June 25th, 2008

I'm listening....

More Fourth Street Bits

I am not very good at the play-by-play kind of con report, so I won't be doing that. One small note of the where-I-went/who-I-saw/what-I-ate variety, though: the wee strawberry cake-ish things at elisem's party were so very fine.

So. The Second Draft panel (initially typed "Second Drat panel," but I think I am on my fortieth or fiftieth drat by now) did not magically fix the computer time problems brought about by vertigo, but it was interesting to hear such differing writers' takes on that part of the process. This is kind of what Fourth Street is like: I showed up for panels I would have skipped at most other cons (by which I mean, at any other con that was not Farthing Party), because it was going to be interesting people with interesting ideas. It's not quite to the point where I don't care what programming is, because I'll be going anyway. But it's close.

On some panel, truepenny said she was a fantasy writer at longer lengths and a horror writer at shorter lengths, and something in my brain went, "Ting!" like the Fairy Doll. I really hope I'm not becoming a fantasy writer at longer lengths and a science fiction writer at shorter lengths, because there are still long SF and short fantasy things I'd like to write. But that's certainly been the way it's looked in the last months or maybe even year. This morning when I sat down to get a little work in, I opened the file for...yet another partially finished SF story. Hmmmm, she said.

There have been lots of panel reports on the "Advice from New Writers" panel, and I hope the audience was taking it as I was taking it: keeping the good bits of advice panels from experienced writers, rather than the bad bits. If you're doing that sort of thing well, you don't blindly listen to everything an experienced writer says because they're experienced; some of them are extremely experienced fruitbats. You think about what they've said, and you think about the context in which they've said it, and you keep what makes sense and you throw out what doesn't. It seemed like at least one member of the audience didn't realize that was meant to be true of the new writers' panel as well. Don't listen to us because we're new! Listen to us when we make sense. Listen to the established writers when they make sense. Sometimes it'll be the same sense, sometimes not. There is -- or at least there ought to be -- as much diversity among new writers' opinions as among established writers' opinions.

One thing that frustrates me a lot is when people try to act as though all writers should be willing and able to become editors and publishers at the drop of the proverbial hat. I am not an editor. I am not a publisher. I don't want to be either of those things, or my life would have a very different shape. I recognize that this means that there won't be an editor or a publisher who thinks exactly like me. I consider this a feature, not a bug: we already have a me on board for all of my projects. Having a backup me would be wasteful. One of the editor's jobs is to be not me.

I started this three hours ago, with loooooong breaks for vertiginous coping. I'm going to post it now and come back for the thoughts I had on the general topic of the "From Cool Idea to Story" panel later.

From Cool Idea to Story: further unpacking

Okay. So joeboo_k noted, in an entry elsewhere, that the "From Cool Idea to Story: How do you get there from here?" panel didn't actually answer the question very practically. And I think he's right. We talked a lot about what we start with, that sort of thing, and we talked about accreting enough from various sources to have an idea of where things are going. Giving it time to breathe. Composting. That sort of thing.

But I think a lot of the mechanics of it are -- at least for many of those of us who end up with lots of ideas* -- something that gets done on a subconscious level much of the time. Let me try to unpack it a bit. I think most of what the subconscious is doing is what you often do when you're trying to figure out something you don't know: working from what you already know to what you might not know yet.

As I said on the panel, I don't really get story ideas without chunks of prose. They come with voice. Mostly I don't sit down and say, "I should write about alien squid. Now, what about the squid?" But I think some aspects of methodology would work for that type of idea as well. So since this is my journal and I can do stuff like this, I'll give you the chunk of prose that started "Carter Hall Recovers the Puck," since a) it's already published, so we know that at least some people think it went somewhere that made a decent story; b) it's towards the start of the story, so the exposition is in this chunk and not later; and c) I like it. This is what started me, more or less:

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Now. This is not, as it stands, a story idea. But it can get you there from here. From this, you know several characters: the narrator, his roommate Tam, Tam's girlfrend Janet, and the Queen of Air and Darkness. You actually know a fair amount about them. They are, with the exception of the Queen, hockey players. They are fairly serious hockey players. The narrator, Carter, is a bit rough around the edges and not particularly reverent. They have also had some experience of magic. They have been through fairly unusual experiences lately, and if their world is not an urban fantasy version of ours, it needs to be signaled fast, because everything in this passage says "mostly our world." There are French-Canadians, for example; there is Halloween. The magic is at least partially from a fairly familiar myth structure.

If you pick and poke at that last line, it tells you where the story is going: these characters are still not completely resolved with the dark side of the Fair Folk, and if this is not a tragedy -- and Carter's voice is not well-suited to tragedy -- the resolution must come on the ice. It has to be about the hockey. And because I write for an audience that is not exclusively composed of hockey fans, it has to be about the hockey in a way that's accessible to people who have never seen a game in their lives, or have never enjoyed it if they have.

So you have the familiar myth structure, and you have hockey, and you sort of toss them around in your head, and then you chuckle to yourself, because what comes out is: Oh, of course. Puck. And another thing that comes out is: Janet is pregnant. This is a story about consequences; this is a story about what happens after. And this is probably the first time in these people's lives that they have that kind of vulnerability to deal with.

And it's being told by a guy who was willing to check the Queen of Air and Darkness into the boards for his friends. So this is maybe not a story about thinking things through very carefully and doing a great deal of research and planning a lot in advance and not taking risks. And so you start to think, well, Carter, what did you say to the Puck that got you in trouble? and Carter says, funny you should ask, and on you go.

Most of that I am not doing consciously. It's a series of clicks, a series of tiny epiphanies; the connection process only makes the conscious level when something is going wrong. For me, of course; I don't say that people can't do all this perfectly consciously and end up with good stories.

It doesn't have to be this sizable a chunk of prose for everybody, obviously. willshetterly said that he used to look for a magic sentence, and many of those can give you things to unpick: what setting does it imply? what characters? what plot structure? what ideas, what attitudes, what voice? But even a simply stated, "I want to write about a generation ship," will do: what kind of generation ship? Is everything going all right mechanically? How about socially? Who's on it? Who sent it? Where's it going? How well do they know where it's going? How have they diverged from the people who sent it? What does it smell like? Is it noisy? What kind of noises? A lot of times I find that I instinctively know the answers to some questions about my story, so that if I talk to someone else and they say, "Oh, and it's malfunctioning and plummeting into a binary star?", I can say, "No, no, that's someone else's." But if you don't know the answers to any of the questions you can think up about your story idea, either you don't have a story idea, or else it's time to make arbitrary choices and see where it takes you, and back up if you choose yourself into a corner, or if things start to fall out as clear and personal, as the story that you can tell differently than anyone else would.

Does any of that make sense?

*This does not necessarily map to writing quality. pameladean has said several times that she is not a writer who gets loads and loads of ideas. Some of my other favorite writers dismiss ideas because they are so chock full of ideas that they can barely move. It's that thing about people varying again; amazing how often that comes up.