best word.

Most of them are still easilly on a par with published work. One or two are startlingly bad with words. And there is one who, for a while, had a “fandom” of this author’s own, devoted to analyzing and making fun of the tortured sentences.

And yet, even this language-slaying author had a real fandom, that followed the posted serials with bated breath and gave the author much love in comments.

Why? Well, because the plot of these series were almost unbearably tortured. There were kidnappings and murders and mad wives in towers, and men pining away for love, and women who were despoiled and... Yeah, I know, you’re laughing “all the elements of cheap melodrama.”

I will remind you that this melodrama sold more than any of our more plausible and restrained novels sell. I’ll also say that while the lack of internal logic annoys me – personally – a lot of people LIKE these extreme situations. Why? Because the extreme situations bring forth extreme emotions.

And in the end, people read to follow the emotions, to fee what characters they care about are feeling.

What I found at DWG is that the words mattered far less than characters people could love and situations that enthralled them or made them empathize.

What do you think? Should an author shamelessly play with the audience’s feelings? Do you read for the feeling of it? What makes you return again and again to an author?

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

20 comments:

MataPam said...

I read series to see what trouble my friends are in now. I read an author because he or she has introduced me to so many good friends, vile enemies, funny sidekicks and made me care that they are in peril.

On the writing side, I seriously neglect emotions, as Sarah's pointy boots have often pointed out. I tend to both assume that the reader can pick up the emotions from the action (His wife is trying to kill him! Why do I have to _say_ he's frightened, angry and baffled?) and I assume everyone tends to under-react like me.

But, given time to think about it, Sarah is right. Again.

We readers read to get an emotional reward. An author who _doesn't_ play with our emotions is flat, uninteresting and we don't snap his next book off the shelf at the book store.

Kate said...

Pam,

I read series for the same reason - to catch up characters I've come to regard as friends - or enemies.

On the writing side, the action is never enough for the emotions. Ask Dave about this, or Sarah. They're both excellent at cueing in emotions.

It isn't even saying what someone is feeling. It's showing it. His wife is trying to kill him. Does his heart rate speed up? Do his muscles feel limp? Weak? Is he sweating? Nauseous? Or is he switching to combat mode, with his stance shifting and his mouth going dry, looking for a weapon or some other way to slow her down?

All those things show the emotional reaction without the offputting "He was scared, confused and angry" - or worse, just a flat "He did this, that and the other."

It's not necessarily the easiest distinction to grasp when you're building your writer's toolbox, but it's a critical one. As my own behind and Sarah's pointy boots can attest.

Lucius said...

I think I'm hard-pressed to avoid this knee-jerk response:
I'm a guy. My view is that emotions are like nuclear weapons. They're powerful, destructive, and the less time you spend thinking about them, the happier you'll be. ;)

Of course the author should shamelessly play with the audience's emotions. A climax should rarely be greeted with a yawn.

But I can't say that I read for emotions. I ultimately want to be entertained. Catharsis in nice, sympathetic characters and all the rest are great, but they need to add to and support the story. (Or to put it another way, I was *not* a fan of Luke Skywalker's constant whining. But it could admittedly be that his whining made him unsympathetic to me.)
This also applies to clever ideas, interesting insights, humorous asides, and political strawmen. They can be good, bad, or indifferent.

I come back to the same author again and again because he entertained me in the past, and I'm reasonably sure he'll continue to do so. I've enjoyed lots of stories where the characters were largely two-dimensional or otherwise inconsequential. I've also enjoyed lots of stories that will rip out your heart and stomp on it. Terrain dictates.

Kate said...

Lucius,

Whining is not emotion. Real emotion shows - and it does rip out your heart and stomp on it. Then tears it into shreds, sets it on fire, and often burns the ashes as well.

Me? Dislike whiny characters? Nah...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Sarah.

I had one reviewer complain that my prose was no inspiring, but for some reason they couldn't put the book down.

Could that be because for me Story is King?

Nothing wrong with a bit of excitement in fantasy. Need to keep the readers turning the pages.

Chris L said...

There are a few reasons I go back to authors. One is emotional ride and (hopefully) reward.

Another is to see really interiesting and unique concepts explored by intelligent people.

But most importantly for me, as with Lucius, is that I need to be entertained, and the easiest way to entertain me is to make me laugh. I don't need a laugh a minute - but there does need to be humour.

If I finish a book and feel that I've enjoyed it but there was something missing to make it a really good read, I usually find the missing ingredient was a few funny situations or a killer one-liner.

So I guess what you say is true about the actual arrangement of the words not being so important as the above.

Synova said...

There was some book about how to write a best seller that essentially said to dumb down the language as much as possible.

I spent a lot of years on rec.arts.sf.composition and can identify a whole lot with the idea that the words and writing skillfully are the most important things, no matter how often someone there scoffed about "literature". It may be a different sort of snobbery, but science fiction is self-consciously intelligent. The person admired was still the one who demonstrated the most impressive command of the language.

So a book pointing out that the best sellers out there were written with small words and limited vocabularies was pretty insulting.

The lesson I took away from that wasn't to dumb down language, but that something else was going on. It fit pretty closely into what Sarah wrote. The issue wasn't the words, it was the adventure, it was the story.

But I still get held up on the words and my ability to measure up to some standard of literary mastery.

It seems that knowing better is only half the battle.

Brendan said...

The continual action/emotional rollercoaster that many people seem to be advocating these days frankly turns me off. In an attempt to keep a readers attention with the constant valley and peaks of the climax/aftermath model I get tired.

Please remember a real environment will have flood plains as well as hills and valleys.(and appologies for the mangled metaphors)

Jim McCoy said...

You have to play with an audience's emotions. It HAS to happen for the story to be entertaining. That's not to say that I think I need to feel what the characters are feeling.

The perfect example is E and his toy motorcycle in FPM. Dyce is frustrated, E is having the time of his life, and I'm just LMAO. It's definitely NOT what the characters were feeling, but it works.

I keep coming back to the same authors because they can do that with my emotions USUALLY. In at least one case, I came back to an author for long enough to get through a series because I was HOPING he could get there and it just fell flat. (Damn you Rick Shelley. Don't leave out the good part!)

Seriously, if I don't feel something reading an author's books, I don't care about his characters. If I don't care about their characters why bother reading?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

If it makes you feel better, I used to be a lot like you on that. The "well, of course he's pissed. They just stole his car" combined with stiff upper lip "I'm not going to have him throw his coat on the ground and swear. He's a MAN." Argh. Eh. Only I had to discover things for myself because no one told me. Except Dean, of course (Thank you Dean.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

To be honest, even as a beginner you only did that when very tired. But yeah.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Lucius,

Emotion is NOT emoting. Emotion is the fear of the guy in a corner trying to decide whether to come out blazing away with his gun and maybe die. A lot of these are very quickly dropped in the midst of action. I know, I know, my first book the characters did A LOT of emoting, because thsi was new to me, so I was laddling it on with a trowel. I'm better now. And I ALSO hate whiney, self-searching characters. I mean, DO something. :-P

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, and Lucius, another of the things from the Oregon Writers workshop "Your character shouldn't cry. That way the reader has to."

As for Luke Skywalker -- argh, spit. I was never a fan of the movies, but watching the first again as mother-of-teens, I wanted to climb RIGHT onto the screen and smack him or take away his gameboy or something until the whining stopped.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Weirdly, I recently had a rejection telling me my language wasn't beautiful enough. I can honestly say this person is a minority of one with that opinion. I've had reviewers complain about my "obsession with language" even though I don't even give it a thought, now. But I spent so many years thinking about it, it still shows.
OTOH I routinely get that sort of thing "This book wasn't my kind of thing, but I wanted to know how it ended." :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Actually allowing humor in was a huge battle for me, too, because my sense of humor is ODD and I know it. But it seems to hit people all the same. And humor is DEVILISHLY difficult to write. Step slightly wrong and you end up with the laughtrack in the wrong place effect. "Why are they laughing? I don't get it." Then the book goes against the wall.

And humor is a great way to handle emotions. Read Pratchett for that -- he can deepen the sorrow and get you over awkward plotting with humor. Of course, the man is a genius.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Synova

I think I read that book and bah -- people who read for fun tend to like words. The thing is, though, make sure your words aren't too recondit. Coming from a multilingual background, I can send people to the dictionary without trying. Nowadays it's easier because I read more colloquially written stuff.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan,

I'm not advocating a continuous up and down of emotions. Yes, I read that book too. NO, that's not what I'm advocating. I'm advocating characters you care for and understand because a) you bond with them. (This means you can't start the story with character A then ditch him in the middle with nothing solved, for x.) b) they react to things in ways you understand and identify with (i.e. someone is trying to kill them, they get upset.) c) they get in situations you want to see them get out of. Now, mind you, Austen Fandom tends to like its death traps, villainous aunts and murderous rogues, but that's something else.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jim,

Exactly. And on E... er... yeah. It's hillarious because it's not YOU. :-P

Lucius said...

Jim,

I don't think it HAS to happen for the story to be entertaining. It's just a lot easier for it to be entertaining if it does.
When I pick up a book by Tim Powers, I can be pretty sure that my emotional investment in the story or characters is going to be minimal.
That said, I love his books.
(I guess we could say that his twisted world-building invokes the emotion of wonder, but that's stretching the point.)

Kate, Sarah,

Now I've got to examine what I was thinking when I chose the Skywalker example.
I *think* it was mainly because it was such a shameless attempt to influence our emotions, and it largely backfired.

It seems to me that it's important for most characters to be at least somewhat sympathetic, but that can mean a number of things. Some of the more gut-wrenching scenes that come readily to my mind feature a focus character that's acting largely as a blank screen for the reader to project their reactions onto.
(Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm realizing that passive voice plays a pretty major role in that effect. I'll have to think on that one a bit.)

Mike said...

Should an author shamelessly play with the audience’s feelings?

Okay... I'm going to say no. Not that an author shouldn't put feelings in, but that "shamelessly play" part is where I think this question goes astray. As you pointed out in your answer to Brendan, the author has to play fair -- give us characters that we can identify with, let them react realistically, and put them in situations where they struggle. That's also part of what I look for -- there are puzzle stories that are fun the first time through, but the next time... the cardboard characters are just boring, and I already know the solution. Other stories, hey, I can tell from early on where they're going, but I'm willing to go through that again with the characters, because we're having fun doing it. And those get read and reread.

So, short answer. Yes, I want real feelings from real characters. Give me that, and I'll come back. Play with it -- the tough character wading through blood and guts with no reaction, or the thriller that just keeps tightening the tension, and the character never reacts, or worse, just laughs it off? -- and I'm going to toss the book.

Should an author play with the audience's feelings? As much as he or she plays with their own. Should they be ashamed of doing so? Only if they don't do a good job. And should they shamelessly play with the audience's feelings? Not if they want us to keep reading... In that case they should engage with the audience's feelings, matching the audience's trust with well-written thoughtful caring.